Chapter 19: Music and Mammon:
Entertainment or Ministry?

As the gospel music industry got more sophisticated in the eighties, there was constant dialogue behind the scenes regarding how far was ''too far'' in building an industry and paralleling pop music trends, not just in music style, but in publicity, promotion, glamorization, and exploitation. On the positive side, the recordings had improved in quality of sound over the years. The album art, such as on the covers of Christian rock group Petra's albums, was easily on par with secular cover art. The advance in getting the records and tapes to the front of the stores was a most notable step forward, as was the never-ending search by the record companies to find new outlets to sell the product.

   However, sometimes advertisements for the product boasted cliched phrases and slogans which resembled, too closely, slick Madison Avenue and Hollywood sales jobs. An uncomfortable majority of artists were being portrayed as being ''one of the finest in Christian music,'' a claim which quickly lost any meaning through its overuse.

   One artist's contract for concerts required that fresh roses be given to her onstage following each performance, presumably to further an image-building campaign for her. In some cases, prices asked by artists, agents, and managers for concerts escalated radically, taking concerts virtually out of reach for many churches and promoters. Awards and competitions such as the Doves and gospel Grammies became more publicized and sought-after as goals rather than honors incidental to the work of spreading the Good News and building the Kingdom of Christ.

   Thus, the historical tracking of the growth of gospel music became increasingly based on standards and milestones constructed by the industry to further itself: songs of the year, albums of the year,

Page 133

artists of the year, and so on. Having the best-selling album was mistakenly equated with having the greatest and most effective ministry.

   There developed two distinctly different contemporary Christian mindsets. The questions kept coming up over and over: Is the music a ministry, or is it entertainment? Can it be both? Should there be such a thing as Christian entertainment? How far was too far in becoming like the pop-music industry? At what point came the change from the Christian musicians using the tools of pop music, to the tools of pop music using the Christian musician? Was it possible to build a widespread gospel-music voice which would be heard without resorting to the tactics of Madison Avenue or the world? On the other hand, was it such a sin to use those tactics to win the world to Jesus? Would Jesus have done the same thing?

   Needless to say, these questions and other similar ones made for lively forums and discussions. Opinions were as varied as the people expressing them. One fact must be brought out, however. The motives, on both sides, were nearly always sincere and well-intentioned, rarely malicious. There appeared to be only a few musicians and contemporary Christian music industry people who did their work solely for their own gain. Any entrepreneurs of that cut were usually quickly found out and did not survive the contemporary Christian music scene for long. On the whole, motives were spiritually based. There were just myriad ways of approaching the ministry and the entertainment provided through music. Each person had to make an individual decision whether to go with the flow or fight it, whether to be a leader or a follower, radical or conservative, minister or entertainer. That's what made contemporary music so interesting but controversial.

   There were some musicians who chose to shun what they perceived as the trappings of the music ''business.'' Keith Green was the most vocal about doing so. He recorded his first album of Jesus music, For Him Who Has Ears to Hear, for Sparrow Records in 1977. It was very well received. Over the months and years to follow, Green's music became increasingly searing in challenging the church to holiness without compromise. His songs, though often exhortative, rapidly gained favor with music fans and increased the fervor of many to evangelize. He thus carried on the tradition of the early Jesus musicians.

   In 1980 the twenty-seven-year-old writer and singer took the music community by surprise when he announced that beginning with the release of his album So You Wanna Go Back to Egypt, his albums and tapes would no longer be sold for any listed price.

Page 134

Instead, his product would be given to anyone unable to get them because of lack of money. The maverick musician said that too many people were missing out on the music and the message for that reason.

   Several predictions came forth as a result of the announcement. Some critics said he would quickly go bust, that all the Christians would swamp him with freebie requests and he wouldn't be able to support the method for long. Others said the newness would wear off, reality would set in, and Green would return to a more universally accepted form of marketing. A few artists were even perturbed at the move, which created an undercut of their own album prices, constituting what they considered to be an unfair competitive edge. But they weren't able to say much because of the altruistic nature of Green's decision.

   Most, however, watched with a mixture of awe and fascination, curious to see if Green's Pretty Good Records (the label name) would succeed in ''bucking the system.'' Green's bold step of faith was quite respected by many. The effort evidently was a success, and the revenue from the record orders sustained the system. While some people requested the albums for free, others paid more than what the list price would have been, and the plan worked fine. Because of the great continued demand for his albums, the policy would later be modified to allow retail stores to carry the records and tapes too, but only with a variable price option.

