Christian rock combines the Lord's message with the devil's beat. Sometimes the result is exhilaration. Sometimes it's god-awful confusion.

The sermons also seem to placate the elders; when a band appears onstage in full rebel-rock regalia — leather, Mohawks, tattoos (it's easy to distinguish band members from bright-eyed, somewhat conservatively dressed kids) — one of the first orders of business is adjusting confusing perceptions to fit the context of being in a place of worship. Often, because of the musical medium — thrash and ska-punk — it's tough to understand the lyrics anyway. For all many of the audience members know, a band could be singing "Burn the Church." A sermon is a quick way to allay concerns — proof positive that the message is the right message, that the musicians' hearts are aligned with the church's doctrine. Adding to the confusion, though, is that lyrics by even the most verbally devout Christian rock bands rarely mention outright the words "Jesus Christ" in their songs.

Between sets at Crossover, where two dozen of Christian music's brightest lights are performing — from such big names as Michael W. Smith, Burlap to Cashmere, the Newsboys and 4HIM to lesser-known talents like AllStarUnited, Buck, Skillet and Jennifer Knapp — the crowd is constantly reminded why they're here. A minister leads the crowd in prayers and moments of silence, thanks the Lord for the nice weather (even though it's hotter than hell) and, on one occasion, holds an altar call in which he invites crowd members to approach the stage if they're ready to "accept Jesus Christ our lord as your personal savior."

The crowd is gently urged to rise from their seats and approach the stage, and, slowly, people do. As the pastor continues to pray, lite-rock band 4HIM sets up their equipment behind him. In the crowd, all is quiet, with most heads bowed, as people trickle into the aisle and up to the front; in the end, about 100 of the nearly 3,000 people are standing at the foot of the stage, some smiling, some with tears rolling down their cheeks. They're then led to a tent behind the stage, where worship leaders talk to them as a group. After the pastor finishes, 4HIM begins to perform.

Rebecca, Sara and Deborah Dickson swoon to the music of 4Him at the Crossover Christian Music Festival.
Jennifer Silverberg
Rebecca, Sara and Deborah Dickson swoon to the music of 4Him at the Crossover Christian Music Festival.
Jennifer Silverberg
AllStarUnited field questions from the Christian press during their performance at Crossover. Below: AllStarUnitedís Ian Eskelin mingles with his flock .

The music booked into the festival varies from peaceful, easy country to tepid adult contemporary to ska and hard rock, stretched over three days. The format is a sort of mini-Lilith Fair, with booths hawking wares, bands selling their music and T-shirts, radio stations broadcasting live, meet-and-greets with the bands. Were this a Grateful Dead show, the man standing by the front gate all alone would have perhaps been muttering "doses" or "trips" under his breath while sucking on a joint. Instead, the hippie with the diamond eyes smiles and says, "Did you know that Christianity is the most persecuted religion in the world? We're being executed daily in the Sudan." Asked to give his name, he politely refuses, citing a fear of reprisal from Sudanese extremists.

Just inside the gate, booths sell a new breed of Christian-message T-shirts, with designs that co-opt or blatantly copy pop-culture images and identifiable logos: a Tide detergent logo altered to read "Jesus DIED for you"; a photo of Elwood Blues of the Blues Brothers with the statement "On a mission from God"; a take-off on Nike ("Air Jesus: the Ultimate High"); logos from the Gap, Tommy Hilfiger, Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, all reworked to convey a Christian message. It's an effective method of catching the eye, using the familiar as the attention-getter but then juxtaposing a Christian message on top of it.

In one sense, many of these bands do the same with music. The sound is quite similar to secular rock music — ska-punk, hip-hop/metal amalgams, industrial, alternative — but with lyrics that reflect the musicians' spiritual belief system. Riffs occasionally sound nearly identical to those heard on The Point or Extreme Radio. Singers mimic their secular counterparts, and it's often easy to spot the influence. Experimentation is seldom welcomed, it seems. Later, when confronted with this observation, Robbie Clark nods in acknowledgment of the similarities but defends the practice: "What do most secular bands do? The same thing! They just rip off peoples' music all the time. That's nothing new. Everybody rips off everything."

The quality of the music, for the most part, is on par with secular pop and commercial rock music; the bands have reached a level of playing that warrants them a shot at the big time. They can play their instruments, and they follow the rules of pop-music creation — verse-chorus-verse with melody and hook. Extreme-metal bands like Project 86 and P.O.D. could just as well be mainstream secular acts (in fact, P.O.D.'s next album will be released on secular powerhouse label Atlantic); the same goes for ska bands like Buck, which display little if any innovation but compare favorably, talentwise, with secular counterparts like the Bosstones. None of these bands sucks, but none of them is pushing boundaries. Those who stray outside of mainstream in the Christian community, such as the Danielson Family and Pedro the Lion, are virtually ignored (though both receive high praise in the secular press) and occasionally decried.

Songs of love pepper AllStarUnited's most recent record, International Anthems for the Human Race, but they could very well be directed at a girl rather than the Savior. "That's a fine line right there," responds singer Ian Eskelin. "A Christian songwriter has the hardest lyric-writing responsibility on the planet because we're touting something that is so sacred to us; at the same time, we want people to have a good time and not always feel this huge lead weight of "Man, I've got to make a decision.' Because music is supposed to be fun. If I can correlate this to the Bible, I think the Bible is a great example of how a creative person should enter into the world of creation. The Bible is written by these creative people, the mind of God. God uses in the Bible amazing parables. If every single verse of the Bible ended with "Jesus is the way,' then I wouldn't know how to read it. And I'm reading parables and all kinds of cool stories that if you take them out of the Bible, they're still cool stories, and they make sense. Every song on an album doesn't have to end with "Jesus is the way.' There may be a song on there about pain and suffering; there may be a song about some girl you loved who broke up with you and now you think she's a total ... wench. But somewhere on the album, and this usually happens because I feel some kind of conviction come over me in the middle of the writing process; I do have times where I just lay down and say, "This is where it's at.' And there are lyrics on both of our albums like that."

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