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jesus freak_hugeChristian contemporary music gets a bad rap nowadays (ironic, since Christian rap is one of the bright spots). Why? Let’s start with the “Jesus is my boyfriend” songs from artists straddling that barbed wire fence between secular and Christian. Ever since Debby Boone said “You Light Up My Life” was a love song to God, Christian artists have bottled sentimental syrup for mass consumption. Cultured observers despise CCM for sacrificing artistic integrity to copy the world’s art and create a subculture. The theologically astute find CCM nauseating for its lack of precision, its fallback into heterodox clichés, or vague, spiritual-sounding phrases.

All these criticisms have some merit. But I’m increasingly grateful for the CCM that was the soundtrack during my teenage years. In recent weeks, I’ve revisited some dc Talk songs, since this is the year their acclaimed album, Jesus Freak, turns 20. As I’ve listened, I’ve been impressed by how fortifying their songs were. This was a group who put unabashed lyrics to the in-your-face bluster of rock and rap, and the music was hellbent on keeping you from hell and all its effects.

Free at Last, for example, sought to give Christian kids a narrative that was counter-cultural and cool, especially when it came to issues of morality. “Luv is a Verb” tried to rescue the word “love” from meaning “sex,” whereas “That Kinda Girl” and “I Don’t Want It” were anthems promoting abstinence and chastity. One might chuckle at how over-the-top they sound today, but there’s something endearing about the earnestness. “Socially Acceptable” gave the strongest commentary on American culture, warning against “justifying” sin, turning everything to “gray,” and “synchronizing to society’s ways.” Decrying the “plunge” of “decency” and relativism, the song goes on to ask “in whose sight?” are today’s sins socially acceptable.

If sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll are the unholy trinity of the lost, then dcTalk was determined to use rock-and-roll to turn the tables on sex and drugs. By the time Jesus Freak was released, the band had shifted to a mix of rock and rap while maintaining their social commentary. “So Help Me God” was a cry for help in the midst of being “bombarded” by “philosophies that satisfy the surface.” “Colored People” sought to redeem a racial slur in order to showcase the power of reconciliation through embracing God’s creative intention of a multi-colored humanity. Meanwhile, “What Have We Become” invited the listener to recoil with horror at the “self-indulgent people” we’ve turned into.

But the most popular dc Talk songs were about the adventure of daring to challenge the world. “Jesus Freak,” the signature song of the group, became the anthem of a generation of young people who were coming to terms with the fact that the Christian life will be increasingly “freaky” to a lost world. The song struck a chord with teenagers because it captured the angst of “not fitting in” and wondering what everyone else will think. By 1998, “Into Jesus,” the lead single from Supernatural, had resolved the angst. Those of us singing along weren’t asking “What will people think?” anymore, but instead declaring our identity, “Hey you! I’m into Jesus. I’ve seen the truth, and I believe.” No longer is the unassuming teen worried about being seen as a “Jesus freak;” he’s an evangelist calling other people to join him.

The success of dc Talk caused some to wonder if the band would go “mainstream” and sacrifice their Christian identity. “My Friend (So Long)” answered those rumors with a defiant “Never!” It was the group’s reaction to a fictional member of the band betraying their Christian calling and compromising with the world. The song bounces back and forth from anger and sadness, with a declaration of the band’s unfailing love for the compromiser, but also a firm recommitment to never join him in seeking the world’s popularity. The message rings loud and clear: “We will always love you, but we will never compromise.” Reflecting on “My Friend (So Long),” I can’t help but think about some of my youth group friends who’ve left evangelical Christianity. Some pivoted to a raucous libertarian hedonism of the right, while others fell for “Emergent” and wound up emerging out of the church altogether. Relistening to this song makes me wonder how it may have shaped my response to friends who walked away.

