Tuesday, July 19, 2016

What's So Bad About Christian Radio (a response to an article by Trevin Wax)

The last couple of weeks have seen a very crazy and often heart-breaking news cycle. So you probably missed a blog by Trevin Wax in which he listened to two hours of K-Love and offered his critique. His conclusion was that Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is not that bad, and that "the critique that there is little to no theological substance is unjustified."

His blog was titled Christian Music Radio Is More Theological Than You Think. I don't have any doubt that it's theological. If you're opening your mouth and talking about God, you are being theological. The problem is, if it's not grounded in biblical historical orthodoxy, it's probably pretty bad. I agree with Wax that it's not fair to say Christian radio has nothing theologically substantive to offer. But I disagree that it's more than "little."

Still, I will concede that listening to K-Love is much better for a person's brain than listening to secular Top 40 or even a country music station. That doesn't excuse the fact that K-Love would flunk out of any theology course higher than a flannel-board level Sunday school class and needs a major overhaul. More specifically, Christian radio needs reformation. It's dipped in Osteen, Warren, and Meyer's theology and savors nothing anywhere as lasting or as flavorful as Piper, MacArthur, or Sproul's.

The last time I listened to K-Love was in April. I confess that I turned it on specifically to hear how bad it still was. In that sense, I was not disappointed. The moment I tuned in, I heard  the afternoon DJ talking about the Loch Ness Monster. She ended the segment open, entertaining the notion the monster might actually be real. News flash: it's not.

This photo of the Loch Ness Monster is as authentic as a K-Love radio DJ.

The only Bible verse I heard was from the NLT, and the same verse was quoted three times in the hour, context never given (it was some kind of "verse of the day" sort of thing). The DJ also read a quote from C.S. Lewis, and apparently she didn't screen the quote before she read it. She got to a part where Lewis mentioned "hell," and she actually paused, changed the word "hell" to "hades," ad libbed "whatever," then continued with the quote.

See, it's not just the music that's bad. The entire Christian radio image is a great big mess. Ask a Christian radio DJ what words like theology, orthodoxy, and doctrine mean, and they probably wouldn't be able to tell you. I know that's a very general criticism, but the point is if they sound ignorant about the Bible and theology, they probably are.

A song or two might be able to hit the right theological notes, but it's incidental. The radio station itself likely doesn't have a doctrinally sound base. When you know something about how the behind-the-scenes stuff works, you'll realize just how far from missional Christian radio really is. I should know. I did it for over 20 years.

At the end of Wax's article, he furthered his critique by asking six insightful questions. There are answers to those questions, and I'd like to respond to them. I had thought about doing the same thing Wax did and listening to two hours of K-Love, but I don't think I need to bother (sigh of relief).

I have much respect for Wax as the editor of The Gospel Project, a Sunday school curriculum that we use at our church. I'm a semi-regular reader of his blog. So I offer this respectfully and also to provide insight into the cookie jar we know as Contemporary Christian Music radio. Wax's questions are in bold, and I'll answer them in the order he asked them:

Why is it that in a two-hour bloc there was only one (one!) female vocalist?
Because people connect with male vocalists more than they do female vocalists. Research has shown that both men and women are more likely to enjoy and sing along with a male voice than a female voice. Did you also notice they were almost all white?

Like most radio and television programming, Christian radio caters to a specific demographic, and that demographic is women between the ages of 20 and 50 (give or take). Whether or not Christian radio is doing it on purpose, that demographic is also mostly white.

It gets way more specific than that: this target woman lives in suburbia in a house with a mortgage, drives a mini-van, has three kids, a dog and a cat, a husband who works full-time, she also works but it's probably part-time, has a household income between $55 and $70K, vacations in July, doesn't have enough time to read her Bible but she has enough time to journal, loves Beth Moore and Joyce Meyer, and goes to church about 3 times a month. This woman even has a name -- Becky.

Some radio stations will put up a mock picture of this woman in the studio, and the DJs are told to look at it and know that's who they're talking to. I've attended seminars where this was the whole focus of each session: Becky, Becky, Becky. The entire radio station is programmed for her -- not her husband and not her kids. Giving glory to God is incidental, or it's presented like this: "By reaching Becky, you're giving glory to God." Becky's name is mentioned more often at these conferences than God's name is.

