We can preserve the ministry of music by taking down the “for sale” signs over sacred music and revering the ministers, not the merchants, of music.

Pastors, church musicians, and Christian leaders are increasingly concerned about commercialism in the ministry of music. Merchandising sacred music, and gospel music in particular, has become big business. The ministry of music is for sale. The moneychangers are setting up shop in the house of God again, and people are rushing to patronize them. The problem extends into every area of sacred music.

• A certain gospel soloist refuses to accept Sunday engagements in churches that prohibit the sale of records on Sunday.

• A well-known composer who has made a great deal of money during the past half-dozen years writing songs with an explicit gospel message—songs that have been a blessing to many Christians—admits he is not a believer.

• A popular gospel musician’s fees skyrocket, not only because of inflation, but also because his booking agency takes 40 percent of his fee as commission.

• The winner of a commercial religious artist award is disqualified because of unethical procedures in soliciting votes.

• Gospel music “acts” are booked as entertainment on the show business circuit.

• Secular entertainment conglomerates diversify into the newly lucrative gospel music field by buying up control of Christian publishing and recording companies.

• Individuals are chosen for music ministries as much for their “video appeal” and radiant personalities as for their spiritual commitment and musical talent.

• Christian artists’ homes break up at an alarming rate, but Christians seem to be unconcerned about whether or not an individual’s character supports his message.


The Christian “star system” has been with us for a number of years, but more recently it has expanded to include all the trappings and symbols of commercial entertainment success. Christian artists and organizations use the same buzz words as the secular music industry: “shows,” “acts,” “making it to the top,” “gigs,” “charts,” “hits,” “number one,” “stars,” “product,” “market,” and “crossover”—just to name a few. Marketing strategies are designed to parallel those of the secular business world as closely as possible, including promotions, sales incentives, display merchandising, and advertising hype. Marketing image is often too important in relation to spiritual content.

Many contemporary Christian artists strive to imitate certain secular artists. Dress, physical mannerisms, vocal style, and even manner of presentation are carefully contrived to create as close a similarity as possible to the image of the popular model. Some arduously seek the approval of the secular music world.

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The commercial music industry is cutting itself in on the new profits to be made from the rising interest in gospel music. Such entertainment giants as ABC, American Variety International, MCA, and Columbia have either purchased controlling interest in leading Christian companies or are considering plans to do so. Allan Parachini recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “There is the distinct rustle of dollar-hungry corporate predators preparing to devour and be nourished by a new bit of helpless, yet lucrative, prey.”

Parachini goes on to point out that Christian record companies now gross $100 million a year on record and tape sales, that sheet music sales reach $75 million a year, that the 500 Christian artists on the road take in total gate receipts of $50 million a year, and that the 1,400 commercial Christian radio stations sell over $40 million worth of time annually. Some “Jesus music” artists sell 200,000 to 300,000 albums a year, and a Jesus concert can turn a profit in excess of $200,000.

Matters may be getting out of hand. Many artists now employ booking and personal management agencies to develop their “careers.” Fee structures have escalated to the point where many small churches are not able to bring in a quality artist. In some instances, an artist’s fee equals the church music budget for an entire year; in extreme cases, it may even exceed the pastor’s annual salary. Some gospel artists demand fees of $10,000 and up to as much as $20,000 per concert. Fees of $500 to $2,500 are increasingly common. Such high fees “weed out” smaller churches in the name of being “good stewards” of the artist’s time. Some smaller churches are dismissed out of hand as a “waste of time,” and are told to consider taking artists of “lesser quality.” When I told one agent that the board members of my former church would never authorize a fee of $2,000 for one of her agency’s artists for one evening—an amount far in excess of any honorarium paid a visiting statesman of the pulpit—she protested, “But I thought your church was a big church.”

The structuring of fees often is quite overtly commercial, with flexibility predicated on “whatever the traffic will bear.” One agent acknowledged that as some new artists “begin to see it work, they get incredibly greedy.” There is an attitude of “get it while you’re ‘hot’.” Often the fee is based on who initiates the request for the artist. One leading agent, speaking at a seminar last year on artist booking, said, “If you call them [the agency], they set the price; if the agency calls you, you can cut the fee in half.” Fees are also sometimes adjusted downward out of desperation—an artist will accept a substantially reduced fee rather than have an open date with no income at all.

