The three genres of Christian music

I’m finally getting around to processing my notes on Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture by Daniel Radosh. One of the most interesting sections deals with the Christian music industry and various opinions over what is and isn’t acceptable in the industry. Radosh interviews Jay Howard co-author of Apostles of Rock: The Splintered World of Contemporary Christian Music. Howard identifies three types of CCM* fans: separational, integrational and transformational.

According to Radosh, “the breakdown [into these three groups] is not along aesthetic style lines, and any of the CCM camps can accommodate pretty much any musical style.” Rather, the three groups are each defined by their views of popular culture and the relationship between their work and the larger culture. I’ll outline the three genres and then provide a bit of analysis in relation to the Mormon market.


Quoting Howard: “Separational contemporary Christian music takes the viewpoint that the surrounding culture is evil. So therefore, what Christians ar ecalled on to do is to come out and be separate, and then to convert other people so they can come out and be separate.”

This is the form of music that has long dominated the Christian market. Because it is aesthetically neutral, the “most effective strategy for accomplishing [its] goals is to create music that mimics whatever styles are most popular in the mainstream.” The idea is to lure non-Christians into the fold and to provide alternatives for Christians. The emphasis is on the message.


According to Howard, integrational artists see themselves as entertainers rather than ministers. “So rather than writing this come out, you must be converted music, you simply present a wholesome alternative to the Madonnas and Marilyn Mansons of the world. You don’t have to be in-your-face religious, and you might even record a whole CD without a reference to Jesus or God. It’s more what’s missing that defines it.”

As Radosh notes, this group “traffics … heavily in God-is-my-girlfriend” songs. That is, songs about love, but that with some slight pronoun/word changes could be about Jesus. These are the artists with the most potential for crossover success. Think Amy Grant or Switchfoot or Reliant K. And although they are looked down on by hard core separationists, they would argue that because of their intergrational appeal they can actually be more effective when it comes to saving people and providing wholesome entertainment that is enjoyed by many.


Howard again: Transformational music is “music stripped of its utilitarian purposes and rendered valuable only through its ability to manifest both truth and quality. Art no longer serves religion but is drawn inextricably into it.” Of course, this is the music that Howard prefers so one should take that in to account when evaluating his critical schema. And I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised (along with Radosh) to discover that this music actually has enough of a fan base that it is featured at the Christian music festival Cornerstone (although even there it is somewhat controversial for some — and Cornerstone is nowhere near the biggest of the CCM festivals).

Howard says, “Transformational is much more about getting people to ask the right questions, rather than trying to provide all the right answers.”

A Brief Analysis

I’m not very well-versed in the LDS music scene, but I don’t think that Mormon market parallels these three genres as cleanly as I had first thought. I think a big part of that is that the Mormon market just isn’t big enough to accommodate the three approaches. I also think that there is much less pressure on artists to directly proselyte (or witness, to use the Christian) term. Mormon inspirational music isn’t super seperational, and much of the popular music leans more towards the integrational, I think.

And also because of the smallness of the market, Mormon music is fairly narrow in terms of aesthetics. For example, other than Mark Hansen, then aren’t a whole lot of rockers going for the Mormon market.

And yet, even though the Mormon market doesn’t line up exactly, I do think that the three tensions about what art should do can absolutely be found in LDS culture. This is why you get the occasional flareups between the LDS fiction readers/writers and the Mormon fiction readers/writers **.

I don’t have any amazingly insightful conclusion to toss out here. But I do think that it might be useful to take these three CCM genres as a starting place for examining and discussing Mormon cultural production.  I don’t think that those who are solidly in one camp or another are going to not think that their approach is best. But if we were perhaps more clear on who we were trying to serve and how and why, it might lead to some understanding among those involved in the Mormon market.


*Christian Contemporary Music; all quotes are from pages 164-170.

**I just made that distinction up. It’s not something I really want to push, though. In fact, I think I’ll explore why that is in a future post.

14 thoughts on “The three genres of Christian music”

  1. William, do these approaches match up with other areas of Mormon culture and history? For example, it occurs to me that the Separational idea seems very similar to the “Gathering” period of LDS history, our attempt to separate ourselves from the evil world.

    I don’t know if the Integrational and Transformational ideas also match up with other periods of LDS history or ideas in LDS thought.

    I’m just curious about whether or not anything has occurred to you or to anyone else.

  2. I don’t understand the “transformational” definition. Examples?

    I think I have a unique view of Christian music, as I was educated in a Southern Baptist elementary and high school (oh joy). I listened to Christian heavy metal along with the rest of the hair bands, e.g., Stryper and Petra (I’m going to assume they would be examples of “separational”). Kansas (probably “integrational”) was known amongst evangelicals to be Christian and U2 was just coming along on the college underground (circa 1984) as “Christian political.” Amy Grant wasn’t yet a superstar amongst the evangelical set, though she was getting there with “El Shaddai,” and Michael W. Smith was just up and coming. My best friend at the time was in a christian heavy metal band and they were fairly popular.