Becky: "Why couldn't you have made my name, like, Scarlett Johansson or Wonder Woman?"

This is unofficially referred to as Becky Programming or the Becky Mentality. The gospel-minded might recognize this as exactly how not to evangelize. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for we are all one in Christ, right (Galatians 3:28)? But rather than giving an audience what they need to hear, Christian radio sections out a particular audience and gives her what the research says she wants to hear.

The Becky mentality is inadvertently prejudiced and sexist. It's so common that every once in a while, you will hear Becky Radio made fun of in some Christian songs. Chris Rice has perhaps the most notable example, a song called Me and Becky from his album Run the Earth, Watch the Sky. This was the same album that contained a song about everyone singing the same song on the radio. I can't help but think that song was also rather tongue-in-cheek.

Hearing the Becky Mentality regurgitated at every conference for so many years apparently had an effect on me. The same year I left radio, I married a Becky (though she spells her name Beki and can't stand Beth Moore or Joyce Meyer, and we don't have a cat).

Why do so many of the songs sound alike?
Because radio is about producing the least number of negatives. Technically a radio station is not actually trying to give you something that you like. They're trying to give you something you don't dislike. As long as they can remain as even as possible without too much variation or fluctuation, they're more likely to keep you on their radio station and not flipping to something else.

When the radio station maintains a continuous blend of sound, it just kind of melts into the background and you become oblivious that you're still listening to it. You know how when you drive the same route to work every day, sometimes entire stretches of the trip will go by, and you'll wonder where those miles went? Listening to the radio is kind of like that.

If your listening experience were to change drastically -- like a loud up-tempo song were to be followed by a soft, slow song, for example -- you come out of your trance, realize that something has changed, and so cognitively you're more likely to want to change as well and will turn the radio station to something else.

Even when it comes to production quality, songs have been equalized to be at the exact same volume level. Put on your headphones, find a song from the late 80s or early 90s, and give it a listen. Then pick a song from within the past decade and listen at the same volume. Notice the difference? The older song has more dynamics, highs and lows, crescendo and decrescendo, and the more current song is a lot louder and dynamically consistent throughout.

The reason why every single Christian recording artist sounds like they're recording the exact same song is because they know K-Love won't play it unless it sounds like every other song. Yes, Christian radio is the very reason every Christian artist sounds the same. It's not necessarily the artist's fault. They just have to play along (pun implied).

Where are the brilliant songwriters like Andrew Peterson and Audrey Assad?
Sorry, but the content of the song is less important than how it sounds. It's not that the lyrics aren't important at all -- obviously a song has to pass certain criteria in order to be a Christian song (and then sometimes, of course, there are songs that have no Christian content to them whatsoever). But the lyrics are less important than how catchy it is.

K-Love loves American idols.

See, there's this annoying little thing called auditorium testing. A focus group sits in a room (or an auditorium, hence the name) with a little device in their hand that has a dial on it. Fragments of songs are played for them -- not whole songs, just pieces of songs. The person will turn the dial one direction if they love the song, and the other direction if they don't like it. This is not how anyone listens to the radio, but this is how the research is done. Great songs don't get played because they tested poorly with a sample audience.

You've probably seen this method in action before. Have you ever been watching a political debate and noticed a moving line-graph at the bottom of the screen? As a candidate is making an argument, the line on that graph will either go up or start dropping. That line represents the candidate's favorability rating among a sample group. Each person in that group has a little knob in their hands which they turn to indicate how much they like or don't like what they're hearing a candidate say. That same method is used to pick songs for Christian radio.

Obama: "Too much Chris Tomlin puts me to sleep." Poll numbers rise.

Not every song is chosen this way. Some bands do manage to sneak through the system, though they don't often last if they don't follow the rules. There are also praise and worship songs that might gain popularity in certain churches and then they're picked up and recorded -- by artists and distributed on labels who know how to play according to the system. Getting a song on the radio costs a lot of money, too. There's the cost in producing and distributing the song, and then there's the marketing and the testing to get radio stations to play it.

