Christian rock

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Christian rock is a form of rock music that features lyrics focusing on matters of Christian faith, often with an emphasis on Jesus, typically performed by Christian individuals. The extent to which their lyrics are explicitly Christian varies between bands. Many bands who perform Christian rock have ties to the contemporary Christian music labels, media outlets, and festivals, while other bands are independent.



Christian response to early rock music (1950s–1960s)

Most traditional and fundamentalist Christians did not view rock music favorably when it became popular with young people from the 1950s, even though country and gospel music often influenced early rock music. In 1952 Archibald Davison, a Harvard professor, summed up the sound of traditional Christian music and why its supporters might not like rock music when he wrote of "... a rhythm that avoids strong pulses; a melody whose physiognomy is neither so characteristic nor so engaging as to make an appeal in its own behalf; counterpoint, which cultivates long-breathed eloquence rather than instant and dramatic effect; a chromaticism which is at all times restricted in amount and lacking in emotionalism; and modality which creates an atmosphere unmistakably ecclesiastical". [1] In the light of Archibald Davison's characterisation it is easy to see how different these two genres of music are. Christians in the United States did not want their children exposed to music with unruly, impassioned vocals, loud guitar-riffs and jarring, hypnotic rhythms. Rock and roll differed from the norm, and thus it was seen by them as a threat. [2] Often the music was overtly sexual in nature, as in the case of Elvis Presley, who became controversial and massively popular partly for his suggestive stage antics and dancing. However, "Elvis" was a religious person who released a gospel album: Peace in the Valley [3] in 1957. Individual Christians may[ original research? ] have listened to or even performed rock music in many cases, but conservative church establishments - particularly in the American South - regarded it as anathema.

He Touched Me, a 1972 gospel-music album by Elvis Presley, sold over 1 million copies in the US alone and earned Presley his second of three Grammy Awards. Not counting compilations, it was his third and final album devoted exclusively to gospel music. The song "He Touched Me" was written in 1963 by Bill Gaither, an American singer and songwriter of southern gospel and Contemporary Christian music.

In the 1960s rock music developed artistically, attained worldwide popularity and became associated with the radical counterculture, firmly alienating many[ quantify ] Christians. In 1966 The Beatles, one of the most popular and influential rock-bands of their era, ran into trouble with many of their American fans when John Lennon jokingly offered his opinion that Christianity was dying and that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus now". [4] [5] The romantic, melodic rock songs of the band's early career had formerly been viewed as relatively inoffensive by Christians, but after the remark, churches nationwide organized Beatles-record burnings and Lennon was forced to apologize. [6] Subsequently, the Beatles and most rock musicians experimented with a more complex, psychedelic style of music that frequently used anti-establishment, drug-related, or sexual lyrics, while The Rolling Stones sang "Sympathy for the Devil" (1968), a song openly written from the point of view of Satan. Allegations of Satanic intent also arose from the Beatles and others of the controversial backmasking recording-technique. This further increased Christian opposition to rock music.

Later, in the 1960s, the escalating Vietnam War, Civil Rights Movement, Paris student riots of 1968 and other events served as catalysts for youth activism and political withdrawal or protest, which became associated with rock bands, whether or not they were openly political. Moreover, many[ quantify ] saw the music as promoting a lifestyle of promiscuous "sex, drugs and rock and roll", also reflected in the behavior of many rock stars. However, there was growing recognition of the diverse musical and ideological potential of rock.[ citation needed ] Countless new bands sprang up in the mid-to-late 1960s, as rock displaced older, smoother pop styles to become the dominant form of pop music, a position it would enjoy almost continuously until the end of the 20th century.

