“Dwell in me, Jesus,” sings Ana Castela in “Agradeço” (I Thank You), a single the 20-year-old Brazilian pop star released in December. The lyrics resemble words that evangelical congregations sing in contemporary church services across the country: I surrender, I trust, I accept, and I thank you.

Castela emerged on Brazil’s music scene two years ago and is also known as “the Boiadeira” (Cowgirl), the title of her first hit, which features lyrics like, “She gave up wine for beer, the preppy girl became a cowgirl.” The majority of her music focuses on relationships, betrayals, and drinking (themes common in sertanejo, a local genre that somewhat resembles American country music).

Though she grew up Catholic and occasionally sang at evangelical youth services as a teenager, Castela broke into the industry as a mainstream pop star. “Agradeço” is her first Christian single as a solo artist. (It also marked the debut of Agropraise, a Christianized branch of the sertanejo label Agromusic.)

The Boiadeira is one of an increasing number of mainstream artists crossing into the Christian market and debuting gospel and worship tracks over the past decade. In 2022, Simone, from the sertanejo duo Simone and Simaria, sang “Sobre as Águas” (Over the Water) with Christian contemporary artist Davi Sacer. In 2021, forró singer Wesley Safadão performed with the band Casa Worship in “Deus tem um plano” (God Has a Plan). In 2018, pop singer Luan Santana and the sertanejo duo Marcos & Belutti recorded versions of well-known gospel songs.

Since 2015, Brazilian gospel music—gospel referring in this context to a generalized popular Christian genre, not the gospel tradition in the US rooted in the Black church—has grown substantially in popularity. According to Spotify, the genre’s listenership grew on average 44 percent each year between 2015 and 2020. And while Western worship artists like Hillsong are popular with Brazilian Christians, Brazilian gospel artists are carving out their own niche and creating some of the most listened-to Christian music globally. This year, from January to March alone, the number of gospel music listeners on Spotify grew an additional 46 percent.

Currently, gospel music accounts for 20 percent of the Brazilian music industry’s revenue, and major international record labels have noticed. In 2010, Sony Music Group made Brazil its first region outside the US to have a branch dedicated exclusively to gospel music and began hiring professionals from Christian labels. Universal Music Group followed in 2013.

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Historically in Brazil, as in the US, contemporary Christian music (CCM)—both gospel and worship—exists in its own subculture apart from the mainstream, with its own stars, record labels, and award shows. Over the years, a few American Christian music artists have found mainstream success as crossovers, but in the US and Brazil, crossover success stories have been rare. Now, self-identified evangelical artists in Brazil are climbing mainstream charts, and gospel music has a much greater market share than CCM ever had in the US. This expansion, and the crossover success of artists like Castela, is almost certainly related to the explosive growth of Brazil’s evangelical church.

“In the past, evangelicals were a modest minority,” said Joêzer Mendonça, the author of Música e Religião na Era do Pop (Music and Religion in the Pop Era). “Brazilian evangelicals no longer hide themselves. Actually, they like to show off their faith, and this is reflected in the way they listen to music.”

Labels and music marketers see opportunities in the shifting religious landscape. “Businesspeople, agents, record labels, all of them are saying, ‘We have to record this!’” said Mendonça.

Wary of sexually explicit lyrics and profanity in mainstream music, many Christians support the proliferation of gospel music and its potential impact on secular stars. But, aware of the economic incentives artists may have to release gospel tracks, some pastors and theologians are asking the church to show discernment.

“We can’t say someone is now a Christian just because they sang a song,” said Carlinhos Veiga, a Presbyterian pastor and singer-songwriter. “But you also can’t say it’s just opportunism.”

The fear of limiting audience

Though mainstream artists often present public images that don’t align with the expected profile of a “Christian artist,” many grew up in Christian homes and attended churches where they first learned to sing or play a musical instrument.

