Leap Of Faith: Is The Line Between Christian And Mainstream Audiences Starting To Blur?

Photo by Scott Dudelson/Getty Images
– Lecrae
LET YOUR LIGHT SHINE: Rapper Lecrae illuminates Agenda Festival in Long Beach, Calif., June 30, in a lineup that also included Lil Yachty, Denzel Curry and Brockhampton. Lecrae broke with a largely Christian audience, but continues to broaden the reach of his music into realms beyond traditional “Christian hip-hop.”
Western music has historically been heavily influenced and inspired by Christianity, from the development of the gospel and spiritual genres to informing the works of European composers like Bach and Vivaldi.
In the modern music industry there is a specifically dedicated genre of Christian music with an infrastructure that includes independent record labels, dedicated divisions of major record labels, radio stations, distribution platforms like bookstores and church events, and the Dove Awards, which recognizes genre leaders.
Jackie Patillo, president and executive director of the Gospel Music Association, which puts on the Dove Awards annually (the 49th edition will be Oct. 16) – said Christian music is not limited to one musical tradition. 
“Christian and gospel music is not defined by its sound, it’s defined by its message,” Patillo told Pollstar. “There are artists that feel very much called to spread the Gospel through music [and whose music] is defined by its Christian worldview.”
The Dove Awards honors artists who perform in many different styles, from hip hop to metal to EDM to gospel to folk, and whenever new genres emerge, it’s a safe bet Christian artists will soon be performing in them. Patillo said it’s usually not hard to distinguish who should and should not qualify for Doves.  
Past winners include Carrie Underwood, Joey + Rory, Alabama, Switchfoot, Skillet,  Demon Hunter, Oak Ridge Boys, Randy Travis, Sixpence None The Richer, Whitney Houston, Stryper and Bob Dylan.
Patillo also mentioned, just like other areas in the industry, there is a decline in revenue from record sales, but the live business is booming.
Jonathan Roberts of Premier Productions, which books prominent Christian tours like Elevation Worship, Rend Collective, “Winter Jam,” “Outcry Tour” and Hillsong Worship, said there is substantial demand for shows with a Christian lean.
“It’s interesting that we tend to fly under the radar a good bit with the overall landscape of live music’s awareness of us,” Roberts told Pollstar. “We are definitely out here doing a lot of shows, at notable venues, the same venues the general market is playing. But we still run into that occasional situation where people don’t really know who we are or what exactly it is that we do. It’s funny navigating that.”
Roberts said some events like Hillsong, “Winter Jam” and “Outcry” have pastoral or speaking components, but the majority of the tours he books are music and function just like any other popular music show. He notes that these tours rival the production you would see at other arena concerts, with Winter Jam bringing eight-12 trucks on the road.
The numbers are there, as “Winter Jam” featuring Skillet was No. 66 on the Mid Year Top 100 North American Tours, followed by the “Hits Deep Tour” with TobyMac at No. 81, MercyMe at No. 96, and “Worship Night In America” with Chris Tomlin at No. 99. “Winter Jam” grossed $7.6 million after staging in 46 cities, with an average of 7,695 tickets moving at $21 each, which is substantially more than the suggested, non-mandatory ticket price of $15. 
In a previous interview with Pollstar Winter Jam co-founder Eddie Carswell said he wanted an affordable way for families to see his band NewSong, and thus developed the machinery for a volunteer-driven, free-option traveling festival.
Not every band with Christian-inspired themes can play the traveling festivals, though, and in the past some artists who have tried to navigate the gap between Christian and popular music have found themselves without a home.
“We were too Christian for the world, but we weren’t ‘Christian’ enough for Christians,” P.O.D. frontman Sonny Sandoval told Pollstar. “If we talked about Jesus in an interview or a lyric, it was like ‘Hey, don’t preach at me.’ … We would go on Ozzfest, fly a big banner of Jesus and the whole audience was tripping out, we had dudes flipping us off in the form of a cross.”
When P.O.D. broke through with its second studio album Satellite (released on Sept. 11, 2001), it saw large numbers of Christians, some of whom had initially considered the music too aggressive, flocking to their songs with spiritual undertones.
But the band’s creative choices eventually put them at odds with established elements of the Christian music industry, as its Payable On Death album cover, which featured a largely naked woman with butterfly wings with the word “Sanctus” across her waist, was ultimately dropped by many bookstores.
P.O.D.’s touring numbers may have been tied to the popularity of its recorded music at the time. In 2001 to 2002, when Satellite was the touring record, the band traveled with Ozzfest alongside Ozzy Osbourne and System Of A Down and reported an average headline gross of $32,271. That figure took a sizable dip in the record cycle for Payable On Death (2003 to 2005), when the band’s average reported headline gross went down to $19,039.
Steven Curtis Chapman, a longtime leader in the Christian music industry who has won a record 58 Dove Awards, told Pollstar the genre has changed tremendously since he started his career more than 30 years ago, and gave lots of credit to artists like Amy Grant who made Christian music but also appeared on MTV and made it clear her music was for a general audience.
“There were a lot of mistakes made by the church, and by people who should have been cheering her on,” Chapman told Pollstar. “They felt like, ‘We’re losing our person!’”
A recent trend Chapman has noticed is more “modern worship” tours like Hillsong and “Worship Night In America,” from artists who write hymns for church and include pastoral elements. While that work is important, Chapman said he was very pleased to see more artists – including his sons in the band Colony House, who recently toured with
“The thing I see continuing to grow more and more is artists who aren’t specifically defined by the term ‘Christian music,’ instead saying, ‘I’m a follower of Jesus in my personal life, in my faith, and that influences the music, but I am an alternative musician,’ or ‘I’m a rapper.’ I think that’s going to continue to happen, and I hope Christian music continues to embrace that.”
In the same vein Roberts said he feels there are now more popular artists – like Twenty One Pilots and Chance The Rapper – who incorporate deeply religious and spiritual themes into their music but avoid being labeled as religious, and that they are bridging the gap between a “Christian” audience and other, more mainstream genres.
Some artists, like this week’s Hotstar NF, got their start with a primarily Christian audience and have won Dove Awards, but are now reaching a wider audience than ever before.
“I think it’s becoming more broad in that sense, where folks aren’t necessarily wanting to be a core Christian radio artist, but that doesn’t mean they are losing their identity of who they are,” Roberts said. “The Christian audience and Christian listeners have the same problems and the same life struggles, many of the same situations as everybody else, and I think the artists are getting to a place where they want to talk about all of that stuff and not only their faith.” 
Roberts also emphasized that many artists are learning how to deliver their message in a way that doesn’t come off as divisive, and audiences are learning to get past prejudices, which can be difficult in such a polarized climate.
“I do think we’re turning a corner where there is more cross-pollination, more open-mindedness, more accessibility, more folks willing to accept great art rather than pre-judging its content.”
Chapman said the changing role of Christianity in popular music is concurrent with changes in churches and Christian culture throughout the West. An advocate for preventing youth violence, fighting hunger, promoting adoption, and supporting disaster relief, Chapman said he has always viewed music as a means to an end, a platform to help people in need and to put into action the teachings of Christianity that promote justice and mercy, and whether they are labeled as “Christian” artists or not, he is excited to see other artists sharing that vision and trying to help their fellow man. 
Quoting Micah 6:8, he said: “‘He has shown us what he desires and it is this: To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.’ If we’re not doing that, we’re missing out on the biggest reason we’ve been given the gift [of music] in the first place.”