Songs of Justice, Missions of Mercy
In the late 1970s, the holy rockers of the nascent Jesus music movement distinguished themselves from their mainstream counterparts even further with one radical step: They discovered social justice. And they did something about it. Little did they know how much their actions—and those of the musicians who followed suit—would impact the world.
Christian music pioneers like Randy Stonehill and Phil Keaggy began partnering with Compassion International in 1979, promoting the evangelical organization's child sponsorship program from the stage and in their album liner notes. Since then, many Christian artists—including Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith, CeCe Winans, MercyMe, Casting Crowns, and Third Day—have partnered with Compassion and World Vision, some earning stipends from the nonprofits. The results are impressive: Due to artist partnerships, more than 1 million children have been sponsored through Compassion International and World Vision. And in 2008, musicians brought in 49 percent of new World Vision sponsorships.
Yet such compassion campaigns are not new among evangelicals. In 1883, gospel singer Ira Sankey joined evangelist Dwight L. Moody in Edinburgh to raise £10,000 (equivalent to $373,000 today) to build a permanent home for Carrubbers Close Mission—which still offers the homeless a free breakfast on Sundays. And George Beverly Shea, known for providing the soundtrack to Billy Graham's crusades, often sang to move crowds to support the relief work of Samaritan's Purse. Cause-driven music and celebrity endorsement carry great credibility.
But something more than endorsement is happening in contemporary Christian music. Artists are directly immersing themselves and their audiences in missions to hurting people, whether they are six blocks or 6,000 miles away. They are stepping to the forefront to address poverty, human trafficking, HIV/AIDS, malaria, and other fatal diseases, taking personal responsibility to invest in grassroots work.
The activism surge among Christian artists is a welcome sign of spiritual maturity, says former Gospel Music Association president John Styll. "The gospel obligates us to joyfully go out and serve those less fortunate."
The Bono Factor
Musician-led activism crossed a threshold in December 2002 when Bono traveled to Nashville, a stop on his AIDS-awareness Heart of America tour, to meet with Christian bands and artists. At the "Nashville Summit," the U2 frontman made a strong case for their involvement in ministry to people dying of HIV/AIDS, especially in Africa. He faced anything but a skeptical crowd. Tai Anderson, bassist for Third Day, drank it all in; as he told one reporter, "Dude, you had me at hello."
Even before the Nashville Summit, many of the artists were already on spiritual pilgrimages. Young artists were starting public activism early in their careers. Some were moving beyond endorsements, going to slums on short-term missions and visiting their sponsored children. A few dreamed of creating stand-alone charities to support their visions.
Their exposure to chronic poverty in the developing world was also beginning to shape their lyrics. Following Bono's lead, Steven Curtis Chapman, Sara Groves, Jars of Clay, Derek Webb, and others wrote and recorded songs about fatal shootings at public schools, post-genocide poverty in Rwanda, famine, and urban decay. Many of their songs had strong scriptural resonances. Webb's "Rich Young Ruler," based on the synoptic Gospel narrative, drew a stark contrast between a prosperous American lifestyle and Christ's call to draw close to the poor: