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."

This idealistic viewpoint is typical of Marshall, whose own approach to Christianity is, to put it mildly, unconventional. By comparison with the smiling, well-groomed, aggressively nice employees at Joshua's, the Christian bookstore a visitor must walk through in order to get to Road Home's Englewood offices, Marshall looks like a member of the homeless community. He sports long, unkempt, salt-and-pepper hair and an equally shaggy beard, and his taste in clothing leans toward T-shirts that look as if they do double-duty as drop cloths. According to Dawnette Newman, a former Road Home employee who continues to volunteer for the ministry, "People think he's a hippie, Harley-riding kind of guy, but he's given his life to promoting Christian music, and I think that's pretty noble of him."

In spite of his being a native of Colorado Springs, a community with a reputation as a Christian hotbed, Marshall, 44, wasn't born with a silver cross around his neck. His family was less religious than dysfunctional--Marshall says his father was an alcoholic. He found succor in rock and roll, particularly the music of the Beatles; among his proudest possessions is a copy of the Fab Four's Yesterday and Today album that includes its original, banned "butcher" cover (the photo shows the quartet posing with baby dolls covered with raw meat). As a teenager, he played in several garage bands--the claim to fame of one, dubbed Bedlam Research, was a slot opening for Music Machine, a one-hit wonder whose "Talk Talk" reached Colorado stations in late 1966. Still, Marshall had no illusions about a career as a rock star. "I was in those bands," he says, "because my parents were gracious enough to buy me equipment."

During his adolescence, Marshall attended a few Christian meetings--"mostly," he insists, "because it was easy to meet girls there." But he began to explore spiritual issues in earnest during a two-year period after high school graduation, when, he says, "I tried every hallucinogenic there was. I was doing and dealing drugs, and I got into vegetarianism and just about everything else."

This period of soul searching and debauchery came to a head in 1971, when a friend of Marshall's, fresh out of prison on a narcotics rap, got into Eastern metaphysics. He convinced Marshall to accompany him to Southern California in order to join a monastery led by a guru headquartered there. Within days, the pair was hanging around the SoCal communities of Hunt-

ington Beach and Costa Mesa--but when it came to actually signing up at the monastery, Marshall got cold feet. He fell in with a crowd of dope-smokers like himself, and when one of them told him about what he calls "the Jesus of the Bible," he was smitten. The Christian bug had sunk its teeth into him.

He was not alone: By happenstance, Marshall found himself at ground zero of the Jesus Movement, a collection of flower children who saw a connection between hippie values and New Testament theology. Likewise, he was present at the birth of what was then known as maranatha music. Maranatha (a Greek word meaning "the Lord cometh") was rock and roll with a Christian message. At the time, most of the leaders at Christian churches saw this precursor of CCM as an unfortunate besmirching of the gospel with evil jungle music, but Marshall believed it was a way of delivering the word of God in a new and exciting package.

When he returned to Colorado later that year, Marshall had a new purpose in life. He wound up at the Holy Ghost Repair Service, an East Colfax street ministry led by the late Charles McPheters. According to Marshall, McPheters was a "flamehead"; he defines the term as "a charismatic in the most radical sense. He was afraid of nothing, he had no fear, and he was so out there that he was an inspiration." When McPheters needed someone to put on a Barry McGuire concert (called "The Jesus Birthday Party") in Colorado Springs in December 1972, he chose Marshall--and Road Home was born.

At first, Road Home was something of a sideline for Marshall; his main focus became a Colorado Springs business known as the Praise Company, where he sold maranatha albums and leather-craft items ("Leather Bible covers were hot back then," he says). In 1978, the operation moved to Denver; five years later, the Praise Company was put to sleep, and Marshall began to split his focus between concert promotion and management of Steve Taylor, a Denver Christian-music performer who has become a leading CCM presence (he co-wrote and produced the last two Newsboys albums). During the early Eighties, shows by Taylor and guitarist Phil Keaggy, another Christian superstar, frequently played to packed houses at the now-defunct Rainbow Music Hall, leading Marshall and others to predict that Christian music was on the cusp of breaking through to the mainstream.

Marshall retains that optimism today, even though the last ten years at Road Home have been a struggle. To get the word out about the 35 to 40 dates a year he promotes in Colorado's Front Range and Western Slope communities, Marshall mainly uses direct mail (at least 4,000 churches in Colorado, Kansas and Wyoming were informed of the Chapman date) and contacts with youth pastors at houses of worship such as Cherry Hills Community Church (best-known parishioner: John Elway). He also places ads in religious and secular publications and buys spots on Christian radio stations, most of which don't air the kind of music he promotes. These efforts have resulted in larger attendance at many of the recent concerts Marshall's promoted, but that doesn't mean he's swimming in dough. He's the only full-time Road Home staffer, and without an army of regular volunteers, the ministry would fold. Dawnette Newman, who worked part-time at Road Home for two years before moving on to a more lucrative job at Christian-oriented KRKS-FM (where she hosts a Sunday-night CCM program), says, "It was discouraging to discover that Rob was just scrimping by. I'm amazed that he's stuck with this for so long."

