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Standing Stones: Christian Music Icons Remembered

  • John J. Thompson CCM Magazine
  • 2007 23 Oct
Standing Stones:  Christian Music Icons Remembered

As we look forward to new music and a new era of proactive cultural engagement by artists of faith, it is important to examine the founding fathers who provided the spark and fuel that got this fire burning in the first place but were themselves extinguished far too soon.

Rushing Wind

Keith Green was an original “teen idol” as far back as the 1960s. Though his mainstream star never fully rose (Some say he was eclipsed by a young Donny Osmond.), his talent as a singer, pianist and songwriter were well honed by the time he reached his 20s in the 1970s. His restless searching and hippie sensibilities found fulfillment in the person of Jesus when Green came to faith at the age of 21. The fire of his anti-establishment instincts was fueled by his gut-level read on the Scriptures and the radical call to discipleship he found in the teachings of Christ and Paul. Green quickly became one of the most important songwriters, artists and teachers of the Jesus Music age, drawing stadium-sized crowds and selling, or giving away, hundreds of thousands
of albums.

Green inspired, entertained, rebuked, comforted and challenged an entire generation of young people, frequently generating as much excitement for his teaching as he did for his songs. His music has influenced several generations of Christian artists while specific songs like “Oh Lord, You’re Beautiful” remain popular congregational worship songs in churches around the world.

Even Bethany Dillon, an artist who wasn’t even born until years after Green’s death, finds inspiration in his legacy. “I remember watching the documentary about Keith’s life, called Your Love Broke Through, and feeling this knot in my stomach. A life that radical makes just about anyone squirm. What an amazing legacy he left; not only of writing songs that stirred hearts toward affection and abandon for Jesus, but of a life that backed all of those songs up.”

Keith Green and two of his children died in a small plane crash on July 28, 1982—25 years ago. His life and work stand as a monument to what passionate faith in God can look like in the life of a sold out disciple. (Visit for more info.)

A Liturgy, A Legacy & A Ragamuffin

In the same year Green passed away, a songwriter from Indiana signed a publishing deal with Reunion Records and quickly caught the Church’s attention with an impressive song called “Sing Your Praise to the Lord,” written for Amy Grant’s Age to Age album. Rich Mullins emerged as an artist in his own right two years later with an unlikely style, an unkempt image and a knack for brutal honesty and self-deprecation that seemed at odds with the well scrubbed visage of “contemporary Christian music.” His songs were truly the stuff of heaven.

Mullins seemed, in many ways, to carry the torch Green had left behind, but with a decidedly different style. He, too, crafted catchy and uplifting songs of praise and worship, many of which are still being sung in churches around the world (“Awesome God,” “Sometimes by Step”), but where Green confronted the Church with its sleepiness and worldliness, Mullins comforted it with reminders of God’s love and grace.

Singer/songwriter Derek Webb, who spent significant time with Mullins early in his own career, finds ongoing inspiration in his example. “Prophets are never popular,” Webb says simply. “What makes the stories of Rich Mullins and Keith Green so special isn’t just that they were men with tremendously prophetic messages and unyielding devotion to God's people, but that God lifted them up the way that He did. It’s no small thing to have men such as these welcomed into the largest of churches to sing their songs and bring their messages, considering how potentially disruptive those messages were.”

By the time of his death in a highway accident in September 1997, Mullins had offered 10 albums and more than a hundred songs to the collective library of the Christian community. But beyond his musical work, it was the example of his life that resounds loudest in his legacy. His devotion to the poor and his lifestyle of self-imposed personal poverty were shocking in an age and culture of excess and accumulation.

The hole Mullins’ death left is still felt by his fans and fellow artists. Even today, his influence is palpable, and his spirit lives on in the work and music of like-minded artists. Singer/songwriter Andrew Peterson, long enthusiastic about the impact Mullins had on his music and ministry, doubts the world will see another soul like his.

“I have sung Rich’s songs and read his writings and visited his grave and am convinced that in his barefoot, quirky, grace-filled wake he left a pair of shoes that no one will ever fill.” Caedmon’s Call’s Cliff Young agrees. “People ask me all the time what Rich was like,” he says. “I have a picture of him on my wall that pretty well sums it up for me. He was in Ireland in 1996. His arms are open wide, and his face is turned upward. His music and his writing reflected that posture, and it causes me to do the same.” (Visit for more info.)

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