Some denominations, such as the Assemblies of God, Congregação Cristã no Brasil (the Christian Congregation in Brazil) and Seventh-day Adventists, have built a reputation on making instrument instruction available for all congregants. Whereas private music lessons are largely only accessible for the wealthy, churches may have classes where everyone can learn the trumpet, trombone, or French horn for free. Many also offer singing lessons, and most small churches have their own choirs.

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“Many [artists] have family members who are evangelical, and they themselves enjoy being in the church, but frequently, they also have a complicated relationship with faith since they aren’t frequent churchgoers,” said Renato Marinoni, a pastor and founder of the Instituto de Adoração, Cultura, e Arte, a ministry training school focused on worship and the arts. “It’s not uncommon for some to get starstruck when they achieve success. They start to think the church is too small for their talent.”

Some singers may start in the gospel music industry but move away from faith-forward music in order to build a successful career in the mainstream. Conventional wisdom has long dictated that making gospel music limits a musician’s audience.

“For a long time, the interaction between gospel and secular music wasn’t seen sympathetically—the market thought it would limit the audience,” said Marcell Steuernagel, director of the master of sacred music program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who grew up leading worship in the Brazilian Lutheran church before moving to the US.

Now, seemingly, artists are no longer forced to decide between making music for the church or finding commercial success.

“Some of these artists will sing worship music out of nostalgia,” said Veiga. “On the other hand, we have artists that will sing gospel music because they are truly Christians and they know that, now, they will have an audience if they sing worship music.”

This phenomenon isn’t necessarily unique to Brazil, says Steuernagel. In Brazil and in the US, sacred songs have provided a familiar repertoire that artists can pull from for a variety of reasons, whether because of personal interest or the perceived interests of their audience. Popular American musicians like Elvis Presley or Aretha Franklin recorded hymns or gospel songs. Carrie Underwood regularly performs “How Great Thou Art” in shows during her Vegas residencies. And Justin Bieber posts videos on social media of himself participating in worship or singing a praise song in his home.

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The demand for gospel music further suggests a shift in the public’s relationship with spirituality. Christian music seems to hold appeal for its potential therapeutic effects, even for listeners who don’t consider themselves to be practicing Christians.

“There are people who don’t attend evangelical services, don’t live by Christian values, but listen to this musical style,” said Marinoni. “They say it brings peace.”

The problem of endorsement

Though they haven’t made their way into the congregational worship of Brazilian churches, many mainstream artists’ worship songs have been embraced by Christian radio and show up on worship music streaming playlists. While the majority of these worship songs have mainstream writers, Christian artists have participated in a number of collaborations, which at times has generated fierce pushback.

In 2022, Christian singer-songwriter Kleber Lucas released a duet with Caetano Veloso, an atheist pop star and activist. After their performance won an award, one evangelical congressman mocked the announcement, while a Christian influencer called it “Christianity accepted by the world.”

Last year, Priscilla Alcântara, a popular gospel music star, joined Carnival with secular singers in a trio elétrico (a truck equipped with a massive sound system that drives through the streets as partygoers follow—a Carnival staple). Evangelicals, who generally eschew the holiday, attacked Alcântara for seemingly compromising her Christian values.

Gospel singer Fernandinho criticized partnerships between Christian and secular artists and accused gospel singers of downplaying the gospel in their interactions. In 2021, he posted a video where he used 2 Corinthians 6:14–15 to say that there can be “no communion” between the two.

“How can I walk side by side and sing with an enemy of God?” he said. “Jesus doesn’t turn a blind eye [to sin].”

For most of these secular artists, forays into Christian music are just part of their performances and track lists.

“The secular artist isn’t attached to what the church sings—they are only interested in expressing themselves,” said Marinoni. “It’s the church’s responsibility to be close to the artist and disciple them if they are willing.”

For Castela, recording “Agradeço” was a way of “thanking God for all the things he has done.”

“I love to sing worship music, but I don’t think that is my thing. My thing is sertanejo, and I also really like pop music,” she told Correio Braziliense. “If one day God allows me to enter the gospel scene, I’ll be right here with open arms and a warm heart.”

[ This article is also available in Português. ]