Chapter 16: Gospel Light

1978. Thirteen years since Ralph Carmichael's song ''He's Everything to Me'' set the Christian music world alight.

   Ten years since Baptist preacher Arthur Blessit opened His Place at 8428 Sunset Strip to reach out to the runaways, dopers, alcoholics, and lonely people.

   Nine years since ''Oh Happy Day'' put Jesus on the charts.

   The gigantic Jesus festivals were held for another year: ''Jesus '78'' in Florida, Pennsylvania, and Ontario; ''Fishnet '78'' in Virginia; a tremendously successful ''Jesus Northwest'' festival in Oregon; and scores of other smaller events which drew people together in fellowship. Not so small was the Fourth Annual Christian Artists' Music Seminar in the Rockies, more elaborate than ever as the guest roster grew to new lengths and more people planned their summer vacations around the Estes Park camp and the nightly concerts.

   It was a sort of ''two steps forward, one step back'' year for contemporary Christian radio, with five top contemporary stations dropping their Jesus-music airplay to assume other formats. That in itself left several cities without a contemporary Christian voice.

   However, all the radio news wasn't bad. The number of stations playing at least some contemporary music increased. Likewise, more and more independently produced, syndicated Jesus-music radio shows were initiated, providing decent Sunday programming for the thousands of secular radio stations in America.

   It was also a year of shifting. ''The Larry Black Show'' moved from Freeville to Nashville, Jerry Bryant moved his ''JesusSolid Rock'' from Carbondale to California, Dale Yancy's ''Rock That Never Rolls'' rolled from Vermont to New York, and ''A Joyful Noise'' was transferred from Texas to Colorado.

   With the widely expanded variety of Christian music, the distinctions

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between Jesus music and other contemporary Christian music had all but faded. Ralph Carmichael, in a magazine article, tried to explain the different types of Christian music and came up with eleven. Traditional artists began recording more contemporary songs just as the secular ''traditional'' artists had done at least fifteen years earlier. Even singers such as Tennessee Ernie Ford and Ray Price were recording songs by Randy Stonehill and Pat Terry.

   Also noticeable around 1978 was a tremendous improvement in the quality of Jesus-music recordings. The world had seen Christian music as music of poor quality, and a lot of Christian recordings had provided ample fuel for that fire. Some well-meaning Christians who wanted to jump from knowing four guitar chords to having the top album on the charts in one easy step, or those who regardless of their talent wanted to record an album to please their own egos, made a mockery of gospel music. (In fact, the differentiation between ''Jesus music'' and ''gospel music'' was originally the result of the Jesus people's desire to create a new and more professional form of gospel music.)

   But alas, even some of the Jesus musicians fell into the same trap. Often they would go into a recording studio before they were ready musically and spiritually. The results were albums of inferior quality. However, through their burning desire to ''live up to'' the standard set by the world's top rock musicians, the contemporary music makers forced the religious record industry to improve their standards of quality.

   Budgets were a great part of the problem. While the Elton Johns of the world had recording budgets in the $100,000 figures, Jesus musicians were lucky to get more than $10,000. A record company could sell a million copies of an Elton John album even before its release and recoup the album's entire production budget overnight. The Christian record companies would have to wait for a year or so to recover even the lowest of expenditures.

   It is possible that the artists who recorded albums of Jesus music were ''pressured'' into being better artists through working under extremely modest budget conditions, and thus complete albums in considerably less time than their secular counterparts. This extra pressure under which the Jesus musicians worked may have purified their music in some cases.

   Through all this recording activity developed a strange irony. Christian musicians and record companies, when producing their albums, began hiring top studio musiciansthe same ones who appeared on hundreds of pop recordings each year. The combination of a talented artist or group, a competent producer, and expert studio

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musicians would often yield a top-notch recordingone not only compatible with the top pop hits, but sometimes even better. After all, numerous Jesus-music artists had #1 secular hits and million-selling records. In fact, they had amassed more than a dozen #1 hits, and the sale of probably over 200 million records through 1978! Yet, the Jesus-music songs by these same artists (by no means has-beens), done in the same studios, performed by virtually the same musicians, and often written by the same people, never even touched the top hit charts in America! The problem still exists.

