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A Fan’s Guide to Christians in the General Market – Part 1

  • John J. Thompson CCM Magazine
  • 2007 31 Jul
A Fan’s Guide to Christians in the General Market – Part 1

The last few years have seen a consistently increasing presence of Christian thought and inspiration in America’s musical mainstream. Month after month new artists who happen to be Christians are making an impact far outside the borders of the Christian marketplace. In some cases every member of a band is a committed Christian, while in others, it is the bandleader or principal songwriter that brings the influence. Terminology, labels and marketing strategies aside, artists who are inspired and informed by a biblical perspective and a personal pursuit of God are challenging the presumptions of the past.

Whether writing about love, faith, politics or ethics, these artists are calling it like they see it. Just don’t call them “A Christian Band.”

The members of indie rockers Augustana joined together at the evangelical Greenville College before being signed by Sony Records a few years back. After years of touring and some serious traction for their single “Boston,” guitarist Josiah Rosen left the band and is working on an indie Americana project called The Last Almanac.

Metalheads As I Lay Dying might be the most outspoken Christians never to have been signed to a Christian record label. Not only has their faith not hurt their mainstream success, but it actually seems to endear the band to hardcore fans in a counter-cultural rebellious kind of way. Unafraid to be upfront about their beliefs, and brutal in their delivery, the San Diego boys just earn more cred and respect.

Siblings Daniel and Natasha Bedingfield have been tearing up radio charts around the world, and increasingly here in the States, while never shying away from their Christian backgrounds. Daniel sang backing vocals on Delirious’ World Service (Sparrow) album a few years back, and Natasha wrote and recorded worship songs for Hillsong London’s Shout God’s Fame (Integrity) and other specifically Christian projects. Their parents were missionaries, and their continuing faith is demonstrated by their role as ambassadors for the Global Network, a children’s ministry founded by their mother.

T-Bone Burnett has been impacting the culture as a songwriter, producer and band member since the early 1970s in ways few other artists ever will. From his days as a member of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review, to a string of rare, but amazing solo albums, and most recently his role as musical director on major films such as O Brother Where Art Thou and Cold Mountain, Burnett brings his faith with him in a deeply passionate and always challenging way. Burnett, who’s also a former CCM contributing writer, captured the basic nature of the “Christians in Culture” conundrum when he said, “You can sing about the Light, or you can sing about what you see because of the Light. I prefer the latter.” 

In “A Final Interview” with Lev Grossman, American icon Johnny Cash summed it up perfectly. “I'm an artist who is a Christian,” he said. “I'm not a Christian artist.” Cash’s frequently dark country music explored the depths of human despair and the heights of transcendent love, often in the same song. Earning the respect of several generations of artists from every conceivable background, Johnny Cash certainly ranks among the most significant faith-fueled artists of the last century.

Canadian singer/songwriter Bruce Cockburn is certainly one of the most influential modern folk artists of the last 30 years. His clearly faith-informed worldview is steeped in a passion for social justice and the pursuit of true inner peace in a world gone wrong. Though rarely involved in the Christian marketplace, Cockburn has not shied away from talking about his faith in interviews or in his songs. In 1993, his acclaimed Christmas album was distributed into the Christian market, as was his 1979 classic Dancing in the Dragon’s Jaws (Columbia/Myrrh).

The Los Angeles-based band Cold War Kids has been dismissing the “Christian band” tag since indie scene gatekeepers like Pitchfork Media started outing them last year. It should come as no surprise that their songs are strongly informed by a Christian worldview—after all, three of the Kids’ four members attended Biola University, and guitarist Jonathan Russell’s father is an evangelical pastor.

Shock rocker Alice Cooper turned heads in the ’60s and ’70s with his wild makeup and theatrical live shows, but he really upset the rock & roll apple cart when he embraced Christianity in the late 1980s. While being personally mentored by theologian R.C. Sproul, Cooper remained quiet about his faith for several years. During the past 12 years, however, Cooper has referenced it openly in interviews and has produced five albums that add a subversively Christian twist to his uniquely satirical fare.

In a 2005 interview with scene Aaron Marsh, of the increasingly hot modern pop band Copeland, got very frank about the band’s faith, and its bypassing the Christian marketplace. “We are Christians, but we’re not gonna be in the scene,” he said. Later in the interview he continued: “We play rock music, it's not ‘Christian rock.’ I'm glad to have fans who have similar beliefs; I appreciate it. But you have to know that we make music for everyone, not just Christians.”

“We always use the analogy that if you’re a Christian and you’re a painter, you don’t just paint pictures of Jesus.” So says Eisley vocalist Sherri DuPree in an interview with The Phantom Tollbooth ( Despite the dreamy alternative band’s strong sense of faith and family, it rejected numerous offers to sign with Christian labels and, instead, landed with Warner Bros. where Eisley continues to rack up mainstream accolades and opportunities.

