Contemporary Christian Music, CCM for short, may seem easy to understand. Its music and lyrics are inspired by the life of Jesus Christ with words and phrases from the Holy Bible.
CCM has an interesting history, dating back to the turbulent 1960s. Now, 50-plus years later, it seems like a good time to look back and find out what led to the formation of CCM and how it has progressed since.
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Definition: What Is CCM Music?
Music that is played in many churches today, whether it be with a band, an organ, or with a karaoke machine is Contemporary Christian Music. It’s also the kind of music heard on Christian radio stations throughout the country.
In the beginning, the idea of CCM was to incorporate newer instruments and musical styles into worship services. That included electric guitars and drums.
Contemporary Christian Music Characteristics
The most obvious characteristic of CCM is the themes that are explored through the lyrics. Themes such as patience, love, worship, and the power of God are explored and celebrated. However, the delivery of those messages is done through a few means.
Vocals for instance are typically very personal in their delivery such as using a more breathy execution when a singer is close up on the mic. They will also modulate above or below where the pitch should actually be.
An Infectious Rythym
The design of CCM is often for worship within churches with groups of people celebrating with one another. The syncopated rhythm is catchy and encourages people to get their bodies moving and takes pieces of dance and rock music.
Use of Repetition
There is also a large focus on repetition in the lyrics for the music. Some songs might utilize a very small pool of words and focus on the repetition of a handful for the entirety of the song. This style choice combines the personal feeling of the lyrics and the body-moving rhythm to encourage the celebration of the practice of worship.
9 Examples of CCM music
The following CCM songs illustrate the genre’s history.
“We Are One in the Spirit”
One of the first hit CCM songs, We Are One in the Spirit could be heard at weekend retreats around the campfire as well as at more progressive churches. This includes the “guitar masses” that the Roman Catholic Church began in the early 1970s.
We Are One in the Spirit is basically a short chorus that is sung repeatedly. Its hook talks about people knowing Christian people by their displays of love toward mankind.
“Turn! Turn! Turn!”
In the late 1960s and into the early 1970s, the “Jesus Movement” was a rapidly growing religious association of young people. It served as sort of an antidote to hippie culture.
One of the most famous songs from that era was “Turn! Turn! Turn!” by the Byrds. This song made it onto the pop charts and used poetic words straight from the book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 3, as its lyrics.
The first CCM band to make headway in terms of successfully selling albums was 2nd Chapter of Acts, a family trio that released 16 albums in 16 years (1972-88).
Their biggest single is “Easter Song,” which is written to joyfully express the importance of Jesus’s resurrection on Easter Sunday.
“Oh, Lord, You’re Beautiful”
Soon after the release of 2nd Chapter of Acts’ first album, Christian singer/songwriter Keith Green began to sell thousands of albums throughout the U.S. Green was the first recognized superstar of CCM. He wrote numerous hit Christian songs before dying in a plane crash with two of his children at the age of 28.
“Oh, Lord, You’re Beautiful” is a worship song that thanks God for his personal relationship with the singer. As the praise is lifted to heaven, the blessings fall on the singer.
“God Gave Rock and Roll to You”
One of the first CCM rock and roll bands was Petra, named for the famous mountainous city in southern Jordan. The group played music very much in the style of progressive rock bands of the era, with long intros, harmonizing guitars, and percussive beats.
God Gave Rock and Roll to You is an anthem about how God is the author and writer of all music, including rock and roll. And that older church people shouldn’t be afraid of it, criticize it, or try to ban it from society.
Amy Grant became the first breakout female singer/songwriter of CCM music in the early 1980s. Her music was decidedly folksier, but it was still quite new to have a female perspective in the Christian music scene.
El Shaddai is a song whose title and lyrics come from Hebrew names for God. Hebrew is important in Christianity because it is the language of Israel, where the Bible was mostly written. The song talks about the unchanging nature of God.
Another major female CCM star of the 1980s and 1990s was Sandi Patty, the most decorated Christian singer of all time with 11 consecutive Dove Awards for Female Artist of the Year. Her classically trained soprano voice hit all the high notes.
Via Dolorosa is a song with both English and Spanish verses. It tells the story of Jesus Christ’s fateful walk up the road to Calvary, where he was crucified. Via Dolorosa is Spanish for “The Way of Sorrows” and alludes to a section of the Bible that calls Jesus a “man of sorrows.”
