The Glorious Rise Of Christian Pop

Are you ready to rip the face off this place?" screams the lead singer of Pillar. A hyped-up crowd of teens--6,000 strong--goes nuts. The aggressive rap-rock band launches into a pummeling kickoff number, the surly singer pounding the stage with his steel-toed boot, sweating right through his baggy Army fatigues and black bandanna. He gestures like a member of some vicious street gang as he screams and roars into the mike, his arm swinging low as if on the way to the requisite crotch grab. This crude move is as integral to rap-rock as the blown kiss is to a lounge act, and is usually accompanied by a testosteroid explosion of expletives. The singer's hand slaps down hard on his thigh--and stays there. Gripping his pants leg with conviction, he screams, "Jesus Christ!" Pause. "Is he in your heart?"

It's time to wreak havoc and give praise at Festival Con Dios, the first Christian alternative-rock tour. This is the sanctified answer to hedonistic summer blowouts like Lollapalooza and Ozzfest, an extravaganza where amped-up rock and roll meets tamped-down self-control. On the tour, which will span more than 30 U.S. cities throughout the summer and early fall, the ska band the OC Supertones dedicates its music to God while goofing around the stage in giant Afro wigs. Thuggish rapper T-Bone busts gangsta-style rhymes about the Lord. Newsboys, the festival creators and platinum-selling Christian-rock veterans, warn of Judgment Day in an upbeat song as their drummer defies gravity on a vertical, rotating riser. And it's all in the name of Jesus.

Alternative rock is just one pillar in the gigantic cathedral of Christian entertainment. It spans from the popular "Left Behind" novels, which sold 28.8 million copies, to the Grammy-winning singer Steven Curtis Chapman, who helped pack in 50,000 at the Freedom Live festival in Tulsa, Okla., last week. Then there's the 22 million video sales of the children's cartoon "VeggieTales." This gospel-fueled fun is now a booming business and a cornerstone of American culture. So why didn't you hear the hoofbeats of its thunderous approach? Because so much of this energy fails to register on the seismographs of mainstream industry and media, the ruling parties that tend to dismiss Christian entertainment as too marginal ever to outgrow its niche position.

The largely evangelical industry has created its own parallel world anyway, a place where popular art and culture are filtered through a conservative Christian lens and infused with messages of faith. This is a milieu familiar to many people who live in the Red Zone--the vast swath of the nation that tends to go to church, voted for George W. Bush and is sometimes suspicious of the national press (including NEWSWEEK). On the mammon side, the rise of Christian entertainment is a simple matter of supply and demand. The number of evangelicals, or born-agains, has increased sharply over the past 20 years; some studies suggest they're the fastest-growing segment of America's religious population. The heavenly ring of cash registers has finally grown so loud that major publishers (including Warner Books) have started Christian-book divisions, and independent gospel-based labels are being snapped up by such corporate giants as Sony and Universal. You don't have to care about music to see that the subculture of Christian rock, with its marketing strategies, ecclesiastical messages and devoted fans, sheds light on a fascinating sector of American life.

Contemporary Christian music is now the hottest genre in the entire music industry. If Christian pop used to connote sappy lyrics, lacquered hairdos and soft-focus videos, it now means the boy band Plus One, the Latin cross-over singer Jaci Velasquez and even the arty, underground Danielson Family. "CCM" has become an umbrella term for anything with faith-based lyrics, from Twila Paris's inspirational hymns to Audio Adrenaline's squealing feedback. It also means $747 million in record sales last year--7 percent of the overall sales in the American music industry. To put that in perspective: for every 10 country-music albums sold, seven Christian CDs fly off the shelf. CCM sales were double those of U.S. Latin music last year and topped the combined numbers of jazz, classical and New Age.

It took more than prayer to revitalize the industry. Christian music underwent a makeover, hipping itself up for the approaching millennium. Starting in the early '90s, its artists began borrowing from more relevant styles of music and fashion to promote their words of praise. Conveying those lyrics in the catchiest ways is now the main goal. It's all part of an evangelical oral tradition to spread the Gospel. Where a preacher uses the pulpit and an organ, CCMers use the stage and a band. Artists can choose to dedicate songs directly to God, referred to as "verticals," or praise-and-worship tunes, or to sing about religious values, sometimes with a deliberate ambiguity to attract less conservative listeners. Occasionally, the music crosses over: CCM stars such as crooner Michael W. Smith and the roots-rock outfit Jars of Clay get play on VH1, and the metal bands P.O.D. and Lifehouse are embraced by MTV. To young Christians, these rock artists are Gospel-spreading heroes. Like the kids, they exist between dueling cultures, forming an unlikely bridge from explosive teenage rebellion to steady, unwavering faith.