Development (mid 1960s–1980s)

Among the first bands that played Christian rock was the Crusaders, a Southern Californian garage rock band, whose November 1966 Tower Records album Make a Joyful Noise with Drums and Guitars is considered one of the first gospel rock releases; [7] [ need quotation to verify ] John Joseph Thompson identifies it as "the first record of Christian rock". [8] Brian Collins characterises Mind Garage as "arguably the first band of its kind": [9] [10] they recorded the 1967 Electric Liturgy at RCA's "Nashville Sound" studio in 1969. [11] Both of these recordings were preceded by the rockabilly praise LP I Like God's Style, written and performed by one 16-year-old Isabel Baker and released on the private Wichita, Kansas Romco label in 1965, which no one published on until the 2000s. [12]

Larry Norman, often described as the "father of Christian rock", [13] and in his later years "the Grandfather of Christian rock", [14] who, in 1969 recorded and released Upon This Rock , "the first commercially released Jesus rock album", [15] challenged a view held by some conservative Christians (predominantly fundamentalists) that rock music was anti-Christian. One of his songs, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" summarized his attitude and his quest to pioneer Christian rock music. [16] A cover version of Larry Norman's Rapture-themed "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" appears in the Evangelical Christian feature film A Thief in the Night and appeared on Cliff Richard's Christian album Small Corners along with "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?".

In 1966 the band Žeteoci (transl. The Harvesters) was formed in Yugoslavia. Founded by four students of the Zagreb Catholic Faculty of Theology, Žeteoci performed beat music with religious lyrics, being the first Christian rock band in Yugoslavia and arguably the first Christian rock band in a communist country. Although they were not among the earliest Yugoslav rock bands, Žeteoci, as other 1960s rock bands from Yugoslavia, played a pioneering roll on the Yugoslav rock scene; their first and only album, To nije tajna (It Is Not a Secret), released in 1969, was the second full-length album in the history of Yugoslav rock music. Although an openly religious band in a communist state, due to specific political and cultural milieu of the Non-Aligned Yugoslavia, for the most of their career Žeteoci enjoyed the attention of the media and notable popularity among the Yugoslav youth. Their only album was released in cooperation between Glas Koncila (Voice of the Council ), the official newspaper of the Catholic Church in Croatia, and state-owned record label Jugoton. They ended their activity in 1971, as the members of the band finished their studies of theology and went on to become priests of the Catholic Church. [17] [18]

Randy Stonehill's "Welcome To Paradise" (1976) WelcomeToParadiseStonehill.jpg
Randy Stonehill's "Welcome To Paradise" (1976)

Another Christian rock pioneer, Randy Stonehill, released his first album in 1971, the Larry Norman-produced Born Twice. [19] [20] In the most common pressing of the album, side one is entirely a live performance. [21] Another early Christian rock album was Mylon (We Believe) by Mylon LeFevre, son of members of the southern gospel group The LeFevres. He recorded the album with members of Classics IV and released it through Cotillion Records in 1970. [22] [23]

In the late 1970s Christian rock received exposure through more mainstream rock and folk rock musicians. Bob Dylan became a born-again Christian and released three albums between 1979 and 1981. This period would yield the Grammy winning single "Gotta Serve Somebody" and three successful concert tours that would later see release as The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 . Dylan's influence was also felt in other members of the folk revival; Arlo Guthrie, for example, converted in 1979 (in part over his concerns over whether he faced a Huntington's disease diagnosis like others in his family) and released his own Christian folk-rock album Outlasting the Blues ; Outlasting the Blues received the biggest record label promotion of Guthrie's career. [24]

Christian rock was often[ quantify ] viewed as a marginal part of the nascent contemporary Christian music (CCM) and contemporary gospel industry in the 1970s and 1980s, [25] though Christian folk rock artists like Bruce Cockburn and rock fusion artists like Phil Keaggy had some cross-over success. Petra and Resurrection Band, two of the bands who brought harder rock into the early CCM community, had their origins in the early to mid-1970s. They reached their height in popularity in the late eighties alongside other Christian-identifying hard rock acts such as Stryper. The latter had videos played on MTV, such as "Calling on You" and "To Hell with the Devil", and even saw some airtime on mainstream radio stations with their hit song "Honestly". Christian rock has proved less successful in the UK and Europe, although such artists as Bryn Haworth have found commercial success by combining blues and mainstream rock music with Christian themes.


