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Christian music stars face a dilemma – faith versus fame

During Christian music's heyday, the trappings of fame often distracted from the ministry.

c. 1996 Religion News Service

FAIRFAX, Va. _ Appearing before a crowd of some 4,400 screaming fans, Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman tried his level best to remind people that they were there to glorify God and not him.

“The best part about tonight is not any of us that are standing on this stage,” Chapman declared, after encouraging his audience to sing and clap along to his fast-paced, guitar-strumming music.”Because we are gathered in his name, Jesus Christ is here.”

But in the Christian music industry —  a blend of ministry, show business and, yes, sex appeal — it’s not easy for some performers to separate faith from fame.

Chapman took a break from his 80-city tour recently to talk with his band about the ever-present tension between ministry and fame.

“I said, `Guys, sometimes does it just hit you that we are getting ready to walk on a stage to be encouraged, cheered on by people and really in so many ways told how wonderful we are … and yet we are here as representatives of one who made of himself no reputation. We’re here to communicate the Gospel and to say that I want to be decreasing so that He might increase,'” Chapman said.”That’s a real paradox.”

Chapman and his band are not alone. In recent years, singers, agents and pastors have been grappling with the difficult dichotomy of music and ministry in a realm fueled by fame and fortune.

At this year’s Gospel Music Week, the Christian music industry’s annual convention in Nashville, an emotional and well-attended session addressed the topic of”Christian Celebrities: The Dilemma of Balancing Fame & Ministry.” Reed Arvin, a producer who once played keyboards for Amy Grant, has tackled the issue in his novel”The Wind in the Wheat”(Thomas Nelson). The 1994 book, re-released this year, chronicles the rapid rise of Andrew Miracle, a gifted singer who grows increasingly uncomfortable with his larger-than-life celebrity image.

Christian music publications, too, have increased their coverage of the conflict between faith and fame.

Arvin and others in the industry say the falls from grace of high-profile artists have contributed to the sense of introspection. In 1994, Michael English returned his six Dove Awards to the Gospel Music Association (GMA) and disclosed that he had been involved in an extramarital affair. In 1995, Sandi Patty, the GMA’s female vocalist of the year for 11 consecutive years, admitted to an extramarital affair.

“It’s brought to the surface the clay feet of Christian artists and forced us to look inward,” said Arvin.”I believe when we looked at a Michael English or we looked at a Sandi Patty, very many of us looked into our hearts and said `Man, there but for the grace of God go I.'”

In response to such revelations and the growth of the industry, some artists are rethinking their priorities and engaging in a variety of activities to give them a better spiritual grounding.

The evolution of the contemporary Christian music industry — which blossomed in the 1970s with artists like Larry Norman, Andrae Crouch and Second Chapter of Acts — has made contemporary Christian music a major contributor to Christian music record sales that totaled $481 million in 1995.

“I believe that as the industry has grown so has the tension between fame … and the creative person whose mission is to spread the Gospel,”said John Mays, vice president of artist and repertoire at Sparrow Communications Group, whose roster of artists includes Chapman, Carman, a brash, in-your-face pop artist, and CeCe Winans, a contemporary gospel singer who appeals to pop, R&B and Christian music listeners.

“Twenty years ago, there wasn’t as much celebrity attached to that person as there is now. Obviously, the tension is greater and so is the struggle,” he said.

Although the industry is responding to those tensions”perhaps too late and perhaps not enough,”he said the mere fact that it’s a business out to sell records”doesn’t make it evil.”

Even as the introspection goes on within the industry, fans respond to Christian musicians as if they were secular celebrities, seeking autographs and buying T-shirts and posters of their favorite singers and bands.

“Anytime your face gets on videos and your face gets on CD covers and magazines you do become larger than life and I think as Christians … we do have a responsibility to keep this in perspective and to not place people on pedestals in an inappropriate way,”said John Styll, publisher of CCM Magazine, a consumer publication that covers the contemporary Christian music industry.

His magazine, which has featured several articles this year on the struggles with fame, finds itself right in the middle of the tension.