The music is blaring as church-group buses roll into the South Bend, Ind., stop of Festival Con Dios around 4 p.m. on a sweltering June day. (Sixty percent of the Con Dios crowd come with their church groups, most of the rest with parents.) It's an easy site to find; just down the road from the Dew Drop Lounge and the Chippewa Bowl. The yellow buses kick up clouds of dust as they pull across the lot of the 4-H Park grounds, emitting a final plume of smoke as they grind to a halt near the rabbit-and-poultry club shed. The kids disembark: a gangly pack of 10- to 17-year-olds that could pass for the fans at any of the summer's other traveling rock tours. Slouchy boys amble toward the entrance in baggy hip-hop wear while giddy girls in prefaded flares and chunky-soled sandals hang back in cliques. But on closer inspection, that boy's shirt actually reads KICKIN' IT 4 JESUS. And that cute baby T with the cartoon images of frogs? They're croaking REPENT. REPENT. REPENT.

"This is the coolest thing, in my opinion, that has ever happened to Christian music," says 15-year-old Brendan Brown, as he walks through the huge inflatable entrance to the Con Dios main stage; 180,000 more kids will have taken this walk by the close of the tour on Sept. 30. "It's not the biggest crowd, but in terms of cool, this is like the best combination of stuff ever put together."

Being a cool Christian rocker is no easy task. Remember the '80s Christian glam band Stryper? You can't look good in black and yellow unitards, even if you've got God on your side. Con Dios artists are far savvier and up to date, from their choice in hair gel to their hip-hop beats (God is in the details). The big question: is the music any good? The answer is mostly yes. More than half of the Con Dios bands are tight enough to compete with MTV's "TRL" crowd. Christian fans can now groove to music that's actually hip, yet still reflects their deep-seated faith. "I'd think about going to the Warped Tour," says Jessica, 14, complete with blue eye shadow and braces. "But not if there's a lot of cussing and stuff."

Parents couldn't be happier. "I used to have fun when I went to rock shows, but my parents had no idea what was happening in there," says Michele Shaw, watching as her 5- and 10-year-olds tackle one of the festival's interactive attractions, the rock-climbing wall. "That's why I like this. It's different enough from a church service, yet still has all the moral values we believe."

There are no drugs in sight at Festival Con Dios. No kids facedown in the dirt, no broken bottles, no smell of warm, cheap beer. Hell, no one here even smokes. And groupies? Out of the question. In fact, some band members even bring their wives. The closest thing to rock debauchery is girls gazing dreamily up at Newsboys' barefoot guitarist with his shoulder-length blond locks and flowing, gauzy garb. That's not to say there are never problems. With more than 20 major Christian-music festivals a year, some drawing up to 100,000 attendees, something's bound to happen. Just this week, Ja'Marc Antoine Davis of the Christian rap group Raze faces arraignment on rape and molestation charges by a former backup dancer whom he met through his church (he earlier waived his right to a preliminary hearing without a plea agreement). But compared with the violence and mayhem of Woodstock III, or any other given rock tour, Con Dios is a safe haven.

And clean living is surprisingly cheap. For $25 (and many kids get discounts because their churches buy tickets in blocks), fans can watch 10 bands play, hear an inspirational sermon by a youth pastor and watch motorcycle and bicycle stunts performed off to the side of the stage. There's also the "Village" area, which features booths full of CDs and T shirts (T-Bone's album "The Last Street Preacha," Pillar's stomp the devil sweatshirt, etc.). Then, of course, there's the bungee-jump attraction, where kids can fly in the air like a "Crouching Tiger" warrior until Mom tells them to get down and give someone else a chance. Youth leaders head for the "breakout" tent to explore innovative ways to minister to their groups. The kids have the option to visit the prayer area if they're not moshing to Skillet's acerbic din, or rocking to the Beastie Boyish raps of Earthsuit. Or they can all bow their heads together at the main stage, where bands and speakers break into prayer at any given hour.

