Since 1969, when singer Larry Norman combined Christian lyrics with a rock beat, modern music has become a major vehicle for Christian outreach. Two years after Norman’s pioneering work, Word Records hired Billy Ray Hearn to start a label for contemporary gospel music. After establishing the Myrrh label for Word, Hearn founded his own company, Sparrow Records.

“I saw in contemporary music the best vessel to reach young people with the gospel,” says the former church youth and music director. “They listen to the music that is current. That’s their language.”

At first, so-called rock gospel was frowned on by many Christians. But the combination of pop music and Christian lyrics gradually gained a following. Fifteen years later contemporary gospel, as well as more traditional styles, is gaining prominence in the American music world.

As recently as 1977, gospel music occupied a barely visible segment of the American music industry. In a market study that year, Warner Communications lumped Christian music into a category called “other,” along with humor, spoken word, and miscellaneous records. The entire category accounted for only 3 percent—slightly more than $100 million—of all record sales.

A more recent Warner Communications study indicates that annual sales of gospel records increased from $180 million to $210 million between 1980 and 1983. In contrast, overall record sales in the United States remained steady. The gospel market accounted for nearly 6 percent of last year’s total sales of records and tapes. Gospel music now outsells both jazz and classical.

Christian music is receiving increased attention on the airwaves and in the press. Pop and rock artists like Donna Summer, U2, Kansas, and Bruce Cockburn are singing about ...

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