Isaac Slade, front-man for the piano rock band The Fray has no problem copping to his faith, but “we don't call ourselves a Christian band,” he told USA Today last year. “Because when you get into marketing, ‘Christian’ means that you have everything together, and you’re always happy, and you want everybody to start going to your church. . . . If we have an agenda, it’s to make art that is honest and represents what we believe in.” The Fray’s multi-format hit, “How to Save a Life,” is currently climbing Christian pop radio’s AC chart (No. 21 at press time) according to Christian Radio & Retail Weekly.

Lancaster, Pennsylvania, artists The Innocence Mission have been walking the line for 20 years, releasing some of the most graceful and eloquent music of the last several decades, with their Christian faith latent. In an interview with, co-founder Don Paris seemed pretty ambivalent about the issue: “I guess we sort of thought that if people are buying our records that they are at least aware that we are people of faith, and we were hoping that this wouldn’t be alienating.”

The piano-driven rock of Lovedrug is earning attention throughout the indie scene, while the band’s lyrics strike a special chord with believers. Lovedrug has bumped up against the Christian market here and there, and will appear at this summer’s Cornerstone Festival, but they “have no agenda.” As Ink 19 asked lead singer/guitarist Michael Shepard, “Is Lovedrug a Christian band? Your last band, Kerith Ravine, was clearly fueled by a dedication to their Christianity.” He responded, “No, not technically. Not everyone in the band is a Christian.”

Nickel Creek’s bluegrass-tinged sound has made them a huge hit within the country and Americana scenes, and it’d be doubtful any of their success could have happened in the Christian music underground. “We’re all Christians,” vocalist and mandolin player Chris Thine told, “although we’re not a Christian band, per se. The most important thing to us is that we feel that we’ve been given a gift from God of being able to perform and to record for people. We basically just want to use that gift as we feel God would have us use it.”

One of the most successful country artists of the past decade has been Brad Paisley. With a traditional sound and some of the best guitar chops in the industry, Paisley stays true to the music, and to his personal faith. One of the most popular artists working today, Paisley contributed the stunning “New Again” duet with Sara Evans for The Passion of The Christ: Songs (EMI) CD. His hit single “When I Get Where I’m Going” is also covered by Christian music veteran Geoff Moore on his latest release, Speak to Me (Rocketown).

After rising to success in the indie scene via projects affiliated with The Militia Group and, dance rock band Sherwood landed a deal with the newly formed MySpace Records label. The band hit the road this spring with Relient K and is doing its best to reach out to a Christian audience without limiting itself to the Christian marketplace.

It’s likely that no other faith-based artist has made a bigger impact in the modern alternative music scene over the last few years than the super hip indie darling Sufjan Stevens. Though his lyrics frequently and clearly approach the world from his Christian perspective, Stevens avoids the actual Christian music scene. That said, he returned as a headlining performer and lecturer for the Festival of Faith & Music at Grand Rapids’ evangelical Calvin College this past spring. In addition to his own music, Stevens has frequently joined forces with label mates Danielson.

Singer/songwriter Rosie Thomas came to faith while attending a Christian college. Her soulful songs are finding an audience coast to coast. In a recent interview with, Thomas explained that her faith is at the center of everything she does. “When I write, the most important thing to me is to leave hope in it. God puts it on my heart to use sorrow to find the bright side. I’ve gotta go through the depths to reach the sincerity. Run the race and finish it—everything will be fine.”

Most of the members of hard rock band Thrice are believers, and the influence shows up throughout their work. But in a recent interview for front-man Dustin Kensrue made it clear that they were not a “Christian band.” “Yeah, some of us are Christians, but in no way is Thrice a ‘Christian band.’ Someone was making a good analogy the other day that if a Christian paints an abstract picture of a tomato, is that a ‘Christian painting’? Obviously not. It’s an abstract painting done by a person who calls himself a Christian.”

Tyrone Wells was the soulful vocalist for the Word Records signed rock band Skypark for several years before going solo and eventually landing with Universal South. Wells, who is touring with Leigh Nash this year, had enough experience in the Christian market to know that, in order to accomplish what he felt called to, he needed to focus his efforts on the general market.

U2 - U2.COM
Of course no conversation about Christians in the mainstream music scene is complete without mentioning the enormously influential band that literally defined the potential that exists for artists of faith to impact the culture. For nearly two decades, Christian music enthusiasts knew U2 as a band comprised of “three believers and an agnostic.” But with bassist Adam Clayton’s eventual conversion to Christianity, spirituality permeated U2 in a new way. Now 30 years into their run, U2 is more comfortable in their skin as people of faith and as culture shapers than they ever have been. Bono, especially, rarely misses an opportunity to contextualize his passion for social justice in terms of his Christian faith.


© 2007 CCM Magazine.  All rights reserved.  Used with permission.   Click here to try a free issue.