Fun and prayer aside, there's no getting around the metaphoric elephant in the middle of this alt-rock fair: the values of Christianity and anti-values of rock seem morally incompatible. Yet there's something about the ethos of alternative rock--staying true to your beliefs, never bowing to mainstream pressure--that is oddly simpatico with conservative Christian culture. "I think rebellion and Christianity go together," says Mark Stuart, 33, lead singer of Audio Adrenaline, a veteran CCM group that recently started their own label, Flicker (one of many new indie Christian labels). They are the second highest-grossing band on this tour, selling more than 2 million albums since 1992. "Singing about sex and drugs is the easiest thing to do. It's old by now. So pretty much the most rebellious rock-and-roll person you can be is a Christian-rock frontman because you get people from every side trying to shut you down." In another twist, much of the consternation over Christian rock comes from evangelical circles. "The Christian people protesting our shows call it high-decibel Devil worship," says Stuart. "They don't even know what we're doing. They're just afraid. They probably saw Jerry Lee Lewis shaking his hips 50 years ago and are still like 'Rock and roll, it's Devil's music'."

It's 6 p.m., and there's no sign of evil yet. In fact, the most serious security concern of the day is moms complaining that they can't leave the grounds to get things from their car-bound coolers. "How can we fix that?" asks an organizer sternly. The security guy says, shrugging, "I guess we'll just let 'em out there." Moms are to Con Dios what strippers are to a Kid Rock show. While secular-minded teens would rather sit at home and do their math homework than attend a show with Mom and Dad, here whole families sit on blankets in the main-stage area under a local sponsor's banner, wfrn radio: a friend of the family.

For better or worse--OK, worse--kids with solid family values have become an oddball minority, living outside the mainstream. "Everyone out there is a freak, and I support them all," says Newsboys' Peter Furler, pointing out the window of his tidy tour bus. The 34-year-old singer and his band are the most successful of acts in Con Dios, selling more than 3.25 million albums in their 15-year career thanks to touring, word of mouth and grass-roots promotion. "I look at us as a tool to not only entertain Christian kids, but encourage them to pull through hard times. What they're struggling with as young Christians, we went through, too. It's just learning how to deal with your faith."

And how to deal with a faithless world. As the sun goes down, special guest Pastor Anthony Walton hits the stage and preaches to the fresh-faced crowd about the inevitability of death, telling about a boy whose sister contracted a deadly blood disease and children who eat their own feces for protein. The kids listen, but it's hard to concentrate on pain and suffering when a motorcycle daredevil is getting ready to jump over a school bus right in front of you. Still, the young crowd is polite. There are no boos, no plastic cups hurled at the stage. This is clearly not an Ozzfest, where a mere bum note can incite a barrage of flying trash.

These well-behaved kids didn't just wander in here. They were targeted by Christian promoters such as Interlink, an organization that sends Gospel-oriented music and news to youth-group leaders in hopes that they'll pass it on to their flocks. The church youth group is the core of social life for conservative Christian kids, and where bands like Newsboys, Cadet and Superchick got their first taste of playing for an audience.

But for musicians from a more mainstream background, Christian rock seemed about as cool as learning polkas on a wheezing accordion. "The only thing I knew about it is what was on TBN, you know, that crying channel," says Ben Cissell, Audio's 25-year-old guitarist. In high school, he listened to Bad Religion. "A guy on my soccer team used to wear an Audio Adrenaline T shirt and tried to get me to go to a concert. And I was like, 'No way, I'm not going.' I was a normal kid in a public school. I wasn't gonna be caught dead at a Christian-rock concert." By his sophomore year, Cissell converted to Christianity and began playing with the very band he'd refused to go see.

At 9 p.m., Newsboys hit the stage in a flash of lasers and pyrotechnics. A tired roadie is unimpressed. He saunters behind the sound booth and shakes his head. "Christians just cannot crowd-surf." When being passed overhead by the crowd, these teens just can't relax. They sit straight up, stiff as a church lady in a pew, bobbing and listing until they topple sideways into the crowd. But in the mosh pit, spiky-haired boys do a fine job of knocking the bejesus out of one another, stopping midslam only to let a bunny-hopping conga line slip through. Then it's over. Newsboys leave their Con Dios brethren with a prayer, the lights come up and the kids begin picking up trash--voluntarily--before boarding their buses for home.

"We're experiencing what alternative music experienced--it starts as this small thing and blows up," says singer Furler, as an ESPN special on extreme sports plays on the trailer's overhead TV. "To me this is the underground right now, know what I mean? Now you have big record companies involved 'cause they're sniffing at the bucks. But we know that. We're not stupid. We know they're not trying to promote the name of Christ." Faith--the ultimate alternative.