When the “Jesus Music” movement of the late ’60s and ’70s grew into a bona fide industry by the 1980s, few could have imagined the current influx of artistic believers into mainstream music. Yet, today, groups such as Switchfoot, MercyMe and many others are embodying the dreams of Christian music’s pioneering artists. Who knew? 

From Edwin Hawkins’ “Oh Happy Day,” to Amy Grant’s “Find A Way,” from Jars of Clay’s “Flood” and Bob Carlisle’s “Butterfly Kisses” to Kirk Franklin’s “Lean on Me,” for years now artistic Christians have occasionally appeared on the nation’s pop music charts with songs that, to varying degrees, reflected their beliefs.

But what was once a trickle has become a steady stream over the past three years, as numerous artists who profess faith in Christ and Christian-flavored songs have been consistently emerging on the pop music scene. Many artists heretofore only known to Christian music fans such as Switchfoot, Skillet, Smokie Norful, Stacie Orrico, Pillar, MercyMe, Thousand Foot Krutch, Natalie Grant and Daniel Bedingfield suddenly appeared on the mainstream charts, while others like Evanescence, Kanye West, Mindy Smith, Lifehouse and Dana Glover went straight to mainstream labels. And then there was the equally fascinating prospect of watching musicians who had been popular in the mainstream experience conversions and completely change their artistic perspective. Among these were Dave Mustaine of Megadeth, rapper Mase and, most recently, Korn co-founder Brian “Head” Welch.

By mid-2004, amid Switchfoot’s challenging “Meant to Live,” MercyMe’s blatant “I Can Only Imagine” and Kanye West’s unflinching “Jesus Walks,” it seemed the dreams of those artists who had begun performing “Jesus Music” in the late 1960s and early ‘70s were finally coming true: Christians were making music about their faith in God and finding an audience for it among Christians and non-Christians alike.

That '70s Show

In the 1970s the hotbed of the Jesus Movement was a Southern California church called Calvary Chapel. The church produced Saturday night concerts that featured up-and-coming “Jesus Music” musicians, created a record label called Maranatha! Music and even had a bustling bookstore where the music from this emerging group could be purchased. Dozens of bands emerged from the movement with names such as Love Song, Sweet Comfort Band, Mustard Seed Faith, The Way and Parable.

The church’s concerts were intentional, evangelistic events, and these artists had high hopes that their music would be heard by unbelievers. Furthermore, they intended to be proactive, taking their music beyond the confines of the church itself. While this was in many ways new territory for rock artists of faith, Christians in other genres had been steadily making significant in-roads.

Consider the legendary Statesmen Quartet and the Blackwood Brothers. These two southern gospel groups regularly made forays onto high-profile television programs during the ‘50s and ‘60s, even starting their own nationally televised shows at one point. In addition, the Statesmen Quartet anchored multiple motion picture soundtracks. And then there was Johnny Cash. The maverick Christian not only incorporated hymns and gospel songs into his regular repertoire, but he went so far as to openly discuss his faith on his own network television program, “The Johnny Cash Show,” which aired for three seasons on CBS beginning in 1969.

But Calvary Chapel wasn’t sponsoring southern gospel giants or the king of country music; it was helping introduce “Jesus rock & roll.” This was the 1970s, and Jesus and rock didn’t mix – at least, not as far as most gatekeepers in the American church and in entertainment were concerned.