An Open Letter to Contemporary Christian Music

Dear Contemporary Christian Music,

I wouldn’t be writing this letter if I hadn’t heard you were feeling a bit better. After all, you have been off-color the last hundred years or so.

I’d like to make sure you know that I’m sorry you haven’t been well. I’ve said harsh words, but, truly, I don’t revel in your illness. I was glad to hear news that you may be starting pulling through—I’ve been losing hope. The end of this dangerous and infectious illness is long overdue.

You were so vital during childhood. Like any kid, you imitated your parent—chanted her chants, sang her Psalms. In general, though, you managed to reinterpret those established traditions and make them refreshing. Your work was fit for worship, being not only true, but also beautiful.

That remained accurate as you got older, even when you were given new tools and opportunities. When you got an organ, you weren’t sure at first how to use it. You made some awful screeches come out of it. Eventually, though, you got the hang of it and produced some great pieces. People today still play them, in fact. And all the work you did later with full orchestras and symphonies—we definitely play those. But we call those by the name you went by at the time, ‘Music’, not your new, self-given title, ‘Christian Music’.

I really admire that, until recently, you didn’t feel the need for that adjective. You called yourself ‘Music’ and worked hard at living up to the name. You made contemporary music, and made it well; that was enough.

But, of course, that was before the world severed itself from history, and you fell into the the same illness—the deep, itching illness of insecurity and fear. You seemed to think it acceptable to scorn your inheritance: you called it ‘cultic’ or ‘formulaic’, ‘boring’ or ‘dull’. Ironically, you called it all the things you were about to become.

The 20th-century hasn’t been kind to you; I get that. You said that you only wanted to help people who hated you–who wanted nothing to do with you if you identified with your history. I did (and still do!) admire your motives. But you were foolish to think you could ever actually deny your roots, even if we pretend that it would be right to do so.

The new plan—a sort of evangelical bait and switch—was dangerous, as shown by the results. You worked so hard to write sermons into your songs that you forgot they were songs. The ‘bait and switch’ had no ‘bait’. Pardon the pun, but for the last century or so, you’ve been singing to the choir, embarrassing a good number of them with your bad pitch and worse instrumentation.

Instead of playing a strong part in secular music, you became a shadow of it and called yourself ‘Christian’ music. Simultaneously, you burned the bridges behind by claiming emancipation from the history you would need to find an identity apart from this shadow.

Christian lyrics—sure, you have those. Didactic ones, usually. But Christian music? Beautiful music is Christian music, and you’ve stopped making that for a regrettably long period of time.

But I hear good things recently, even amid the awful things. I hear that you’ve sent some talent into the world, despite the radio stations that refuse to play anything but a two-dimensional status quo. [As always, they continue to expect different results from playing the same song over and over again simply because they give it a hundred different titles.]

I hope the good things thrive and expand. Once you’re well, we’ll hear some beautiful music played to the Lord. Until then, though, get some rest, read the latest Rolling Stone magazine and take an online music theory class. No one ever said beauty was easy, only that it was simple. But, as the Fire Theft reminds us in their sublime piece titled “Heaven”, “it’s the simple things that are so hard to grasp.

All the Best,

Published by

Robin Dembroff

Robin Dembroff is a student at the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University, pursuing degrees in Philosophy and English Literature. Her writing has been recognized by the Visalia Times Delta, Ayn Rand Institute, Michael L. Roston Creative Writing Contest, Torn Curtain – The Zine, Biola English Guild’s St. John the Apostle Paper Conference, and the Biola History/Gov’t/Social Science Department’s J.O. Henry Award.

  • Marie

    Interesting. A similar open letter here from Brian McLaren to worship song writers

  • David Good

    Not another ranting from a traditionlist who is whining over the fact that music isn't what is used to be! Granted, there is a lot of contemporary Christian music out there that is just trash but this letter lumps everything together that was written after a certain date as somehow dishonoring to God. This letter wreaks of nothing more than just sour grapes from perhaps yet another person who refuses to accept that things change. The message hasn't, just the delivery. The music this author laments the passing of forgets that in its heyday was being criticized for the exact same thing here. Stop the culture bashing and learn to see how God is using contemporary Christian music to reach a lost generation. My, how we easily forget what side of the aisle we came from when our parents were our age. This letter is musical elitist snobbery and is looking down its nose at anyone who doesn't like the same music. I thought we were over that?

  • Javier

    I am so glad that Good has blessed us with contemporary worship. Thank God for Hillsong, Isaiah Houghton, Chris Tomlin, and others who write songs that glorify God through lyrics and melody.

  • Rachel

    Wow, that is so sad. At one time it was radical to bring in all the “new” music that is so adored by the traditional crowd. Music has continued to change and evolve as a response to the touch of the Spirit on our hearts. What changed was a seperation of church and state. The church no longer played a roll in mainstream life. “Christian” music became something that influenced culture less and less due to a societal shift rather than some failing on the musicians part. Traditional music does need to be respected and blended with the contemporary. It makes me so sad to see the split between the two camps rather than blending and lovingly being part of the same family.
    We all worship the same God and need to let His touch be the guide.

