The kids and teens of the 1990s are now in their 30s and 40s, and the nostalgia of that era’s Christian music has us revisiting favorite albums and artists. This throwback fandom has revived decades-old praise songs like “Here I Am to Worship” and fueled movies that celebrate Christian Contemporary Music (CCM), like the 2021 Netflix summer camp musical A Week Away and the documentary love letter The Jesus Music.

With our nostalgia comes new interest in the history of the modern Christian music industry, its main characters, and the political and social conditions that produced what we now call CCM—not a musical genre but a niche industry that produced Christian music modeled on mainstream pop and rock, built on a shared faith rather than on a particular musical style.

An array of recent books and films have set out to tell the story of the Christian music industry. There’s Jesus Revolution, a feature film directed by Jon Erwin and Brent McCorkle; Mixtape Theology: 90s Christian Edition, a devotional and CCM retrospective by William “Ashley” Mofield and Rachel Cash; and historian Leah Payne’s new book, God Gave Rock & Roll to You. Later this year, documentarian Jason Ikeler will release his film, Safe for the Whole Family: How to Make a Christian Superstar.

Each attempt to capture the CCM story—whether historical, devotional, or fictionalized—assigns boundaries and attributes significance to particular figures, events, and albums. The growing body of work on the subject reflects a negotiation around which accounts are part of the “real” story of CCM, and who gets to tell it.

And as evangelicals debate the merits of self-criticism, the historiography of CCM and the Christian music industry is yet another battleground in the war over whether to tell the messy, complicated, and, at times, ugly stories along with the hopeful and glowing ones. Historians and storytellers disagree about the formative role of CCM in the development of contemporary worship music, and whether the niche has evolved or faded away.

Payne’s scholarly treatment of the history of CCM in God Gave Rock & Roll to You is comprehensive in scope and documentation, but unlike Jesus Revolution and The Jesus Music, which foreground the almost anointed nature of particular figures and the spiritual power of the music they produced, Payne’s book uses the history of CCM to tell a story about American evangelicals.

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“What can one learn about the development of evangelicalism by looking at CCM, one of the largest, most profitable forms of mass media produced in the twentieth century?” Payne wrote in the introduction.

Payne suggests that while many look back at ’80s and ’90s CCM with either fond nostalgia or eye-rolling cringes, it is a valuable source of insight into the politics and ideology of American evangelicalism.

“I want to write about the really meaningful parts of evangelical culture that other people may think aren’t that meaningful because they see it as kitsch,” Payne told CT. “Seemingly silly things can be very serious.”

Mofield and Cash use humor and nostalgia as the entry point for their devotional, Mixtape Theology. The book reflects on ’90s CCM hits to guide readers through passages of Scripture and reflection.

“For me, this music was my introduction to a lot of biblical concepts,” said Cash, who remembers looking up the Bible verses referenced in the liner notes of her Steven Curtis Chapman CDs. Still, they recognize that not everyone has the same feel-good experiences to draw on; they wrote the reflection on the Jars of Clay song, “Liquid,” with deconstructing Christians in mind.

“We wanted to harness the power of nostalgia to get people to remember the awe and wonder of what it was like to be a new Christian, and use that to encourage people to go back to the Bible,” said Cash.

The devotional takes the music and its messages—with all the corniness and silliness—seriously. Carman’s dramatic music videos, Steven Curtis Chapman jamming in a field alongside footage of cowboys and horses, ska/swing-revival songs telling off the devil—there’s a lot to laugh at and a lot to learn from, argue Mofield and Cash.

“I’m a youth pastor at heart,” said Mofield. “It’s fun to bring the cheesiness to it. God uses humor. There’s nothing wrong with laughing at ourselves.”

Mixtape Theology is an attempt to embrace the spiritual legacy of CCM, with all its nostalgic camp and theatricality. The authors are unapologetic CCM enthusiasts. But unlike films like Jesus Revolution and The Jesus Music, which try to capture the significance of the movement, the book does not try to tell a unified story.

“People are trying to narrate their own lives and experiences, and these are people who have the means to do it,” said Payne.

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The Jesus Music places Michael W. Smith and Amy Grant as the central characters in the rise of CCM and the Christian music industry as we know it. Both Grant and Smith are producers of the film, and K-LOVE films is one of the affiliated production companies.

Greg Laurie, pastor of Harvest Bible Fellowship, was portrayed by actor Joel Courtney in Jesus Revolution and also involved in The Jesus Music.

Both films were criticized for their lack of engagement with the issues of race and sexuality in the earlier years of CCM. It’s no secret that CCM has always been dominated by white artists, and there are numerous examples of popular Christian artists like Jennifer Knapp who rose to fame while closeted and lost their following after coming out.

