A mass following lifted Bob Carlisle and God's Property into the top 10 on the charts

So maybe it wasn’t quite the most surprising influx of Christianity into hostile territory since the Roman emperor Constantine had his change of heart 16 centuries ago. But the idea of two gospel albums entrenched in Billboard‘s fickle top 10 for more than a month still counts as a shocker of historic proportions.

These two Christian-pop standard-bearers couldn’t be more different: Bob Carlisle’s Butterfly Kisses (Shades of Grace), still riding the phenomenon of its tear-jerking father/daughter title song, sounds like Chicago’s Peter Cetera gone evangelical. Meanwhile, God’s Property From Kirk Franklin’s Nu Nation, a surprise hit for the Texas-based African-American choir God’s Property — with a key assist from gospel star Franklin — looks to link the traditional urban church and hip-hop. What they share is an outta-nowhere success that’s causing a lot of agnostics to use the M (miracle) word.

Gospel partisans aren’t quite so taken aback. ”I think Christian music is not as big as people who are in it think it is, but it’s quite a bit bigger than people who are not in it think it is,” says John Styll, publisher of CCM, an 80,000-circulation glossy Christian-music monthly. Styll notes that last year gospel accounted for 4.3 percent of music sales, pulling ahead of market rivals classical (3.4 percent) and jazz (3.3 percent). Christian-pop albums by acts like Jars of Clay, DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, and Franklin have gone platinum — rather quietly. But it may have taken a pair of top 10 smashes to force the larger industry to really ”get” religion.

Not that anyone is forecasting a widespread revival. More likely it’s a continuation of the post-angst New Positivity in pop that also encompasses Hanson or even the Spice Girls. As Franklin puts it: ”For you, [God’s Property] may be a nice, uplifting album. For somebody else, it may be something that brings them to Jesus. For somebody else, it may be something to drive to in their Jeep and bounce.”

Carlisle has just played a sold-out house at California’s Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre. As the penultimate act — between Salt ‘N’ Pepa and Jon Bon Jovi — in a show sponsored by KIIS-FM, a leading L.A. Top 40 station, he was on stage just long enough to play ”Butterfly Kisses,” surrounded by dozens of contest-winning dads and daughters. A pal from Dick Clark Productions walks backstage and asks how it went. ”It was amazing,” Carlisle deadpans. ”Thousands were crushed in the rush to get saved…”

Yes, Christian rockers can have a sense of humor. There are no altar calls in Carlisle’s set now, nor were there in pre-crossover days when he was stuck playing mostly church gigs. ”I’m not a minister and I’m not an evangelist,” he says in earnest in his trailer. ”I’m a guy who plays instruments and sings who happens to be a Christian. So this is not a big transition for me. I’ve always been writing songs about my faith and my wife and family and loves in life. Being a Christian is not my shtick — it’s a part of the very makeup of my bloodstream.”