At their annual Colorado retreat, Christian musicians wonder about the ministry.

For each of the past 12 years, hundreds of Christian musicians, recording artists, songwriters, and music industry executives have made a summer pilgrimage to Estes Park, Colorado. This year, nearly 1,500 people attended the Christian Artists Music Seminar in the Rockies, sponsored by the California-based Christian Artists Corporation.

Described by Christian Artists president Cam Floria as a “summer camp for the Christian music industry,” the six-day event provides opportunities to talk business, hear top Christian singers, and reflect on the state of gospel music. The seminar also gives would-be gospel artists a chance to select from more than 175 classes, mingle with popular singers and songwriters, and compete against hundreds of other participants for awards, recognition, and a possible career in music ministry.

The gospel music industry is growing. USA Today reported that Christian recordings now total $300 million in annual sales, accounting for 8 percent of all recordings sold in America. Sales of Christian recordings outpace both classical music and jazz.

Concerts And Criticism

The seminar’s nightly concerts featured nearly 40 artists, ranging from the choral sounds of the Festival of Praise to the rock sound of DeGarmo and Key. Participants packed the house for an “artist rap session” with Sandi Patti, whose recording of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was featured on ABC’s coverage of Liberty Weekend. Patti answered questions about gospel singers who try to appeal to listeners outside the Christian subculture.

“I think we have a task to take a life-changing message to as many people as we possibly can,” she said. “There are people who will come to my concerts who might not go to a Stryper [Christian hard rock] concert. And there are people who will go to a Stryper concert who won’t come to mine. It is our responsibility to be faithful where God has us and lend our prayer support to other people who are doing other functions as their calling.”

Larry Norman, regarded as the father of contemporary Christian music, spoke critically of the gospel music industry. “We have prostituted ourselves,” he said. “We write three songs on an album for MOR [middle-of-the-road listeners], three avant garde songs, three traditional songs, and one novelty song. We write for consumption.”

Don Finto, pastor of Nashville’s Belmont Church, warned against pride. He told the participants that God destroyed Babylon because its inhabitants wanted to make a name for themselves. And Washington, D.C.-area pastor Amos Dodge warned musicians to be wary of the attitude that caused Lucifer’s fall: “The feeling that ‘I want to be noticed more.’ ”

Meanwhile, managers flocked to music industry power brokers to promote aspiring new artists. One established singer was praised for performing more than 400 concerts in a single year. But in private, he discussed the damaging effect his schedule had on his crumbling marriage.

Music And Ministry

Other artists showed that music and ministry can complement each other. Ed DeGarmo and Dana Key described how they gave away “evangelism tickets” to concerts on their recent 90-city tour. Christian leaders in each city were given the names of non-Christian youths who received the evangelism tickets, making it easier to follow up on them. Key said the project resulted in 5,000 decisions for Christ.

Scott Wesley Brown, through recordings and the work of his I Care Ministries, continues to increase awareness of world missions and the challenges faced by Christian musicians in countries where poverty and communism limit freedom of artistic expression. And during one of the event’s concerts, Norman, Sheila Walsh, and Steve Camp made appeals on behalf of the world’s needy.

In an interview, veteran Christian songwriters Jimmy and Carol Owens commented on the tension between the ministry and business aspects of gospel music. “We see all kinds of people and all kinds of motives,” said Carol Owens. “There are people who have a revelation of what the possibilities are of being a vessel used by God …, and there are others who are confused.”

Said Jimmy Owens: “Commercialism means something sells, and to a degree, if music doesn’t sell it doesn’t minister. If by some stroke of genius or inspiration I could write the greatest Christian song ever written, and didn’t have anybody to sell it, it could lie in my drawer totally wasted.

“But the problem comes in when some people … lose sight of the fact that the industry exists to support the ministry,” he said. “Sometimes the industry tries to reshape the image of a performer to sell more product. This can be dangerous.”

By Steve Rabey in Estes Park. Colorado.

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