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What's the current state of Christian music? How straightforward should the lyrics be, spiritually? Who's helping artists live out their calling? And what happens when secular companies buy gospel labels? Those are just some of the burning questions Plugged In wanted to ask Christian music insiders in late 1996. So we gathered three heavy hitters passionate about where the industry had been, as well as where it was heading.

Sought-after producer Eddie DeGarmo, best known as half of the Christian rock duo DeGarmo & Key, was serving as a vice president with ForeFront Records at the time. He was joined by singer/songwriter Scott Wesley Brown (then head of International Christian Artists Reaching the Earth) and Grammy Award-nominated artist Steve Camp, whose impressive career had already spanned nearly two decades. Indeed, each of these men had a front-row seat for the ascent of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) as both an industry and an artform. Would their comments prove to be prophetic? That's for you to decide.

What do you feel makes music "Christian"?
DeGarmo: Christian music is the only style of music on the planet that is described by its lyrics rather than its sound.

Camp: Because scripture speaks to all of life, our music, our art, can speak to all of life. But it must be distinctly biblical. And it must be different than the culture. Music was used for all kinds of things in the Bible, but its first purpose was for God. For an audience of One. Now, again, that doesn't say that every song has to mention Jesus' name. The book of Esther in the scriptures doesn't mention God's name a single time. But, obviously, it's clearly about the sovereignty of God in Esther's life.

Do you believe there are any biblical examples of, or precedent for, CCM?
Camp: Of course, there's no chapter in 3 Timothy, for example, where Paul says to Titus, "Grab your guitar and let's hit the road for a crusade, for a musical event that'll really shake up Jerusalem, or Antioch or Rome." So we have to extract the biblical model of what the purpose of music is.

DeGarmo: I don't believe every song an artist does has to be a complete theology. I don't believe every song has to necessarily cover the gamut of the life of Christ, the cross or the resurrection. I think you have to look at the overall direction of a project and the overall direction of an artist, and where he's trying to point you. But I certainly don't think you want to glorify the dark sides of truth.

Has Christian music lost sight of sound doctrine?
Camp: I was driving around one day with my son, and I turned on our Christian music station here in Nashville. After listening for about 20-25 minutes driving to the mall, he looks up at me and says, "Dad, do these people love Jesus? Do they love the Lord?" I said, "Well, of course, why would you say that?" He says, "'Cause not one of 'em has talked about Him yet. Don't they wanna sing about their love for Him?" He's five years old, and he was perceptive enough to know that Christ is no longer central in the themes of Christian music.

Brown: The majority of Christian music guys out there today have no ministry training whatsoever. They're musicians. But they're given these positions which have theological influence on the lives of other people. I've always believed that good theology leads to good music. And the only way they're gonna get that good theology and that understanding is through the Church, through discipleship, through accountability, through their relationships.

Camp: And one of the phrases that Christian artists are unfortunately famous for today is, "I'm a musician that happens to be a Christian." That statement tells me oodles about their theology. No! You are a musician by gifting. You are a Christian by calling. And, therefore, our lives primarily are to glorify God and to communicate His gospel. Our industry has abandoned that.

DeGarmo: Christian contemporary, or alternative music needs to be an alternative to the evils we all find in worldly music. And when it quits being the alternative to that, and when we decide that we're just going to become gray matter, and we're not going to be black, not going to be white, then we literally lose our right to exist as an artform.

What about standards of conduct among artists? I would think there might be a temptation to be drawn into the "rock star" thing. Do you see most artists living what they sing about?
Brown: I've always told people 95 percent of my ministry is off stage, five percent is on stage. It's like when Frank Sinatra went to Australia and a reporter came up and said, "I hear you're goin' through a messy divorce." Sinatra punched the guy out. He looked at him as he was laying on the floor bleeding and said, "All I owe you is a good show." That's not true in Christian music. We owe them more than a good show. And, unfortunately, a lot of Christian music is becoming just a good show. But underneath, it needs real challenge. It needs some real discipleship and accountability built into it or it's gonna crumble.

Camp: I think every Christian record company ought to have a pastoral board. The booking agent should be held accountable for how he does business. The manager should conduct himself in a Christ-like fashion, not like some Christian version of Don King. And last, but not least, those singing the songs have to live lives honorable to the message which they proclaim.

Are Christian artists currently surrounded by those who can instruct them and hold them accountable?
DeGarmo: Several of our groups travel with pastors on the road with them. dc Talk. Audio Adrenaline. I would encourage more groups to do that. One thing I did with [DeGarmo & Key] is that we had a time every day, it was always the same time, where we got together, prayed and studied the Scripture. And we as a label support those kinds of things.

Brown: In Nashville, there are a lot of artists who really cling tightly to the church. There are others who just wander off on their own. The church should be the first base of accountability. Guys who are being mentored by pastors. I love it when I hear of groups that take a pastor out on the road with them. I think that is real sharp.

In recent years, many Christian record labels have been purchased by secular companies. What do you think of this trend?
Brown: It's something I wouldn't say that I'm dogmatically for or against.

DeGarmo: Boy, I must say, this one really gets funny. The advantages are that it allows us as a company to strategically take the message of Jesus Christ to a broader audience. And I think that it is a positive thing if the larger company is not trying to change the [Christian] message. The negative side is if the general marketplace companies start to tamper with the artform itself to where they water it down and it loses its impact, and it just becomes, like I said, oatmeal or gray matter.

