Keith Green’s decision to give away his records sharpens the dispute among performers.
Although Keith Green’s third album just might be his finest and most important work to date, many wondered whether it would meet with any success. When it was released last year, few Christian bookstores marketed the record, it received little airplay, and is not likely to be nominated for a Grammy. So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt has aroused considerable controversy—not because of the music, but because of a marketing decision made in the context of Green’s spiritual convictions.
Green was raised in the music world (his mother sang with the Dorseys; his grandfather wrote for Eddie Cantor in the twenties), and at the time of his conversion, the 21-year-old was playing at some of Los Angeles’s finest clubs and writing for Warner Brothers and CBS. In 1977, just two-and-a-half years after he became a Christian, Green released his first LP, For Him Who Has Ears to Hear. He has since become a leading artist among contemporary Christian musicians.
Green was an instant success on the religious music circuit. After his second album, No Compromise, he quickly went from doing concerts for a love offering to demanding, and getting, up to $4,000 a night. (Other gospel concert artists get up to $10,000; some so-called Jesus Festivals make as much as $200,000 profit. It becomes difficult to justify billing such events as Christian “ministries.”)
Green began to struggle with success, the financial “blessing” coming to artists “ministering the gospel.” He has consistently stood against what he calls “comfortable Christianity.” His songs tend to be harsh, at times condemning.
At the same time, he explains. “I don’t think there is anything wrong with a person who’s rich and happens to be a Christian; it’s people who get rich off Christianity.” He raises a significant issue: Is Christian music a ministry or entertainment? If ministry, should people have to pay to hear the gospel?
Green took the question further, posing it to people in every aspect of Christian media, sellers of Bibles, books, records, or anything containing the life-giving message of Jesus Christ. The answer for him was, No, people should not have to pay to hear the gospel. “When I realized my sin in charging people for something I had freely received, I was convicted,” he says. “I had my secretary call all the people I had bookings with and tell them I had sinned, and would come and play for nothing, or whatever they offered.”
He spoke up at the Fellowship of Contemporary Christian Ministries, before nearly every Christian musical group, and told them that ticket sales for concerts and fees for playing were not God’s will. Quipped Green. “It didn’t get me voted the most popular person there.” Then in March 1979 he concluded he was disobeying God’s will for him by expecting people to pay for his records—again because he felt the policy of pricing albums automatically excludes some people from being able to share what God gave to him freely. He began to make his albums available at his concerts for any amount.
This decision created two problems: conflicts with (1) other artists, and (2) commercial interests. By claiming it was not God’s will for him to charge, Green pretty well indicted everyone who did charge. Their response has hardly been joyous. John Styll, editor of Contemporary Christian Music magazine, wondered in a critical editorial if Green should not also give away stereos to those who don’t have equipment to play his records. Green said he would—not a $2,000 system—but he would buy a small unit if someone really had a need, and wanted to listen to his records. Others condemned Green for “biting the hand that feeds him.” Their rationale was simple: “It’s the very system he’s fighting that’s responsible for his fame, fortune, and credibility. The system is therefore not only above reproach, but something basically good.”
The other conflict arose because Green was under contract to Sparrow Records and he couldn’t give those albums away. He had no choice but to put together his own record company: Pretty Good Records (a division of Last Days Ministries).
Green claims a letter written by some early church fathers warns believers of false apostles and prophets: “This is how you will know if someone is a false apostle; if they ask for money, they are not of God.” While it is dangerous to build one’s convictions on an extra-biblical text, it is also dangerous to dismiss out-of-hand the issue of commercialism in Christian music ministries. Such commercialism is increasing. Several secular companies have come out with “Christian” labels—certainly not for the “ministry.” A lot of money is spent, and made, on Christian records and tapes. Lyrics often differ little from those of secular pop tunes, and one is hard pressed to tell the difference in album covers.
And yet, one cannot deny the valid ministries of artists like B. J. Thomas, the Boones, Larry Norman, Andraé Crouch, and others. Crouch’s view is opposite to Green’s; he is equally adamant in his right to expect payment for his work. “The workman is worthy of his wage,” he says, and few people complain about the high cost of tickets to his concerts. The same applies to B. J. Thomas and the others. All point out the high cost of travel, hotels, and equipment—not to mention time spent away from their families. The issue is: How much profit is too much? The answer emerges from the differing perspectives of the artists.
Keith Green thinks of himself primarily as a minister of the gospel who uses his music to communicate the good news of Jesus, and who has a serious commitment to being his disciple. Green and his family live with some 50 others at the Lindale, Texas, commune of Last Days Ministries. Many are converts from Green’s concerts who have come to be discipled. They share all things in common; some work on the Last Days Newsletter that publicizes Green’s new album. Each issue includes an order form, and readers have only to fill it out and send whatever they can to get a record.
The response has been unusually good. Some people have sent extra money to cover the cost for others. For Green, this proves that God will provide, without his reverting to the usual marketing techniques.
On the other hand, some other Christian musicians live in comfortable affluence, driving fine cars, wearing the latest styles, owning above average houses. They reason that by presenting Christ in settings that are appealing to the world, people will be drawn to him. Andraé Crouch expressed a similar thought on his Grammy-winning album, Live in London: “Someone once said, ‘Lord, build me a cabin in the corner of Gloria …’ I don’t even like cabins … ‘No,’ he said, ‘I’ve got a Mansion for you!… not made by hands.’ ” For others who consider themselves primarily entertainers, being well paid is only to be expected as part of God’s “blessings.”
The issue is much larger than performing for fees or free. It goes back to one’s theology, attitudes, and values—things that God judges by standards more severe than outward appearances.
RUSSELL CRONKHITEMr. Cronkhite, a former Christian concert promoter and radio show producer in California, now lives in Florissant, Colorado, where he cooks and does free-lance writing at Christ Haven Lodge.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more