With Winter Jam, a hugely successful Christian music arena tour, hitting Colonial Life Arena this Friday, it makes one wonder: Is contemporary Christian music achieving its mission of being both contemporary and Christian?
The artists featured at Winter Jam represent a cross section of the current Christian music scene, from the pop-appeal of Newsboys and Newsong to the processed power-balladry of Plumb, from the hip-hop-leaning Lecrae to the heavy-rocking Thousand Foot Krutch. But do they really reach — or preach to — the kids who attend, or is it just another instance of appropriating and watering down popular culture touchstones without the quality of the original?
What: Winter Jam 2014
Where: Colonial Life Arena, 801 Lincoln St.
When: Friday, March 14, 7 p.m.
With: Newsboys, Lecrae, Tenth Avenue North, more
Price: No ticket required. $10 donations at the door.
More Info: coloniallifearena.com
“Kids are in tune with music. It’s what motivates them,” says Rev. Neal Smith, associate pastor to students and families at First Baptist Church of Batesburg. “If I can get behind artists that incorporate Christ in their messages, then I am helping to encourage them through what they are hearing.”
Local Christian music promoter Steven Seshun, who brought the Holypalooza concert series to Columbia for several years, is a fan of Winter Jam and its attempt to expand the range of music it offers.
“It is a great concert experience that ministers through the music,” he posits, “and since they have started adding edgier bands like Skillet or RED, some of those bands have been making it in the mainstream or alternative rock radio formats.”
Smith has been taking youth groups to Winter Jam concerts for a decade, and he says it’s a matter of getting the kids familiar with artists who convey a positive Christian message, even if it means exposing them to groups who imitate whatever is hot on the pop charts.
“When faced with the decision to listen to secular or Christian music, most kids will tend to lean towards secular,” Smith says. “If Christian musicians can cash in on that, so be it. I would rather my students listen to a musician or band whose sound resembles Kanye West or Korn, but has a spiritual message, than the real thing.”
And there’s the rub: If most Christian pop musicians are merely mimicking their secular counterparts, why should kids bother to listen? Still, the quality level of most popular Christian music has been increasing for a while, mirroring the rise of tours such as Winter Jam where even lesser known artists can play for packed arenas.
Lecrae, one of the more mature artists playing the Colonial Life Arena on Friday, manages sonic — and spiritual — authenticity. His beats and rhymes on tracks such as “Tell the World” and “I’m Turnt” are every bit as intense as hip-hop on the other side of the aisle, and his background — raised by a single mother after his father succumbed to drug abuse — grants his personal testimony a sense of gritty honesty.
Smith agrees, wagering that Lecrae’s personal story matters as much as his musical ability.
“We did a Bible study this past summer called ‘I Am Second,’” he recalls. “Lecrae was one of the musicians who shared his testimony. The kids have found relatability not with his past but with his present — trying to make a positive out of a culture that focuses so heavily on the negative.”
But even if the groups at Winter Jam are delivering an earnest and relatable message, it’s tough to tell whether the kids are paying attention to more than the lights, the fog machines, and the loud music. But Seshun believes that exposing kids to Christian bands — even when they don’t resonate — is better for their faith than listening to secular music with themes that might lead them astray.
“There are Christian bands on Christian distribution, and there are Christians in bands,” he says. “What makes us Christians is not wearing a label but how we live our lives, so bands that live like Christians help me in my ‘walk’ as a Christian.”
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