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Christian rock is a form of rock music that features lyrics focusing on matters of Christian faith, often with an emphasis on Jesus, typically performed by self-proclaimed Christian individuals. The extent to which their lyrics are explicitly Christian varies between bands. Many bands who perform Christian rock have ties to the contemporary Christian music labels, media outlets, and festivals, while other bands are independent.
Rock music was not viewed favorably by most traditional and fundamentalist Christians when it became popular with young people from the 1950s, although early rock music was often influenced by country and gospel music. In 1952 Archibald Davison, a Harvard professor, summed up the sound of traditional Christian music and why its supporters may not like Rock music when he said: "... a rhythm that avoids strong pulses; a melody whose physiognomy is neither so characteristic nor so engaging as to make an appeal in its own behalf; counterpoint, which cultivates long-breathed eloquence rather than instant and dramatic effect; a chromaticism which is at all times restricted in amount and lacking in emotionalism; and modality which creates an atmosphere unmistakably ecclesiastical." Based upon Archibald Davison's statement it is easy to see how different these two genres of music are. Religious people in many regions of the United States did not want their children exposed to music with unruly, impassioned vocals, loud guitar riffs and jarring, hypnotic rhythms. Rock and roll differed from the norm, and thus it was seen as a threat. Often the music was overtly sexual in nature, as in the case of Elvis Presley, who became controversial and massively popular partly for his suggestive stage antics and dancing. However, Elvis was a religious person who even released a gospel album: Peace in the Valley. Individual Christians may have listened to or even performed rock music in many cases, but it was seen as anathema to conservative church establishments, particularly in the American South.
He Touched Me was a 1972 gospel music album by Elvis Presley which sold over 1 million copies in the US alone and earned Presley his second of three Grammy Awards. Not counting compilations, it was his third and final album devoted exclusively to gospel music. The song "He Touched Me" was written in 1963 by Bill Gaither, an American singer and songwriter of southern gospel and Contemporary Christian music.
In the 1960s, rock music developed artistically, attained worldwide popularity and became associated with the radical counterculture, firmly alienating many Christians. In 1966 The Beatles, regarded as one of the most popular and influential rock bands of their era, ran into trouble with many of their American fans when John Lennon jokingly offered his opinion that Christianity was dying and that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus now". The romantic, melodic rock songs of the band's early career had formerly been viewed as relatively inoffensive, but after the remark, churches nationwide organized Beatles record burnings and Lennon was forced to apologize. Subsequently, the Beatles and most rock musicians experimented with a more complex, psychedelic style of music, that frequently used anti-establishment, drug related, or sexual lyrics, while The Rolling Stones sang "Sympathy for the Devil", a song openly written from the point of view of Satan. This further increased the Christian opposition to rock music.
As the decade continued, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the Paris student riots and other events served as catalysts for youth activism and political withdrawal or protest, which became associated with rock bands, whether or not they were openly political. Moreover, many saw the music as promoting a lifestyle of promiscuous "sex, drugs and rock and roll", also reflected in the behavior of many rock stars. However, there was growing recognition of the diverse musical and ideological potential of rock. Countless new bands sprang up in the mid-to-late 1960s, as rock displaced older, smoother pop styles to become the dominant form of pop music, a position it would enjoy almost continuously until the end of the 20th century, when hip-hop finally eclipsed it in sales.
Among the first bands that played Christian rock was The Crusaders, a Southern Californian garage rock band, whose November 1966 Tower Records album Make a Joyful Noise with Drums and Guitars is considered one of the first gospel rock releases, or even "the first record of Christian rock", and Mind Garage, "arguably the first band of its kind", whose 1967 Electric Liturgy was recorded in 1969 at RCA's "Nashville Sound" studio. Both of these recordings were preceded by the rockabilly praise LP I Like God's Style, written and performed by one 16-year-old Isabel Baker and released on the private Wichita, Kansas Romco label in 1965, which slipped into obscurity before being rediscovered around 2007.
