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Christian Rock Gets With the Beat

It's the fastest-growing segment of the industry, thanks to groups like the Newsboys, Reality Check, Third Day

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Jenny Michaud and her younger sister Dana no longer hide their love of Christian rock music. Their favorite group, the Newsboys, is popular with their friends and acquaintances, unlike bands they previously championed.

"It's music that you can take someplace else, and not everybody will think, 'Oh, that's Christian music. I don't want to listen to it,' " says Jenny Michaud.

The Michaud sisters were among thousands of fans attending the alternative rock venue of Joyfest '97, an annual Christian music event at Paramount's Great America theme park in Santa Clara, Calif. The one-day festival is a showcase of some of Christian music's top groups, as well as bands that are climbing the charts.

Boundaries between Christian and mainstream rock have blurred almost beyond recognition. Twenty years ago, "Jesus Music" was pioneered by groups like Petra, which played heavy, rock-oriented songs in church basements, then preached to those who stayed after the concert.

These days, Christian alternative bands like Jars of Clay open for Sting in big arenas and have their hit songs played on MTV and VH1.

"Christian music has diversified," says Warren Pettit, music professor at Greenville College, a school near St. Louis that offers courses in contemporary Christian music. "There are an increasing number of bands now that have mainstream visibility."

Jars of Clay got its start at Greenville College, but it's places like Nashville and New York that have come to symbolize the dramatic changes in Christian music - Nashville because that's where Christian rock's prominent labels are based, and New York, because that's where the parent companies of those labels are headquartered.

Previously independent labels like ForeFront and Sparrow are now in the hands of major, secular companies; EMI, BMG, and Sony all own Christian labels now. Professor Pettit says the marketing muscle of those corporations helps explain why so many Christian bands are now crossing over into the mainstream.

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