A few weeks ago, I interviewed Alex Wolaver of the Annie Moses Band to preview the group's Nov. 11 show in Frankfort. We got onto the subject of the appeal of the band, which combines styles including classical music, pop and traditional sounds, in contemporary Christian music.
That's when Wolaver dropped a surprisingly blunt statement.
"The truth of it is that 90 percent of the people in the pews on Sunday morning are not listening to Christian contemporary radio or music exclusively," Wolaver said. "The typical CCM sound is not reaching out to the entirety of what the church would like or might prefer."
It is something I have known for a long time. I go to a mainline Protestant church with a traditionally classical-leaning worship format. I can recall hearing one bona fide contemporary Christian composition during a primary worship service in the more than a decade that I have been there.
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I don't know exactly where the 90 percent figure came from in Wolaver's statement, but statistics confirm that contemporary Christian music's audience is a fraction of the people in the United States who claim to be Christians.
In the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey by Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., an estimated 173.4 million people identified themselves as Christians of some denomination. The Gospel Music Association's 2009 industry overview reported that "56 million units of Christian/gospel CDs, cassettes, digital albums and digital tracks were sold in 2008." Consider that fans of the genre probably bought multiple units of that 56 million and that those numbers include gospel and Southern gospel music. When you also take into account that Christian music sales figures often include faith-based albums by popular mainstream artists and seasonal fare such as Christmas albums, the contemporary Christian audience really starts to look like a fraction of that 173 million-plus who say they are Christians.
That said, the genre has grown during the past four decades from a fledgling lineup of artists from or influenced by the Jesus music movement of the late 1960s and early '70s to a half-billion-dollar industry outpacing sales of jazz and classical music. Christian artists such as Newsboys or artists popular in the Christian market, such as Red, have demonstrated an ability to break into the Top 10 albums sales charts on iTunes and Billboard. In Central Kentucky, the Ichthus Festival and Winter Jam Christian music fests attract five-figure audiences.
And you can't ignore that the main growth in American churches the past few decades has been in non-denominational, evangelical churches with contemporary worship styles, often using songs written by Christian music stars including Chris Tomlin and Michael W. Smith.
Obviously, people are listening, but not as many as you would think, considering that this country is theoretically 76 percent Christian.
I am not naïve, and I don't know many of the answers. But out of curiosity, I put a poll on my Facebook page this week, asking people who considered themselves Christians how often they listen to contemporary Christian music. This was a purely unscientific survey of about 100 volunteer respondents to a question that probably favored responses from people interested in Christian music.
Still, it was interesting that from the get-go, the No. 1 answer was "never."
Even more interesting is that as I write this column, a quarter to a third of the people who gave that answer are ministers, including the Rev. Nancy Jo Kemper, former director of the Kentucky Council of Churches.
"Most of it, for me, is theologically sappy and musically thin," Kemper wrote in the poll's comments section, a comment that another minister "liked."
That is an often-voiced sentiment, that contemporary Christian music is milquetoast and uninteresting. Others simply seem to prefer their religious music in more traditional forms.
"We attend a church with traditional services," Debbie Himes Napier commented. "I like the pipe organ; I don't like praise bands — makes me think of a Vegas floor show."
Counterbalancing the nays were evenly split groups answering "Almost exclusively" or "a fair amount, along with other music."
For many respondents, it was a matter of keeping focused on their faith.
"The music you listen to is an extension of who you are." "Same thing regarding the movies and TV shows you watch. Christianity is a lifestyle."
Tina Slaughter Pugel, who has worked as a publicist for the Ichthus Festival, wrote, "Music affects our state of mind, and I prefer to have a more positive state of mind with Christian music."
Christian music is unique as the only music genre defined by its lyrical content as opposed to its musical style. So, as stylistically diverse as it has become in recent decades, it would be a stretch for any one style to reach most Christians.
In recent years, the genre has almost become a victim of its own success. As higher-quality bands such as Switchfoot and Red can more plausibly leap from the Christian market to mainstream rock and pop, they do. Also, many try to put distance between themselves and the Christian genre.
With a strong base of support in U.S. churches, it is safe to say that contemporary Christian music, particularly the praise-and-worship category, probably isn't going anywhere soon.
But it is compelling to note that when it comes to contemporary Christian music and the nation's Christians, the choir is not listening.