Larry Norman, often described as the "father of Christian rock music", and in his later years "the Grandfather of Christian rock", who, in 1969 recorded and released Upon This Rock, "the first commercially released Jesus rock album", challenged a view held by some conservative Christians (predominantly fundamentalists) that rock music was anti-Christian. One of his songs, "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?" summarized his attitude and his quest to pioneer Christian rock music. A cover version of Larry Norman's Rapture-themed "I Wish We'd All Been Ready" appears in the Evangelical Christian feature film A Thief in the Night and appeared on Cliff Richard's Christian album Small Corners along with "Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?". Another Christian rock pioneer, Randy Stonehill, released his first album in 1971, the Larry Norman-produced Born Twice. In the most common pressing of the album, side one is entirely a live performance.
Another early Christian rock album was Mylon (We Believe) by Mylon LeFevre, son of members of the southern gospel group The LeFevres. He recorded the album with members of Classics IV and released it through Cotillion Records in 1970.
Christian rock was often viewed as a marginal part of the nascent Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) and contemporary gospel industry in the 1970s and '80s, though Christian folk rock artists like Bruce Cockburn and rock fusion artists like Phil Keaggy had some cross-over success. Petra and Resurrection Band, two of the bands who brought harder rock into the early CCM community, had their origins in the early to mid-1970s. They reached their height in popularity in the late eighties alongside other Christian-identifying hard rock acts such as Stryper. The latter had videos played on MTV, one being "To Hell with the Devil", and even saw some airtime on mainstream radio stations with their hit song "Honestly". Christian rock has proved less successful in the UK and Europe, although such artists as Bryn Haworth have found commercial success by combining blues and mainstream rock music with Christian themes.
The 1990s saw an explosion of Christian rock.
Many of the popular 1990s Christian bands were initially identified as "Christian alternative rock", including Jars of Clay, Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline and the later albums of DC Talk. Outside Anglophone countries, bands like Oficina G3 (Brazil) and The Kry (Quebec, Canada) have achieved moderate success. To date Delirious? has been one of the most successful bands from the UK.
By the late 1990s and early 2000s, the success of Christian-inspired acts like Skillet, Thousand Foot Krutch, Decyfer Down, Underoath, Kutless, Disciple, P.O.D., Switchfoot, and Relient K saw a shift toward mainstream exposure in the Christian rock scene.
There are also some Roman Catholic bands such as Critical Mass. Some Eastern Orthodox Christian rock groups, mostly from Russia and the Soviet Union, started performing in the late 1980s and 1990s. Alisa and Black Coffee are credited as the most prominent examples. The Orthodox Christian lyrics of these bands often overlap with historical and patriotic songs about ancient Rus.
The musical genre that was once rejected by mainstream Christian churches is now considered by some as one of the most-important recruitment tool of their successor congregations. According to Terri McLean, author of New Harmonies, old-guard churches (United Methodist is given as an example) of the late 1990s were experiencing a rapid decline in membership and were under threat of disbandment within the next decade, a trend that has been going on since the 1980s. McLean, using numerous quotes from theologians, Christian apologists and professors, goes on to offer contemporary Christian music as the reason for the falling popularity of more traditionalist churches. The definition of contemporary Christian, as offered by New Harmonies, is of a genre not far removed from traditional hymns; it is simply more accessible. The reality is that while a form of modernized hymns do exist in today's churches and do affect church recruitment, there also exists both within and outside these churches a form of music (Christian rock) that has only one element in common with previous religious genres: its worship of God.
This element, the worship of God, is what was originally removed from or hidden within the lyrics of early, secular rock n' roll. Santino described one method of changing Christian lyrics as a process that transformed "lyrics that sang of the mystical love of God into lyrics that celebrated the earthly love of woman". Howard & Streck offer examples of this, comparing Ray Charles' "This Little Girl of Mine" to "This Little Light of Mine" and "Talking About You" to "Talking About Jesus". They claim that because of actions such as this, despite the liberal editing of the original hymns, "gospel 'showed rock how to sing'". Howard & Streck go on to describe how the conflict between music and religion, spearheaded by southern fundamentalists, was originally racially based, but how in the sixties this moved on to a clash over the perceived lifestyle of rock musicians.