The 1990s saw an explosion of Christian rock.

Many of the popular 1990s Christian bands were initially identified as "Christian alternative rock", including Jars of Clay, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline and the later albums of DC Talk. Outside Anglophone countries, bands like Oficina G3 (Brazil) and The Kry (Quebec, Canada) have achieved moderate success.

Jars of Clay in concert, 2007. Jars of Clay.jpg
Jars of Clay in concert, 2007.

By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the success of Christian-inspired acts like Skillet, Thousand Foot Krutch, Decyfer Down, Underoath, Kutless, Disciple, P.O.D., Switchfoot, and Relient K saw a shift toward mainstream exposure in the Christian rock scene.

Among popular Christian rock bands of the first decade of the 21st century that exemplified this trend were RED and Fireflight.

There are also some Roman Catholic bands such as Critical Mass. Some Eastern Orthodox Christian rock groups, mostly from Russia and the Soviet Union, started performing in the late 1980s and 1990s. Alisa [26] and Black Coffee [27] are credited as the most prominent examples. The Orthodox Christian lyrics of these bands often overlap with historical and patriotic songs about Kievan Rus'.

The musical genre that was once rejected by mainstream Christian churches is now considered by some as one of the most-important evangelism tool of their successor congregations. According to Terri McLean, author of New Harmonies, old-guard churches (United Methodist is given as an example) of the late 1990s were experiencing a rapid decline in membership and were under threat of disbandment within the next decade, a trend that has been going on since the 1980s. [28] McLean, using numerous quotes from theologians, Christian apologists and professors, goes on to offer contemporary Christian music as the reason for the falling popularity of more traditionalist churches. [29] The definition of contemporary Christian, as offered by New Harmonies, is of a genre not far removed from traditional hymns; it is simply more accessible. The reality is that while a form of modernized hymns do exist in today's churches and do affect church evangelism and growth, there also exists both within and outside these churches a form of music (Christian rock) that has only one element in common with previous religious genres: its worship of God.

This element, the worship of God, is what was originally removed from or hidden within the lyrics of early, secular rock n' roll. Santino described one method of changing Christian lyrics as a process that transformed "lyrics that sang of the mystical love of God into lyrics that celebrated the earthly love of woman". [30] Howard & Streck offer examples of this, comparing Ray Charles' "This Little Girl of Mine" to "This Little Light of Mine" and "Talking About You" to "Talking About Jesus". They claim that because of actions such as this, despite the liberal editing of the original hymns, "gospel 'showed rock how to sing'". [31] Howard & Streck go on to describe how the conflict between music and religion, spearheaded by southern fundamentalists, was originally racially based, but how in the sixties this moved on to a clash over the perceived lifestyle of rock musicians. [32]


There are multiple definitions of what qualifies as a "Christian rock" band. Christian rock bands that explicitly state their beliefs and use religious imagery in their lyrics, like Servant, Third Day, and Petra, tend to be considered a part of the contemporary Christian music (CCM) industry. [33]

Other bands perform music influenced by their faith or containing Christian imagery, but see their audience as the general public. For example, Bono of U2 combines many elements of spirituality and faith into his lyrics, but the band is not directly labeled as a "Christian rock" band. [34]

Such bands are sometimes rejected by the CCM rock scene and may specifically reject the CCM label. Other bands may experiment with more abrasive musical styles. Beginning in the 1990s and 2000s there was much wider acceptance even by religious purists of Christian metal, Christian industrial and Christian punk. Many of these bands are on predominantly Christian record labels, such as Tooth and Nail Records and Facedown Records.

Rock artists, such as Switchfoot, [35] [36] do not claim to be "Christian bands", but include members who openly profess to be Christians or at times may feature Christian thought, imagery, scripture or other influences in their music.

