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Joel Smallbone on CCM: We Need to Learn How to 'Honor' Christian Music from Yesterday

  • Michael Foust

    Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chroniclethe…

  • 2021 Dec 30

Grammy winner Joel Smallbone says Contemporary Christian Music has a small problem that he's hoping a new documentary about the genre can help fix.

A member of the four-time Grammy Award-winning Christian group For King & Country, Smallbone says CCM too often focuses only on what is new and popular – instead of taking time to celebrate and honor music from the past.

A new documentary, Jesus Music, recounts the history of Contemporary Christian Music, beginning with the 1960s and following its trajectory through modern times. It was directed by Jon and Andrew Erwin, the same filmmakers behind American Underdog, I Can Only Imagine and I Still Believe.

Jesus Music is now out on home video platforms.

"I'm gonna be blunt. We've never been good at looking back," Smallbone told Christian Headlines. "Even in my time, I feel like we're sort of 'Out with the old, in with the new.'"

The film tells the story of popular Christian musicians from the 1980s and 1990s – including Stryper, Amy Grant, DC Talk and Steven Curtis Chapman – but also examines CCM's birth in the 1960s and 1970s when groups like Resurrection Band and DeGarmo and Key were growing in popularity.

"I think [Jesus Music] represents a bit of a paradigm shift of an era of honor," he said. "If it weren't for the history of the religious arts, I wouldn't be here, I wouldn't even be in America, I wouldn't be married to [my wife] Mariah."

Smallbone's parents moved from Australia to the United States during the 1990s. Shortly after that, Smallbone's sister, Rebecca St. James, climbed the CCM charts with multiple hits. Smallbone's brother, Luke, also is a member of For King and Country.

"It hit me like a ton of bricks when I saw the screening [of Jesus Music] – I thought, 'Man, we've got to figure out a way, number one to honor the past, and number two, we have to figure out a way to integrate diversity and integrate new faces into this world.'"

Christian music, Smallbone said, should be the best music on the planet.

"The religious arts throughout history, the Renaissance, and every painting, it was always the forefront, it was always they paid the most, it was the most-inspired music, and it's only in the modern era, that it has kind of forgone its rightful place as being out in front," Smallbone said.

"I mean, the fact is, when you get down to the brass tacks of it, we claim that we're in touch with the Creator of the universe," he said. "This is the guy that's the creator of creativity – the creator of songwriting, the creator of entertainment. And I think it's such a terrible witness that people look at us and me, and they go, 'Well, if this is true, then your art should express it.' And so often, sadly, it doesn't feel like it has. … This film does a great job of looking back again so we can find our way forward."


5 Things to Know about Jesus Music, the Groundbreaking Film from the Erwin Brothers

Photo courtesy: ©Getty Images/Jason Davis/Stringer

Michael Foust has covered the intersection of faith and news for 20 years. His stories have appeared in Baptist Press, Christianity Today, The Christian Post, the Leaf-Chroniclethe Toronto Star and the Knoxville News-Sentinel.