If you know me, you know that my passion is music; whether I’m playing it, seeing it live or watching documentaries on it that my wife considers only slightly more entertaining than watching paint dry. Years ago, something that stemmed from this passion was the desire to do something to help Christian musicians further their careers and have an impact on the world. After all, few things communicate a message more powerfully than music. This passion eventually manifested itself as what we now know as the Forest Edge Music Festival.
In the years of establishing the proposal for FEMF and the early days of actually running it, the Church had seen decades of bands pursue a successful model of explicitly Christian branding on their identity as a band. We saw an opportunity to continue building on this model for young Christian bands in Melbourne and Australia, with the festival serving as a stepping stone for them in pursuit of success as a band.
This overtly Christian model has been hugely popular and experienced a boom throughout the 90’s when the church very much adopted a ‘Sacred and Secular’ model where much of culture was seen to be inherently band, and Christian replicas of art and entertainment emerged in parallel with pop culture. Christian Contemporary Music (CCM) was born. Christian music became a genre.
“Traditionally, the church’s approach to secular music had been fear tactics: denouncing rock bands, staging record burnings. But this was the golden era [1990’s] of MTV, and Christian leaders, perhaps sensing they were up against a larger beast, opted for a more positive approach by promoting sanctioned (and sanctified) alternatives. Christian concerts became popular youth group events. My friends traveled to blowout festivals with names like “Acquire the Fire” or “Cornerstone.” – Sniffing Glue by Meghan O’Gieblyn
Fast forward to 2014 and I increasingly find myself speaking with bands and musicians who are not pursuing this explicitly-christian-branding model of being an artist. More and more you’ll find circles in which being a ‘Christian band’ is a dirty word. Despite there being many great “Christian Bands”, sadly so many followed who just downright sucked. They were bands who were seen to be sucking on the tail pipe of culture instead of exercising their own creativity and musicianship. The term “Christian Band” often times just became synonymous with out-dated, tacky and cheap.
Meghan O’Gieblyn sums it up so well, speaking about the first time she laid eyes on MTV and witnessed the music video for Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. ”I couldn’t have told you what the word “irony” meant, but I knew I’d been cheated by Christian rock. This was crack, and I’d been wasting my time sniffing glue.” – Sniffing Glue by Meghan O’Gieblyn
With this reputation in mind, bands have increasingly seen the barriers that can be created through overtly branding themselves as Christian and, in many ways, the limits that places on their ability to take their art form to those who need it most- the unchurched. Now more than ever, artists want to play real songs to real people in real places. They want to be successful on account of their songs and not just their beliefs.
As I observe this and prayerfully consider what it all means, I’ve reached a strong belief that we are seeing a significant shift in the role that musicians and creatives serve on behalf of the Church.
I came to think of it like this…
These CCM bands of the 90’s and 00’s were, in a sense, evangelists. Evangelists are as overt as it gets. They roll into town loud and proud and serve people with a full frontal gospel message. These are bands who sounded just like bands from the secular music industry that one’s non-Christian friends would find relevant and relatable, providing a grounds on which to tell them about Jesus. And it worked. A lot. And it still does. I’m not saying it is an entirely flawed concept and these musicians/bands will always play a hugely important role in the life of the church, just like evangelists will. I have close friends who play in bands that fit this description. They are talented and wonderful people.
But, in contrast, consider for a moment the approach of a missionary in ministry. Whilst neither model of doing ministry is more right or wrong than its counterpart, different contexts definitely call for one over the other.
Missionaries move into a culture and begin a long and patient process of integrating into society, assimilating with the people and the customs of that culture. They, as Paul describes, become “all things to all people.” They may not see a life won for Jesus for decades, but over time their presence has the potential to often change the fabric of entire villages, cities or cultures.
I see bands who are, more than ever, adopting this missionary model of pursuing their music. They may rarely consciously see it this way or express it in these words, but its what they are doing. They may not be a missionary in a foreign third world tribe, but they are going into an existing culture with its own language, traditions and customs. The only difference is that instead of wearing a tribal head dress and carrying a spear to assimilate to a culture, they are wearing skinny jeans and carrying an electric guitar.
I truly believe that these artists are the ones who will lead the church back to a place of influence in Western society.
I believe that we are coming into a time where the church needs artists to be missionaries. It needs musicians in the place where it has lost its voice – the arts and entertainment industry. The church brings evangelists in, but they send missionaries out. We’ve spent years bringing bands IN for camps, rallies and services but have had very little commitment to sending them OUT, as though for some strange reason a musician must be abandoning their faith to take their music beyond the church.
Builders can build houses for non christians and dentists can fix the teeth of the unsaved, but for some reason the church struggles with the idea of musicians playing music to the un-churched.
This is more than just passionate Christian musicians acknowledging that they need to take their message to where the lost are. It’s also Christian musicians realising that they have a place in culture and that their art can intersect with their faith without it having to create content that is overtly Christian in tone. They don’t have to recite bible verses or meet a Jesus Per Minute quota to be called a Christian artist.
The game has changed. We are seeing the end of a generation of Christianity that tried to be relevant through providing a parallell to everything modern western culture could offer, and instead we are seeing one that is trying to give Christian’s a voice in the thick of that culture.
It’s time for us to begin sending artists out and doing whatever it looks like to support them in that. Rather than contain their giftings to the church and hoping that others will come looking, we need to send them out so their gifts can be salt and light to their respective industries.
It’s important here to understand that I’m not saying we should do away with events like FEMF. I strongly believe in what this event offers and that it is a crucial ministry. It gives young people a breath of fresh air from the pollution of secular pop culture. It allows them to experience community with other like-minded youth and see that great music can be made by Christian people – that people can love Jesus and good music at the same time.
What I am talking about is the need for the church to make its mark on that polluted secular pop culture. How is the church influencing culture in a way that means maybe one day we won’t need festivals like FEMF to provide a safe haven from it because the church is so present and influential that the church and pop culture don’t look all that different?
I began running FEMF because I wanted to help bands in their journey to wherever they are going and for many artists over the years, going via the festival on that journey has proven helpful and beneficial for them. But as I came to acknowledge the changes in these artists’ trajectory, I began to see that there needs to be people of faith right there with them. I feel that my vision has continued to gain clarity and conviction and its leading me down the road of working closer with the artists themselves. As for specifically what that will look like, I don’t yet know. All I know is that God is convicting me more than ever to go find out.
Some of the world’s biggest artists, Mumford & Sons, Katy Perry and Bieber were raised in the church. All of them had the talent and drive to do great things in music, and pursued their careers beyond the ceiling that an overtly Christian model creates. Sadly though, their respective music scenes became their family as they found themselves immersed in a world void of fellow believers and their church families faded into the distance. If this is where Christian artists are increasingly placing themselves, then it’s where Christian promoters, managers and entrepreneurs need to be too.
If we act now, we may just have a chance at seeing the next generation of world class entertainers have the support and accountability needed to pursue their gifts without getting swallowed up by the world. Lets’ not be the church that loses our creative geniuses to the world. Let’s not be the church that tells the next U2 they can’t be Christians and play rock music. Let’s be the church that recognises, nurtures and sends out artists to unleash themselves on the world. It won’t know what hit it.