There are multiple definitions of what qualifies as a "Christian rock" band. Christian rock bands that explicitly state their beliefs and use religious imagery in their lyrics, like Servant, Third Day, and Petra, tend to be considered a part of the contemporary Christian music (CCM) industry.
Other bands perform music influenced by their faith or containing Christian imagery, but see their audience as the general public. For example, Bono of U2 combines many elements of spirituality and faith into his lyrics, but the band is not directly labeled as a "Christian rock" band.
Such bands are sometimes rejected by the CCM rock scene and may specifically reject the CCM label. Other bands may experiment with more abrasive musical styles. Beginning in the 1990s and 2000s there was much wider acceptance even by religious purists of Christian metal, Christian industrial and Christian punk. Many of these bands are on predominantly Christian record labels, such as Tooth and Nail Records and Facedown Records.
Rock artists, such as Switchfoot, do not claim to be "Christian bands", but include members who openly profess to be Christians or at times may feature Christian thought, imagery, scripture or other influences in their music.
Some of these bands, like Creed played up the spiritual content of their music and were widely considered a "Christian band" by the popular media. Some bands reject the label because they do not wish to exclusively attract Christian fans, or because they have been identified with another particular music genre, such as heavy metal or indie rock.
The aims for making Christian music vary among different artists and bands. Often, the music makes evangelist calls for Christian forms of praise and worship. Accompanying such music, street outreach, local festivities, church functions, and many alternative forms of internal or (soulful) expression may occur.
Some Christian artists as Third Day, Kutless, Thousand Foot Krutch and Disciple have sung songs that carry overtly Christian messages. Bands such as Underoath, Blessthefall and Haste the Day incorporate symbolism and Christian messages more indirectly. Bands such as Flyleaf do not call themselves Christian bands, though they state that their Christian faith affects their lyrics. Bands such as Switchfoot have said they try to write music for both Christians and non-Christians alike.
Festivals range from single day events to multiple-day festivals that provide camping and other activities.
One of the first in the US was the six-day Explo '72 held in Dallas, Texas in June 1972 that was attended by around 80,000 people with around 100,000 - 150,000 at the final concert and which featured acts such as Larry Norman, The Archers, Love Song, Randy Matthews, Children of the Day, Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson.
Significant festivals in the US are Creation Festival, Ichthus Festival, and Cornerstone Festival. There is also a festival in Orlando, Florida called Rock the Universe, a two-day festival at Universal Orlando Resort that overlaps with the Night of Joy event at Walt Disney World. Ichthus, currently held in Kentucky, is a three-day festival that involves over 65 bands.
There are also many in the UK, including Greenbelt Festival, Soul Survivor, 'Ultimate Events' at Alton Towers, Frenzy in Edinburgh and Creation Fest, Woolacombe, Devon, which is not related to Creationfest in the United States.
The Flevo Festival of The Netherlands, which offers seminars, theater, stand-up comedy, sports and movies as well as Christian music from a wide variety of genres, is considered to be one of the biggest Christian festivals in Europe. It was discontinued in 2013, due to financial issues. It has been unofficially restarted by a collection of Christian organizations who previously collaborated on Flevo Festival under the new name of Flavor Festival.
Every year it headlines Christian rock bands. Many events are held in Australia called, Easterfest (in Toowoomba) Encounterfest, Jam United, Black Stump and Big Exo Day.Bogot, Colombia hosts the summer festival Gospel al Parque.
The most "underground" expression of Christian rock was the annual Cornerstone Festival sponsored by the Jesus People USA, a community which formed during the Jesus Movement of the 1970s. The festival ceased operations in 2012.