I have some boxes stashed away in my garage that contain every single issue of this publication ever printed. I pulled them out recently and started looking through them—beginning with issue No. 1—thinking it couldn’t be that hard to find some amusing stories and self-deprecating anecdotes about the making of the magazine.
It wasn’t long before I realized a few things. 1) Reviewing all the issues that have been published over 30 years is overwhelming and impossible. 2) While the first issue and the most recent issue are not really recognizable as the same publication, most of the bedrock issues facing Christians and modern culture have not changed. We’re still discussing the same basic stuff! I also came across the names of many, many people I have lost track of and that I miss.
OK, let me explain how we got from 1978 to 2008. In a nutshell, what happened was this: In the early ’70s, following a youth revival known as the Jesus Movement, the original Calvary Chapel (in Costa Mesa) became a magnet for hippies who had found Christ, and many of them used music to express and share their new faith in Christ. So out of the Jesus Movement came Jesus Music.
Just down the street from Calvary Chapel were the offices for a publication called Contemporary Christian ACTS. It was owned by Jim Willems, who also owned a Christian store called Maranatha Village, and Steve Zarit, a local publisher. CCA was an Orange County Christian lifestyle newspaper with sections on sports, family and music.
I was a business partner with Jim and Steve, producing radio programs and commercials for another aspect of our little company called Praise Productions. Since I was the music guy in the organization, I became the default editor of CCA’s music section. By late 1977 we were having internal discussions about how the Christian music scene really seemed to be growing. We believed that expanding the CCA music section into a separate publication could be a viable business opportunity. The idea, however, was to aim the music publication at retailers, radio stations, record labels, artists, etc. In short, it would be a “trade” publication for people in the business rather than one for music fans.
I went around the country to meet with all the major Christian record labels and tell them our idea as well as solicit ideas. No, that wasn’t just a trip to Nashville. At that time the major labels were located in Southern California, Waco and Kansas City (in addition to Nashville). Everyone was supportive except the largest label of that era. They advised against it, citing the two other retail-focused publications already being published. Despite their lack of enthusiasm and support, we decided to go ahead anyway.
Contemporary Christian MUSIC became my project, again primarily by default. I was not a publisher. I knew nothing about graphics or printing. I knew a little about journalism from my college days, but that was about it. We sold enough advertising to pay for printing the first issue, and we distributed it for free.
We completely copied the format and design of Contemporary Christian ACTS to save money and trouble. Type fonts were the same; the design was the same; and the general format was the same except that instead of sections on “Family,” “Sports” and “Music,” we had sections on “Records,” “Merchandising,” “On the Air” and “Talent.” For the name and logo of the paper (it was printed on newsprint) we simply changed the word “ACTS” to “MUSIC.”
We didn’t intend to name a genre. It was a term of convenience. We just wanted to take advantage of the brand identity that CCA had already established. (Ironically, just a few months after the launch of CCM, CCA ceased publication.) We used the established term “Jesus Music” to describe Christian rock in those early issues. We also covered a lot of Southern and Black gospel. The acronym “CCM” was used only as a nickname for the magazine, never for the music itself.
From the very beginning, our approach was to be honest and treat the music and artists seriously and objectively from a journalistic standpoint. Musically, the contemporary Christian field was just emerging. My view was that in order for us to get the Christian message out to people via music, the music had to be good and its distribution systems (radio and retail) needed to be effective. I thought, perhaps naively, that a magazine could give folks some tools and information that would add to their effectiveness.
I have always viewed contemporary Christian music as a way to connect spiritual life with cultural life. That said, I have never been one to compartmentalize matters of faith, including music. To me, music should not be viewed as “Christian” or “secular.” Music is either good or bad, which takes into account the worldview of the lyrics in addition to the appropriateness and proficiency of the music. Music is not made “good” simply by having faith-based lyrics. As Harold Best, former Dean of Wheaton College’s Conservatory of Music, once said on these pages, “Sincerity of heart is never a substitute for excellence, even though far too many Christians hide behind this, excusing mediocrity or defending quick results. As has often been said, holy shoddy is still shoddy.”
From the beginning, our philosophy was similar to the Fox News Channel mantra: “We report, you decide.” Through good reporting, CCM Magazine provided information about artists, labels, albums, tours, radio, etc., that was available nowhere else. While there were a good number of editorials making our case for this issue or that, particularly in the early years, it was generally left to the reader to interpret for themselves what they read. Thus, the magazine presented the good, the bad and the ugly of Christian music with unbiased abandon. Our goal was to make it better.
The first six issues were printed on newsprint in a folded tabloid format. It was mostly black and white, and what little full color printing we had usually looked pretty funky. By September 1980, the entire magazine was printed on coated paper, and we were actually charging for subscriptions (a whopping $7.50!).
We continued to invest what little money we made into improving the quality of the magazine, including graphics, printing, and most importantly, content. With circulation nearing 25,000 in 1981, we came to grips with the fact that our readership was mostly music consumers rather than people in the business. So we shifted our editorial focus accordingly, and in October 1981, Randy Stonehill was featured on our first cover in standard magazine size (8.5 by 11 inches).
