The Origins of Contemporary Christian Music

Featuring Paul Baloche Posted on February 1, 2010

If you’re writing and ministering in contemporary Worship, it might be helpful to know some of the roots of the movement. The principle of using current popular music styles in Christian music is centuries old, but it had fallen into disuse in the first half of the Twentieth Century.  Evangelical church music was frozen in a time warp.  Churches usually had an organ, a piano, a choir and a few soloists, singing old hymns, anthems, religious art songs and gospel songs in the quaint archaic styles of the 19th Century. Bible teaching radio broadcasts presented male quartets that sang all four verses of these hymns and outdated gospel songs in incessant simplistic four-part harmony. Some Bible Belt churches used Southern Gospel music along with some simple congregational choruses, while black congregations enjoyed their own unique styles. There was a genre called “Singspiration,” but it bore little resemblance to what the man on the street was listening to.  Few understood the concept of “worship” as we now know it—leading the congregation together in singing songs to the Lord. Certain instruments were not welcome in church: saxophones were considered especially worldly, and drums were definitely of the devil. There was little there that people not raised in church tradition could relate to.

In the early 1950’s a few Christian musicians began to experiment with a radical concept, that of trying again to communicate the gospel in musical styles the unchurched could identify with. A Salvation Army group called “Joy Strings” introduced Christian folk music, some brave Catholics created the “folk mass,” John W. Peterson and Audrey Mieir wrote gospel songs with modern harmonies, and an innovative young student named Ralph Carmichael got himself into trouble with Bible college offcials by setting hymns to big band jazz. He later became, for a time, the pace setter in Christian music.

The early efforts of many of these pioneers were met with opposition in parts of the church, but gradually there was some progress. The first significant Christian music recordings were made and the tamest of these began to get played on Christian radio stations. By the early 60’s the atmosphere was changing, and some high quality music was being done. At first it was accompanied mostly by strings, then acoustic guitars sneaked in, still with no drums. A line was crossed in 1965 when Ralph Carmichael introduced some greatly toned-down“Surfer” type music in a Billy Graham movie about teens, called “The Restless Ones.” It was acceptable in a film score, especially with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association name attached to it, but it would be several years before this type of music would be welcome in many churches, even in the youth department. The breakthrough came in the late 60’s with the Jesus Movement, when a new generation of young people were swept into the church in a great move of the Holy Spirit, bringing their music with them, drums, electric guitars and all. The term “Contemporary Christian Sound” was coined in 1967 to define what was being done. (It was the subtitle on the first Jimmy Owens Singers album, on Word Records.) Bill and Gloria Gaither linked together the Southern Gospel and Contemporary Christian Music fields and helped boost many artists into prominence.

Learning from the Past

We mentioned earlier the principle of writing Christian songs in the popular styles of the day. John and Charles Wesley did it in the 18th Century, and Martin Luther about two hundred years before them. George Frederick Handel did it, too, in the eighteenth century, though not in the style of the parlor but of the concert hall. He borrowed freely from himself in setting the scriptures to music for Messiah, using a number of tunes he had composed previously for other purposes. One of his great sacred choruses had originally been a tune about a silly goose. Messiah was at first banned and boycotted by many churches. Unlike Bach, who was primarily a church musician, Handel was best known as a composer of operas, a field many in the church considered worldly. So some people thought that Messiah was not worthy of association with the Holy Scriptures.