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Mainstream Influences on Christian Pop and Rock

How Modern Music Has Affected Sacred Music

There was a time, not very long ago, when church music was limited to an old blue-haired lady banging on a slightly-out-of-tune piano, or a small choir singing directly out of a hymnal along with the rest of the congregation. If you were lucky, you could hear a full-blast gospel choir in a southern Protestant church. Pop and rock performers were seldom seen on Sunday morning, relegated to occasional appearances and limited on the number and content of the songs performed. What a difference a few decades can make!

In an effort to keep bringing young people to God, most churches have changed their music programs radically. No matter what size or denomination of a given church (with a few die-hard, “conservative” exceptions), you are more likely to see a drum kit, guitars, bass, keyboards, and mics on the stage than an old piano. Young musicians will be dressed in modern clothing, looking nothing like the carefully-groomed, robe-wearing choir members of the past. They are more likely to sound like U2, Coldplay, or even RUN-DMC than a traditional choir or gospel group. So how did this happen? Let’s have a look.

The Roots: the 1960s and 1970s

In the 1960s, Elvis Presley surprised both his critics and his fans with two excellent gospel albums, HIS HAND IN MINE and HOW GREAT THOU ART, which showed that there was more to the King of Rock than was immediately obvious. Both sold very well (this was Elvis, after all), and a gospel medley and accompanying dance number was one of the highlights of Presley’s 1968 TV special. All of this proved that a rocker could be a believer, and a believer could be a rocker.

Some major and still-influential hits during this era were “Turn Turn Turn” by the Byrds, “Oh, Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, “Spirit in the Sky” by Norman Greenbaum, and “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, which was one of the most profound songs the ex-Beatle would write about his embrace of Eastern spiritualism.

There have always been biblical undertones in the songs of Bob Dylan, but in the late 1970s he surprised the world by a devout conversion to Christianity. SLOW TRAIN COMING was a critical and commercial success despite denunciation from many circles, and contained one of his best-known songs, “Gotta Serve Somebody.” He did two more albums of gospel-themed music before moving back to more secular concerns, but his music from that brief era is still an influence on Christian rock acts today.

The Boom: the 1980s-today

The 1980s is the era when Christian music took a decidedly more pop- and rock-oriented tone and feel. Christian acts like Amy Grant and Keith Green began selling records in numbers previously unheard of in the realm of gospel music. Older gospel acts like the Imperials beefed up their sound and produced some memorable music as well. Inspiration kept coming from the secular world.

Probably the most influential rock act of the last 35 years, U2 is a huge influence on today’s Christian rock acts. Lead singer Bono is a professed Christian, and the band’s expansive guitar-based sound and spiritually-themed lyrics have won them a permanent place in the hearts of Christian rockers everywhere.

Where will we go from here?

With virtually every sub-genre of pop and rock having a counterpart in Christian music, there is no limit to what will happen in the future of Christian music. It is an exciting time to listen to some of the best music around.

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