In Payne’s view, an honest, more inclusive account can help us better understand our current moment and the public reckoning with the legacy of white American evangelicalism.

“The CCM scene was very domestic. It was also very political,” said Payne. “It was the ambient theological and political world.”

Payne’s book outlines some of the connections between CCM artists and songs and national politics. Sandi Patty’s 1989 song, “Masterpiece,” for example, became an anthem of the pro-life movement. Michael W. Smith performed at George H. W. Bush’s 1989 “Christmas in Washington” event and established a friendship with the Bush family. Carman spoke openly about a variety of conservative policy concerns like abortion, prayer in school, and teen pregnancy.

Payne argues that CCM has faded as an influence in American evangelicalism. The final chapter of her book, “#LetUsWorship,” describes the ascendance of contemporary worship music in the Christian music industry and pushes against the suggestion that worship music grew organically out of CCM.

“All of the institutions that supported CCM—the churches, the evangelical colleges, camps, parachurch organizations, and Christian bookstores—they have either radically changed or disappeared,” said Payne.

“And if you say that a CCM star like Michael W. Smith is the beginning of contemporary worship music [as the film The Jesus Music implies], you miss the transnational communities that created and supported it.”

The praise and worship music that circulated through organizations like Maranatha! Music and Integrity’s Hosanna! Music in the ’80s and ’90s laid the foundation for what would become the contemporary worship music industry of today. It was distributed largely via direct-to-consumer tapes and songbooks. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that the genre emerged as a profitable one within the Christian music industry.

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Rather than assume a clear lineage of Christian music from CCM to contemporary worship, Payne argues that it makes sense to consider CCM as a more carefully defined phenomenon. Worship music, she argues, has a distinct and global history that often intersects with CCM but doesn’t depend on it.

“CCM is an entertainment business at its core,” said Payne, adding, “I would argue that it’s much diminished. It does not exist in the same way that it did.”

According to Payne, CCM began to diminish in the early 2000s. Artists like Lauren Daigle represent what’s left of the niche. Daigle, Tauren Wells, and a few others have been able to build careers as Christian pop artists with some crossover success in the mainstream industry, but they are notable exceptions in a more divided Christian music industry now dominated by worship music and hip-hop (and increasingly integrated with the mainstream).

Payne’s book comes at a time when evangelicals are divided about how to publicly evaluate the legacies of influential figures like James Dobson and whether blockbuster books like Jesus and John Wayne are accurate and much-needed calls to change or pessimistic and one-sided take-downs.

Filmmaker Jason Ikeler says that it’s all part of a broader cultural interest in reexamining the past, especially when it comes to entertainment media.

“We’re looking back at how we treated Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton,” said Ikeler, who is preparing to release his documentary, Safe for the Whole Family: How to Make a Christian Superstar, this year.

The film features revealing and vulnerable interviews with a diverse group of former CCM figures including Avalon’s Michael Passons, Jennifer Knapp, Nikki Leonti, Leigh Nash, Derek Webb, and Matt Thiessen. It’s a documentary that seeks to capture the stories that don’t fit neatly in a narrative of a sanctified musical movement.

Ikeler, who grew up immersed in CCM, looks back at his relationship with the music and its superstars with a mix of nostalgia and criticism, hearing from artists who say they were coldly pushed out by industry gatekeepers.

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“They look back at it with mixed feelings. It’s not all good, it’s not all bad.”

Safe for the Whole Family examines the problems and fallout that come when Christians prop up individuals as standard-bearers and models of goodness and godliness. The evangelical struggle with hero-worship and Christian celebrity extends far beyond CCM.

“We held them up as saints or prophets,” said Ikeler, observing that the extreme moral scrutiny endured by CCM artists was unsustainable.

Ikeler said that his goal isn’t to produce a salacious exposé, nor were the artists involved coming with their own axes to grind. “These artists want to be able to share their stories and reclaim them,” he said. “We have to look back and tell the truth and learn from it.”

CCM flourished in the Focus on the Family era—when Christian parents were looking for an alternative universe of pop music, books, and films that were “safe” and sufficiently faith-based. The internet swiftly made it easy for Christian adolescents to discover new media and cross the boundaries held in place by Christian bookstores and radio. The days of looking for a “Christian NSYNC” are gone, but Christian artists still deal with moral and theological gatekeeping.

The complicated history of CCM shows the powerful community-building that can happen around shared music. It also provides examples of how musical subcultures can become exclusive and political, even in a niche full of artists who want to be a part of building God’s kingdom.