D.C. Talk, a trio of performers from Lynchburg, Virginia, became the first commercially viable Christian rap group. “Jesus Freak” was one of their biggest songs.
Jesus Freak talks about the kind of relationship young people should want to have with Jesus. But it also mentions the worry some people have when people find out they are followers. Will their friends be impressed and want to follow along? Or will they shun the believer and walk away?
“I Can Only Imagine”
The most famous Contemporary Christian band of the 21st Century is MercyMe, from Edmond, Oklahoma. With 2.5 million copies, their single “I Can Only Imagine” is one of the highest-selling Christian songs of all time.
The song is a prayer wondering what will happen the moment the singer meets Jesus in heaven for the first time. Will he be struck silent with awe? Will he dance with joy? None of us knows for sure, but the singer can’t wait to find out.
5 Top Contemporary Christian Musicians
Below are some of CCM’s most famous artists.
Chris Tomlin may be the most famous CCM artist writing, singing, and performing today. Originally from Grand Saline, Texas, Tomlin has authored two platinum albums, won 23 Dove awards and a Grammy. His Burning Lights album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 200 list in 2013.
In addition, his songs are often sung in contemporary worship services. Some have said his songs are the most sung in the world.
Recently, young singer-songwriter Lauren Daigle has turned some deep CCM songs into crossover successes. Her song “You Say” made it to No. 29 on the pop charts. It also spent 60 weeks (one year, two months) as the No. 1 Christian song.
Daigle has won two Grammys, 11 Dove Awards, six Billboard Music Awards, and four American Music Awards all before her 30th birthday.
One of D.C. Talk’s original artists broke away to start a solo career and has been on the CCM charts ever since. Toby McKeehan found even bigger success in this Christian music avenue.
McKeehan adopted the stage name TobyMac, and has since recorded some of CCM‘s most influential songs, including “Speak Life.” He has won seven Grammy awards and six of his songs have reached No. 1 on the CCM charts.
Australian CCM group Newsboys is one of the genre’s longest-sustaining hit-makers. The recording industry has certified six of their albums gold.
“God’s Not Dead” is one of the Newsboys’ biggest hits, and the band has appeared in two Christian movies of the same name. They have won four Dove Awards and been nominated for four Grammy awards.
Their lead singer, Michael Tait, was another of D.C. Talk’s original members.
Steven Curtis Chapman
Steven Curtis Chapman is a singer-songwriter whose first success came in the 1980s and is still performing today. The Kentucky native combines country-rock and folk sounds, and he has had commercial crossover success. His record labels include Christian companies Sparrow and Provident, as well as mainstream labels EMI, Epic, PolyEast, and Sony BMG.
Chapman has won five Grammy awards and 59 Dove awards, including seven “Male Artist of the Year” wins, which is tied for the most in CCM history. His song “Cinderella” was released only months before one of his adopted daughters was killed in the driveway of his home.
The History of Christian Music
Anyone wanting to know understand Contemporary Christian Music needs to know there has been a struggle between “traditional” church music and newer forms probably since Jesus himself walked the earth 2,000 years ago.
The Bible mentions specific instruments of its day, and how they can be used to praise and glorify God. These include the trumpet, lute, timbrel, psalter, harp, lyre, and cymbals.
Yet, within the first 1,000 years past Jesus’ death and resurrection, worshipers sang a cappella (without instrument). Priests were taught the haunting melodies and harmonies of Gregorian Chants.
Then, one day, someone in Europe invented the pipe organ. Musicians and composers began to write for churches and worshipers featuring that newfangled instrument. Some compositions, such as Bach’s “Jesu, Man of Joy’s Desiring,” didn’t include words.
You can bet there were more than a few people in those days who found the organ shocking and not at all the kind of music that should be allowed in a proper church.
Soon, the organ won out and worshipers happily sang along with songs, such as “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.”
Other instruments were likewise brought into the sanctuaries of the great cathedrals. Pianos, violins, and other stringed instruments began to be heard. So did brass and woodwinds.
Fast forward another 500 years or so, and someone thought that bringing electric guitar and drums into the hallowed halls of a church might introduce musical worship expression to the younger generation. They were, after all, growing up with the Beatles and Rolling Stones.
Once again, the older crowd was none too pleased.