Now, however, Marshall feels that his patience may finally pay off. "The possible effects of SoundScan are incredible," he says. "When people in the music industry finally realize the potential of this music, there'll be no stopping it."

In fact, Christian music already represents a rather hefty slice of the music-business pie. Bob Darden, the Waco, Texas, writer who formerly helmed Gospel Lectern, a regular column in Billboard, says, "Christian music has passed classical and jazz in total sales. DC Talk is going gold and platinum, but it's strictly within the church markets."

"That's why the mainstream doesn't know anything about it," adds John Styll, the executive editor of CCM, a Nashville magazine devoted to Christian music. "You go into Tower Records and they've got a whole room for classical music and half a rack for Christian, because Christian music has existed more or less underground for years."

In many instances, Christian bookstores, where most CCM fans purchase recordings, have helped keep Christian music in the closet. Mike Fine, chief executive officer of SoundScan, based in Huntsdale, New York, says, "There's been some resistance to installing SoundScan among some independent stores because they think they've got a niche. They're afraid that if mainstream stores realize how well CCM titles are selling, they'll start to sell them, too, and sales [at Christian bookstores] will be hurt."

At first, country retailers resisted SoundScan as well. Country had always maintained a large base of support, but the industry charts didn't reflect its popularity because Billboard and the like based their sales figures on interviews with managers at supposedly representative stores across the nation. However, this sample was skewed to urban areas where country has never been as strong. With the coming of SoundScan, which electronically records each sale based on albums' universal price code symbols, the industry got a much more complete look at total sales--and those stores that had ignored C&W suddenly realized how much money could be made from artists in the genre. Four years later, seven country albums are listed among the top forty best-selling discs in the country--and that's one of the lower country totals of the year.

"As a result of SoundScan, people became more aware of country," Fine says, "and the momentum that generated helped generate more momentum. The individual retailers thought they were going to suffer, but the market expanded so that they sold more country, and everybody else did, too."

With the SoundScanning of the majority of Christian bookstores set to be complete before the year is out, some big players in the mainstream music industry are positioning themselves to be ready should history repeat itself. Zomba, a British-based company affiliated with the massive BMG corporation, recently purchased Nashville's Brentwood Music, a leading force in the CCM world, while EMI has taken possession of Sparrow Records, among the most successful CCM imprints (it's Steven Curtis Chapman's label). More impressive yet, Jimmy Bowen, whose Liberty Records is given much of the credit for making Garth Brooks the most popular country singer of all time, has been named Sparrow's CEO. Based on nothing more tangible than Bowen's track record, mainstream retailers around the country have made Chapman's latest CD, Heaven in the Real World, among the first CCM releases to be widely available outside Christian bookstores.

Heaven, which was released this summer, was supposed to be the first CCM album to truly benefit from SoundScan, but a delay in the installation of the system blunted its impact: It's been at the top of Billboard's Top Contemporary Christian chart (still based on surveys) for the past thirteen weeks, but it does not appear on the Top 200 roster of mainstream albums. The same is true of another Christian superstar, Carman. Road Home's Marshall uses his "flamehead" term to describe Carman's approach, but there's certainly an audience for what he does: He's had five consecutive gold albums, and on October 22 he played a concert at 73,000-seat Texas Stadium.

Chapman hasn't made it on the stadium circuit yet, and he hasn't gotten much credit for his sales prowess, either. "Sparrow shipped 460,000 units of Steven's albums to Christian stores," CCM's Styll reports, "and none of that got tracked. And that makes a difference. When a DC Talk record finally charts, 10,000 stores will add it the next day, and that right there will create a lot more interest. CCM may not be as big as country, but it will be a lot bigger than it is now--and soon."

Steven Curtis Chapman, the spear carrier for CCM's march on the record biz, knows that a lot is expected of him. "I have a desire to keep encouraging the people who have been so faithful and have given me this platform up to this point," he says, "but I also want to find ways to expand that and not stay in a comfort zone. I really do want to impact my culture."

He's got the tools: Handsome and personable in a Bryan Adams kind of way, he seems like the very picture of a teenage girl's safe-and-sanitized dream date. He grew up in the American South, and was enrolled in pre-med at Kentucky's Georgetown College when he was discovered by an Opryland talent scout. He subsequently attended Nashville's Belmont College, where he began to write songs in earnest. That led to a deal with Sparrow, which issued his Christian-music debut, First Hand, in 1987. He now has seven albums under his belt, and his popularity has grown after the release of each one. This summer, figures at one of the many state fairs he played indicated that he easily outdrew fellow performers Roger Daltrey and Fleetwood Mac.

Heaven in the Real World indicates why Chapman has developed such a following: As a songwriter, he can hold his own with any of his pop/adult contemporary peers--Christians or atheists. "King of the Jungle," "Dancing With the Dinosaur" and the title cut, for which a pricey video has been made, are all slick, ultra-tuneful offerings with instantly recognizable hooks and vocals from Chapman that are every bit as accessible as Elton John's. And "Love and Learn," a tear-jerking ballad, is as effective a dose of shlock as anything that Michael Bolton has borrowed from more talented songwriters.

