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Lambs that roar

I've got two careers and two ministries," mused Jaci Velásquez, as she squirmed in a dressing room chair beneath the woman tweezing her eyebrows.

Meet CCM's reigning princess, who at 16 became the fastest-selling female debut in CCM history. Now 20, she is also the first CCM artist to produce a secular No. 1 Latin single-"Llegar a Ti" ("Love will Find You").

"I know our great commission as Christians is to reach the unchurched," she told WORLD, wrinkling her constantly animated freckled face. "That's what I am doing with my Latin record. My English record I am literally singing to the choir. That's what Christian music is," she said. "I feel like I can do both. Of course I have no life, but I feel like I can do both."

An hour later the girl with no life swiveled in tight vinyl pants to her latest Latin single as middle-age retailers and industry executives looked on from the wooden pews of Nashville's Ryman Auditorium-a 19th-century gospel tabernacle turned theater. The starlet on stage reflected the common plight of young artists trapped between the tabernacle and the theater-Christian and secular cultural paradigms.

As stained-glass church windows flashed from the spotlights on Ms. Velásquez, industry biggies predicted a coming crossover career. Calling Ms. Velásquez the next Whitney Houston, Sony Discos president Oscar Llord said she "has a tremendous potential to grow and become that sort of artist in our business."

But there's some question as to whether her record label will allow that to happen. The Los Angeles Times reported that provisions against a secular crossover are written into Ms. Velásquez's contract.

In an interview with WORLD, Word Entertainment president Roland Lundy took issue with that assessment: "There is nothing in her contract that would keep us from doing a record or a pop song and putting it on the radio. What we are saying there is that her focus and our focus is to make great Christian records."

It's seems that CCM wants to have its tabernacle and the theater too. Companies boast of their starlings' popularity but worry that they will fly off. CCM consumers also tend to punish artists who venture too far off the CCM platform.

Jars of Clay is one example. WORLD caught up with the group as it was posing atop wooden crates for a photo shoot. "That's one of the cheesiest things we do," Jars of Clay vocalist Dan Haseltine sheepishly told WORLD. Cheesy, perhaps, but clearly working. The band's No. 1 singles have topped mainstream radio charts and garnered air play on MTV and VH1.

Nevertheless, Jars of Clay's stated goal of serving in a "mission field in the mainstream" comes with a heavy price. Even as total album sales approached gold status, the band fielded criticism for passing up some church concerts in favor of 21-and-older mainstream clubs.

The tensions have worn heavily on band members. "There is definitely a vacuum that we find ourselves in because we are not maybe expressly Christian enough to be kind of poster child for Christian music," said guitarist Matt Odmark. "Yet we are maybe not unsafe enough or rebellious enough for the alternative modern rock world to really embrace us."

Signs of hope rumble from within, however.

Jaci Velásquez's performance at the Ryman theater last month was one of several to promote Roaring Lambs-a CD featuring artists like Jars of Clay and Sixpence None the Richer who have successfully infiltrated mainstream culture.

Produced by Squint Entertainment (home of Sixpence None), the CD celebrates a book written by the late sports promoter Bob Briner that criticized Christians for lacking influence in secular culture. Wrote Mr. Briner, "Culturally, we are lambs. Meek, lowly, easily dismissed cuddly creatures that are fun to watch but never a threat to the status quo. It's time for those lambs to roar."

One of CCM's loudest roaring lambs, Michael W. Smith, took those words to heart and created Rocketown Records for artists who don't fit one-size-fits-all CCM formulas. "It has been a great honor to be a part of this industry," he told WORLD. "But there was a real stigma that I have had to overcome throughout the years-which has gotten better now-of he's a gospel artist or oh, you're a CCM artist."

He was more blunt in a recent Associated Press interview: "We started this subculture, and then we all live in this subculture and we just do our own thing over here, and we feed Christians and we have our own little club. And I absolutely hate it. I don't like it at all. I just don't think that's what Jesus would do."

Candi Cushman

Candi Cushman

Candi is a former WORLD correspondent.