Jonathan David Faulkner
There was a time in Christian Music when the writers of the songs addressed real matters, wrote deep songs about everything from raising teenagers to the struggle of those living in poverty. A multitude and plethora of topics with the occasional praise chorus mixed in. That was a great day when the flock could be genuinely challenged and confronted with the truth of God in the midst of the most hopeless situations. To some extent this has continued today in the Christian Rock/Metal arenas where bands continue to address everything from pornography addictions to sexual assault and abuse to racism and so much else. Bands like Petra and Stryper not only addressed the culture war, but often delved into hard and difficult subjects.
But with the industrialization of the industry a shift occurred, likely in the 1990’s from music that actually addressed issues and needs in peoples lives to music. What happened is this, Christian Music and the Christian music industry got comfortable, and when it got comfortable it moved away from challenging the believer to being positive and encouraging to eventually writing itself into total irrelevance. Matt Bronleewe, formerly of CCM band Jars of Clay has said that: “There was a time when you might hear a song about God, but you could also expect something else to be brought to the table.” Tyler Huckabee in The Week wrote that at its height CCM was selling 50 Million copies of a record, at the time he wrote the article sales had dipped below 17 Million. If you talk about CCM with people who listen critically you hear the complaint that over and over again they hear the same songs and while the music is upbeat and positive, it often leaves them feeling like something is missing.
That is not to say that there is anything wrong with praise and wowho rship, we need people to write worship songs. I am indebted to Keith and Krystal Getty, Laura Story and others, modern hymn writers with a full depth and breadth, but if God made us to be creative and has given us His gospel then we need to hear more than surface level. If Christians are creators who have access to the full bible and biblical teaching then we should be addressing touch issues in our music. One of the reasons I fell in love with one of my first bands, Jars of Clay, was because they touched on many issues that were relevant to me. To this day Who We Are Instead is one of the gems of CCM, the same with the band Downhere whose album On The Alter of Love is another of those gems. Unfortunately, these are the exceptions, not the rule.
My parents often wonder why I gravitated towards Christian Rock and Metal, why the bands I often listened to were bands like Disciple, A Hope for Home, Demon Hunter, Emery and others. The truth was that those bands were speaking to the pain and struggle I was experiencing in my life, they were helping me process the bullying, the self-rejection and so much else. So, as I became an adult I have continued to listening to those groups because God has used them so deeply. Yes, he used bands like FFH, Jars of Clay, 4Him & Downhere or artists like Rich Mullins and Andrew Peterson, but those were really the only CCM bands God was speaking to me through. It wasn’t through Matthew West, Michael W. Smith and others, though I had their albums. I found more encouragement and challenge in the heavier bands than in what my parents were listening too.
These days, if I do listen to popular worship music it is extremely limited to David Crowder (Neon Steeple & American Prodigal) The City Harmonic and Rend Collective. I would include The Getty’s in that list, but they do not get air play unless someone is doing a cover of “In Christ Alone.” I struggle with how skin deep so much of the current CCM music is, especially the worship music. My soul craves deep and theological worship, something that engages my heart and my mind. I also want Christian Music that engages the issues in the world around me, I want music that will also bring actual comfort to people and challenge them to live and rest in Christ. But I also want Christian Music to address major issues in a way that is sensitive and nuanced.
That’s where Tenth Avenue North comes in. I have often said that some bands, such as Demon Hunter, have often gotten better with age, Tenth Avenue North is one of those bands. They started out by addressing things like Isolationism and talking about the organic nature of the church. Then they started talking about sex slavery, about political divisiveness. As the review on Jesusfreakhideout.com points out: “Mike Donehey has always been subversive in his songwriting, addressing issues in songs and elaborating on those issues in sermons during shows.” Their Australian Counterparts have done much the same, especially with their song “O God Forgive Us” but what Tenth Avenue North, a band that comes out of the same White Evangelicalism that Lecrea left, is doing is truly different and needs to be respected and heard. Their new EP The Things We’ve Been Too Afraid to Say EP is everything that the industry has failed to talk about in six songs. Though they do not touch on Ethnic reconciliation here, as they do on their song “For Those who Can’t Speak” They do address typically taboo Christian topics.
Like in “Covenant” where they deal with what happens when someone else catches your eye after you are married and how you should respond, reminding us that marriage is a covenant that needs to be maintained in the good times and bad times. “Secrets: (Light Shines In)” deals with the secret sins such as pornography while “Counterfeits” deals directly with the idea that porn can fill the gap as some form of fulfillment. Meanwhile “Love Anyway” addresses the sin of our political divineness and the call to actually love as Christ loves instead of fighting with each other. “Afraid” touches on the topic of reoccurring mental health issues and the hope of Christ.
“I’m Listening” the last track, is probably the most prolific and most timely given recent events in America. The song addresses the #MeToo movement, following the story of a mother, daughter and brother who were all victims of sexual assault and who had no one to hear their stories. The first chorus sets the tone for the others “Mother, mother, how many tears have you cried? Mother, mother, I will listen to you tonight to the truth, Mother, how many years before you could breathe? Mother, I won’t turn away when you speak, I’m listening, I’m listening” Tenth Avenue North does a good job here addressing the victims of sexual assault and even with the effects of Toxic Masculinity which says that to men: When you are hurt, do not talk about it. Donehey wonders of the boy at the end of the song: “And brother, where could you run? Shame to the silent and made a prison, Could you learn to speak again, If we were only listening?” Upon first hearing this song I broke down in tears, not because of what I have experienced but because so many times we have shouted down or rejected people who have been victims of sexual abuse and then wonder why people wait so long to come forward. So many Evangelicals have looked at #MeToo and #ChurchToo as something to be rejected or of the world when we should be listening to these stories and working for restorative justice and healing.
This is an example of the turn we need CCM to take, especially white Christian artists and all-White bands who can speak on these topics in white spaces. Until Tenth Avenue North and For King & Country it was hard to find CCM bands that talked about these issues and the people who have been hurt. The heavier bands have done this, Emery has talked about the consequences of secret sins, pornography, extra-marital affairs. Lecrea, even before leaving white evangelicalism wrote about ethnic reconciliation and healing and now does more so talk about these things openly. Otherwise, we do not get to hear about these issues from bands that have traditionally been considered “safe” by white evangelicals.
It will be interesting to see what happens with Tenth Avenue, when Lecrea moved in this direction his fan base grew exponentially. I do believe that God is moving us to actually discuss these issues in our music and in our churches. I also think people are longing for deeper conversations, relatable music that they just are not finding in CCM right now. Perhaps Tenth Avenue North can be the catalyst to start moving us in this direction. I know it is a challenge for my own music where I’ve addressed the Opioid Crisis and Suicide and Depression/Mental Health but can speak on so many more topics than I currently do.
Something does have to change, we have a lot of work to do, there is a lot of tough, hard conversations we need to have, but maybe we can have them, maybe we can work some things out….maybe…just maybe…we can heal and music like this can help us do that.