The latest rockers for Christ (The Times)
Last modified: 06 Apr 2002

Source: The Times
Author: Greg Watts
Date: 06 Apr 2002

The aptly named rock star Billy Idol once said "Rock isn't art, it's the way ordinary people talk." With shrinking congregations throughout the UK, and few young people in the pews, some Christian musicians are now heeding Idol's words and attempting to take the gospel out of the church into the heart of youth culture. Music, of course, has a powerful way of touching human emotions and can be a vehicle for spirituality. In fact, in the Middle Ages, you could argue that plain chant was the pop music of its day. Yet many churches nowadays have gone from the sublime Handel's Messiah to the ridiculous Shine Jesus Shine. However, there is an underground Christian music scene, and it is growing.

True, there have always been Christian musicians but what is different today is that Ronnie Corbett-style sweaters and acoustic guitars are being replaced by trendy-looking performers who play everything from rap (there's even a priest rapper in New York) and hip hop, to jazz, heavy rock and funky gospel.

While artists such as DC Talk, P.O.D, The Tribe and Delirious? may have had limited impact on the mainstream music scene, in some Christian circles they are megastars. They feature regularly on the Christian stations Premier Radio and Cross Rhythms Radio, and have entire websites devoted to them by fans. While some of these artists still produce worship music, their mission is to break into the mainstream music business and get to the front line of faith and culture.

Delirious? have been the most successful UK band with a Christian message. Since they were formed in 1995, these five committed Christians who all attend the same church in East Sussex have achieved six Top 40 single hits, rising as high as number 16 with See the Star, toured the United States, and achieved album sales of 1.8 million. In May, they kick off another UK tour, this time with a huge video screen on the stage.

Last year there was surprise in the music industry when they were asked to support Bon Jovi, one of the world's biggest rock bands, on their UK tour. Yet there shouldn't have been. Delirious? play exuberant, rocky music that makes you feel good. They could be described as U2 meets Songs of Praise. Delirious? know that they have to compete with the best, not just in the sound and quality of their music but also in their image (shades, urban chic clothes, football shirts), marketing, promotion and packaging. Sadly, the medium today is seen as just as important as the message, which is something that was made clear in Pop Idols.

Delirious?'s lyrics are subtle and can be taken on a purely secular level. Often the listener senses that something religious might be being dealt with but can't really be sure. For example, "And the wonder of it all/ is that I'm living just to fall/ more in love with you". Some Christians, however, deride this covert evangelism.

How many of those non-Christians attending a Delirious? concert would actually give some thought to the gospel on their way home is open to debate. Some in the Church would argue that the Delirious? approach leaves nothing of substance behind once the encore has finished. There is, of course, no way of knowing what the reality is, but Delirious? see their music as a way of scattering seeds of faith.

The biggest problem for Delirious?, and all musicians who come out as Christians, is obtaining national radio airplay. When Delirious? release a single, their fans immediately rush out and buy it, propelling them immediately into the UK Top 40. However, after two or three weeks the record slides rapidly out of the charts and back into the Christian music scene.

Why? Many Christians maintain that national radio stations are anti-God. Yet there are those who would advise Christian musicians in the mainstream to build a solid platform in terms of image and sales before declaring their faith to the general public. Janey Lee Grace, who helps to present Radio 2's The Steve Wright Show, and who hosted The Gospel Hour on GLR for five years, dismisses the view that national radio stations are prejudiced against musicians who are Christians: "If you are brilliant at what you do, what you are as a person will become interesting to others. When we hear that Ronan Keating has a Christian faith we become interested."

In the US, the gap between religion and rock'n'roll is not so wide. Many leading performers from Elvis Presley to Whitney Houston have been musically educated in the choir stalls, while Destiny's Child and Britney Spears claim to be Christians. On the whole, however, pop stars prefer to align themselves more with ecological and social justice issues than overtly theological ones - although Bono from U2 describes himself as a Christian and often appears on stage wearing a rosary given to him by the Pope.

Perhaps the Churches, who have had a troubled relationship with rock'n'roll, should consider sponsoring talented musicians who are Christians and set up a school of pop music. It would be a radical move. This would be a way of going some way to reconnect to contemporary culture and speak the language of young people, because the fact is that, for many, it is rock'n'roll rather than religion that provides a vehicle to articulate desires, love, sadness and fears.

Incredible messages need to be put in a credible vocabulary.

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