I'm an artist who's a Christian, because I don't write music to be evangelical. Now, if that happens, it happens.

Scott Stapp, lead vocalist for Creed [37]

Some of these bands, like Creed played up the spiritual content of their music and were widely considered a "Christian band" by the popular media. Some bands reject the label because they do not wish to exclusively attract Christian fans, or because they have been identified with another particular music genre, such as heavy metal or indie rock.


The aims for making Christian music vary among different artists and bands. Often, the music makes evangelistic calls for Christian forms of praise and worship. Accompanying such music, street outreach, local festivities, church functions, and many alternative forms of internal or (soulful) expression may occur.

Some Christian artists as Third Day, Kutless, Thousand Foot Krutch and Disciple have sung songs that carry overtly Christian messages. Bands such as Underoath, Blessthefall and Haste the Day incorporate symbolism and Christian messages more indirectly. [38] [39] Bands such as Flyleaf do not call themselves Christian bands, though they state that their Christian faith affects their lyrics. [40] [41] Bands such as Switchfoot have said they try to write music for both Christians and non-Christians alike. [42] [43] [44]


Festivals range from single day events to multiple-day festivals that provide camping and other activities.

One of the first in the US was the six-day Explo '72 held in Dallas, Texas in June 1972 that was attended by around 80,000 people with around 100,000 150,000 at the final concert and which featured acts such as Larry Norman, The Archers, Love Song, Randy Matthews, Children of the Day, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.

Significant festivals in the US are Creation Festival, Ichthus Festival, and Cornerstone Festival. There is also a festival in Orlando, Florida called Rock the Universe, a two-day festival at Universal Orlando Resort that overlaps with the Night of Joy event at Walt Disney World. Ichthus, currently held in Kentucky, is a three-day festival that involves over 65 bands.

There are also many in the UK, including Greenbelt Festival, Soul Survivor, BigChurchDayOut, 'Ultimate Events' at Alton Towers, Frenzy in Edinburgh and Creation Fest, Woolacombe, Devon, which is not related to Creationfest in the United States.

The Flevo Festival of The Netherlands, which offers seminars, theater, stand-up comedy, sports and movies as well as Christian music from a wide variety of genres, is considered to be one of the biggest Christian festivals in Europe. [45] [46] [47] It was discontinued in 2013, due to financial issues.[ citation needed ] It has been unofficially restarted by a collection of Christian organizations who previously collaborated on Flevo Festival under the new name of Flavor Festival.[ citation needed ]

Skjærgårdsfestivalen is an annual music festival held in Norway, which headlines Christian rock bands.[ citation needed ]

Many events are held in Australia called, Easterfest (in Toowoomba) Encounterfest, Jam United, Black Stump and Big Exo Day.[ citation needed ] Bogotá, Colombia hosts the summer festival Gospel al Parque.[ citation needed ]

The most "underground" expression of Christian rock was the annual Cornerstone Festival sponsored by the Jesus People USA, a community which formed during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. The festival ceased operations in 2012. [48]