Had an artist like Keith Green or Rich Mullins tried to make it in Christian music today, I'm convinced we'd have never heard of them. To call popular CCM "artistry" is a lot like calling Little Debbie a "chef." You're listening to mostly factory-made songs produced on a conveyor belt and shrink-wrapped, not made in the kitchen with love served fresh and piping hot.

Why do certain aspects of Christian theology get overlooked?
Again, lyrics aren't as important as how catchy the song is. Another reason deep songs get hardly any airplay is that they make a person think. Remember, we don't want a listener to think too much or they might change the station. A thought-provoking song also runs a higher risk of making a person disagree with what the artist is saying. That means, oohh, it might offend someone, and we just can't have that. The more widely appealing the song lyrics are, the better.

K-Love's sugar slogan is "Positive, encouraging," and they try as hard as they can to fulfill that mission statement. My dad started a Christian radio station in the 70s whose slogan was "Making Him Known." That's not K-Love's primary objective. It's not to preach Christ and share the gospel; it's just to be positive and encouraging. Their version of God is always positive and encouraging -- hence why their DJs avoid references to hell, and would rather talk about the Loch Ness Monster than sin and repentance and how Christ saves us from the wrath of God (John 3:36).

Contemporary Christian radio does not exist to teach. It exists to entertain with Christian-themed content. I'm sure there are people who work at K-Love or the Fish or Way-FM who care about people. But if they were truly genuine, they would know the gospel well and they would share it. They have the perfect opportunity to do it. But they don't.

I've said for years Christian radio doesn't care about teaching. The response I often heard was, "It's not the job of Christian radio to teach people. That's the job of the church!" You're right, it is the job of the church. It's also the job of Christian radio. Very plainly, Colossians 3:16 instructs, "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God."

When it comes down to it, the problems in Christian radio are the result of the problems in the church. Why is it that Christian radio eschews sound doctrine and is driven by demographics and marketing strategies? Because many churches are that way. Until the church abandons this approach to ministry and becomes committed to sound doctrine, eating and serving the meat of God's word, Christian radio will continue to be Little Debbie (Little Becky?) and glass-of-milk theology.

When Rick Warren started Saddleback Church, he said he went door-to-door and asked everyone what they wanted in a church. He didn't share the gospel with them -- he asked them what they wanted their church to be like. Many other churches have followed that course, eating up the strategies of the "Purpose Driven Church."

This approach to ministry is not "gospel driven," which focuses entirely on Christ; it's "Purpose Driven" which focuses entirely on the consumer. Likewise, Christian radio is full of consumer-focused slogans like "Positive, Encouraging" or "Safe for the Whole Family" or "Uplifting, Upbeat, Real."

By the way, that station my dad started in the 70s was bought out by K-Love less than two years ago. "Making Him Known" has been replaced with "Positive, Encouraging."

And their sister-station, which changed their approach from "negative hits" to positive ones.

What do we do when aberrant theological affirmations make their way into a song?
If this is being asked of the radio station, nothing. Is the song up-beat? Did it test well? Does it mention God in a positive and encouraging way? Then it's fine. It fits the criteria.

You're talking about an industry (it's an industry before it's a ministry) where one of the top-played artists over the last twenty-five years is Phillips, Craig, and Dean -- three pastors from three different churches who are all oneness pentecostals in their theology. They reject that God is three persons in one. Rather, he manifests himself as a Father, or as a Son, or as the Holy Spirit.

To be blunt, Randy Phillips, Shawn Craig, and Dan Dean do not know God. They do not understand a fundamental tenet of Christianity that the Father sent the Son to die on the cross for our sins. The beliefs of Phillips, Craig, and Dean would prevent them from receiving baptism in almost any orthodox church throughout church history. But testing the theology of the artists doesn't matter. As long as their music tests well, they'll get airplay.

Now, that's if the question is being asked of Christian radio. If this question is being asked of the listener, well, we should hold Christian stations accountable for what they play and who they play. Call the station. Write them a letter. (Don't bother with e-mail. I ignored way more messages than I ever read.) If they ignore you, post on their Facebook wall. But don't be an obnoxious pest. Do this with gentleness and respect.