The lyrics, too, are earnest and intelligent--but if you're not sympathetic to Chapman's style of subtle proselytizing, the words get in the way. "Heaven in the Real World" can be read ambiguously until its concluding section, when Chapman croons "Jesus is heaven/Heaven in the real world." And the song "Treasure of You" links earthly love with the more supernatural sort: "God made everything, and of everything He made/More than anything He treasures you and me."

Even though lines like these aren't nearly as didactic as Christian music from the Seventies and Eighties, the imagery still makes secular radio programmers skittish. For this reason, Amy Grant, an established Christian star, made her first foray into the mainstream with "Baby, Baby," a pop song she said was written about her child. But the video, which gave a sexual reading to the lyric, sent shock waves through the CCM community. She and Michael W. Smith were both seen by critics as having forgotten the Christian-music fans whose support had lifted them from obscurity in the first place. The backlash was such that Grant has spent much of the past year mending fences; she hosted the annual Dove Awards broadcast, which gives prizes to top CCM artists, and has released material to Christian broadcasters and retailers that's more overtly religious than the tunes her main label, A&M, has delivered to mainstream stores and stations.

Chapman recognizes that his next moves will be watched closely by those CCM fans who felt betrayed by Grant and Smith. "There's been a feeling that once you get to a certain level, you realize that you're limited to some degree if you're going to continue to write pretty pronounced Christian music," he admits. "So I think people into Christian music think, `He's probably going to follow the steps that these other guys have taken.' There is this fear among some people--`Are we going to lose you, too?'"

In responding to that question, Chapman defends Grant and Smith, who regularly attend the same Nashville church he does. But he doesn't make a pledge never to write a song without mentioning God. "I ask myself these things daily," he notes. "I ask, `Is there a way to write songs that would allow me to reach more people and still communicate about my faith without compromise, but that avoids some of the trappings that might limit the message?' I struggle with that, and feel some pressure by that, but it's something I feel challenged by, not weighed down or oppressed about."

By the same token, Chapman's certainly not shying away from relationships that might set non-Christians' teeth on edge. For example, his current tour is sponsored by Prison Fellowship Ministries, run by convicted-Watergate-conspirator-turned-born-again-evangelist Charles Colson. Specifically, Chapman (who describes Colson as "a real inspiration--almost a mentor") is heading up something called Project Angel Tree, which plans to distribute thousands of gifts this Christmas season to children of inmates. Those presents will include cassettes of Heaven in the Real World. Another Chapman fan is James Dobson, whose Focus on the Family empire is selling Heaven and promoting Project Angel Tree.

"Maybe through this we can somehow bring hope into these kids' lives and do something that's really positive," he says. "That's what I try to do with my music. It's not preachy, abrasive, in-your-face. This is just a real honest expression of what motivates me artistically and creatively. And if people listen to it with an open mind, I think they'll like it."

After the Newsboys' McNichols encore, a Prison Fellowship Ministries spokesman grabbed a microphone and pitched the Angel Tree program, then promised that Steven Curtis Chapman, the star of the show, would emerge in fifteen minutes. A whoop went up from practically everyone except two young Newsboys fans, one of whom was distinguished by a blue, gang-style bandanna and a sullen expression. When his girlfriend chided him for his lack of enthusiasm, he pretended to go to sleep.

Nonetheless, even this attendee jumped to his feet when Chapman took the stage in a shower of light and a crash of chords. His first song was "Dancing With the Dinosaur," and Chapman sold it with an energetic performance that included some rudimentary choreography and a fresh-scrubbed demeanor that had young women shrieking, "We love you, Steven!" with the fervor of Beatlemaniacs from a generation earlier. Chapman followed this cut with several more up-tempo tunes, all of which sounded like adult-contemporary hits you couldn't quite place. Between songs, he made a few cheerful comments that referred to his faith (at one point, he thanked Jesus for taking in the show), but he was hardly doctrinaire. If anyone present stumbled into the arena by accident, it might have taken him a few minutes to discover that Christianity was the flavor of the evening.

That changed following an acoustic medley of some of Chapman's early material. Chapman began to talk about his family--his wife, Mary Beth, and his three children, Emily, Caleb and Will Franklin. Rather than growing restless during this fifteen-minute soliloquy, the listeners were leaning forward with great interest; in response to one of his pro-family statements, a swarm of young women yelled as excitedly as if he'd just proposed to them. The little girls understood. Then, after a song in which he thanked the Lord above for removing the chains of ignorance that once had bound him, he led the collected masses in prayer as an organ hummed in the background:

"God, we know you are great and we celebrate the fact that you are also so good. You have the power to break the chains of sin. It was your mercy and your grace that led you to send your son Jesus to us. Tonight, those of us who haven't been set free from sin are asking you to forgive us and set us free from that prison. We pray this prayer in the precious name of Jesus Christ, our savior. Amen."

As a deafening cheer rose to the rafters--boom!--the band lurched into action and the lights began to flash. And as Chapman began to belt out another of his undeniably catchy tunes, "For the Sake of the Call," this pied piper of CCM danced through the glare, figuratively beckoning these youngsters to follow him into a brave new world.

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