    This was at a time when frequent week-long revivals were held decrying Satanism and its music (i.e., heavy metal and the Beatles and the Eagles). You also have to understand that Southern Baptist evangelicals (not to be confused with Assembly of God evanglicals, aka “holy rollers” in my neck of the woods) think dancing is evil but would tolerate instruments other than the organ, piano, and other orchestral types in their worship services.

    I don’t know if their tolerance of Christian heavy metal was predicated on the fact that it wasn’t Blue Oyster Cult, but there seemed to be an uneasy truce between the rockers and the preachers.

    As long as you couldn’t dance to it. (No, that wasn’t a joke.)

    As for LDS music, I was never around it, never exposed to it. I’ve never seen Saturday’s Warrior and I never got the “this is Satan’s music” backmasking and automatic writing lectures at any church functions, so I can’t speak to the state of LDS music.

  3. First of all, thanks so much for the linklove!

    I agree with your assessment that the LDS music world is small, but I have actually seen all three points of view in it. Your blog is the first time I’ve seen them labeled that way, but the concepts are present.

    I started out writing this as a simple blog comment, but then it got out of control, and I wrote it up as a whole blog entry, over at Mo’ Boy:

    Thanks for catching my interest and making me think!

  4. Mojo:

    I know nothing about the CCM scene. These are the bands Howard mentions in the few pages I photocopied that talk about the transformational genre:

    Over the Rhine
    T-Bone Burnett
    Lost Dogs
    Pedro the Lion
    Victoria Williams

    But for a real answer, it’d probably be best to track down a copy of Apostles of Rock.

  5. Mark:

    Excellent post. That circle analogy reminds me a lot of Benson Parkinson’s essay on the Missionary School (writing to the outer circle) and Deseret School (writing to the inner circle) of LDS literature. Sadly, I can’t find it online anymore.

  6. I found Greg Hansen’s review of an EFY concert interesting in relation to the above analysis of the CCM scene.

    Gaylen Rust, owner of the sponsoring company, said, “it turned out great-we wanted this show to be different and fun. We wanted LDS musicians doing music they do, and not just LDS music. We like to call this new direction Positive Music. It’s music that’s well done and entertaining, and in many genres- but it’s music that makes a difference.”

    This new direction is a welcome, fresh change for the LDS music industry. If this show heralds the beginning of a new era of wholesome, independent LDS musicians doing great stuff, then there is much to look forward to. It looks like the long standing names in the industry are bringing their own talented kids to head up the new generation of what is musically to come. What can emerge from that should be well worth listening for in the future.

  7. Just ran across this article. I listen to both CCM and LDS music. I believe that LDS music definitely has all three genres as well. I’m just glad that although I’m in the Southern Bible belt I can still find LDS music via the internet (thank you KZION). I agree that we are seeing the new generation bringing rock into our world, and I’m glad to hear it when I can find it.

  8. I am an active Latter-Day Saint who happens to be an avid student of both the CCM movement and LDS popular music.

    The CCM music world is remarkably diverse. While much is formulaic, there is some genuine talent and inspired songwriting. The “queen” of CCM music is Amy Grant, who is a surprisingly gifted songwriter; possesses a recognizable and very communicative voice; and provides some of the most enlightened and intelligent interviews that I have ever read. Her music — which varies between the folk rock of “Behind the Eyes” to the synth-pop of “Heart in Motion to the outstanding Apalachia-esque hymn projects “Legacy” and “Rock of Ages” is worth checking out.

    Although Grant is at the top of the mountain when it comes to popular Christian music, those next in line (Stephen Curtis Chapman and Michael W. Smith) have also enjoyed substantial success. Their pop music has some fine moments, but too often seems derivative of the current musical fads.

    There are a host of other “pop” CCM acts that occasionally produce some nice music, but more often than not seem to come from production mills (both lyrically and musically).

    On the more erudite level, but still in the fringes of the CCM camp), there is Michael Card (whose early music was impressive in its soaring melodies and sound scriptural accounts); Don Francisco (who has written some great biblical narrative folk songs); Bob Bennett (exceptional singer songwriter); Sara Groves (artistic heir to Amy Grant, whose CD’s Conversations and All Right Here contain themes that would blend beautifully with any LDS Family Home Evening); Phil Keaggy (Paul McCartney-esque vocals and guitar skills that rank him among the greatest of all guitarists); Randy Stonehill (pioneer of the Jesus Rock movement, with some great songs); the late Rich Mullins (extraodinary songwriter — one of his songs actually made it to an EFY CD); Andrew Peterson (whose song “Silence of God” is as beautiful and profound a modern song as has ever been written); and John Michael Talbot, a Catholic monk who has written some of the most serenely gorgeous songs that I have ever heard. (His 2 CD’s with his brother Terry are outstanding, as well). There are other CCM artists worth checking out, but these are the ones that jumped out at me. The best of any of these artists all fall within the category of brilliant and inspiring music.

