Christian music ascends the charts -- Successful spiritual stars Michael W. Smith and Rev Run pave the way for the growing genre

By Russ Spencer
Updated October 06, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

On Sept. 9, Michael W. Smith’s I’ll Lead You Home landed at an astonishing No. 16 on Billboard’s pop charts, the highest album debut ever by a Christian music artist. A week later, Run, a rapper for Run-D.M.C., announced he had become an ordained minister and was forming his own gospel rap label, REV RUN Records.

Coincidence or divine intervention?

To Loren Hall of the Christian Music Trade Association, it’s simply the latest Good News from the booming gospel and contemporary Christian music scene. Because more than 80 percent of it is sold out of Christian bookstores, hard sales figures have been unavailable until recently. But its market share is now about 4 percent — the same as jazz’s — and estimated annual sales are at more than $750 million. ”We’ve been so frantically busy that we haven’t even had time to analyze growth rates,” sighs Hall.

Wade Jessen, manager of Billboard‘s Christian chart, agrees: ”Christian music of all kinds is growing fast. We’ve just barely gotten ahold of measuring how fast.” SoundScan, the company that tabulates album sales for Billboard, has been scrambling for the past year and a half to gather previously sketchy Christian-bookstore sales figures. They finally succeeded this summer, fueling the glorious Billboard Top 200 debuts of Smith and five other Christian music acts.

According to John Styll, publisher of Contemporary Christian Music, other examples of the genre’s ascension include the sold-out gospel brunches at House of Blues restaurants in Los Angeles and Boston, and the rapidly increasing membership in Columbia House’s two-year-old Christian music CD club, which just surpassed that of its 40-year-old classical club. ”I think,” says Styll, ”that people are feeling that some aspects of our culture have gone too far.”

But gospel rap from a man whose most recent tour with Run-D.M.C. found him sharing the bill with Snoop Doggy Dogg and Naughty by Nature? Reverend Run (real name: Joseph Simmons) says he’s just following directions: ”I’m doing it for God. He is instructing me on how to do it.” The profit motive can’t be discounted either, since gospel rap is more successful than one might think: Free at Last, the album from Christian rappers DC TALK, was just certified platinum. ”I would like to see gospel go mainstream,” says Run, whose compilation album REV RUN Presents will be released this month. ”We need to bring the church to the street, to the people who need it.”