   Several other artists, some without as much fanfare, would gradually modify their methods of selling their records and tapes, at least in concerts. Such a policy was only feasible for many artists on commercial labels if they carried it out at concerts, where the artists could establish their own prices. In retail stores the price structure was out of their hands, unless they were on their own labels.

   Another move which proved as controversial as Green's record policy was that of some artists deciding to change from ticketed to offering-only concerts. The subject was hotly debated in several places, including the 1977 national conference of the Fellowship of Contemporary Christian Ministries (FCCM). The disagreement there and elsewhere fell mainly between artists and concert promoters.

   To some musicians, ''offering'' concerts were viewed as more in keeping with traditional Christianity, and ticketed concerts were more related to the secular entertainment world. Thus certain artists, such as 2nd Chapter of Acts, opted for the former. This frustrated certain Christian concert promoters who felt the Lord had led them into concert promotion, but had no guarantees to pay the bills necessary

Page 135

in putting on an offering concert, with no budgeting possible. Promoters said faith was okay, but the money for procuring and guaranteeing the halls and advertising the concerts had to be paid up front, constituting a gamble for the promoter. After the offering money was divided following the concert, what if there wasn't enough to pay the bills? Who lost? The dialogue continued.

   A similar type of discussion ensued when some churches began sponsoring free concerts featuring contemporary Christian artists, while certain promoters continued to put on ticketed concerts in the same cities. In some cases the churches and the promoters worked at odds with each other, a vestige of the old ''street vs. church'' arguments of earlier days. One of the greatest dangers in these situations was the potential for overbooking an area with concerts or scheduling concerts too close together for either to maximize their draw.

   The choice of going the nonticket route may have been the result of a guilty conscience in some cases. Some musicians found they were pricing themselves away from the very people they were supposed to reach, much the same problem expressed by Keith Green in regards to album pricing. However, others felt that paid entertainment was not evil in and of itself, and they preferred to continue entertaining the body of Christ, charging for it, and not feeling guilty about it. Their concerts, they reasoned, were excellent alternative entertainment for people who would otherwise be spending their money on raunchy rock concerts, questionable movies, or staying at home watching TV. And with current pop music, rock especially, the cost of putting on a concert and traveling with personnel and equipment from city to city had become exorbitant as prices for equipment and travel increased.

   More and more artists ultimately helped to foot the bills for their travel and equipment (and paying off their album production expenses) through the sale of items at concerts. Albums, tapes, sheet music, book music, T-shirts emblazoned with some Christian sentiment or the name of the artist or group, and other various souvenirs often brought in the necessary revenue. Album and tape sales in the foyers were, in many cases, quite hefty, but several artists laughingly conceded that T-shirt sales outstripped the sale of their recordings at concerts. Many of the musicians finally realized that the ''trinket tables'' of the southern-gospel groups which they had derided not so long ago somehow made more sense now.

   The trend toward ''love offering'' concerts would become even more pronounced in 1984, when two major concert groups announced they were going the free concert route. Truth, a group of

Page 136

ever-changing personnel born out of a motive similar to that of the Continentals and the Spurrlows, had been founded in 1971. Thirty-one albums later, director and founder Roger Breland explained how Truth was seeing the importance of making changes. He stated plans to go back to churches, where many of their initial concerts were, rather than performing in so many auditoriums for paid admissions.

   ''I think that Christian music is only speaking to a handful of people in the world today,'' he said, ''and there's a great big world out there. Our ministry has gone back to the basics. If Billy Graham's statistics are right, and 75 percent of the people who go to church are not Christian, there's a lot of work to be done right in the church. We feel we've come full circle, right back to where we started.''

   Dallas Holm & Praise also changed to ''offering only'' concerts, because ''God has told us specifically to do it,'' Holm explained in 1984. ''It's not right for everyone. A lot of things have changed both in Christian music and in our ministry, and we just had to reevaluate.

   ''I think free concerts will bring in a lot more unsaved young people, the people we really want to reach. I think it's going to enable them to come in, whereas why should an unsaved kid spend seven dollars to come hear a Christian singer or musician? The bottom line is souls, and there's no question in my mind that more people will come for free, especially the type we want to reach. It really is healthy for us, because it really does make you rely on faith in the Lord more.

   ''Sometimes you can get too comfortable when you get where you can project things. You know what your income's going to be. You have a clear picture of your whole operation, but often that doesn't require a whole lot of faith.''

   Many of Holm's observations sounded very much akin to what Keith Green had expressed seven years earlier. Holm's driving motivation in 1984 became one taken up by several others in the eighties who felt a stronger burden than ever for reaching out with the gospel to as many people as possible.

Chapter Twenty  ||  Table of Contents