See also

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  2. Haines, John (October 27, 2011). "The Emergence of Jesus Rock: On Taming the 'African Beat'". Black Music Research Journal. 31 (2): 229–60. doi:10.5406/blacmusiresej.31.2.0229. S2CID   194012423.
  3. Wilson, Charles R. (2006). ""Just a Little Talk with Jesus": Elvis Presley, Religious Music, and Southern Spirituality". Southern Cultures. 12 (4): 74–91. doi:10.1353/scu.2006.0059. S2CID   159657945.
  4. "Rock 'n' Roll: According to John Friday". Time. August 12, 1966. Archived from the original on July 16, 2009. Retrieved June 25, 2011.
  5. Cleave, Maureen (October 5, 2005). "The John Lennon I Knew". The Daily Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on December 14, 2005. Retrieved December 20, 2007.
  6. Bielen, Kenneth (May 11, 2000). The Lyrics of Civility. Garland Publishing. ISBN   9780815331933 . Retrieved March 3, 2008.
  7. David Di Sabatino, in Mark Allan Powell, Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002):217.
  8. Thompson, John Joseph (2000). Raised by Wolves: The Story of Christian Rock & Roll. Toronto: ECW Press. p. 43. ISBN   9781550224214 . Retrieved November 22, 2022. The first record of Christian rock came from a band called The Crusaders in 1966. [...] The title of the record was Make a Joyful Noise with Drums and Guitars, and that's exactly what The Crusaders did, in a campy 1960s pop way.
  9. Brian Collins, Sightings, Martin Marty Center University of Chicago Divinity School, "Divinity School at the University of Chicago | Publications". Archived from the original on May 25, 2013. Retrieved October 27, 2008. Today original records from many of the original Jesus Rock bands like The Mind Garage (arguably the first band of its kind), Aslan, Selah, The Concrete Rubber Band, and Agape go for hundreds of dollars to collectors on eBay, presumably not all of them Evangelical Christians.
  10. Compare: Bluefield Daily Telegraph (April 24, 2009), "Memory of one song lingers long after the band stopped playing » Columns » Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV". Archived from the original on July 21, 2012. Retrieved September 18, 2011. The Mind Garage evolved into perhaps the nation's first Christian Rock Band on the strength of their original composition, the Electric Liturgy.
  11. Jo Renee Formicola, The Politics of Values: Games Political Strategists Play (Rowman & Littlefield 2008):64. Formicola argues that "Christian Rock Music began...when a group known as the Mind Garage recorded "Electric Liturgy".
  12. Anthony Martinez, "June 18–19, 1965: Isabel Baker Recorded 'I Like God's Style'" Classic Christian Rock (June 18, 2017)
  13. Sanford, David. "Farewell, Larry Norman." Christianity Today. June 27, 2005. Retrieved December 26, 2007. "The man known as the Father of Christian Rock, whose health has been failing in recent years, played his last U.S. concert Friday night in his hometown of Salem, Oregon."
  14. Mike Adkins, "Contemporary Christian Music: The Real Deal in Quallity & Passion" (January 3, 2010).
  15. Don Cusic, The Sound of Light: A History of Gospel Music (Popular Press, 1990):127. See also John J. Thompson, Raised by Wolves: The Story of Christian Rock & Roll (ECW Press, 2000):49.
  16. In Another Land (Album liner notes). Larry Norman. Solid Rock Records: Solid Rock Records. 1976.{{cite AV media notes}}: CS1 maint: others in cite AV media (notes) (link)
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  19. Powell, Mark Allan (2002). Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. p.  879. ISBN   1-56563-679-1.
  20. While it is claimed that Norman borrowed $3,000 from Pat Boone to start One Way Records (see Randy Stonehill in Chris Willman, "RANDY STONEHILL: TURNING TWENTY", CCM, August 1990), Norman denied this explicitly. (See Larry Norman, linear notes, Bootleg (2005 CDR Release-"Red Letter Edition"):2.
  21. Powell, Mark Allan (2002). Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. p.  880. ISBN   1-56563-679-1.
  22. Powell, Mark Allan (2002). Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers. p.  520. ISBN   1-56563-679-1.
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  26. Newsweek. A Russian Woodstock.
    Once an anti-establishment rebel, Kinchev's most recent work includes Orthodox Christian rock and Russian patriotic songs.
  27. Encyclopaedia Metallum. Black Coffee
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  29. McLean, Terri (1998). New Harmonies. n.p.: Alban Institute. p. 110. ISBN   1-56699-206-0.
  30. Howard, Jay; John M. Streck (1999). Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. pp.  qtd. 27. ISBN   0-8131-2105-1.
  31. Howard, Jay; John M. Streck (1999). Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. p.  27. ISBN   0-8131-2105-1.
  32. Howard, Jay; John M. Streck (1999). Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. pp.  27, 28. ISBN   0-8131-2105-1.
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Further reading