   Prejudice against religion hardly seemed a justifiable reason for the pop music world to turn down fine music by fine musicians. But prejudice was a main reason. The Bible makes it very clear that the world will not necessarily look on the Christians (or their music) with favor. ''For unto them the preaching of the cross is foolishness, but unto us who believe it is the power of salvation.''

   The Jesus musicians' challenge to the world's prejudice was the added dimension which contemporary Christian music offered. It was mainstream rock music, on par with many of the world's hits. It was music which, without being overly preachy was uplifting and positive. It was music with answers, not problems. Hope, not despair. Love, not lust. Life, not death. As a Terry Talbot song said, ''Sing with your own voice . . . Don't you try to hide that candle. It's burnin' in that word you're feelin' inside. It's that gospel light.'' The twentieth-century world had never seen, heard, or experienced anything like it.

   There was an awesome responsibility before those people involved in contemporary Christian music. Their music had to be professional and something the world would listen to, but it had to exude the truth with every word. That obviously didn't mean each song had to have ''Jesus saved me, this I know'' repeated over and over. It did mean, however, that each song should be conceived, written, performed, and recorded under the absolute direction of the Holy Spirit. Christian musicians and their record companies had to be cautious not to compromise their music to get it into the secular marketplace.

   With the extremely rapid growth of Jesus music, the momentum had occasionally bordered on frenzy. Vestiges of the world's star-oriented society had at times crept into the promotion of Jesus-music artists. Madison Avenue-type ads describing so-and-so as ''a new star in gospel music'' bordered on the outer limits of where Jesus music should go. In fact, such promotion prompted one group to print T-shirts with the message ''Jesus Christ is the only star.'' They were seeking to reestablish priorities.

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   There had always been a secret dream of Jesus-music fans to see one of the artists break through the national charts with a giant ''Jesus hit.'' Plenty of musicians had set that as their personal goal, too. But it showed a limited knowledge of how God could work.

   Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell ignited controversy and popularized the man Jesus at the same time. Some Christians recalled how Superstar first interested them in Jesus. Others were still repulsed at the brazenness of the production, years after its premiere. Godspell entertained millions of people, but no one could tell how many people became Christians as a result of enjoying the play or movie.

   ''Put Your Hand in the Hand,'' ''Jubilation,'' Jesus Is Just Alright,'' ''Jesus Is a Soul Man''all of the big Jesus hits of the seventies may have kept making Jesus ''impressions'' on the minds of the hearers, but they didn't bring the country to repentance.

   What did make a difference was Jesus music, teamed up with a critical ingredient witness. The big Top 40 Jesus hits were recorded mainly as a part of the ''fad'' created by the Jesus movement. It was ''in'' to sing about Jesus. Thus, there were hits.

   But the real Jesus music most often was the music by the non ''stars''. Music by minstrels whose daily bread was often their only pay. Music by singers whom nobody understood, but who believed in what they were doing for the Lord. Singers who traveled tens of thousands of miles while their spouses sat at home missing them. Musicians whose love for their Heavenly Father stripped away any star image they might have had when they publicly cried on stage in response to what the Lord had done for them.

   The living witness of the musicians spoke as loudly as any of the songs they sang. Debby Boone's testimony of her faith in God spoke clearly to all the fans of her smash hit, ''You Light Up My Life.'' B. J. Thomas' vivid testimony in each of his pop concerts spoke of the Lord to the audiences. But, the witness of Christian musicians had to remain as strong and as important as their music, for the public watched and heard both.

   So, perhaps in God's infinite wisdom He did not see the necessity of putting a Christian artist with a Jesus song at the top of the charts. The Lord could use stars. He could also use unknowns. The Lord could even use has-beens in his work. But a musician should never strive to be anything else than what his Lord wanted him to be. The goal should never be to be a ''star'' for Jesus unless the person is already a star. Gaining ''star'' status brought with it inherent problems. Personalities change, priorities change, purposes change. The performer's goals should be to please the Father, whether it

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meant singing in one-night stands, or appearing on national television. For, as one Scripture proclaims, ''Promotion comes neither from the east, nor from the west, nor from the south. But God is the judge: he puts down one, and exalts another.''

Chapter Seventeen  ||  Table of Contents