Not all of dc Talk’s music was “bold” and “in-your-face.” The quietly introspective “What if I Stumble” opens with Kevin Max’s quote from Brennan Manning: “The single greatest cause of atheism in the world is Christians who confess Jesus with their lips and then deny Him with their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.” The song then captures the inner struggle of a young person who worries about the consequences of falling into sin. Will their sin lead others astray? Will they let down their friends and family? Listening to the plaintive lyric and melody today, I wish that dc Talk had been more gospel-grounded in their answer to that question. The gospel isn’t for those who never stumble, but for those who do – again and again, and rise in repentance. Still, when placed within their overall body of work, I see how it functions as another “fortifying song.” It urges the listener to consider what stepping into sin will do to one’s reputation and the cause of the gospel.

dc Talk doesn’t need to make a comeback. They’ve already taken over CCM. Kevin Max became the lead singer for Audio Adrenaline, Michael Tait for the Newsboys, and TobyMac has had success as a solo artist. In their recent songs, one still sees the “fortification” aspect of their music. For example, the Newsboys song “We Believe” begins with a context of “desperation,” “doubt and fear,” before launching into a strong confession of faith in salvation through Christ alone.

1990’s CCM, for all the faults of its corny creativity (many of which are even more glaring and obvious as time goes by), was successful in one key sense. It gave me and my generation a different narrative. It was a sub-culture, yes, but no matter much some may sneer, it was a culture, and cultures are formative. Twenty years later, it’s the element of “fortifying faith” in so many dcTalk songs that has stuck with me. And for that, I’m grateful.

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24 thoughts on “dc Talk and the Influence of Faith-Fortifying Songs”

  1. Great post, Trevin. My first album was a dc Talk album and they were a huge encouragement to my faith as a teen. It’s also cool to see how God used them in the wider culture: I recently ran across this video of dct on the Arsenio Hall show in 1993:

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      I first heard dc Talk when they guested on Steven Curtis Chapman’s album, ‘The Great Adventure.’ Hilarious song – “Got 2 Be Tru” – about why Steven just wasn’t cut out for rap.

  2. Steve says:

    Trevin, this blog post is alright with me. My 3 young sons have been listening to TobyMac for a while now, specifically the truDog tracks, which they appreciate wayyyy too much :-) But, I have just recently introduced them to Free At Last for all the reasons you mentioned in this article. It was my first CD that I played in my first CD Walkman during all of high school. The songs resonated with me and helped to give a voice as to how I was to respond to the newly strong teenage angst culture of the early-mid 90s. Moving to the South from St. Louis area at that time was a culture shock in itself for me, but dcTalk’s blend both racially and musically provided a backdrop as to what it looked like to be integrated. Integration brings to mind integrity and integrity breeds wholeness. In my opinion, this is what this group provided. What would people think if that was laid on them today? Ask Lecrae and Tedashii, they might have an idea.

    1. Trevin Wax says:

      CD Walkman?? Mine always skipped, so I made mix tapes from my CD’s and used cassettes. Crazy, I know. I feel old just talking about cassette tapes.

      1. Steve says:

        I think I was late to the CD party, so by the time I got my Walkman they had electronic skip “protection” (I think it was a god-send). And cassettes… in ’95-’97, I was working at Best Buy in their huge media section (later downsized due to digital), but I was part of the team of my local best buy store #299 getting rid of the cassette section. As late as those dates, it’s hard to imagine any more :-)

  3. Jonny Max says:

    Great post. For me, spot on. I’ve never thought of the 90s Christian music scene as an alternative narrative. Very insightful.

    Who would have ever thought that DC Talk would split up and take over the Newsboys and Audio A. 8th grade me would have been mind blown.

  4. Erica says:

    I loved DC Talk, Audio A, Newsboys. I even had all the Petra albums. I still call Olive Garden the garden where I guess they grow the olives. I preferred Jars of Clay and thought Burlap to Cashmere was underappreciated.

    Thanks for the stroll through memory lane.

  5. Jason says:

    Great blog. Jesus Freak is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago when it released and still sounds fresh. It made a huge impact on my life.

    I do believe the quote at the beginning of What If I Stumble is actually Brennan Manning speaking , not Kevin Max. It’s from the Free At Last movie. Here’s a youtube link (not sure if I can post links here or not) to the short video with three dc Talk guys meeting with Brennan.

