A Crash Course in Contemporary Christian Music

It seems there are more churches than people in Orange County – and with all those churches there are church-goers… and more importantly, church-music. Lovingly referred to as CCM (contemporary Christian music) those inside and outside the culture might say it all sounds the same – and it kind of is. The music theory notation may not be easily recognized, but any megachurch-goer is an expert in the first, fifth, minor sixth, fourth chord progression. And that’s because it’s fucking catchy, and used in every song ever written…ever.

But Christian music groups do in fact go by different names. I’ve spent some time asking around about the top names in the scene, and discovered that people are still listening to old shit, but new names are popping up. Next time you go to Mariners or Saddleback, you’ll be able to use this list to namedrop with confidence.

I’ve even separated them into helpful categories based on my singular experience as a white female who grew up in an evangelical Christian environment.

Collective church-based bands with like 15 members

Hillsong (2.1 million monthly listeners on Spotify)

This group seems to have been famous for what seems to be forever. It’s a near-guarantee that if you go to any CCM-slinging Orange County church this Sunday, the emotional belt-y song that the worship leader is singing through the stage fog and professional lighting is a Hillsong number. The group comes from a megachurch powerhouse out of Sydney, Australia. Their plant in Los Angeles boasts the attendance of Justin Bieber. Though they maintain an ever-youthful appeal and popularity, they actually began putting out music in the ’80s.

Bethel Music (1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify)

I cracked up when I read this group claims to not be a band but a “Christian music collective.” Similar to Hillsong, Bethel stems from the worship team at the vaguely-commune style Bethel Church in Redding, California under the leadership of revivalist Bill Johnson. They have an album that was recorded over several nights of worship in a refurbished loft. The album is called “The Loft Sessions,” because when you’ve got a good thing going, you stick with it.

Related listening: Elevation (1 million monthly listeners on Spotify), En Espiritu y en Verdad (270k monthly listeners on Spotify)

Old school artists that are still playing FishFest

Chris Tomlin (1.5 million monthly listeners on Spotify)

You know you’ve made it in the CCM scene when you have several Dove Awards, won Grammys in categories that don’t get announced on TV, and your music is played at the giant Korean megachurch in Fullerton in 10 different languages. A true giant in the Christian music industry, his iconic songs are played in churches on a weekly basis and I’m honestly not sure when people will get tired of singing “How Great is Our God.”

tobyMac (810k monthly listeners on Spotify)

Now, tobyMac’s span of popularity may stretch a bit before my time, but his success through proud disregard of orthodox CCM earns him a definitive shout out on this list. tobyMac started as an OG member of the edgy Christian hip-hop group dc Talk (I guess these guys like playing with capitalization), with their Nirvana-conjuring hit track “Jesus Freak.” In his solo career which has manifested a variety of styles including this kind of electronic rock hip-hop, tobyMac has found wild and continuous popularity. He’s even got a holiday album and he’s playing FishFest at the Honda Center in Anaheim on June 10.

Related listening: Crowder (680k monthly listeners on Spotify), Phil Wickham (720k monthly listeners on Spotify), Matt Redman (820k monthly listeners on Spotify)

“Masters of covering hymns in a cool way, but we have originals that we tour with”

Kings Kaleidoscope (200k monthly listeners on Spotify)

This newer church-spawned band represent a recent rebellion in CCM against the lack of musical variety (FINALLY!). From Seattle-based Mars Hill Church, Kings Kaleidoscope genre-hops from alt-rock and folk-hop (is that a thing?) utilizing a fresh variety of vocal arrangements and instruments. They will be leading worship at Biola University’s Missions Conference March 15-17. At least Biola students, who are required to attend, will be entertained by the hottest new Christian rockers.

For All Seasons (27k monthly listeners on Spotify)

Though not as widely known as the others listed, For All Seasons started as Southern California worship leaders and spent several years playing at the ubiquitously attended SoCal Christian camp, Hume Lake. Gaining speed, For All Seasons seems to be finding a niche in the Christian conference worship sector and will be doing just that for the Planet Wisdom conference on April 7 at Calvary Church in Santa Ana.

A couple of Christians who think their voices sound good together, let’s make a band!

All Sons and Daughters (570k monthly listeners on Spotify)

Leslie Ann Jordan and David Alan Leonard not only master the art of going by their full names, but also fit right in to this list with their rapidly growing popularity among Christian music listeners. Four full-length albums with the Integrity Music label, All Sons and Daughters started as and still serve as worship leaders at Journey Church in Franklin, Tennessee. Imagine if your favorite musicians were the house band at a local place that you go to once a week – convenient. 

for KING & COUNTRY (750k monthly listeners on Spotify)

Australian brothers Joel and Luke Smallbone of for KING & COUNTRY are pretty much the Chris and Liam Hemsworth of the Christian world. Not sure how much Christian music stardom one family can take, but their sister is famous Australian Christian artist Rebecca St. James. Joel and his wife Moriah –another famous Christian singer and born in Pomona – saved their first kiss for their wedding day. Pretty much pillars of masculine righteousness, the brother’s came out with a movie last year where the main character saves women from sex trafficking. They too will be playing FishFest at the Honda Center in June.

This incomplete list only represents a very white Christian music listener – which is the only Christian community I have any remote amount of business commenting on. That said, while asking around about Christian music, my black, Asian, and Latino Christian friends gave me some popular music from their respective church cultures. En Espiritu y en Verdad, Jesús Adrián Romero, and Miel San Marcos from my Latino brothers and sisters, Anointing and Marker’s Worship from the Korean church-goers and Israel & New Breed, Anthony Brown & Group therAPy, and Kim Burrell from those brave souls from the black community who deal with all of our Orange County-whiteness.

But CCM has swaths of it’s music that reach across all churches in Orange County, regardless of denomination of background. Sure, maybe some of this sounds same-y after a while. Whether it be for the efficacy of harvesting souls for the Kingdom, drawing in those pesky youth, or to get 5,000 members of the congregation singing with their hands in the air, those chord progressions are there for a reason. It may feel like the spiritual equivalent of your weekly indulgence of Starbucks, but having songs that all the culture knows is part of the fun – it creates a community.

So go forth and be filled with the Spirit! You’ll get the songs stuck in your head, and maybe after awhile, you’ll start hear the differences between them all.

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