Jesus Freak, by dcTalk, is the most important Christian pop album of all time. This is an audacious claim, to be sure. What about Amy Grant’s Lead Me On or Rich Mullins’s A Liturgy, a Legacy, & a Ragamuffin Band, or any number of releases by Larry Norman or Jars of Clay, or even U2 or Bob Dylan? “Contemporary Christian music” is a notoriously tricky genre to pin down. Is it music marketed just to Christians? Do the bands have to play shows at churches, or just claim faith?

But by the conventional definition of CCM—music made by and for evangelicals—it’s hard to think of a more groundbreaking, genre-expanding, or era-defining album than Jesus Freak, which turns 20 this month.

Jesus Freak was released in the right place and the right time for maximum impact. It was the flagship album of Christian music’s golden age, minting frontmen Toby McKeehan, Michael Tait, and Kevin Max as genuine Christian rock stars. Fewer albums loom larger in the imagination of those of us who came of age amid Acquire the Fire conferences, WWJD bracelets, and See You at the Pole.

The golden age can be said to begin—somewhat arbitrarily, as these things go—in 1990, with the release of Michael W. Smith’s sixth studio album, Go West Young Man, and end with Switchfoot’s The Beautiful Letdown in 2003. MTV and radio still controlled the boundaries of popular music, meaning a well-placed single or music video could reach millions of consumers prepared to spend $18 on a CD.

1995 was the economic and artistic zenith of the CCM boom. A series of essays I’ve been editing this year, titled “Chrindie ’95,” (a portmanteau of Christian and indie), has explored the perfect ...

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