  • LindsayStallones

    That seems an inaccurate assessment of Robin's post, David. Where does she call for traditional music? She merely said beautiful music – does that always mean Bach? Did she say it means Bach?

    My problem (and I suspect Robin's) with contemporary Christian music isn't that it's different than what came before, but that it's dull. It's amateur hour, lazy, and benign, in terms of both lyric and song. It's safe.

    And Aslan's not a safe lion.

  • Jake Belder


    Robin, great post.

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  • Derek

    Ad Mr. Good:
    Ms. Stallones seems correct. The article was not arguing that traditional music is inherently better than contemporary music, but that contemporary christian music is not as beautiful as its traditional counterpart. Robin seems to be advocating the restoration of beauty, not an antiquated style.

    Ad Ms. Stallones:

    You say that your problem and with CCM is that it's “dull, … amateur[ish], lazy, and benign, in terms of both lyric and song.”

    And so what, if it's effective. It changes people's lives in ways that most beautiful music does not. Rachmaninov's Vespers, for instance (and in my opinion), is at the upper echelons of Christian art, yet it's entirely powerless at making our culture take a serious look at the cross. CCM, in part due to its low-brow appeal, enables the non-believer to make the transition from listening to music that does not glorify God to music that explicitly does, even if it fails to please those with a more refined pallet.

    “It's safe.
    And Aslan's not a safe lion.”

    Neither is he impotent.

    “But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
    -St. Paul

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  • LindsayStallones


    I can completely agree that CCM serves a purpose in our culture, especially in drawing people to Christ. However, it also pushes people away from Christ (especially artists, or those who don't love the Top 40 crap CCM so often tries to duplicate). When we, as a church, say “this is our idea of beautiful art”, and it's just pretty sound, we make ourselves (and our Lord) appear trite and bland.

    We need to embrace more than nice pretty stuff. We've created an entire music industry that mirrors the secular one, and both are woefully inadequate to reflect the wonder of God or His creation. Most of what gets produced is really just auditory sedative. And yes, God uses all things to draw people to Him (as much as I may hate that CCM has redeeming qualities!). We just need to make sure we're not settling for the most impotent version of something that will draw people to Him.

    So I'm not advocating “no CCM.” I'm saying CCM and better music (and art and film and thought and literature…). Just because milk is for babies and we all end up as grownups, we don't say milk shouldn't be allowed – we just think it's odd for adults to be ingesting formula.

  • JM

    Beautiful music is Christian music? Nice philosophy, but rather disingenuous music. I suppose you like CT think Springsteen's music is Christian music, even as he rejects the Catholicism of his youth. Beauty reflects truth, but error can also be beautiful Try opening up the Mormon hymnal and singing “Praise to the Man Who Communed with Jehovah,” for crying out loud. CCM is “dull, … amateur[ish], lazy, and benign, in terms of both lyric and song”? Sure, some is. That is because it is pop. But a lot is great. Perhaps I am a rube, but I think lots of the output of Keith Green, Amy Grant, DCTalk, Tonio K, etc it actually pretty good for what it is … pop. Even Rolling Stone understands that. People who slam CCM but tell others to go read Rolling Stone, a magazine that ususally thinks Bob Dylan and Madonna are amazing, really just have a chip on their shoulders. Incidentally, the phrase CCM has fallen out of favor. Musicians making CCM now insist they just make 'music.” So yours entire spin shows a surprising lack of perspective on the issue. Have you ever even been a fan? It hardly sound like it. Or are you here ranting about worship choruses only? A different thing

  • goodwordediting

    My church sings a lot of hymns. I like the hymns. My kids don't particularly, but it is important to teach that faith isn't necessarily about what we enjoy. Whatever song we sing, I point at the date and tell them, “This song, your faith, it's part of something really big. This song was written hundreds of years ago. Your faith was written thousands of years ago.”

    At home we listen to other things. Jennifer Knapp. Mindy Smith. Chris Rice. U2. Each artist has songs that work well. And many that don't.

    So the new music hasn't grown up yet. What else is new? It is a baby. It can hardly talk. Of course, it doesn't always seem as mature as the songs that we've kept around for hundreds of years. We kept those songs because they were good. We didn't keep the bad ones.

    Over the next hundred years, we'll forget the current crop of bad songs too. But you can be sure there will be some great songs we don't forget.

    And hundreds of years from now, some guy will point at a song from 1990 or 2010 that goes with guitars instead of organs, and he'll say to his kid, “See, your faith is connected to something really big. This song is old. It has a strong foundation. So does your faith.”

  • Gertrude
  • Melanie

    Hey, that’s so true. Never really thought of it that way. But, yes, any beautiful, true music is Christian. There is no seperation between spiritual and secular really, that’s just a made up idea. The problem is that there is so much impurity and God-dishonouring messages in music. I don’t think the Rolling Stones are an example of good music, though!