The land of Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) was not always the too earnest every-worship-song-sounds-identical tableau we have today. The mid-eighties through mid-nineties brought us some of the kitschiest youth group anthems this side of a “God’s Not Dead” theme song.
Some tunes pushed a little close to self-parody, but trust me — they are so bad, they are GREAT. Here are the ten absolute best. (As an added bonus, they’re all up-tempo, so if you had an evangelical upbringing, you can dance your disillusionment out to the playlist.)
10. “Boycott Hell” by DeGarmo & Key (The Pledge, 1989)
Following a slew of too-clever CCM turn-of-phrase hits, DeGarmo & Key decided to take the tongue-in-cheek route themselves. What could be more relatable to Christian teens than a Labor Union metaphor? They might as well have called the song “Get All AFL-CIO on the Devil.”
This was Hoffa’s favorite song about Jesus (it still is).
Key lyric: Bury your foolish pride. We gotta unionize. / Hey, don’t you think it’s time to boycott hell? Flannery O’Connor wishes she could be so subtle.
9. “This Disco (Used to Be a Cute Cathedral)” by Steve Taylor (On the Fritz, 1985)
We all owe Steve Taylor a debt of gratitude. He single-handedly ushered CCM out of self-seriousness and was both resident Einstein and class clown for a decade. Too bad he didn’t have more listeners.
In-between the mad genius of Meltdown and I Predict 1990 (and before the breathtaking Squint), Taylor hit his personal nadir with this overcute ditty about a dance club residing in an abandoned church.
Musically, this is Taylor’s weakest offering within his oeuvre (it certainly didn’t need it’s own dance remix). However, it’s downright prescient. How many churches today don’t feel like a dance club with a Starbucks in the lobby? Avoid this track if you must, but pop the cassette in anyway and stick around for “Drive, He Said” and “Lifeboat.” They are the exact opposite of the ten songs on this list.
Key lyric: This disco used to be a cute cathedral / Where we only play the stuff you’re wanting to hear.
8. “God Gave Rock & Roll to You” by Petra (Beat the System, 1985)
Originally written and performed by the Brit rockers Argent, Petra co-opted this unspeakably ridiculous anthem and sucked all of the rock out of it until it was little more than a synthesizer squeak.
In a way, the band pulled off an impressive feat: they sang a Christian song about rock music that had no potent Christian message and did not rock.
Key lyric: God gave rock and roll to you / Put it in the soul of everyone. Also seen on a kitten poster in a Hallmark.
7. “Got 2 B True” Steven Curtis Chapman (The Great Adventure, 1992)
Fun fact: most every successful male CCM artist of the early 90’s was required to have TobyMac break down a rhyme in lieu of the song’s bridge. Especially if their own music style was in complete contradiction to TobyMac’s aesthetic. Case in point: this unfortunate entry from one of Christian music’s most earnest and impacting troubadours. The uberirony: the song is about being genuine.
Key lyric: You see, I like rap music and the beat box groove and sometimes I gotta admit I close all the doors and wave my arms around and I pace the floor. But then I crack up laughing, I gotta stop and just face the facts: the boy don’t hip hop.
6. “To Hell With the Devil” Stryper (To Hell With the Devil, 1986)
If you look at it one way, Stryper is attempting to rattle the religious establishment by co-opting the most milquetoast of all swear words into their faux metal anthem. On the other hand, they’re telling Satan to basically go back to his house. And yes, those four shirtless angels on the cover are supposed to be buff versions of the band. And yes, they are ripping Satan limb from limb with their bare hands and a flying V guitar.
And yes, Satan is wearing boot-fit jeans.
Key lyric: He’s never been the answer. There’s a better way. We are here to rock you and to say to hell with the devil.
5. “Trains Up in the Sky” by Mylon LeFevre & Broken Heart (Sheep in Wolves Clothing, 1985)
Where exactly do I begin? The color palette of the album sleeve? The parachute shirts (SHIRTS!) the band wears with spandex? The mullets? The keytar? The bad-boy album name? No. I will start with the fact that when performing live, Mylon could never remember the lyrics. THESE lyrics:
YAH—MA YAH—MA YEH—EH—AH! Get up – try and find a way. / We will find a way today. YOU! Try and find a way. / Get up. Trains up in the sky.
Theologically, I hear Gungor doesn’t believe this part of the album.
4. “Convertibles” by White Heart (Don’t Wait for the Movie, 1986)
Key lyric: I haven’t got a care. Feel so good and free. / Just like God is sittin’ next to me. / God made convertibles. As the High and Mighty’s known – He’s not a manufacturer.
You have to hand it to White Heart. They finally found a word that rhymes with “manufacturer” (they did not). Silly at best, this song feels more like a commercial for antidepressants — with a guitar solo where there should be a list of disclaimers.
3. “Love Crusade” by Michael W. Smith (Go West Young Man, 1990)
This album was AWESOME. Not just because my girlfriend’s mom had that blazer and that hairstyle — and not just because Smitty sang every song imitating Caroll Spinney.
This album borders on epic because MWS raps. Oh, how he raps. He pours out his heart after uncorking it with that black fedora on the album cover and drops this violent rhymebomb:
Hatred’ll spoil the feast. That’s the nature of the beast. / So, don’t ever let your heart be swayed. Draw the sword, slay the dragon. / Get on the bandwagon and be a fighter on the Love Crusade!
This bloodlusty imagery is, of course, followed by a chorus of na na’s.
2. “Who’s in the House?” by Carman (The Standard, 1993)
I know what you’re thinking: how is Carman not #1? You’ll see. In this song, Carman hip-hops onto the white-man-rapping bandwagon and it sounds like your grandmother flashdancing.
Key lyric: Born, born, born, BORN to a virgin named Mary on Christmas Day! / He bled and He d-died on the cross to take sin away. / You take Him high. You take Him low. / You take JC wherever you go.
Exactly who in youth group is taking him high? And should we report them to the police? Someday, this will rest in a hymnal on page 153, opposite “It Is Well With My Soul.”
BTW, JC is Jesus.
1. “I Don’t Want It (Your Sex — For Now)” DC Talk (Free at Last, 1992)
This one actually is a parody, right? Right? No? Impossible. I mean, the lyric obsesses over teen sex more than George Michael’s biggest hit. And that song was actually called “I Want Your Sex.”
No abstinence song has made more teens think about sex in an infinite loop than this song about refusing sex. No wait — this song about refusing sex . . . for now. I suppose we will need to ask the singer again in ten minutes.
Key lyric: Yo, s-e-x is a test when I’m pressed. So back off, yo, with less of that zest. / Impress this brothah with a life of virtue. The innocence that’s spent is gonna hurt you. / Safe is the way they say to play, then again safe ain’t safe at all today. / So, just wait for the mate that’s straight from God and don’t give it up ’til you tie the knot. / I don’t want it, your sex — for now. Your sex, your SEX, your s-e-x — for NOW.