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Spiritual Selections Record Sales Indicate More People Than Ever Are Bending An Ear To Christian Music

Between the grunge sounds of one song and the metallic crash of another, Los Angeles rock disc jockey Kevin Allison often gets a call asking for a little Van Halen to finish out the show.

Allison always says no.

There are no Van Halen albums - much less any by Guns N’ Roses, Soundgarden or Green Day - in Allison’s hard rock record collection. But he has plenty of bands such as Tourniquet, Bride and Wish for Eden to fill up his three-hour time slot on Saturday nights.

The sound is similar, but the message is different. Instead of songs about “Right Now,” these singers vocalize about “God Now.” Allison spins Christian rock.

“Typically we’re used to hearing call-ins that say, ‘Can I hear Van Halen? Can I hear Green Day?’ That’s a compliment to us,” Allison said. “That means we haven’t been playing subpar music. They think this is a new music show … and a lot of them are really surprised.”

And happy to keep listening, apparently. More people than ever are bending an ear to contemporary Christian music, translating to more than $1 billion in annual record sales, industry officials say. “It’s not just for Sundays anymore,” claims the Gospel Music Association (GMA) of Nashville.

On Thursday (at 8 p.m. on the Family channel), the industry will honor its own at the 26th annual Dove Awards in Nashville - call ‘em the Holy Grammys, if you like. And the Christian music people say they have plenty of reason to celebrate:

In the past two years, every major Christian label, such as Sparrow, Word and Benson records, has been purchased by mainstream companies, such as EMI/Liberty, Thomas Nelson and Music Entertainment Group, respectively.

A GMA audit shows that mainstream outlets, such as Tower and Kmart, have reported a 40 percent increase in Christian music sales from 1992 to 1993, the last statistic available.

CCM Magazine, the largest contemporary Christian music publication, has seen its circulation grow from 45,000 in 1992 to close to 90,000 this year.

But the true medal of honor is the new Christian albums chart in Billboard. The trade magazine joined up with SoundScan and the Christian Music Trade Association (a GMA branch) this month to begin tracking sales of Christian music throughout the country.

About 250 family bookstores and independent chains now report the sales of Christian music - and not just those tunes made by traditional and African-American gospel singers. Billboard also plans to report who is buying Christian metal, alternative and rap albums, as well as country, children’s and instrumental recordings.

“We can really slice it and dice it,” said CMTA marketing director Loren Hall, who oversees the Christian charts.

There are lots of opinions as to why the industry has gained momentum, but most people mention Amy Grant - arguably the most successful contemporary Christian music singer.

The Georgia-based crooner who gained worldwide fame with her 1986 duet with Peter Cetera “The Next Time I’ll Fall” and her 1991 No. 1 hit “Baby Baby” was lauded for shedding new light on Christian music, even though some criticized her for crossing over to pop mainstream.

“What Amy’s done in the marketplace makes a bold statement,” said Bruce Koblish, GMA’s president. “She sells a lot of her records outside Christian bookstores and within them as well.”

And that’s saying a lot, since folks still have to hunt down a Christian bookstore if they want to pick up the latest from Chapman or BeBe and CeCe Winans. Eighty-five percent of contemporary Christian music still sells in places that peddle Bibles, while 15 percent has managed to infiltrate mainstream stores such as Target and Kmart.

Others attribute the industry’s growth to simple aesthetics. Christian tunes sound better today than they ever have.

Today, Christian music boasts a wide variety of musical genres that attracts every age group. Want a Christian version of Dr. Dre? Try the Gospel Gangstas. How about an alternative sound to Smashing Pumpkins? Listen to Plank Eye. What’s the holy version of Nine Inch Nails? Go hear Mortal.

These varied interpretations do serve a purpose, KFSG’s Allison says.

“What about the millions of people (Christians) who enjoy Nirvana, Green Day and all the other bands? What alternatives do we have to give them?” Allison said.

“What if we say, ‘Yes you guys can be saved, you can be believers as promised, but you can’t listen to your music. We have nothing to offer you. Go listen to Amy Grant.’ They have to have something that’s comparable and hip.”

What’s more, today’s groups go beyond a simple message of going with God by delivering a much more contemporary statement, industry officials say. While the motive is always spiritual, the discussion takes surprising twists and turns. Consider these lyrics from the Australian group Newsboys on its latest “Going Public” album:

Sell the Volvo, shred the Visa, send the cash to Ma Teresa, great idea the only catch is you don’t get saved on merit badges.

Steven Curtis Chapman of Nashville likes to sing about marriage and rearing children, not to mention the days when life seems just hopeless:

I saw it again today in the face of a little child, looking through eyes of fear and uncertainty, it echoed in a cry for freedom across the street and across the miles, cries from the heart to find the missing part.

“It’s not all pie in the sky about when we’re all going to get to heaven,” Chapman said. “As wonderful as those songs are, the music really relates to what living life is about.”

And that may be the sole reason why people are drawn to Christian music in the first place - for answers. When the evening news begins to show gut-wrenching photos of a devastating bomb blast in Oklahoma City, people start to question what life is all about, said GMA’s Koblish.

“Historically, it’s always true during times of instability or uncertainty to return to spiritual things,” he said. “That isn’t to say they always turn to Christianity, but they want to understand the foundations of life, how things make sense.

“The situation in Oklahoma City is so devastating that it causes everybody to ask the question, ‘What is going on?’ This violence, these kinds of things happening, dramatically impacts the whole culture. There’s a softening, if you will. People start asking, ‘What’s going on? What’s it all about?”’