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Airplay of a particular artist’s recordings on Christian stations has become almost an obsession within the industry. Some companies have revealed that they want to see more Christian radio stations—so that they can get more exposure for their artists and their “product.” Company representatives hustle the stations and Christian bookstores to play their artists’ records. The bookstores are aggressively courted, because they sell 80 percent of all “Jesus music” albums purchased—mostly to young people. As artists’ sales increase, says one agent, “the demand increases for the acts to work.” Says one promoter, “the key is record play.” Promotional tours are arranged to encourage sales of records and tickets for area concerts. Record tables are a prime consideration by the artists at many concert engagements. Airplay also means royalty revenue for the companies and the writers (the artists get royalties only on record sales, not on how many times the record is played on the air). Christian stations are spending more and more money every year for blanket licenses to play music covered by ASCAP, BMI, and SESAC gospel music copyrights.

The growth of Christian television has intensified the problem. Image considerations for television have resulted in such practices as using one group to tape record the music for a telecast, but using a younger-looking group to lip-synch the actual program. Some artists now contend for visibility on certain especially desirable programs, and are hurt if they are passed over for someone else. Competition and jealousy are all too prevalent in the commercial Christian music industry.

There are some publishers and recording companies that not only try to meet a genuine need, but may even create a “need” in order to increase sales. One company states that its record and music divisions “are in the product- and demand-generating business.”

We are dangerously near surrendering our gospel music heritage to secular control. The profit level is determining which copyrights will continue to be available to the public. As more and more familiar gospel song copyrights come under the control of secular corporations, the continued availability of these songs may depend on what cut-off level of sales units is programmed into the computer. The availability of what music is published and recorded, and what artists are allowed to record, is increasingly being determined not only by what sells, but by what sells best. The result is a lack of creativity, a dilution of the message, and the substitution of image for reality.

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The real and potential effects of all this are chilling. Not only is the kind of music available being determined in the marketplace as much as in the sanctuary, but the very integrity of the ministry of music is at stake. Christian devotion is being manipulated for corporate and personal profit. Many people who started out with high ideals are being subtly deflected from what should be their primary purpose—the glorification of God in their lives and ministries. Success, fame, lifestyle, public approval, influence, image, and money—the motivations of the commercial world have all encroached more deeply than we want to admit upon the holy ground of the ministry of God’s Word through music.

As religious music ministries become more closely patterned to the secular world, artists and producers send confused messages to both unbelievers and Christians alike. I recall hearing a university professor who was not a Christian express his dismay that, except for the words, he was finding it increasingly difficult to tell any difference between contemporary religious music and what he heard on “top 40” stations. His comment was, “If Christianity isn’t any more different than that, who needs it?” (Of course, through gospel music, many people have heard and responded to the gospel who otherwise might not have been receptive to it.)

The confusion is compounded as more and more gospel music artists “cross over” from Christian stations and church ministries to secular sales charts, radio stations, and television programs. This threat to the integrity of the message is overt and real. Former TV game show host Bob Eubanks, now manager for Andraé Crouch, candidly states that the success of achieving crossover depends on choosing music that “is not overly loaded with the message.” Record company agents increasingly are trying to get their artists played on secular stations; yet the cost may be greater than we can afford to pay. Parachini states that leading music programmers agree that “most strictly secular stations will not program Jesus music unless its lyrical message is veiled, or at least largely unintelligible.” In recent years, some popular Christian songs have made “top 40” charts because references to Christ were either diluted or deleted.

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Confusion also has resulted from the familiar tension between ministry and entertainment. “Ministry” has itself become a code word that may or may not be taken at face value; it is sometimes a cover for the real, commercial motivation. Although we may enjoy the ministry of music, the primary purpose must not be entertainment. George Frideric Handel’s classic statement in 1741 after the premiere of his Messiah is still valid: “Sir, I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I had hoped to make them better.”

Noted church music authority Donald Hustad has said that it is so easy “to mistake physical pleasure for spiritual blessing.” That a person has been emotionally excited does not automatically mean that God has been glorified. An aesthetic “high” is not necessarily a spiritual one. One of the great powers and simultaneous dangers of music is its ability to stir the emotion directly without first having to go through a rational process.

