One of the more odd stories of modern Christian music is the one regarding the song, “Carry the Light.” It likely has its beginnings in 1984, when a super group called Band Aid was formed with the intention of uniting musicians all over the UK to raise charity funds for famine-ravaged African nations. The result was the song, “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” which is still a holiday-time favorite today. The following year, a similar super group formed in the U.S. called USA for Africa. Spearheaded by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie, it produced a hit single called, “We Are The World.” Scores of artists participated in what became the most popular example of celebrity charity ever put forth at that time. The song sold over 20 million copies worldwide, and did much to help alleviate starvation in the African continent.
Right about this same time, the relatively new phenomenon of Contemporary Christian Music was catching on. So, when it was seen what marvelous things could be done when scores of various musical artists get brought together for a single cause, many of the Christian artists in this new sub-industry wanted to do something similar; a kind of “We Are The World,” but for saving souls. After all, they reasoned, it’s important to feed children’s bodies, but how much more important is it to save their souls?
By 1988 they got their chance. A group founded by Billy Graham called the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelism commissioned a project called, “Target 2000: The Great Commission Torch Run.” Young people in various countries would carry torches symbolizing the Gospel of Jesus in a worldwide long-distance relay. The initial torch would be lit on the Mount of Olives in Israel and from there be carried by runners to every nation on earth in a publicity-raising and spearheading effort aimed at evangelizing every country in the world by the year 2000. The runners did successfully visit every recognized nation extant at that time. The evangelizing part – not so much.
The project wanted a musical anthem for the event, and the person they found to write it was one of the brightest rising young stars of Contemporary Christian Music: Twila Paris. She wrote the anthem, called “Carry the Light,” and quickly began to collaborate with as many of the biggest names in gospel rock that she could corral to make it as big an event as possible. Dallas Holm, Wayne Watson, Bebe and Cece Winans, Margaret Becker, John Schlitt (lead singer of Petra), Sandy Patti, Take 6, Steve Green, Steve Camp, Larnelle Harris, the Bill Gaither Trio, First Call, Crystal Lewis, Geoff Moore, Rick Florian, Eddie DeGarmo, Dana Key, Mylon LeFevre, Kim Boyce, Greg and Rebecca Sparks, Jessy Dixon, and Michael W. Smith, among others, all participated. Conspicuously absent was Amy Grant, who, although she was far and away the biggest name in Christian music at that time, was considered by many to have gone too “secular.”
The song and music video were released in 1989. The similarity it bore to “We Are The World” was quite stark, and struck many people, Christian and non-Christian alike, as a ham-handed “me too” effort at copy-catting the earlier idea. Some people also saw it as a complete failure of pragmatism; why spend so much time and effort on the hereafter when so many people are in need of help in the here and now? Nevertheless, “Carry The Light” has stood the test of time, being continuously played and re-played in churches all over the nation. Meanwhile, “We Are The World,” has been all but forgotten, even among die-hard Michael Jackson fans.
Perhaps the underlying lesson is this: If you sing for someone else’s supper, you’ll make an impact for a day. If you sing for someone else’s soul, you’ll make less of an impact today, but a bigger impact tomorrow.
Personally, I don't see that as a positive thing. I strongly feel that celebrities who gather together to feed the hungry are far more noble than those who gather together to make themselves feel better about their spiritual status after they’re dead of starvation. In fact, I wonder when celebrity musicians will stop being so preoccupied with American Idol and come together for worldwide charity again.
In the immortal words of Robert Green Ingersoll, “Hands that help are better than lips that pray.”