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.
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 fidecontemporary Christian composition during a primary worship service in the more than a decade that I have been there.
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.