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Contemporary Christian music connects with young listeners

| Saturday, March 15, 2014, 6:00 p.m.
Winter Jam
Winter Jam made a stop at The Bryce Jordan Center, State College, in January.

The “joyful noise” of worship has a new soundtrack in many Pittsburgh-area churches.

For some, that musical road has made all the difference in bringing fresh spirit to services and ministry and attracting those who previously had been outside of the organized-faith community.

Contemporary Christian music — which employs pop, rock, hip-hop and other current genres to express traditional religious values — seems to be reaching very attentive ears in increasing numbers.

Christian festival shows — like Winter Jam, making its Pittsburgh debut at 7 p.m. March 21 at Consol Energy Center, presenting 10 stylistically diverse artists — are among the largest tours in America among all genres.

It is one of the fastest-growing musical genres today, says Mike Novak, president

and CEO of the nationally syndicated K-Love (WKVP, 98.3 FM, in Pittsburgh) contemporary Christian music stations, based in California. K-Love's hundreds of stations reach an audience of 18 million listeners weekly, Novak says.

Contemporary Christian music is more popular than ever, agrees Matt Austin, a veteran observer and programmer in Christian radio, now general manager of KCBI in Texas.

Several stations in the format across the nation are No. 1 in their markets among all stations. “That was unheard of 10 years ago,” Austin says.

The “praise and worship” sub-genre of contemporary Christian music is huge, says Kenny Woods, music director and morning host on Pittsburgh's 50,00-watt WORD (101.5 FM), which airs contemporary Christian music on weekends.

“There also are great artists in rock, metal and hip-hop making in-roads in Christian music,” Woods says. “The music speaks to people for the same reason the Bible still speaks to people. The lyrics give a sense of hope, a sense that there's something better.”

Christian music offers adults who grew up with mainstream rock, pop and other genres the style of music they love, but now with words with which they can identify, suggests Woods, formerly of Pittsburgh's mainstream 3WS Radio (WWSW-FM, 94.5).

“I just feel better about everything after I hear truthful and encouraging messages over and over again in Christian music sung in such a meaningful way,” says Mon Valley resident Rachel Slonaker, community impact director of CrossRoads Community Church, Jefferson Hills.

Troy VanLiere, producer of the ministry-focused Winter Jam tour, says he would not have believed when Winter Jam started in 1995 that it would grow into the most attended first-quarter tour in the world.

“It's pretty unique. It's a great way, especially when you have a new record, to play in front of 600,000 to 700,000 people in a few months,” says Jeff Frankenstein, keyboardist of the headlining band, the Newsboys. “It's an unbelievable ticket price ($10) and a great line-up.”

VanLiere says Winter Jam fans often sing along with each song because they are so familiar with them.

To date, more than 100,000 fans have downloaded a free Winter Jam app that contains information about each artist, venue directions and details, exclusive streaming radio and social-media interaction.

The music is the primary catalyst for forging her spiritual connection, says Meghan Grantz, 17, of Washington Township, Westmoreland County. “I'm always looking for more music to listen to, and concerts are great experiences to find it,” she says.

Ross native Brittany Mulgrew Sundo, now a teacher and aspiring country and Christian singer in Nashville, attended Winter Jam in Tennessee as a fan last year. “It was wonderful to see so much talent come together for an event that celebrates our faith,” she says. “Fans have shown an incredible appetite for more and more music like this.”

Contemporary Christian music is being incorporated in many worship services with traditional hymns and music.

“It took a while for some of our members to get used to drums and occasional electric guitar, but everyone is extremely appreciative of the efforts,” says Floyd Hughes, pastor of CrossRoads Community Church.

“I love to see some of the older congregants tapping their feet to new songs and some of the young people eagerly singing along to some of the hymns,” he says.

Dan Shields, worship director of the interdenominational Orchard Hill Church, Franklin Park, says his team chooses selections for each generation represented in the congregation.

“Hopefully, the young will appreciate the deep theology of some of the traditional songs, which connect them to generations of Christians who went before them, and those who are further along in years will enjoy the life and energy of the newer songs, most of which also have fantastic words and theology,” he says.

“I don't think God is shocked by a contemporary musical sound any more than he was shocked by the contemporary music sound that Bach made brilliantly, playing the organ, which was once called the devil's instrument when it was the cutting-edge sound,” Shields says.

Some area churches, including Orchard Hill, host performances by national touring artists.

Amplify Church's main Pittsburgh East Campus in Plum, presented multiple Grammy-winner Steven Curtis Chapman in concert March 12.

In his latest book, ”For a New Generation,” Amplify's senior pastor Lee Kricher writes that the changes his church made in modernizing its music had a profound effect on its ability to reach young adults.

It has been an extraordinarily effective strategy in reaching new members, Amplify youth pastor Ed Newell says. Contemporary music is one of the reasons Amplify has grown from 200 to 1,600 attendees in the last 10 years, he says.

Newell, now 25, was not a Christian when he was drawn to Amplify because of the quality of the music.

“Music communicates on a deeper level than any other form of communication. It engages the soul,” Amplify's senior associate pastor, Jason Howard of Oakmont, says. “My connection with God began through music when I was a teenager.”

Music has the ability to pass through filters that may otherwise cause us to resist a message that may be “God inspired,” broadcaster Matt Austin says. “While it's, sometimes, hard to hear something about Jesus from even a friend, it is more easily received through a song. That's the power that art has, and it's an effective way to communicate the Gospel,” he explains.

That's why contemporary Christian music plays a significant role in congregational worship at Cornerstone Ministries, Murrysville, Alan Hannah, worship pastor, says.

“Our singing style is very contemporary and driven by electric guitars, drums, keyboards, bass and acoustic guitars,” he says. The church frequently uses many modern creative elements in weekend services, including dance, video and popular radio songs.

“Though we are a multigeneration church, we purposefully target this younger generation in hopes of affecting and changing culture,” Hannah says.

Parents are attracted to Cornerstone, he says, “because they recognize their children relate to our methods and desire to attend church.”

It is a very effective tool for reaching youth, Rachel Slonaker of CrossRoads Community Church, Jefferson Hills, says. “I believe if we were still only singing from the old hymn books, we'd only have the generation that built the church 100 years ago attending. In other words, we'd be closed.”

Rex Rutkoski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4664 or rrutkoski@tribweb.com

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