Another seismic shift took place just a couple years later. In 1983, the U.S. was in the grip of an economic recession. Record labels were slashing advertising budgets, and we depended on that revenue. And frankly, as editors we were interested in expanding our content beyond music so that we could cover contemporary culture from a Christian perspective. In an attempt to diversify both our readership and also our advertising base, in July 1983 we dropped “music” from the title and became simply Contemporary Christian Magazine. But we were fundamentally still a music magazine. In fact, of the 39 issues published under the “Contemporary Christian” moniker, only five were non-music covers.
One of the most sensational of those was an exclusive interview with celebrity automobile magnate John DeLorean, who reportedly had found Christ while imprisoned in connection with allegedly attempting to sell cocaine to finance his struggling car company. My wife and I interviewed Mr. DeLorean, who opened up about the sensational case and the faith in Christ that got him through it. If I may say so myself, it was great stuff! Reader reaction? Not so much. “I want to read about Christian music, not John DeLorean and the starving millions,” wrote one reader (representing the views of many). Apparently he didn’t like our cover package on the African hunger crisis either!
One of my favorite stories to work on during that era was on the Star Wars saga. We called it “The Gospel of Lucas” (clever, eh?). The coolest thing was that Return of the Jedi was coming out, and I got to see it before it was released to the public. Just one of the perks of the job, although I never did get to meet George Lucas!
It was November 1986 when we finally acquiesced to reality and officially named the magazine what everybody was actually calling it by then: CCM.
Over the years, the magazine has gotten it mostly right in my opinion. Of course, the editors got it spectacularly wrong from time-to-time, too. One of those times was that first issue as the “new” CCM. Upon our return to music-only coverage, we decided we would become much more edgy in our editorial approach. For the cover story, we interviewed Steve Camp, who, in trying to dramatically punctuate a comment, used a two-syllable synonym for fertilizer, commonly initialized as B.S. After much discussion among the editors, we decided that journalistic integrity demanded we print the word unedited. To Steve’s chagrin (he had no reason to think we would print it) and ours, reader reaction was, um, strong and unambiguous. Unfortunately, the readers’ focus on that one word caused many of them to miss the very point that Camp was trying to make!
Readers also reacted mostly negatively when we had now-legendary producer T-Bone Burnett write an obituary for John Lennon. Folks couldn’t understand why it was in our magazine. Then there was the time we had Larry Norman write a review of an album by the Gaither Vocal Band. OK, that was weird. But kinda cool, don’t you think? (He liked it, by the way.) Norman also contributed a review of an Al Green concert.
We once did an interview and cover story on Johnny Cash. Bob Dylan was on the cover a few times, but we never got an interview. We interviewed U2’s The Edge and got in trouble for it because our interviewer actually got the interview for another publication and wrote a separate story for CCM. U2 is fanatical about not wanting to be pigeonholed as a “Christian band,” and we were never allowed to get anywhere near them again. (When I finally met Bono a few years ago, I didn’t bother to mention my association with the magazine.)
I could go on and on with little stories about the “old days,” but you can see that we’re already on the last of our allotted pages. This is the 355th printed issue of the magazine, and of course, the last.
There will be those who wonder whether this magazine made any difference in the world. Did it accomplish its goal of making contemporary Christian music better? Or did it merely help create and sustain an insular subculture? It may be more appropriate for others to answer those questions, but I think it did both. For better or worse, in attempting to reflect the “industry,” it also influenced it. But I think it did so with integrity, because it always asked the hard questions. It started out that way, and it has ended up that way. Producing this magazine has always been a delicate balance of pragmatism and idealism—dancing the tightrope of entertainment and ministry, servants and stars.
Personally, I think self-analysis is healthy and that the questions and even controversies ultimately lead to a healthy place. That said, it has always been my hope that this publication would generate more light than heat, and at the end of the day, I think it has. Regardless of which side of an issue a person would ultimately take, for me, it was always a victory simply to cause someone to think it through. Too much blind acceptance of the status quo is like a rudderless journey to oblivion.
Probably the most fascinating thing I discovered in reviewing the entire history of the magazine is that the issues of yesterday remain the issues of today. We still struggle with what it means to be Christian artists in popular culture and in the church. We still debate the merits of “entertainment” vs. “ministry.” We still fight the war between the spirit and the flesh. We still question motives and deal with issues of God vs. mammon.
What are we to do with all these questions? To quote Mr. Dylan, “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind.” As the wind of the Holy Spirit guides you, seek balance. And keep asking questions, because questions seek truth.
This magazine has ultimately been about truth-seeking. And it will hopefully always be, even as it moves from the print medium to online. For my final thought, I’ll let the words of Jesus sum up what has always been the guiding principle for this publication: “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Indeed.
John Styll was the founder of CCM Magazine. He is currently the President and CEO of the Gospel Music Association.