Music and its Influence; How one CCM band shaped my faith.
Often here we have joined the throngs of those who are disillusioned with CCM, but there is one band whose influence on my faith has been profound, and for good reason.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner
It is strange to think, but I am certain I can recall the first time I heard a Downhere song on the radio. The station was 92.7 Joy FM coming out of Zanesville Ohio and the song was their first hit “free me Up.” I can also remember my dad complaining because while it climbed the top 20 for awhile it eventually stalled and then dropped like a rock while some songs that one struggled to define as “Christian” stayed at number 1 for weeks. The song was extremely relevant given the extreme worldliness that would mark some of my time in Christians Music which at the time of the peak of Third Day’s rise to fame in the early 2000’s was the highest paying part of the music industry across the board. This likely was the reason for the sharp decline in CCM after 90’s and early 00’s. It became a “get rich quick” scheme where anyone could get airplay so long as it was what the people thought they wanted to listen to. The result was a lot of CCM that failed to speak to the needs of the people but bloated them on sugar spirituality which does not help one when life takes a turn for the worse. There were a few exceptions to this, Casting Crowns, MercyMe in their early days, The Newsboys, DC Talk, Jars of Clay and of course, Donwhere. My parents often wondered why I preferred CR (Christian Rock) and CM (Christian Metal) over the sugary CCM world. I could identify with the themes in Disciples, Demon Hunter and Thousand Foot Krutch in the same way a lot of kids who grew up during the opiate crisis today identify with NF.
Downhere was one of the earliest bands I ever remember listening to on a regular basis. My first album I owned by them was No Room for Substitutes and my first favorite song of there’s was not “Free Me Up” but “Starspin” and then “In America.” From there it was onto Ending is Beginning and before I knew it, I was hooked. Wide Eyed and Mystified was the album though, that really got me listening in depth. The hit was “A Better Way” which was probably their biggest and of course the song “Stir” came out just in time to motivate me enough to get me in trouble with the abusive pastor at our church and the Gospel centered message of the song has now become a central part of my ministry, as has “1000 Miles Apart” in recent years. Of course, it was their last studio album that may have been their absolute best, and which took the number 1 spot on last years top 20 Christians albums of the last decade. I recently played it in the car for my wife and have created a permanent Downhere fan (I am not sure she has played much else in the car). On the Alter of Love has not only had the greatest influence on my ministry outside of Holy Scripture and Seminary than anything else, it also has become a family pastime to listen to. I did eventually buy their self-titled freshmen debut, after it was hard to get and expensive. I do not regret that purchase.
Downhere occupies a rare Subgenre in Christian Music that is shared with greats such as Petra, 2nd Chapter of Axe, Degarmo and Key. Though unlike these other bands, they perfected this and did not branch out into worship or social commentaries. That subgenre is called “ministry music,” Music specifically designed to minister to the felt needs of a group and encourage them specifically with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Now, you may be thinking that all CCM fills into this category, and that is true to an extent, but worship is almost completely vertically focused and CCM that is not worship tends to be horizontally focused, Ministry Music combines both vertical and horizontal aspects in a unique form to not only encourage the believer in whatever they are facing, but also point them towards the God of the universe. Even their worship music has the effect of ministering to the soul of the listener while inspiring them to worship God above. It is a whole person worship experience not often offered by protestant churches with deep, theological poetry not found in Hillsong or Bethel.
And that is what God has used Downhere to do in my life from about 2010 onward. As I went from casual listener to almost-super-fan (I have not seen them in concert or met them). Like Kyros, who I covered during my time at ARL, their music and ministry were practical and helped me focus on a way to minister. I have used their song “Forgive Yourself” in pastoral counseling sessions, “Stir” when talking about the life of a Christian, “1000 Miles Apart” when discussing Ethnic Reconciliation, “A Better Way” when sharing the Gospel, “I Will Follow Your Voice” when helping someone in their devotional life, or dealing with all the different influences in the world, “Little is Much” when addressing the idea that “Bigger is better” in the church, “The Real Jesus” when addressing cultural depictions of Jesus, and that is just from Wide Eyed and Mystified. I could go on, but you get the point, the music is deeply biblical, theological, and practical and can be used as a model for fusing those three disciplines in our churches.
