NASHVILLE — Contemporary Christian music pioneers and newcomers alike gathered on Monday for the premiere of "The Jesus Music," a documentary spanning the remarkable rise of the industry's most overlooked genre.
From filmmaking brothers Andrew and Jon Erwin, "The Jesus Music" follows Christian music's story from its inception in the 1960s at Calvary Chapel in Costa Mesa, California, to the multibillion-dollar industry it is today.
Executive produced by CCM veterans Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, the documentary features archival footage and interviews with trailblazers including Russ Taff and Bill Gaither, artists with crossover appeal like DC Talk and Kirk Franklin, and relative newcomers such as Lauren Daigle and Hillsong's Joel Houston.
In a red carpet interview with The Christian Post at the film premiere, Smith reflected on his rise to stardom in the 1980s and the role Grant, the girl-next-door CCM artist who found huge crossover success, played in his life, both personally and professionally.
"Amy and I just started making this music, and we didn't know if it would fly," he recalled. "But it did. And her audience seemed to like my music, and that's how things started opening up for me. You can't orchestrate this kind of stuff. It's all a God thing. And I'm extremely grateful."
When asked about his staying power — Smith has been in CCM for nearly four decades — the artist said he's continually surrounded himself with positive influences that keep him grounded and his music theologically sound.
"I remember when the whole thing kicked off with the success with Amy, I knew that there was probably a better chance of us being a casualty than not until we just said, 'We're not going to be a casualty.' So we just kind of set up all these rules, taking sabbaticals, staying close with our pastors," he said.
Initially, Christian music found success with a relatively small, evangelical audience, led by artists like Larry Norman and Keith Green. However, the larger Church was hesitant to embrace Christian music, with influential televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart condemning the genre as the work of the devil.
"I'm almost jealous of artists today because it was so much harder back then," Petra's John Schlitt told CP. "Now, there are so many doors that are open for artists. I hope that it continues, and I hope the next generation of artists have the courage to be the Christians that they need to be to get the message out in a clear, precise way."
In its adolescence in the '90s and early 2000s, the genre found popularity in the Christian world and with mainstream audiences, propelled by bands like DC Talk, Audio Adrenaline and Jars of Clay.
Rebecca St. James, whose songs topped charts throughout the late 90s, reflected on being part of that pivotal moment in CCM history.
"I feel like I was very blessed to be at a point in Christian music where there was a lot of development of a lot of different kinds of artistry," she said. "Now, as Christian music goes forward, and as music goes straight to platforms, there's more opportunity than ever before for great artists that also have a very sincere love for Jesus to get their work out there."
"I just pray that music that is truly authentic and sincere and meets with the heartbeat of Jesus and goes forth and sees greater levels of acceptance and culture," she added.
A candid and unapologetic look at the industry, "The Jesus Music" doesn't shy away from controversies in CCM, including the predominantly white genre's struggle to embrace diversity. It highlights how Franklin, a renowned gospel artist, first found success in secular music before CCM accepted him.
It also doesn't gloss over some of the darker moments in the personal lives of its subjects. Filmmakers touch on the public struggles of CCM's most well-known names, including Grant's divorce, Taff's alcoholism and the untimely death of TobyMac's 21-year-old son, Truett.
"When people see [this movie], they're to see that we're very human," Smith said. "Sometimes people put us on a pedestal and they expect a lot out of us and, and we struggle just like everybody else does. I love that [filmmakers] painted not just the bright side of the thing, but also the struggle. You lose a loved one, you get an addiction and all that sort of thing."
Newsboys lead singer Michael Tait added: "You see the rub of wealth and the personal problems spilling out onto the stage. Because it turns out that we aren't perfect. We're forgiven."
"Jesus Music" also pulls back the curtain on the discord within some of the genre's most popular groups. TobyMac's controlling tendencies, for example, played a role in the disbanding of DC Talk — something he readily acknowledges in the film.
The artist told CP that allowing filmmakers to "pull the curtain back" on his career — even the painful moments — was an easy decision.
"I've spent my whole life letting my music speak," he shared. "Music comes from my experiences; my pain, my beautiful days, my struggling days, and then seeking refuge. So, I'm more than happy to pull the curtain back and say, 'This is who we are. CCM is rich. It's got tradition. It's got bones.'"
The majority of the film, however, focuses on formative moments in CCM history. When DC Talk released the 1995 hit song "Jesus Freak," it topped charts and changed the meaning of the term that previously held negative connotations.
"We had a little slogan that said, 'If it's Christian, it ought to be better,'" Tait, who was also part of DC Talk, told CP. "And we never left that slogan. We never left that mentality."
Since DC Talk's founding in the 1980s, TobyMac said he's always tried to stay aware of what's going on in the world, politically, socially and musically and speak the Gospel into those moments. He said that championing the next generation of artists to do the same is what continues to motivate him.
"We're in a world that doesn't know that much about Jesus," he said. "I want to be part of anything where we're letting people know about Him because I want to be of service to Him. I feel like we have some great artists coming out now and we have some great artists that were the pioneers that let me do what I do. So I'm grateful for that."
"The Jesus Music" also touches on the relationships within the Christian music industry, from Kirk Franklin's mentoring of Lecrae and TobyMac's championing of Mandisa to the influence Grant had on Bart Millard, lead singer of MercyMe.
"I grew up listening to this kind of music, and I'm kind of a product of the system. I know way too much of Christian music," Millard told CP. "I think there's a lot of people that just aren't aware that Christian music is out there, and I just I hope we get more fans and people check it out and see and realize that it's more than just about the music, but about the message."
In "The Jesus Music," the Erwin brothers, who are also behind the films "I Can Only Imagine" and "Woodlawn," expertly show just how influential Christian music has been in the larger cultural conversation over the decades.
For King and Country's Joel Smallbone told CP that CCM is "deceptively important" — and will continue to grow in influence as the genre expands.
"With the rise of streaming, you're able to get music from anyone, anywhere in the world, and that is that is powerful," he said. "I'm hopeful to see authentic, gritty, ruthlessly, honest, Jesus music rise. For years we've been given a shiny, happy, slightly unrelatable version of things, and we've got to start writing about the real-life issues and how God intersects with those issues because, the fact is, He does. He is here with us. He's working whether we choose to see it or not."
Throughout history, the beauty of music has always been that it's "inherently spiritual," Smallbone said.
"I think it's in its rightful spot now, rubbing shoulders with hip-hop and R&B and pop and all the rest of it," he said.
When asked about his hope for the future of Christian music, Smith said he prays up-and-coming artists — and those with established careers — remain "faithful" to what God has called them to do.
"Music is the most powerful universal language in the world," he said. "It's a healer, especially during times of turmoil all around the world. Music can be a catalyst in turning things around. Maybe, just maybe, music will be a catalyst for the revival that we've all prayed for years and years."
The documentary opens in theaters nationwide on Friday, Oct. 1
Leah M. Klett is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org