I started listening to Christian contemporary music when I was in my pre-teens.
I heard dcTalk’s “Jesus Freak” on a CD, and that was the end of it for me: I fell in love with the music and immediately bought everything of theirs I could get my hands on. I listened to the Newsboys. To Jars of Clay. To FFH. No one ever made me do it and, to be honest, I went to a church that favored old traditional hymns over anything contemporary. No, Christian music was a “me” thing, and I was an avid collector. It met me precisely where I was at. I attended festivals and went to concerts. I knew the lyrics to every single song.
Sometime during that period, I became aware that listening to Christian music was not incredibly…cool. My school friends were listening to Counting Crows and Gwen Stefani, and though I sometimes pretended to like the songs they let me listen to, I usually ended up drifting back to my own collection. When people asked to see my CDs, I’d proudly display them: my meticulous library of Christian music, a bunch of Irish trad and instrumental stuff, and a few fantasy-inspired or video game soundtrack collections. Oh, and Phantom of the Opera.
I was, and am, a happy geek.
At that time, the music was more of a lifeline to me than I realized. Looking back, I see that it helped me understand that there were other people out there like me: young Christians bopping around to the same songs, enthusiastically and unashamedly waving their hands about Jesus. That it was okay to care. That it was okay to live your walk daily. And through it, I met other people who shared my interests. I learned that I didn’t really care about whether or not I was cool or anybody else wanted to listen to what I was listening to.
Christian contemporary music taught me that it was okay to do my own thing, regardless of everyone else, to develop a thick skin to the eye-rolling that so often accompanies the simple indulgences of faith. That praise could be something unique to me, an expression of how I live in the world. And it taught me that there were many kinds of Christians, many ways to worship, many ways to praise and serve beyond the old-fashioned hymns of my church.
For a long time, the love for that music drove me. I even chose a new church with my husband with my love for that music in mind – I wanted a contemporary service, with my songs. But life happened, as it does for all of us who grow up loving any particular type of music. Groups I loved faded away or disappeared to be replaced by new groups, some of whom I liked but few of whom I loved. New worship songs became “contemporary,” while my beloved favorites starting showing up only every blue moon or so. And I grew frustrated at what I saw as the “copycat” tendencies of the Christian music industry, which at times eschewed originality in favor of artists who were essentially “clean” versions of popular secular singers.
But I still listen to Christian contemporary music. Not all the new stuff, no, though I have a quite a collection of new songs and singers that I enjoy quite a bit. Often I turn to my old favorites from when I was younger, in the same way that my dad used to bewilder me by listening to his old favorites on the radio when I was a kid. I’ve turned back to the more traditional stuff, remembering that Be Thou My Vision has always been my favorite hymn. I have been known to enjoy liturgical music, too. And so my “Jesus songs” are packed in with my instrumental stuff and my Irish trad and my musicals and soundtracks, same as always.
I’m grateful for Christian music because it taught me – back when I was an awkward pre-teen figuring out my identity in Christ – that praise could be many different things. That it was what happened when I jumped around in my room to dc Talk, and what happened when my elderly friend and fellow congregant Ruby sang Sweet Beulah Land, and what happened when my best friend lurched and moshed to metal in the name of Jesus. That it could be found in the words I didn’t understand when my friend Promise sang praise songs he learned back home, that it could be found in the sound of a fiddle on the west coast of Ireland, in the hiss and crash of waves against the shore, in silence.
For me, Christian music was a soundtrack to the questions and decisions and worries that only a teenager could understand. It was a reminder that it was okay to just do me, and not like what everyone else liked. It taught me the virtue of being uncool. And it was, and is, a blessed reminder of the delightful variance in God’s creation.
“Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,” Psalm 100 instructs – and oh, how we do, in all our different ways. What a gift.