There are dangerous deceptions for the artists themselves. Any public ministry can be seductive, and the ministry of music especially so. The ego is deeply involved when one expresses oneself through music. The siren sounds of adolescent adulation can be a strong narcotic to a musician whose spiritual character is not sufficiently mature to be sure the glory goes only to God. A concern to “make it to the top” may indicate that one’s motivation has become compromised by a subtle acceptance of a secular value system. More than one artist has seen his ministry dry up and wither away because he lost sight of his priorities.

As Christians identify with various soloists, they want to hear these same people and their music in their churches. In his book, Live Like a King (Moody), Warren Wiersbe has pointed out that once the appetite for religious entertainment is created, it has to be fed with celebrities and sentimental music. In some situations, the economic power generated by the record-buying youth has given them a shaping influence in church music that is often inimical to the church overall. Gradually, church music begins to take on the shape dictated by commercial interests. Rather than setting the pace, church music directors allow it to be set for them. They imperceptibly lose control of the destiny of their own ministries.

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Certain marketing considerations are cruelly logical. Music publishers know all too well that they cannot continue to minister if they do not continue to exist. They, too, must pay their bills and meet their payrolls. Even in ministry, good stewardship of limited resources requires good business procedures. The problem is to maintain perspective. Hollywood attorney Al Schlesinger told a gospel music seminar recently, “For many of you, the bottom line is the ministry. For many [others] of you, the bottom line is the bottom line.”

Record companies study sales charts and profit margins to determine who will be allowed to record, what music will be recorded, and whose recordings will be promoted. The cost of record making continues to escalate with ever-higher fees for union musicians, recording studio rates, paper for album covers, artwork and printing, distribution, and petroleum-based vinyl for making the records and tapes themselves. A $10,000 budget for a record production is now almost a minimum, with budgets of $35,000 to $50,000 becoming more frequent. Record companies are not very interested in recording an artist who is not going to be selling records on the road in live appearances. A company cannot afford to release many albums that do not generate enough income to repay fairly rapidly the investment required to produce them. Music publishers face much the same dilemma. Escalating costs of paper and printing force the prices of choral and sheet music higher with almost predictable regularity.

Faced with spiraling costs, many churches are confronted with the choice of either substantially increasing their music budgets or cutting back their music ministry. Some solutions are clearly illegal and unethical—for example, the wholesale use of the photocopier to reduce the cost of printed music. (Ironically, this is often more expensive than the cost of purchasing the music.) When a church music library is filled with photocopies made without the consent of the publisher, not only is the publisher defrauded, but so are the authors and composers who depend upon their rightful royalties if they are to continue to produce the much-needed quality music. More often than not, for a modest royalty charge publishers will grant special permission for limited reproduction of some of their copyrights.


In spite of the spreading problem of commercialism in sacred music, there are some positive alternatives. There are ways to withstand the pressures.

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There must first of all be total commitment to Christ and consequent purification of motives. Mixed motives always compromise both individuals and their ministries. Jesus said, “No one [not even a musician] can serve two masters … You cannot serve both God and Money” (Matt. 6:24, NIV). Artists, producers, publishers, and record companies ought to be concerned with being good and faithful servants in God’s kingdom, not with building their own empires. This commitment also must be reflected in the artist’s personal character. Ralph Carmichael has said, “It’s important to us what an artist is, not so much what he can do. We want him to be a committed, responsible Christian communicator and minister, who will exercise the artist’s authority to communicate God’s Word.”

Committed artists of integrity will be proper role models for young people. Youth seek to emulate their role models: Christian music leaders should provide them with positive examples. Whenever it becomes apparent that these models do not live the lives they sing about, young people become confused.

Upon This Rock

I have traded all my dreams of comfort

For something hard and spare.

I am obsessed

By narrow words that man has never


By tighter thoughts than ever man


I had leaned on neatly quilted phrases

To rest my soul’s dilemma.

I conspired

with every stylish vanity

to clothe my mind,

And rued the ravelling!

None of man’s desire

Can measure to the silent promulgation

That flows from Heaven’s cavity.

I read

His Words

etched deep

Upon the stones of Sinai,

And all my longings fall before

my need.


Each musician should be certain that he is in the ministry because God has called him to it, regardless of whether he is full-or part-time. One reason God does not bless the ministry of music in some churches is because the minister of music has mixed motives—or is not even truly called to that ministry. He may have taken on the responsibility primarily for pay, and has no real love or concern to feed his people. Some evangelical churches are all too willing to hire individuals with questionable spiritual commitment if they are musically acceptable and willing to work for a part-time or minimal salary. Too often they are the people who allow the commercial shapers to determine the substance and consequent merit of their church music.

