ONWARD, CHRISTIAN SINGERS!

THE KINGS OF CONTEMPORARY CHRISTIAN MUSIC BELIEVE THAT THEIR PRAYERS ARE ABOUT TO BE ANSWERED.

For the most part, it looked and sounded like practically any rock concert. The throng at McNichols Arena on a Tuesday night in late October was dominated by teenagers, and if some of them appeared tidier and more clean-cut than the fans at your average Metallica date (one young man actually wore a V-neck sweater), others were every bit as scroungy as you'd expect. And while quite a few moms and dads were in attendance, the majority of them looked suitably shocked by what was taking place on stage.

No, there was neither the full-frontal nudity nor the frequent profanity that marked the Nine Inch Nails/Jim Rose Circus/Marilyn Manson gig that took place at this location five days before. But the Newsboys, the Australian act opening the show for singer-songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman, were still wild enough to add a few gray hairs to unprepared parents' heads. The act's songs fit snugly within the parameters of so-called alternative music: They sported loud guitar riffs and noisy keyboard lines that crashed together amid shouted vocals from lead singer John James, whose shaved head was set off by a silver suit that made him look like a follicly challenged hood ornament. Although the Newsboys' sonic touchstone is INXS, their athletic live demeanor called Green Day to mind.

But the Newboys' philosophical approach was far different from the latest make of punk rocker. Following the fiery conclusion of one cut, James pulled his microphone close and said, "When you're on a tour where you go from city to city, it's really easy to get focused on the music industry and lose touch with why you're there. And when that starts to happen to us, we just look up"--he cast his gaze skyward--"and turn our eyes up on Jesus."

A line like this would have caused instant nausea among most new-music aficionados, but not these. The audience screamed with delight, then sang along as the Newboys crooned the ditty "Turn Your Eyes Up on Jesus." And later in the set, when James barked the lines "I cannot get you.../I do not want you/Out of my head," no one in this crowd thought he was bleating about, say, Cindy Crawford.

Sorry, Cindy--that was God Almighty bouncing around inside James's cranium. And if the reaction of these McNichols ticket-holders was any indication, the Big Guy's got a grip on them, too.

In the past, Christian music's hold on its listeners was not nearly so strong. The genre was seen by many participants and outside observers as a commercial backwater, a labor of everlasting love that didn't stand a chance of reaching anyone other than the previously committed--and not a lot of them, either. A few performers (such as Mahalia Jackson) built solid reputations with the general public, and a handful of others ("Eve of Destruction" tunesmith Barry McGuire among them) publicly tossed over a secular life in favor of a career promoting Christianity in song. But aside from a few bizarre exceptions--most notably "Oh Happy Day," a gospel hit for the Edwin Hawkins Singers in 1969, and material from the early-Seventies rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar--the pop charts have been damnably resistant to overt declarations of Christian faith. Even Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith, the two best-known current artists to rise from the Christian-music movement, did so by removing nearly every religious reference from the material they shipped to radio.

In the future, that might not be necessary. Chapman, an unknown to all but a few non-born-agains, has managed to chalk up multiple gold records (indicating sales of more than 500,000 copies) over the course of a career spent singing songs filled to the brim with Christian imagery. DC Talk, a rapping trio that got together while attending Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, has taken a similar course, as have a slew of new Christian artists who are building solid audiences across the country. The 6,500 folks who turned out to see Chapman and the Newsboys in Denver are representative of the style's stealth appeal.

But these numbers are only the beginning, if the boosters of contemporary Christian music, or CCM, are to be believed. The reason? The overwhelming majority of CCM albums are purchased at Christian bookstores that aren't monitored by music-industry publications such as Billboard. But starting around the first of December, over 60 percent of these businesses will go on-line with SoundScan, a computerized sales-tracking system. This might seem like a mundane switchover, but it's not: When shops that specialized in country music were hooked up to SoundScan four years ago, major labels were shocked to discover how many C&W discs were selling. The subsequent country-music boom would not have happened without SoundScan.

It's too early to know if a similar explosion will shoot CCM to mass-market prominence, but all the indications are there. Billboard, for instance, has already posed the rhetorical question, "Is Steven Curtis Chapman the Garth Brooks of contemporary Christian music?"

Heathens, be warned: Jesus Christ could be coming to a pop-music radio station near you.

That prospect sounds mighty fine to Rob Marshall, whose nonprofit Road Home Ministries has been the primary promoter of Christian-music concerts in Colorado for 22 years. The hard work of pushing CCM shows would have been made easier over that period if Marshall had received help from secular radio. That he hasn't frustrates him. "I still don't know why CCM is a separate industry and culture," he says. "I think there's a lot of prejudice toward lyrics about God, and I don't think it has to be that way."

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