I will forewarn you that sometimes any feedback is positive, whether you like or don't like what a station is doing. Even if you're logging a complaint, the station is probably thinking, "Thanks for listening!" If you weren't listening, you wouldn't know what to complain about. They don't often care about the content of a comment -- just that they're getting comments.

Why does so much Christian art mimic other forms instead of innovating?
This non-gospel, non-evangelism approach to programming exploded in the early 2000s after 9/11. Christian radio programmers in the big cities began consulting secular media experts to help them capture larger audiences and higher ratings. The number was the goal. The whole method is an imitation of secular market tactics. Therefore, the music itself is an imitation of the secular.

I don't think the secular stuff is any better. It sounds just as pre-packaged and over-produced, and the lyrics are just as dumbed-down and mind-numbingly bad without any substance. Sometimes Christian music gets made fun of as a bad imitation of the secular stuff. Heh. No. Secular music has had the market cornered on "Same Thing, Different Day" for much longer.

Surely you've heard or made jokes about how Christian music is the same four chords over and over again? Well, it used to be that Christian music was miles away in terms of musical talent and artistry, and secular music was the perpetrator of the same four-chord scheme. This comedy band goes through more than 30 hits over the last 40 years in less than 4 minutes using only 4 chords. And secular songs are just as guilty of being overly-repetitive as praise songs.

The church used to be the purveyor of genuine musical artistry. Handle's "Messiah," one of the greatest musical works ever written, came out of the church written in praise to our great God. The same goes for composers like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, who wrote music for the church. There's even a Wikipedia page for classical composers of church music.

"Verily." ~Beethoven

Consider also the great hymn-writers like Luther, Lowry, Watts, Wesley, Crosby, Bliss, Bonar, Gabriel, Mason, Havergal, and any other I can't think of off the top of my head. Not only are their hymns masterful musical pieces, they're theologically deep, rooted in the Scriptures, communicating rich truth. Even a more modern composer like Bill Gaither has been writing stuff way more challenging than the typical four-chord praise song. There's Something About that Name sounds like such a simple melody. Have you ever tried to play it?

I learned to read music through the church hymnal. I'm convinced that more public schools are having to fight to keep their orchestra and choir programs because fewer churches have them. There's less interest in learning an instrument or singing in the choir because there's less interest in the church. Music is no longer being sung out of hymnals in four-part harmony -- we're reading words on a screen following a band playing the same four chords (guilty as charged).

When I was in college majoring in music, my music theory teacher, who was agnostic, told us that church hymns were the most perfect pieces of music ever written. One of our assignments was to write a hymn-style choral piece for SATB. My piano theory teacher told me that if I ever wanted to master sight-reading, I should try to learn and play a hymn every single day.

As I'm talking here about the influence of Christian music on the culture, I'm deliberately avoiding saying something like, "The church used to be the trend-setter." It should not be about setting trends. It's about making music to God (Psalm 92:3, 101:1) and doing so skillfully because the Bible says so (Psalm 33:3). It's not about making music to compete with, impress, or impact the mainstream. In fact, the Psalmist says if that's our objective, "let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth!" (Psalm 137:5-6)

The music that comes from the church can influence the culture, but it's not our objective. Since today's church music is being made largely to attract the worldly before it's giving praise to God, so Christian radio is also suffering both in theology and artistry. Whether or not it's better for a person to listen to Christian radio rather than secular doesn't excuse the fact that Christian radio desperately needs reformation. Such a revival must first happen in the church.

We must recognize that Contemporary Christian radio is bad. If we make excuses like, "Well, it's better than secular radio," or, "Come on, it's not that bad," then it isn't going to get fixed. Christian radio is terrible, and that's a shame. But teaching in the American church is also terrible, and that also needs to change. I believe if the church has a sound approach to teaching the word of God, many other areas of ministry will be solid as well, including Christian radio.

Radio is such a fantastic medium for spreading the gospel. I still believe that. But it's a resource that has been squandered. Christian radio -- like many Americans and many American churches -- needs to turn away from worldliness and turn to the Lord, for the sake of the faith of God's elect and the gospel of Jesus Christ.