- The Washington Times
Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Like most born-again Christians who find themselves strumming an electric guitar, Michael Sweet needed to decide if his music would be about the girls or the gospel.

Just four years after his family accepted Jesus — after watching televangelist Jimmy Swaggart — he found himself playing the Whiskey A Go Go, Los Angeles’ legendary rock ‘n’ roll club, at the age of 16. He lived what for some is a rock ‘n’ roll fantasy, and his faith waned.

But after four years, it all seemed a dead end.

“I’d done the whole sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll thing,” Mr. Sweet said. “I was a young guy doing all these things, having all these dreams, and then at the age of 20, I saw what a difference God had made in some people and I changed.

“From then, the message and the lyrics are of God,” he said.

Mr. Sweet, 56, is the front man and lead songwriter for Stryper, one of the most popular Christian rock groups of all time and one of the few to also enjoy crossover success in the broader pop market. In the 1980s, Stryper’s major label record “To Hell with the Devil,” spent months on the Billboard charts and sold over 2 million copies. The group had three other gold records too.

Like Hollywood, the music scene is generally not a place where the powers that be recruit overtly religious acts.

But like films, a Christian music industry sprang up to serve those who are looking for the same rock, metal and rap styles, without the often troubling or despairing messages common in mainstream music.

The danger is that acts get relegated to that niche. But the idea of containment, a sense of strong obstacles to break out, still permeates the scene, experts said.

“Stryper was significant because you saw them on MTV,” said Chris *Estey, a pop critic in Seattle who has worn many hats in the music industry. “It might seem a little silly now, but it wasn’t then, when Christian music was all on labels you’ve never heard of and was really bad.”

The “then” to which Mr. Estey referred was a time when Christian rock or contemporary music was largely bought and sold in “Bible bookstores,” not the record store, he said.

“That drives me insane, I hate that label, ‘Christian band,’ ” Mr. Sweet said from his home near Boston, where he writes material and the band records and tours. “The minute some people hear the word ‘Christian’ they run away from it as fast as they can.”

The difference between profits and the prophets is what has long been a dividing line between creative sorts of deep faith and the producers of modern entertainment. Can an overtly religious message resonate with a broad audience, and will a broad audience accept a product unabashedly religious in substance and tone?

One of the problems for would-be faith-based artists is the same as that for the creative world as a whole: great talent is extremely rare. That is especially true if the religious pool in America is shrinking, as recent polling suggests.

“We just don’t have the talent in our community,” said Barbara Harrington, director of the script and screenwriting program at Regent University, a Christian school. “Talent is a fluky thing, especially great talent, and let’s face it, our numbers are getting smaller all the time.”

Unlike movies, where there’s a stark dividing line between faith offerings and mainstream films, a number of mainstream music acts delve into the spiritual.

U2, which formed when three of its members were in a Bible study group, and smaller successes such as Echo and the Bunnymen, have long had songs and lyrics that appeal to evangelicals, Mr. Estey said.

Bono, lead singer for U2, in 2006 delivered the keynote speech at the National Prayer Breakfast and confessed to a local television station he was “starting to like these church people.”

(* Correction: A previous version of the story incorrectly spelled Chris Estey’s name. The name was corrected in the latest version of the story.)

• James Varney can be reached at jvarney@washingtontimes.com.

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