An Open Letter to All God’s Disenfranchised Musicians

I recently did an article reviewing a concert for a big Christian magazine. It was a good concert, and fun review to write. The day after it came out, I received an interesting e-mail from one of the opener’s managers.

The opener had been a prominent underground band through the 1980’s and 1990’s, and was now doing a coffee house tour. He was upset that the article didn’t give the band more coverage, and  then among a number of things, he proceeded to lecture me on the rich tradition of Christian music history.

And, then  how I, a writer for one of the biggest magazines in the industry, apparently didn’t know much about it. I should take time to educate myself on it, particularly his band, #hyperlink.  “You might find something you like,” he  patronized. I laughed. Really hard. Mainly because I knew exactly where he was coming from, and how wrong he had pegged me.

I am the quintessential 1990’s church kid. My parents were two ex-hippies who got saved in the Jesus Movement. They were the sort of people that loved music so much they named their first child after an Eric Clapton song. So, when they got saved, they knew more than anyone, the power of music upon the human spirit. In an effort to purify their hearts and minds, their burned all their secular records in a church bonfire. I am told my dad cried as he watched his collector’s edition Beatles records go up in a sacrificial flame. I grew up on Christian music.

The Christian music movement was new and exciting, albeit, far from Jimi Hendrix. So, only Christian music was allowed in my household. This is the environment I was born into. But, I guess with a name like Layla, I was destined to love music. Any music would have done it. So, Christian music became my life. I subscribed to every magazine and read each issue cover to cover. I saved my babysitting money to buy tapes, and did the BMG music service more than once. (Anyone remember get 12 CD’s for 1 cent? Haha!) I went to a Christian school for most of my childhood, and then joined the church youth group. I became active in the church youth drama team, and then took a job at a Christian bookstore. Then, I went off to a Christian university so that I could study journalism and write for Christian magazines. Not long afterward, I joined a traveling arts ministry. It was supposed to be a four month interlude. I stayed four years.

We lived in a commune and traveled the country performing at churches and events and staying in host homes. It was an interesting time, and I learned a lot. I learned that Christian culture had changed without my even realizing it. My ministry colleagues were mainly fresh-faced new recruits in their late teens and early twenties. In their professional lives, they were amazing worship leaders, songwriters, musicians, dancers and students of ministry. But, offstage, and in the vans and hotels, they were a new breed of Christian. This was a generation of young and up and coming worship leaders, ministry leaders, the new face of American Christendom trying their fit out in America’s pulpits.

Yet, the Christian music industry was not high on their priority list. They didn’t listen to Christian radio. They thought it was lame. They didn’t really listen to secular radio much either. But as far as Christian music went, they didn’t know much about it. Many of them thought that Toby Mac was always a solo artist, and probably don’t know his full last name. The only thing they know about Jennifer Knapp is that she wrote a book about being gay. Mention Steve Taylor, and they’ll correct you for mispronouncing the guy from Aerosmith, and the subject of vintage underground Christian music, begins and ends with Tooth and Nail Records. And, quite honestly, anything to the contrary, they really don’t care. Not to bash these young people. These things just aren’t relevant to them, anymore than Nancy Honeytree or 2nd Chapter of Acts were ever relevant to me. I understand this, and tried to resist my impulse to turn long van rides into Christian culture history lessons. (Well, tried anyway. Whether I was successful in this, is debatable).

It occurred to me during the time, that people of my generation, are not the fresh new recruits anymore. We are running America’s churches. We are the leadership, the new senior pastors, the ever present “parents” that the youth pastors have to be concerned about. We are the face of American Christianity.

So, when this manager e-mailed me to say that I didn’t know about Christian music, I simply shook my head. To them I say, If you can’t stay relevant to me, then what chance do you have with a generation who doesn’t know the difference between Steve Taylor and Steve Tyler? I understand these guys are defensive toward a church that was hesitant to accept them in the 1980’s and 1990’s. There’s a lot to that, and I get it.

And, having been so well-versed in the history of Christian music, I know that his is far from being an isolated incident. In his day, there were many, many, musicians who left the church because it wasn’t ready for a new sound, a new image, a new day. And, unfortunately, these incidents weren’t always handled the most graciously either. I get that. I even saw some of it, albeit I was about 12. But, honestly, whatever kind of crap went down there, is gone. Those people aren’t there anymore, judging the length of your hair or the decibel of your guitar. The church has got such bigger problems to face.

We’ve got to figure out how Jesus would respond to gay rights. We’ve got to deal with the fact that 60% of America’s church kids are leaving their church by their twenties. We’ve to handle what the long-reaching effects of the ACA do to Christian business owners, and ultimately to the rights of religious freedom at all.

We’re in the middle of a culture war. We don’t have time to worry about what some stick-up-their-butt pastor said about your music in 1993. If you’ve got a guitar, and you love Jesus, then play it. Play it for all it’s worth. Join the war. Love God. Love people. But don’t bitch about the other soldiers. We don’t have that luxury anymore.  If history tells us anything, it’s that you can’t really go back ideologically. The changes that are being made to our nation and our culture, aren’t phases or isolated incidents. They are a new direction. How far it will go, I don’t know.

But, to all you musicians, who have left the church so many years ago in a huff over long hair, and debates over Christian rock and if the song was about God or a girl, I have one thing to say to you: Come back. Bring your guitar, bring your earrings and your tattoos. Bring your love songs and your questions about God and marijuana. Bring your drums, and your amps “turned up to eleven.” Come with your piercings, gauged earlobes.

We don’t care anymore. We are the new generation of American Christendom, and we were too young to remember why you left, much less hold a grudge. But we do like your music. And we need you. This generation needs you. In fact, we’ll not only accept your Beatles records, we’ll show you ours.


The Millennial Church


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