So there is a potential down side.
Camp: Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely. It is an unholy union. It's being unequally yoked. It is light in bed with darkness. It can't work. The reason that any non-Christian record company, pure and simple, wants to buy up a Christian record company is that they see it growing. And they see the potential for money. And the men who run the Christian record companies are not men of such character that they are willing to say "no" in the face of millions of dollars. This is greed, pure and simple. And here's the bottom line: When you sell the work of God to those who simply wanna peddle it and water it down for profit, the ministry stops.

Brown: The bottom line is money. It's profit. They buy you. If you make money, they keep you. If you don't make money, they sell you. They're not gonna sit there and say, "We'll change your message." They're just gonna get rid of you real quick. They're gonna sell you to the next guy.

Camp: The pressure that the heads of non-Christian record companies are putting on Christian record label management now to deliver the kind of return they want is astronomical.

DeGarmo: For me, all of this is very much like what Joseph had in Egypt. Pharaoh really liked Joseph for a period of time and allowed him to rule his country. That pharaoh died off and the next pharaoh came along and he enslaved everybody. And I don't know that that won't happen with the Christian music industry. I'm not sure that we're not in Egypt. But I don't think that's necessarily a wrong thing, right now, for the industry.

How do you see your role in that sort of environment?
DeGarmo: I view myself as a very small version of what Daniel was with Nebuchadnezzar, or some of the other kings he dealt with. Many times if you look in the Scriptures, you'll find that God changes cultures by somebody being plugged into the king, or somebody being plugged into the leader. A lot of times the leader himself is not necessarily a follower of God. And we saw that in Daniel's case, in Joseph's case and in the life of Moses. And I really feel like the Lord has called me to be one of those kinds of guys with these huge conglomerates, and these people that can affect culture in a negative or a positive light. And right now the window's open.

As dads, how do you address the subject of music with your children?
DeGarmo: I remember a very particular story. I remember one day being downstairs in my house and hearing a Led Zeppelin song on my youngest daughter's stereo. A song called "Black Dog." I remember going upstairs and sitting on the bed with my daughter. And I didn't even say anything. I just started singing along with the song 'cause I remembered it from when I was a kid. And I asked her, "Have you ever thought about what he's singing about?" And she goes, "No." I said, "Think about it for a minute." So we went through the lyrics and she had no idea. I think you'll find a lot of kids are that way. And most parents are that way. So you need to study and you need to understand. And once she understood, she said, "Man, I can't believe how despicable it is—that somebody would actually talk about a woman as a black dog!" You need to test that stuff and you need to spend the time. But you have to be careful as a parent. If you're going to outlaw general marketplace music in your child's life, I think that's almost a funny position in that you've gotta be really careful that your kids never get in the car and find your radio on the wrong station. You know what I mean? Brown: I don't think parents have to approach it with the same caution, but I think they need to be involved in the albums that their kids are listening to, whether they are Christian or non-Christian. Even as a discussion tool for Bible study. "What does that artist mean?" "How does that relate to you?" I like to ask my daughter questions about certain songs, and I think it's important for parents to engage with their kids' music. It's an expression of their life, their identity. And it gets real confusing sometimes. There's a lot of shallow Christian lyrics. So you have to know about the bands. I think Plugged In is a great resource for parents to know how to guide their kids through this maze, this bombardment. I mean, anybody can stick the label "Christian" on something now.

Camp: Some music is a matter of conscience. And we have to be clear here that we don't wound someone needlessly on a conscionable issue. I would encourage parents to do three things. First and foremost, read the lyrics. Are they in accordance with Scripture? Are they glorifying to Christ? Or are they said out of anger and rebellion? Secondly, what is the style in which those lyrics are sung? The vehicle can sometimes overshadow the message. If you were to sing the lyric of "Holy, Holy, Holy" to the otherwise acceptable melody of "Yankee Doodle Dandy," you're going to trivialize what is profound. Finally, you should be able to hear and understand Christian lyrics, otherwise it doesn't matter what the singer is saying.

DeGarmo: You shouldn't be afraid as a parent. I have raised two daughters, ages 20 and 23. One thing I never did as a parent was ban a particular sound of music from my house. A lot of times I would sit down and listen to that stuff with my kids, you know. There were times growing up when my kids would ask me, "Daddy, so and so's comin' to town. Would you mind if I went?" And I'd say, "You know what? Let's go together." But what I would encourage you to do is not to take any kind of music and judge it by its sound. Judge it by its lyrical content. Because you'll find yourself in a very odd position of trying to answer a very difficult question: "What kind of music does God like?" From a lyrical perspective, it becomes easier. You can read what the artists are saying and you can make a judgment.

Some terrific food for thought. Of course, technology has changed substantially in the 15 years since we sat down with Steve Camp, Eddie DeGarmo and Scott Wesley Brown. Now our kids are streaming music videos on demand, downloading songs to their iPods, and discovering obscure acts on Facebook. It's more challenging than ever for parents to stay engaged with what children are listening to. But among the things that haven't changed are the power of music and those same thorny issues facing families.

Published October 2011

Plugged In Plus
Parents may want to ask these questions as they start a dialogue about music:

Why do you enjoy listening to this music?
With what elements of the music do you connect?
How does this music make you feel?
What do the musicians glorify, believe to be important or find meaningful in life?
Does the music point you toward Christ when dealing with difficult issues such as loneliness, insecurity, anger or temptation?
If the artist claims to be a Christian, how is that represented in the lyrics?
Does the music contain lyrics obviously endorsing immoral activity?
How does the music measure up to biblical standards of morality and truth?
Do you think the music you're listening to affects your thinking and decision making?
If yes, how? If no, why not?
Take a look at Psalm 1, Philippians 4:8, Ephesians 5:1-17 and 2 Corinthians 10:3-5. How do these Scriptures relate to the music in question?