    In spite of my endorsements of the above-mentioned CCM singers/songwriters, the real gems of CCM music lie just out the fringe, and can usually be found playing at Cornerstone Festival (or at your local concert venue). Bruce Cockburn is one of the finest singer-songwriters in the world, and his Christian-mystical era releases (Joy Will Find a Way; Salt Sun and Time; In the Falling Dark) constitute the best of modern Christ-related music. Genuis producer T-Bone Burnett has written some fantastic music (although he may be too edgy for many LDS ears). T-Bone’s former wife Sam Phillips has written some great music. Buddy and Julie Miller are the reigning king and queen of the alt-country scene, and Julie, in particular, has written songs of such beauty and spiritual longing that they sit perfectly next to the Psalms. Bill Mallonee of Vigilantes of Love superb songwriting includes faith-themed music that rivals Dylan himself. Over the Rhine has some exquisite releases, as do the Innocence Mission out of Lancaster, PA. Derek Webb (formerly of Caedmon’s Call) has written some fine music that challenges the complacency of the average believer. Pierce Pettis is as intelligent and gifted a songwriter as one will find anywhere. David Wilcox’s songwriting is often fantastic, and his performances — great guitarist, exceptionally warm vocals — are worth seeking out. The late Mark Heard’s music — in particular his final three releases on Fingerprint — are brilliant.

    In short, the well of faith-related/Christian-related music runs very, very deep, and there is a wealth of opportunity for those with the time to seek out great CCM-related music that also inspires.

    On the LDS front . . .

    We have a long, long ways to go, which is both unfortunate and somewhat surprising, given that the great Marvin Payne started us off with some fantastic, non-derivative albums in the 70’s and early 80’s. (Marvin still performs, and his music is highly recommended.) After Marvin . . . not too much, I’m afraid.

    Exceptions: Peter Breinholt is a fabulous songwriter, and his albums represent the very best of what Latter-Day Saint artists should be producing. His songwriting is void of cliches and of the highest quality, and his capacity to express in a universal way moments that otherwise might seem uniquely LDS makes him a special artist, indeed. (Check out his song “A Call I Hear”, which may be the best LDS popular song ever written.)

    Marvin Payne’s son Sam shows some real promise, and his best is quite good. Ryan Shupe is a world class musician, and his band puts on a great show. Nancy Hanson has written some great songs, and could be a fine addition to the LDS world of popular music. No other names jump out at me, which may be an indicator of my failure to keep up with LDS music, or, on the other hand, could be an indicator that we are lagging behind when it comes to producing top-notch, authentic music.

    (Latter-Day Saints are brilliant when it comes to classical music. The fact that can call Mack Wilberg our own is reason by itself not to despair. Still, I would love to someday hear an LDS equivalent of a Bruce Cockburn or Rich Mullins.)

    (I have not proof-read or edited this post. Apologies for any typos or other errors.)

  9. This is fantastic, Doug. Very informative. I’m glad you (and Kristine) stopped by since this is an area of Mormon culture that I don’t try to keep tabs on — although I have heard of Marvin Payne and know some of his work, which as you say, is excellent.

    I was highly intrigued by the description of the Cornerstone festival found in Rapture Ready. It’d be cool if the LDS market could reach a point where we could support something similar.

    By the way, a good source for up-and-coming LDS musicians of all stripes is the blog Linescratchers.

  10. William: One of the challenges facing LDS musicians is the Mormon cultural emphasis on “knowing” things as opposed to possessing a faith that can be burdened at time by doubt, grief, loneliness, etc. When these real-life issues — which the writers of scripture faced head on — are simply avoided, one is left with a superficiality that does not lend itself to great art.

  11. [P.S. This is why so much of the pop releases by LDS musicians sound like commercials Again, there are some wonderful and brilliant exceptions, but the bulk of LDS pop music (and much of CCM pop music) are more like jingles than psalms.]

  12. Thanks for the plug for Linescratchers. The website has more to do with creating space for LDS musicians who just want to write music for the sake of music.

    And I’ve been collaborating with Linescratchers artists to make a Best of 2009 Compilation for LDS artists who don’t write “LDS music.”

    PS, the website is actually at now. Thanks!

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