Christian Bands, Bands of Christians, and the Difference between the two

by John Harju

Initially, when Celeste and Dallas had asked for an article to be written on this topic, the intention was for both Steve and I to co-author it together.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I felt that Steve and I would have very different things to say on the topic.  Thus, the idea of 2 articles came into existence.  Now, this isn’t to say that Steve and I would disagree with each other about the subject matter.  Our histories on the subject that inform our opinions on the matter are so different that it would prove very difficult to establish context within a truly co-authored piece.  That being said, please allow me to introduce myself and establish said context…

Who is John Harju

Hello.  My name is John.  I have been a music aficionado since 1991 and a musician since 1992.  Nice to meet you.  I was raised in the church for the majority of my childhood, although I don’t think that I took it seriously and really was interested in serving God until 1/13/01.  If you look at my life in the context of the eternal security doctrines that are out there, it is difficult to say specifically when I “got saved” but this is the date I quote, because that is when God smacked me on the head and said “Knock it off, dummy…”

When it comes to music; when I was very young, my parents used to hook me up to a record player with the big old 1970s ear muff headphones and I would listen to The Best of Jefferson Airplane, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard’s Poncho and Lefty, and Rumors by Fleetwood Mac.  As I got older I listened to whatever my parents listened to, mostly country, until Wayne’s World came out (the movie, not the skit on SNL).  The scene with Alice Cooper singing “Feed My Frankenstein” changed EVERYTHING.  I got the soundtrack and “Time Machine” by Black Sabbath (Dio era, I know) only served to solidify this change.  Metal was my music of choice.

A few years later, I am getting into bands like Cannibal Corpse and Slayer and have written off most attempts to switch me on to “Christian Alternatives” as the offerings presented (i.e. Audio Adrenaline, News Boys, and Sixpence None The Richer) were laughable. However, a well placed birthday present and some cool looking album art finally got Mortification’s Blood World album into my hands.  The rest is history (plus you aren’t reading this for my biography). 

Christian Band vs Christians in a Band

Since then, my taste in music has expanded vastly and I am conversant in pretty much any genre to a certain extent.  Throughout that time frame, I have been a musician in more bands than I can remember. The vast majority of them have been Christian related in some way or another, which brings me to the actual point of the article.  “Christian Bands” and “Christians in a band”: what is the difference and why should I care?  Having been in both situations, I have a lot to say on the matter.  There is a difference and really it only matters depending on what you are trying to get out of the music.

I read an interview with Rich Mullins a couple of decades ago, shortly after the Amy Grant divorce drama.  He had said (and I am paraphrasing… you try to remember a quote verbatim 20 years later) “People really shouldn’t look to us [Christian musicians] as spiritual authorities or pillars.  We’re just entertainers at the end of the day.  All we do is create entertainment for people.”  This affected a lot of how I think about music, as Mr. Mullins had created some of the most powerful Christian tunes I have ever heard.  I still get misty when I hear “My Deliverer”.  I think that it is this principle that is at the core of the “Christians in a band” situation, or at least it was in mine.

I currently play guitar in a band called Mezzanine (don’t look for us, we are new and don’t have anything online yet) but prior to that, from 2009 to 2019, I was in a band called Burning Clean (we have 2 EPs on YouTube, go listen).  That particular band started as a “Christian Band” and moved to being “Christians in a band.” 

“Initially, when I had started that band, I wanted to save the world.  I wanted to be the next Petra or Keith Greene.  I wanted revival to happen at our shows and get new believers synced into churches.”

Initially, when I had started that band, I wanted to save the world.  I wanted to be the next Petra or Keith Greene.  I wanted revival to happen at our shows and get new believers synced into churches.  We played exclusively at churches, we did altar calls, and we had a worship section of our set.  The problem became evident when we started trying to play outside of our home churches.  Despite the fact that we would play for free and make our own fliers, the churches weren’t interested in hosting a local Christian band that didn’t already have a strong following or wasn’t played on Christian radio.  Where does a band go when their chosen mission field cut them off?  You go where the soil is loose, to reference the parable of the sower. The local bar scene accepted us with open arms. 

Now, I’m not one to put God in a box, but altar calls and worship music at a bar just feels incongruent. A lot of the local Christian community had said we sold out.  They said we were trying to be rock stars and gave up the ministry.   I felt that this was an unfair accusation.  The mission field we originally trying to reach refused us because we weren’t rock stars and then threw stones at us for “trying to be rock stars” by changing our plan in a new mission field that would have us.  I still get a little annoyed by it even now.

Now you may be agreeing with the sellout label upon initial reading, and that is your right I suppose, but know this:  We never watered down our message for mass appeal.  All we did was change our method.  The fact is that people will listen to what you have to say in a secular setting, but it was evident that people would not respond to an altar call in a bar.  We decided to use the music as the bait and slip the message into it.  We basically were doing the opposite of what the satanic panic of the 80s accused metal of doing: luring in people with music and giving them a steady stream of Christian messaging in the lyrics. 

Did we preach from the stage?  No.  Did we have altar calls?  Nope.  We kept the message in the music and would be genuine people with the people at the show.  In the end, this led to us having more meaningful conversations with people when they would ask us about our lyrics than we ever had doing the church circuit.  We reached a lot of people who would never have come to a show in a church.  We did this all by dropping the “Christian” label and still singing about Christ.

So do I advocate for the “Christians in a band” concept?  Sort of.   When it is done in the way I described above, yes.  However, if a message is completely indiscernible in anything that they do, then what is the point?  Paul says: “I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (read 1 Cor 9:19-23 for context).  The point isn’t to completely blend and disappear and become otherwise irrelevant, but to present the message in a way that is relevant to the individuals to which it is being presented.  When was the last time you saw an unsaved individual go into a Christian bookstore looking for some new tunes?

Which is better?

Now, would I then write off the “Christian band” model?  Nope.  That is effective as well.  I have seen people saved at News Boys concerts (before they became the Revolving Doors) as well as at Christian music festivals.  I DO believe that the industry has become a bit bougie and exclusive to newcomers or new ideas on how to do things, but despite all of that, if people are still coming to Christ, then I am for it (see Philippians 1:15-18).

So, let us break it down to the functionality of all of this.  What does this all mean to a Christian like you? (if you aren’t a Christian, please excuse my assumption.  If you would like to talk to someone about what it means to be one, PLEASE reach out to us)  It all comes down to what you want from the music.  The “Christian band” model will have more ministry-minded lyrics.  They will probably be more affirming to an existing Christian. The “Christians in a band” model will probably have a message that is more digestible for non-believers and is a great gateway for Christians to get friends into Christ-centered music and thinking about Christian concepts.  One plants the other waters, but it is God who brings the growth.