Every year at Castles-n-Coasters, 50 bands play on four stages in front of crowds that could be considered big by any reasonable Phoenix standard. Odds are, however, that unless you happen to follow Christian music, you will not have heard of the bands on the two-day Rage Festival bill. Thousand Foot Krutch or Decyfer Down, anyone? Those two bands (with terrible names) are soon-to-be-extinct dinosaurs.
If you want to see the future of Christian music, look to the side stages, where you'll find performers like Tucson's Ryan Romeo doing straight-ahead worship music. Yup, just songs about God and nothing else. Those musicians are going to take over Christian music.
The transition from pop/rock bands dominating the Christian charts to sensitive guys and gals singing their hearts out straight to God is already under way, with acts like the David Crowder Band selling out the Celebrity Theatre and Australian megastars Hillsong United likely to come close to filling the US Airways Center in March.
Sure, both the pop artist and worship artist are singing about God, but the pop artist makes polished music about life through the lens of Christianity, while the worship artist writes simpler, rawer songs with God at the center. The worship artist is not making music that's going to fool someone who likes mainstream rock into listening, as Sixpence None the Richer did with "Kiss Me." Where a Christian pop song often makes someone wonder whether the singer is talking about a girlfriend or Jesus (most of The Fray's catalog, for example), there really isn't room for confusion when someone like Romeo describes himself as "leading people into God's presence through song."
So, why is music that sounds very little like popular music — and isn't really trying to compete aesthetically in the mainstream — what churchgoing music-buyers want to hear? It's largely because worship music sounds more artistically credible.
Here's the thing about worship music: There's not much room to hide when all you're singing about is God. You're not writing songs that attempt to be cleaner, less angst-y versions of last year's hits. The point is to actually move a group of people emotionally and have them respond. There's a reason that many of the younger leaders of the worship movement cite '90s emo bands like Texas Is the Reason, The Get Up Kids, and Mineral as influences. That sort of über-sincerity is what drives a lot of worship music these days.
The easy joke to make about Christian music is that it sounds like regular music but with the word "Jesus" thrown in and the songs a little bit crappier. If you listen to a lot of it, it's easy to get that impression.
There's a good reason for that. Most Christian music goes through the same major-label wringer that most commercial music goes through: A band forms, get signed, and then is sold as product by some guys in a conference room.
It just so happens that the Christian arm of the average major label has less to work with than the other arms of the label. Christian bands tend to not tour as obsessively as their secular counterparts, partially because there isn't the same club circuit to host them but also because Christian musicians get married sooner and are less likely to drop everything to live in a van. Anyone in music will tell you: It's hard to get better if you're not playing every night, and a lot of Christian bands don't take the opportunity to work out their sound that way.
The upside for worship artists is that they do have regular places to play — multiple services at big churches — even if the crowds in them are less demanding.
Brian Wurzell, whose new album, Grace Ocean, hit the Christian top 10 on iTunes, is on staff at Chandler's Cornerstone Christian Fellowship and went from playing drums for a Southern California pop-rock band (and opening for bands like Phantom Planet, Yellowcard, Rooney, and the band that became Maroon 5) to fronting a worship team that performs in front of thousands of church attendees every weekend.
Wurzell is conscious of the tension between remaining true artistically and playing what people in the pews want to hear. He finds it "tough to find the balance of artistry and accessibility. I've got these artist fibers in me and, yet, in worship music the chief goal is connectivity. Vocationally, I've just got to pour myself in to making the lyrics full and the music accessible and staying humble as a leader."
That desire to connect is generally a part of any band's plan (even if it's just to connect with their fans through the wallet), but the reason worship music will likely kill off Christian pop is largely in performers' overwhelming desire to tell the truth instead of just providing an alternative to a less-holy style of music.
When you ask Ryan Romeo, who came to Christianity almost entirely because of the influence of the worship music he heard in church, about where the genre is going, he predicts the next wave of worship music will be "moving toward more honesty and deep theology. Gravitating less around simple acoustic sing-along songs and moving into songs that you really need to think about [with] less of a polished Nashville sound [as well as more] indie pop/rock worship bands."
In many ways, worship music is making the move within Christian circles that you'd hope for with music in general — breaking down the walls of corporate restraints. Music's technological revolution allows for worship leaders to record and release material almost instantly and then perform that music in front of audiences. There really isn't a need for the traditional music industry in that equation, and both Romeo and Wurzell are selling their music outside that system in primarily digital formats.
Then again, contemporary Christian music didn't really start with EMI and Warner driving the conversation. At first, the music was largely made by hippies who'd found Jesus, strumming guitars and singing music about God, before someone realized there was money to be made. At least those making worship music are trying, holding conferences to discuss the genre's future (Romeo was part of a conference last year in Waco, Texas, that was led by worship megastar David Crowder) and where to go from here.
For now, there's something still charmingly idealistic about the whole thing, and when someone like Wurzell says, "There is still space for both story and response, mystery and clarity, proclamation and silence, and the simple and profound," there's something about that purity of thought that's inspiring for music as a whole to aim for."