Christian musicians must keep in mind John the Baptist’s dictum, “He must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30, NIV). This can be difficult for an artist, for, to quote Donald Hustad, “The essence of art is self-expression; the essence of ministry is self-crucifixion.” Performers need to be willing not to be in the spotlight. They must make sure that people see Jesus in them. They need to control the “hype” that an overly zealous management team may employ to boost their careers, egos, and income.

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Christian musicians are to be ministers first, musicians second. Such a priority does not release them from the obligation to be the best musicians they can be; instead, it increases that obligation. Their motivation for excellence should be the very highest, because, unlike the artist who serves the art, they serve the God who created that art. The Old Testament makes it clear that musicians for the temple ministry were selected because they were “trained and skilled in music for the Lord” (1 Chron. 25:7, NIV). However, no matter how technically qualified, God does not even hear anyone of us if our motivation is not right. “Away with the noise of your songs! I will not listen to the music of your harps” (Amos 5:23, NIV). Even singers apparently can honor God with their lips while in reality their hearts are far from him (Matt. 15:8). God should be able to use us because of the depth of our spiritual commitment—not in spite of the lack of it.

We should be thankful for the many who do serve Christ with high motives and integrity. For example, when John W. Peterson was first getting started as a composer, he refused to change his lyrics to “Over the Sunset Mountains” in order to accommodate a crossover to the secular charts. Word vice-president Kurt Kaiser told me that he believed he should produce certain quality records “because they need to be made, even if they don’t sell.” Don Wyrtzen recently stated that he believes a part of his responsibility as a publisher is to preserve our musical heritage, and to be concerned for the theological integrity of everything he publishes. This integrity extends to business ethics as well. Stan Moser, senior vice-president of Word, recently said, “We cannot get airplay [on secular stations] because we will not buy it [illegally] and we will go out of business before we do.”

Although there are many who are exploiting the ministry of music for personal advantage, there are thousands of dedicated musicians with varying degrees of talent who want nothing more than to offer all they have to Christ for him to use in any way possible. Some of them are well-known virtuoso performers; many are anonymous volunteer choir directors, church soloists, and accompanists. Some are executives in the Christian music business whose primary concern is to build up the body of Christ, and to proclaim the gospel. To them, the business is only the means to achieve these ends, not the end in itself. The ministry of music and music publishing have gone hand in hand since the early nineteenth century. We need the publishers, recording companies, composers, artists, and the broadcast media to continue to enrich and support the ministry of music.

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However, the responsibility for protecting the integrity of sacred music lies not only with those who are called to the ministry, but with all Christians. Every church member ought to be willing to pray consistently and to express concerns in a responsible manner to those who make the decisions regarding the ministry of music.

Christian bookstores need to exercise prayerful discretion in their use of Christian records and music. Christian radio and television stations need to be sensitive to the fact that they have significant influence on sacred music. They should be leaders in encouraging high standards in sacred music, instead of being interested in following ratings and playing only the artists they think are the most popular.

Finally, Christian musicians need to be grateful for whatever ministry God gives them. None has the “right” to a particular ministry. God grants them the privilege of serving him through music. For some, it is a very exciting and pleasant ministry; for many, it is difficult and frustrating. If it is delightful, they cannot take the credit for it; if it is difficult, they cannot despise it. Their spiritual obligations are the same in either case.

Of course, we need to deal fairly and honestly with guest artists and church musicians. The old bromide, “Lord, you keep him humble, we’ll keep him poor,” has been far too true to be funny. Such thinking lies at the root of many of the procedures that now are too easily abused. Agencies exist in large measure because churches and promoters exploited artists too often in the past. The agency protects the artist in the arrangements with the host organization, but it must never manipulate either the artist or the host.

As we apply these standards to all areas of the ministry of music, and as we insist on the primary motivation of God’s glory combined with a biblical lifestyle and sacrificial excellence, we can preserve the ministry of music with purity and effectiveness. Performers will not see themselves as Christian “stars”; worshipers will not see them, but Christ. They will be more likely to be ministers, not merely merchants, of music. Even if we cannot take down all of the “for sale” signs over sacred music, at least we can take them out of the ministry and out of the sanctuary.

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