According to press releases from the Gospel Music Association (GMA), Christian music has been experiencing unprecedented growth in recent years. But a closer look at the top-sellers of 2001 show that the strongest "Christian music" draws are Mannheim Steamroller, the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou, and P.O.D. All have become Christian records courtesy of Soundscan, the company originally created to clear up confusing and misleading statistics in the music industry.

Here's how it apparently works: Once Christian bookstores decide to carry an album like Mannheim Steamroller's Christmas Extraordinaire, it is then declared a "Christian record." Then every Christmas Extraordinaire sale, no matter where it occurs, is credited as another sale of "Christian music." Those numbers are then used to show how much growth has taken place in "Christian music."

The same goes for P.O.D. If the rock/rap act sells 1 million records in mainstream outlets and 100,000 in Christian bookstores, the Christian music industry is credited with 1,100,000 sales—without an asterisk or footnote.

But P.O.D. doesn't consider itself a "Christian band" making "Christian music." Instead, P.O.D.'s members see themselves as Christians making music about their lives, including their love for God, in the center of popular culture. By signing directly with Atlantic Records in New York, they hoped to avoid being saddled with marginalizing terms that ultimately keep their music away from non-Christians.

Lead singer Sonny Sandoval believes that the band's interested listeners sometimes don't buy its CDs when they are stocked by mainstream chains in the same bin as Sandi Patty and George Beverly Shea.

"You go into Sam Goody's and you have these kids that just came back from Ozzfest who [say,] 'I want that new P.O.D. I just heard them and they're awesome,'" says Sandoval. "They're [told] 'OK, they're over there in the Gospel section.' That's ridiculous."

All the glowing press releases and exaggerated sales numbers in the world cannot conceal this fact: The idea of Christian music as a genre is in decline among a new generation of people of faith.

A more accurate picture of the "growth" in Christian music can be obtained by taking the figures released by the GMA and subtracting the sales of artists of faith signed to "secular labels," compilation albums of previously released material, and Christmas (or hymn) records made by non-Christian artists. On Christian music's list of top 10 albums of 2001, this leaves only four.

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The picture that then emerges is that of an exodus of devout young artists who are avoiding signing with CCM labels in favor of "secular" ones. The reason: they have discovered that the surest way to have their messages made irrelevant by the mainstream culture is to accept the marginalizing term "Christian artist" and sign with Christian labels. They know that Christian music as its own unique genre will not affect a post-Christian culture trained to resist such efforts. But people of faith working in every musical style—jazz, pop, rock, R&B, etc.—quite possibly will.

Young and devout artists like Lifehouse, Creed, P.O.D., Mary-Mary, Kendall Payne, and others are voting with their feet, taking their music to mainstream labels. They're finding executives who don't share their faith but who are still helping them find an audience.

In their desire to be understood by the Christian community, some of these artists (like P.O.D. and Kendall Payne) have allowed their records to be distributed to Christian-owned bookstores. But they probably never dreamed that doing this would give all their albums, no matter where they're sold, credit for growth in Christian music. (Why stop there? Why not include other top-selling acts like Lenny Kravitz, Moby, the entire classical music catalog, and anything else that sells? The Christian Music industry could grow by two thousand percent!)

Of course, these musicians' mission would be much easier should their counterparts on the business side of CCM reform their companies. Until these executives learn to function in the culture as ordinary labels (albeit ones with spiritual missions), they will continue to lose talented artists to their secular counterparts. If CCM executives were to create safe places for artists to emerge without being labeled "Christian rock," artists would not have to go to mainstream labels to be heard by the wider culture.

The encouraging news is that some companies are doing this already. Word Records' experiment with the Squint label, now run by a former Capitol Records executive, is proof that a label is never too old to try new tricks. It has positioned itself as a mainstream label—not as a religious one—and its artists have gained mainstream radio play and gained access to all of the outlets that mainstream artists have.

Atlantic Records, from its offices in New York, Nashville, and Los Angeles, has also worked to allow artists like Plus One and P.O.D. to have access to both mainstream and CBA markets. Not as religious artists, but as artists who are available and accessible to the entire culture without limiting labels.

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Tooth & Nail Records, is another label which has modeled how labels owned and operated by Christians can operate in the future.

"There is no such thing as a 'Christian record label' any more than there is 'Christian McDonalds' 'Christian Safeway,' or 'Christian hockey,'" says the label's founder, Brandon Ebel. "A company is a business. We sign bands that we like. To call something 'Christian' implies that what that organization has to offer is only for Christians."

The move to label records that have not specifically come out of the Nashville-based Contemporary Christian Music industry as "Christian music" perpetuates the sacred/secular split that young artists are trying to overcome. It places emphasis on growing "Christian music" as a genre, and thus reinstitutes the labeling that limits influence on the wider culture.

Scholar and author Phillip E. Johnson has warned Christians of the danger of going along with those who seek to label their work as religious:

"Classifying a viewpoint or theory as religious may have the effect of marginalizing it," he says in his book Reason in the Balance. "A viewpoint or theory is marginalized when without being refuted it is categorized in such a way that it can be excluded from serious consideration. The technique of marginalizing a viewpoint by labeling it 'religion' is particularly effective in late twentieth-century American because there is a general impression, reinforced by Supreme Court decisions, that religion does not belong in public institutions."

Some will continue to promote Contemporary Christian Music as a unique genre—albeit one that incorporates almost every musical style, sometimes even without lyrics. But they will find themselves a shrinking minority. Ironically enough, while the very notion of "Christian music" is in retreat, people of faith are streaming out of their subcultures and making strong statements of faith in the center of the music culture. And they will continue to do so, with or without help from their brothers and sisters on the business side of the existing paradigm of Christian music.

Mark Joseph is the author of The Rock & Roll Rebellion: Why People of Faith Abandoned Rock Music and Why They're Coming Back (Broadman & Holman, 1999)

Opinions expressed in Speaking Out do not necessarily reflect the views of Christianity Today.

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Related Elsewhere

Mark Joseph's The Rock & Roll Rebellion is available from and other book retailers.

Joseph regularly writes a column for

In July, Newsweek discovered Christian music in Lorraine Ali's "The Glorious Rise of Christian Pop." But Christianity Today's Weblog says that the article could have been written five years ago: "What Ali completely misses is that nobody really knew how big Christian music was until September 1995, when SoundScan—the company that tracks record sales—finally started counting sales from Christian stores."

Christianity's music channel reported last month that the increase in sales last year was "not exclusive to the record labels. Mainstream retail chains (such as Wal-mart and Target) saw an increase in Christian music sales of 15 percent."

The music channel covers the Christian music industry with album reviews, interviews, and artist profiles of bands including P.O.D. and Kendall Payne.

Related news articles include:

Christian Music Thriving | Christian music had its best sales year in 2001, improving while overall music sales declined 2.8 percent. (Associated Press)
Christian Top Ten List | P.O.D., Point of Grace, and Stephen Curtis Chapman included in the best selling album list for 2001. (Associated Press)
Dove nominations reflect diversity in fast-growing Christian genre| Christian music had its best sales year in 2001, improving while overall music sales declined 2.8 percent. (The Tennessean)
Faith Music Stirs Sales, Souls Post-Sept. 11 | Sales are rising, but some Christian musicians are doing more soul searching. (
Shaken and Stirred | Post-Sept. 11, Audiences Turn to Christian Contemporary Music (
Spirits, Sales Rise | Contemporary Christian Music Is Going Mainstream (