The Genesis of CCM
After the Second Vatican Council, held between 1962 and 1965, the Roman Catholic Church began introducing “guitar masses” in the United States. The RCC realized that churches throughout the country were losing young parishioners and not gaining new congregants in their 20s and 30s. Religious leaders thought introducing guitar might be a way to keep and attract young people.
Meanwhile, Christian summer camps began to similarly incorporate guitar choruses around their campfires. Songs included “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore” and “Kum Bayah.” These songs allowed younger Christian converts the ability to express their faith musically in ways that had previously been out of reach.
A Gospel Tug of War
Christian music began to find its way into coffee houses, avant-garde churches, and independent albums. Larry Norman, Steve Camp, and Dallas Holm & Praise were some of the first artists to find success in CCM.
But it came with a price.
No major studio label would sign these or other Christian musicians. They also refused to produce their music because they felt the Christian message might upset their fan base. Likewise, Gospel recording companies refused to work with these artists because their long hair, rock-n-roll sounds, and bell-bottom jeans would offend the traditional churchgoer.
So many of these beginning contemporary Christian singers and songwriters forged independent paths. They self-financed recording sessions, stamping records and cassettes, mini-tours, and the occasional festival.
They sold merchandise after performing at church services. And they took “love offerings.” Parishioners were asked to give during intermission of a church service/concert.
These musicians were often caught between rock-n-roll and a hard place. They found the life thrilling, the ability to share their faith-inspiring, and the music intoxicating. But they often couldn’t make a living.
The Tide Begins to Turn
A new record label called Myrrh (named for one of the three gifts the Magi gave Jesus after his birth) opened in the late 1970s. Myrrh signed Christian artists and produced top-quality albums. Hard rock bands and soulful singers now had a home base.
Amy Grant was the first artist to crossover into the mainstream. Fans listened to her songs both on Christian and secular radio stations. Her commercial success led to a deluge of popular singer/songwriters of various Christian musical styles that also received airplay on both radio formats.
One of the most successful is Michael W. Smith. He started as a piano player for Amy Grant but moved out of her shadow in 1983 and began to record his own songs. Eight years later (1991) Smith’s hit single, “Place in the This World” reached No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 List. It was, at the time, the biggest crossover success in CCM history.
The Rise of K-LOVE
Christian radio stations started broadcasting in small, medium, and large markets throughout the country, mostly on the AM side. Churches and para-Christian organizations often owned them, and they tended to present a Pentecostal or conservative view of Scripture and music.
Those that ventured into more modern Christian music styles were very small and usually on the FM side.
That began to change in the early 1990s when K-LOVE began to buy small radio stations throughout the country. Originally, a Santa Rosa-based independent station, K-LOVE had the idea to form a network of stations that would broadcast the same Christian music with the same on-air talent (disc jockeys) at the same time anywhere in the U.S.
They moved their base of operations just outside Sacramento, California, and K-LOVE started buying stations in Portland, Oregon, Phoenix, Arizona, Oklahoma City, and San Antonio, Texas. They continued to expand throughout the country, and currently have more than 520 affiliated stations and 20 million daily listeners.
They play CCM music exclusively, with artists such as Natalie Grant, Third Day, Jeremy Camp, and Casting Crowns.
Is CCM More Popular Today?
Contemporary Christian Music is seemingly everywhere these days for those who want to hear it. Hundreds of radio stations across the country play it, and three SiriusXM channels are devoted to it. You can buy albums and download songs from many sites on the Internet.
CCM performers routinely tour and play in small, medium, and large venues throughout North America and abroad. Christian music festivals, such as Spirit West Coast, play to thousands of concertgoers each year.
Still, music industry officials say that CCM record sales constitute only about 10 percent of the Country music market and 1 percent of the rock/pop market.
K-LOVE’s numbers have consistently grown over the years as they have added new affiliate stations. You can practically drive from one end of the country to the other and not miss a beat – assuming you know which frequency K-LOVE is on in a particular city.
What Is Christian Contemporary Music? Final Thoughts
Since the late 1960s, a genre of music has emerged that utilized popular instruments of the day, new voices, and personal lyrics to express Christian values and beliefs to mostly younger audiences.
After a rocky start, the music industry took notice of Contemporary Christian artists. Several singers and songwriters gained fame, fortune, and accolades. Radio stations began to embrace the format, and numerous artists have enjoyed crossover success.