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There are also subtle financial forces at work here; as Baby Boomers send the kids off to college and finally pay off their mortgages, they’re finding more disposable income in their pockets. The opportunity to finally buy that Custom Shop Strat or a Marshall full-stack from their youth is there, but in a new, gentle irony, they have no place to play it. Housing development bylaws and city ordinances mean the volume level in the garage needs to be kept down, and the idea of sitting in a crowded, smokefilled bar no longer has the allure it once did. That leaves the church as a venue for expression, and droves of middle-aged guitarists are bringing their passion into God’s house.
But it would be a mistake to simply assume the arrival of experienced, tone-seeking guitarists on the church scene is solely for a place to show off their new purchases. Musicians are discovering the church as a place to serve the community and to share the good news. When I asked Brad Hines, who grew up on Bob Dylan and Neil Young, why he chooses to play at the church instead of secular gigs, he primarily referenced the sense of joy he receives from it. “It’s a service; you’re getting involved. Church has become a daily part of my life.”
Richard agrees. “I’m interested in other musicians knowing that they are not just musicians – they are worship leaders. They have influence in their service, and they have a role of welcoming people to worship and introducing people to the spirit of God.”
North Point Community Church, based 20 minutes north of downtown Atlanta, is a textbook example of how the integration of contemporary musical sounds has worked to change the way congregations worship. Beginning 12 years ago with only a keyboard and a semi-circle of singers in a converted warehouse, the church has blossomed into a weekly concert experience for attendees. The Alpharetta, Georgia church accommodates approximately 6,000 worshipers each week across two auditoriums, both featuring live bands and sharing a backstage area – and that’s only at North Point’s “main” campus, with more live music at two other satellite locations.
According to Reid Greven, a music associate at North Point charged with hiring all of the church’s bands and writing arrangements, one of the most essential components of modern worship is the guitar. “We couldn’t do a Sunday without them, and they are, by far, the most important part of what we’re doing musically.”
North Point has worked hard to create a welcoming environment for their guitarists. As a matter of fact, North Point’s technologically advanced setup would put some large performing venues to shame. Professional staff members manage an automated front-ofhouse digital console. Rehearsals are recorded on Pro Tools and given to each musician afterwards to aid practicing. Players perform with wireless setups and use custom-molded in-ears systems for monitoring. Amps are isolated and mic’ed in a back room, allowing the guitarists to operate their rigs at full, tubesaturating volume without ruining the overall mix. The players are free to dial in their own tones for each song, and have an impressive level of autonomy, considering the church’s meticulous production.
Steve Tomason, a professional guitarist at North Point who has been playing for over 20 years, performs weekly through his Marshall JCM2000 head and a Bogner 2x12 cab, and is quick to emphasize how supportive North Point has been. “The church has just been great; they really understand what we’ve been talking about in emphasizing quality. They don’t mind spending money to do things right,” he says. “I’ve played in so many places and I’ve never played around as many pros as this. We are a community.”
In fact, the integration of guitar into worship services has been so successful for North Point that two years ago the music department held open auditions for guitarists. Although they weren’t looking for any musicians at the time, Reid says they were trying to deal with the constant deluge of calls from area guitarists, inquiring about open positions with the band. “We just wanted to know who was out there, if there was anybody we should be using,” Reid recalls. “It was a real eye-opening experience for us.” Over the course of two nights, over 150 players auditioned – with over 80 percent of them being primarily electric players – and North Point brought four aboard. Only one is still actively playing with the church.
An Industry Looking Up
It may be an extreme understatement to say that Christian music has become big business. According to the Gospel Music Association, the unifying organization for modern Christian music, Christian/gospel (a distinction that is subtle and shifting at best) music sales have increased from $188 million in 1990 to almost $700 million annually. Over 54.2 million units of Christian CDs, digital albums and digital tracks were sold in 2006, and accounted for 6.75 percent of all album sales in 2006 – a higher percentage than Latin, classical or jazz. Over 20 million fans listen to Christian radio every week – a number rapidly approaching National Public Radio’s 26.5 million weekly draw, according to Arbitron, an international media and marketing research firm.
In a music industry dealing with unstoppable piracy, sizeable downturns in album sales and a user-driven move toward digital formats, these numbers, generated by a genre once considered fringe, have been causing record executives in Los Angeles and New York to take notice. John W. Styll, President of the GMA, says, “There may be many reasons why [sales are up], but I think among them is that people seem to be drawn to the inspiring and compassionate message of gospel music amid uncertain times.”
And while Christian rock sales may have something to do with a looming sense of anxiety in post-9/11 America, a significant part of the upward trend can be attributed to a musical maturation within the church. While Christian rock rose out of the ‘60s and ‘70s and their related excesses – beginning with the introduction of acoustic guitars and folk-rock sounds to church services – it long remained on the margins of Christian consciousness. Early Christian rock had the particular stigma of simply aping the popular sounds of the day; creativity wasn’t as important as setting religious messages to modern genres. Bruce Adolph recalls, “It was ridiculous – early Christian rock was a good five years behind mainstream sounds. But now, bands have caught up or have even gotten ahead.” Beginning in the early ‘90s, with the advent of bands like P.O.D., heavy textures and electric guitars have been gaining popularity, and are now being welcomed into the church.