  6. Andrew says:

    Hey Trevin. Your telling my story here bro. I still listen to DC Talk. In fact my Pandora station is called DC Talk Style where I have all the tracks that come up from these albums liked. Also included are Newsboys, Audio Adrenaline, and Toby Mac. These songs did keep me grounded in my faith as a teen. The Jesus Freak album was there for me when my parents divorced. They still remind me of all that God has brought me through. It is amazing to think how much they still speak to me now.

  7. Bill says:

    Great article! I went to see DC Talk with Jars of Clay when the album was first out as a young youth leader (now I’m an old youth leader). It was transformative for me. Really got me to look at Christian music in a new light and I’ve followed it ever since.

  8. Jacob Phillips says:

    An article about old dc talk songs without mentioning “In the Light”? Unacceptable.

    Just kidding, of course. Good stuff.

  9. Josh says:

    “In the Light” came on the radio the other day and I remember thinking…”That was such a great song-musically and lyrically”
    I think the modern worship movement has come and gone…we need songs that are more theologically robust…which is why the Christian Rap movement is having success…their songs are robust in theology.

    On another note, Kevin Max is no longer with Audio Adrenaline.
    Thanks for the post!

    1. John McAfer says:

      Just a quick FYI (And you may already know.) But “In the Light” was written and originally recorded by Charlie Peacock for his album “Love Life”. Yep, it’s actually a cover song.

  10. Jim says:

    20 years??? I still remember the first time I heard that album. My dad was a bluegrass musician so I felt like I was a pretty cool guy – no matter that my friends were listening to Coolio or Nirvana… Looking back I’m grateful that there were some CCM artists that tried to feed more than milk. It’s for that reason that I still listen to artists like Rich Mullins and Michael Card – really the antithesis of CCM.

    1. Steve says:

      For some more “antithesis of CCM” type christian music check out both with Dave Trout and his “gourmet music”, or Andrew Peterson and his crew of artist friends at for some unrivaled lyrical depth. CCM 3.0 or something like that :-)

  11. Jake Hanson says:

    My friends and I used to drive through our public high school parking lot ‘blaring’ “In the Light.” It encouraged us to stand in contrast to the rest of our classmates, and really was fortifying for our faith. I am grateful for the songs, and even the theology that shaped many of us.

  12. Chris says:

    Great article Trevin! Christian music is often maligned by well intended believers who really don’t understand it. I couldn’t agree more with:

    ‘It gave me and my generation a different narrative. It was a sub-culture, yes, but no matter much some may sneer, it was a culture, and cultures are formative. Twenty years later, it’s the element of “fortifying faith” in so many dcTalk songs that has stuck with me.’

    I was 15 when ‘Jesus Freak’ was released and was fortunate to see DC Talk on that tour in Belfast, Northern Ireland. A concert that I remember well! They and other Christian artists certainly helped me as a young guy in pointing me to the Lord – the likes of Larry Norman, Petra, Stryper, Bride, Guardian, Johnny Q Public, Grammatrain, POD & Tourniquet. Today I commend the many Christians who in their music (acoustic, rock, metal, hip hop etc) seek to bring glory to Jesus Christ.

  13. Ian Shaw says:

    So can we expect to see a similar piece on the 20th anniversary of the premiere albums of The O.C. Supertones, The Insyderz and Five Iron Frenzy? Hugely influential on thousands or millions of young believers in the mid-late 90’s thru 2000’s. Cornerstone Festival anyone?

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  15. Sam says:

    Great article. I’m pretty sure What If I Stumble was not just written about some wondering teen out there. This was the true heart of the band…THEIR fears! This is what made the album so great. It was genuine. And the follow-up to the song is Fearless on the Supernatural record, in which they did give a gospel-grounded message of not fearing their security

  16. Steve says:

    Great observations, the Eli album “Second Hand Clothing” is another from that era with enduring depth. If anyone knows what he is doing now I would love to hear it.

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Trevin Wax

​Trevin Wax is Bible and Reference Publisher at LifeWay Christian Resources and managing editor of The Gospel Project. You can follow him on Twitter or receive blog posts via email. Click here for Trevin’s full bio.

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