Many singers begin their career in a genre that they aren’t eventually known for. It’s strange to think some pop artists got their start singing songs in their local church, but then went on to sell millions of records containing very poppy and nonreligious music. Many of the singers on the list started out in Christian music as a teen, mainly because they had influential family members who saw something special in them. But, all of these singers and most of the bands broke out of the small sector of Christian rock/pop and found much larger audiences to spread their messages of either faith or non-faith.
10. Joy Williams – The Civil Wars
Williams is now best known for one half of the Grammy winning Americana duo the Civil Wars, but she got her start in Christianity. Because her parents were immersed in the ministry, she went to a Christian high school and attended Christian conferences. As a blonde-haired teen, she garnered a record deal and released her first record, Joy Williams, in 2001. She released two more religious-centric albums, and then transitioned into more mainstream and secular territory when she formed Civil Wars with John Paul White in 2009. Even though her Christian albums sold well, it wasn’t until the Civil Wars released the harmonious Barton Hollow in 2011 when they found crossover success: The album won them two Grammy awards.
9. DC Talk
Like Christian heavy metal, Christian rap seems like an odd hybrid–but DC Talk was quite successful at merging the two. In 1989, their first record, self-titled, became the best-selling debut by a Christian artist at the time. It wasn’t until their fourth album, Jesus Freak, in 1995 when they infiltrated the mainstream market with a grunge-Christian sound. It achieved the highest first week sales of any Christian release in history, charted on the Billboard 200 and got them signed to Virgin Records. Their follow up album, 1998’s Supernatural, surpassed their previous albums in it debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 Chart and was more pop-rock orientated than hip-hop. The band’s no longer together but the members have since begun solo careers.
8. Jessica Simpson
Simpson’s father worked as a youth minister for a Baptist church and encouraged his daughter to sing there. As a teen, she recorded her first record called Jessica, but when the label went bankrupt her contract ended. The album was never officially released, but lucky for her, record executive Tommy Mottola signed her to Columbia Records where she released Sweet Kisses. It wasn’t exactly a Christian record, but she sang love songs devoid of sex. Her image back then also was conservative. Apparently her innocent persona didn’t help sell many records, so when she adopted more of a Britney Spears-esque sexuality and shed her cookie cutter looks, her non-Christian career took off.
This rock band has always been Christian, even though they’ve sold millions of records both in the mainstream and Christian markets. Their first three albums were released on a Christian imprint, and their third record, Learning to Breathe, won a Grammy for Best Gospel Album. The 2003 album, The Beautiful Letdown launched their commercial career and sold over two million copies. They’re a rare breed of a band that caters to both Christians and non-Christians and have stuck to their religious roots.
6. Jars of Clay
Akin to Switchfoot, Jars of Clay have remained entrenched in their theological roots. Named after a line from 2 Corinthians 4:7, the band got their start when they submitted a demo to a Gospel Music Association contest and won. Their first album in 1995 went platinum and charted well, based on the crossover appeal of their hit song “Flood”. The song catapulted them into the mainstream and became one of the biggest commercial hits by a band on a Christian label. The album even won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Gospel Album. Despite being a Christian band, their messages aren’t overt, as they don’t want to alienate anyone.
Usually heavy metal and Christianity aren’t synonymous, but Stryper put that all to rest. Like Jars of Clay, their name comes from a passage in the Bible. In the ’80s, Stryper opened for non-Christian hair metal bands like Bon Jovi, and to the dismay of Christians, they’d throw Bibles into the audience. In 1986 they released their breakthrough, To Hell with the Devil. Since it’s a Christian album and not necessarily a straight up metal album, the album title is filled with different meanings. The album sold two million copies and many of the songs’ videos received heavy rotation on MTV. The album was the first contemporary Christian and Christian metal album to sell that many units.
4. Aretha Franklin
Before she was “The Queen of Soul”, Franklin was the queen of gospel music. Her father was a well-respected minister in Memphis, and she began singing at his church. At the age of 14, her father brought her on the road with him and had her sing in various churches across the country. She got signed to a label and released Songs of Faith in 1956, which found modest success in the Christian music community. But Franklin wanted to embark on a secular career and got signed to mainstream label Columbia and then Atlantic Records in the late ’60s. It wasn’t until then when her hit songs like “Respect” and “Think” molded her into the legend she is today.
3. Sixpence None the Richer
Named after a passage in a C.S. Lewis novel called Mere Christianity, Sixpence began their career in 1994 when they released, The Fatherless and the Widow. They followed that up with another Christian orientated album, This Beautiful Mess, in 1995. It wasn’t until 1998 when they had a major breakthrough. Their pop song “Kiss Me”, which had been endlessly played on the radio and featured in several movie trailers and romantic movies that year, peaked at #2 on the Billboard Chart. To this date, it’s their calling card song, along with the cover “There She Goes”. Lead singer Leigh Nash embarked on a solo career and dipped back into religious music in Blue on Blue in 2006, and then released an album full of hymns in 2011.
2. Katy Perry
It’s pretty well known by now that Katy Perry (ne Katy Hudson) started out as a teenage Christian singer. Both she and Joy Williams had similar trajectories, as both had parents involved in ministries and both were blonde teens who got record contracts. In 2001, the California native released a self-titled record filled with Christian rock songs like “Faith Won’t Fail”. The record sold only 200 copies, which is a far cry from the millions of records she sells today. The album is so rare that some copies have sold for as much as $200. After the release of her Christian album, the label she was signed to went bankrupt, so she saw an opportunity to transition to pop music and leave God behind.
1. Amy Grant
It’s hard to believe trailblazer pop singer, Amy Grant got her start in Christian music, but she’s been wildly successful in both genres. In the ’70s and ’80s, she released a few Christian albums that won her Dove Awards (the Christian equivalent to a Grammy) and an actual Grammy for Best Contemporary Gospel Performance. But like a lot of artists, she wanted a more mainstream audience and wanted to be the first Christian singer-songwriter to find ubiquity in the commercial world. In 1991, she released her non-Christian record, Heart in Motion. It went on to sell five million copies and released successful songs, “Baby Baby” and “Every Heartbeat”, which also were successful on the Christian charts and helped her album get nominated for non-gospel Grammys. Not listening to the naysayers who felt she abandoned her Christian roots, she released more pop records but returned to the gospel arena in 2002, with the album Legacy…Hymns and Faith.