While attempting to”demythologize”the artists who make it to cover-story status, Styll also has critiqued”almost obsessed” fans who were distraught when Toby McKeehan, a member of the modern-rock group dc Talk, got married.

“It kind of was a gentle rebuke,”Styll said of an editorial he wrote last year.”These people put their pants on one leg at a time just like everybody else.” Tony Payne, assistant dean of the conservatory of music at Wheaton College in Illinois, said evangelicals, some of the main consumers of contemporary Christian music, tend to idolize people in pulpits and on musical platforms.”

It’s more tempting for me to idolize Billy Graham,”said Payne.”It’s not as easy for me to idolize say, dc Talk, but I have a 13-year-old son who would probably do the reverse.” Chapman, whose rock and folk music often gets teen-agers on their feet dancing, said it’s up to the artist to shape the reaction of the crowd.

“That whole idolizing thing can either be nurtured or it can be kind of disarmed by those very things that you say and do,”he said.

Seeking to disarm his audiences, which range from pre-teens to parents, Chapman often speaks to his audience about his wife and kids.

Timothy J. Wesolek, a marketing specialist at a Hagerstown, Md., television station, brought his 8-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son to see Chapman at the Patriot Center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.

Listening to his music at home and in the car, Chapman _ who has been named GMA’s Songwriter of the Year seven times in a row —seemed like a celebrity to them. But after hearing Chapman’s tales of parenting his three children, Wesolek felt he could relate.

“He’s got three kids. So do I,” said Wesolek. “He’s a little bit more real now.” 

While Chapman’s boy-next-door approach is held up as a good example of how fame can coexist with ministry, Carman’s style — such as his recent R.I.O.T (Righteous Invasion of Truth) concert tour — strikes some critics as arrogant. And Carman contends fame is not a problem for him.

“All the other trappings, as someone might see them, be it … the performance element, the adulation, the record contracts and the public recognition, doesn’t necessarily take away from ministry,”Carman said.

But Carman, known for dance-driven performances that put a Christian spin on stylists ranging from Janet Jackson to Stevie Wonder, said he has made sacrifices to maintain the integrity his ministry.

Unlike most major Christian artists, Carman chooses to take”love offerings”at his concerts rather than sell tickets. And that seems to be a draw: Carman holds the record for the largest concert in Christian music history when 71,132 people filled a stadium in Dallas in 1994.

“When I’m standing up there in faith knowing that the Lord has sent me, totally trusting in him to provide,” Carman said. “I am a demonstration of that faith that I’m asking people to exhibit when it comes time for them to give their hearts to Christ.”

But both artists have their own ways of keeping spiritually grounded.”When we’re on the road, we have Bible study every day,” said Carman, who leads the sessions.”That automatically keeps me in the word … keeps me in check. … It’s hard to really mess up bad when you’re having to preach a Bible study every day.”

Carman, 40, also attends Born Again Church, an interdenominational congregation in Nashville.

Chapman, 34, said his family and his”pastoral advisory board”make sure any new opportunities line up with his original mission.”Many, many times I’ve had to go back to that and say what was it I felt called to and compelled to from the very beginning with the gifts and the ability that God has given me,” he said.

Scotty Smith, pastor of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn., estimates that about 20 percent of the adults in his 4,000-member congregation are involved in the creative arts, including the Christian music industry.

“Several of the artists … will just fly me out to meet them on tour,” he said.”Several of them bring their lyrics to me before they’re even recorded to make sure they’re theologically, biblically there.” Smith thinks the conscious efforts artists are taking to keep a spiritual focus help maintain a sense of balance that counters the temptations that can come with the industry.

“It feeds the wrong things,”Smith said.”It can … make it difficult for artists to live a repentant lifestyle. … They’ve got to be called to repentance like all of us.” Chapman, who attends Smith’s church, said the answers to the tough questions about faith and fame may come not so much from specific solutions as from ever-vigilant awareness.

“I don’t know that the answers are ever going to be the kind of clear answers that we in our culture tend to want to look for,” he said.”The important thing is that there is a wrestling that’s constantly going on with it. I think that tends to be the answer in this case.”