It is this aspect that has made them relevant to my life and ministry in almost every aspect. Believe it or not, they have even given good advice on parenting. It is also this sort of relevance that Matt Bronlewee and Charlie Peacock have said is missing in modern CCM, both men are perfectly situated to evaluate the landscape, Matt is one of the founding members of another band whose played an important role in my spiritual life and ministry, Jars of Clay. Peacock has even written a book called: “Christian Music at the Crossroads” in which he discusses much of this. The fact is that the big label execs and the radio execs are in control of what you hear and what you think you want to listen to. The result has been, to use Ryan Clark of Demon Hunter’s terminology: “a lot of artificial light,” meaning it sounds good and may inspire you, but it does little to encourage Christian faith and maturity. The really challenging stuff, the stuff that hardly ever got any airplay, was intentionally downplayed, Rich Mullins gave way to Jason Grey, 2nd Chapter of Acts gave way to Hillsong. CCM become complacent, and when it did, its message suffered. There are a few exceptions to this, everyone remembers when “Word of God Speak” was No. 1 for almost a year, but no one has come anywhere close to the message of that song in the fifteen years since its release. Even Michael W. Smith has largely abandoned what made him famous in favor of canned Christian Worship Music. By the way, I said this when I worked at ARL that Christian Worship should not be a genre and should not be for sale, that aspect of the Christian Music Industry has troubled me for years, especially because much of what is being written and passed off as “Christian” is in fact heretical doctrinally and theologically.
The point here is not to pine for some by-gone era of Christian Music that may or may not exist, Christian Rock/Metal and Hip-Hop have produced its duds (do not ask me about the Reform the Resistance record on my shelf) and had their theologically questionable moments, but for the most part they have been steered well by their leaders like Lecrae Moore of Lecrea/116 Clique, Toby Mac of DC Talk/The Diversity Band, Toby Morrell of Emery, KB and Tedashi veterans of Christian Rap, Kevin Young of Disciple, Ryan Clark of Demon Hunter, Trevor McNevan of Thousand Foot Krutch and many others. The consistency in these genres and sub genres of Christian Music proves that CCM could have consistently been relevant and life-giving and not canned and irrelevant. It was possible to present a specific, biblical message that avoided cultural war topics (a trap DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline and Petra all fell into) and helped the flock grow in their faith and maturity in Christ. There was a blueprint for Christian Music that addressed real life scenarios and addressed them well, even in CCM as we have seen in Downhere, but the label execs and the radio execs wanted nothing to do with it because they thought: “it wouldn’t sell.” Yet, I remember the lead singer of Kyros telling me during an impromptu interview after REDvolution, while he was standing in the entry way holding up a box of CD’s that read: “Help feed Kyros’ buses gas addiction, buy a CD,” that they were outselling triple platinum artists at their concerts because of how they interacted with fans (between Philmont and Kyros, I am unsure who played more practical jokes on me during a Children 18:3 show in Hutchinson Kansas), and how their message related to fans. I have not chatted with Jason Germain or Marc Mattel, but I wonder if they would say the same.
Again, the point is not to pine for a bygone era in Christian Music that I do not remember, but to say that there is a blueprint for doing better than CCM has. We can learn again to address felt needs with practical, biblical, theological response that do not just sugar coat the hearer, but actually inspire them to a real and lasting, mature, faith in God the Father by trusting God the Son and receiving the God the Spirit. It is a hard one to follow, but the best products often come from the hardest paths, some of the best songs I have written have come from the hardest struggles. Coincidently, those have also been some of my most popular, many of you know the story behind “Voice of the Children” which was also my most requested song when I was playing on a regular basis and which has made just about every live show since 2011. “River Song” has been the same since I wrote it and started playing it in 2015.
Downhere has given us a blueprint to follow, perhaps we can take back Christian Music from the hands of those who want to sugar coat the gospel for the sake of financial gain. Maybe we can de-commercialize worship in such a way that it becomes actual worship again, and not just self-aggrandizement. I can hope, I can pray and maybe, by the grace of God we can get there together.
Rev. Jonathan David Faulkner is a Graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary holding Masters in Divinity and Church History, a Pastor, Musician and Writer. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Christian Education & Administration with a concentration in Urban Ministry. He lives with his wife and daughter in Northern Iowa and seeks to be a part of the project of reconciliation in the local and international church. He is currently serving as the Pastor of First Congregational Church of Buffalo Center