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In Defense of Christian Radio

Posted by Brant Hansen on

Look, I get it.

“Christian radio” is many things, and not all of them great. I’ve worked in different radio formats, but have spent most of my time on Christian pop stations. I’ve seen all the sides of it.

I know the artists, the record companies, the other Christian radio hosts, and the listeners. We’re all messed-up in our own uniquely horrible – and wonderful – ways.

I’ve got qualms with how business gets done in some quarters, and the Christian celebrity-ism which is clearly antithetical to the Kingdom of God. I’ve walked away from situations because fundraising practices were dishonest, or the messaging on-air didn’t square with business practices off of it.

I can find things to criticize about the industry and, while I’m at it, about myself. But this, at least, is no longer one of those things: Radio songs are somehow “too positive” and too focused on grace, love, joy, light, and mercy.

The analytics site fivethirtyeight.com, has this to say, and it’s worth reading. I appreciate the even-handedness of the writer. (I frequent this site for sports math, politics math, and math math.)

The writer cites a common complaint: Christian radio just don’t have enough about judgment, sin, darkness, death, etc.

Years ago, I made this argument myself. After all, most of the Psalms aren’t overflowing with happy themes.I love theological discussion, and I’m not a particularly emotional person. I fully realize that life includes much suffering. We should expect it. So why doesn’t Christian music on the radio reflect it?

Well, here’s an answer: It’s radio.

Radio is a particular medium. People use radio, just like they use any tool. It turns out that people on the way home from a tough job do not use the radio to hear a song about sorrow and judgment. (We can foist it on them for their own good, but they have these darn buttons they can click.)

This does not mean they are lacking spiritual depth. It does mean that they are human beings, living real lives, who could use some real encouragement.

Radio is wonderful. I marvel at how personal it can be, to speak life (a little “shout out” to “Toby Mac”) into someone when they can use a reminder. And yes, we’ve done the research. That’s what they’re looking for.

I’ve heard my fellow Christian radio folks, and people in other ministries, speak of the need to burst the “Christian bubble”. They also tend to be the ones frustrated with the relentlessly encouraging lyrics.

Fair enough.

But something I’ve discovered: The ones living in the “Christian bubble” are usually people in Christian ministry. Like, say, Christian radio folks. Most other people honestly don’t know what this “bubble” is. They’re driving to real workplaces, real schools, and leading real non-bubble lives. Having music that reminds them that God, yes, LOVES them is a wonderful thing, indeed.

And it’s not just the music; there’s plenty I don’t say on the radio, because people listen to the radio a certain way. I know I have to get to the point, and fast. I know I can’t overwhelm people with a lot of numbers while they’re driving. I know I shouldn’t talk about myself for ten straight minutes, because people didn’t turn on my station for that.

I may talk about deep things, but I’ll do it in a way that honors the reasons they tuned in: Friendship and encouragement.

Should art reflect the whole of life, what it means to be human, what it means to be a fallen creature in a fallen world? Absolutely. Does this mean Christian music radio needs to reflect all of that? No, because it’s used a particular way.

When my kids were tiny, and needed to sleep, sometimes I’d pick up my acoustic guitar and sing softly and slowly to them. Usually, it was something like, “Sunshine on My Shoulder”, or a lullaby. It didn’t occur to me that I wasn’t reflecting all of life to them, lyrically. This is because I was serving them. And it’s a particular “them” (our babies)  and they are in a particular place (their cribs) with particular needs (sweet sleep.)

So radio finds out people need a reminder in traffic, in a ridiculously judgmental world, that God still loves us, still wants us, in spite of ourselves? Sounds good to me.

One other thing: If you want more songs about judgment, please feel free to write them. Write great ones: Plaintive ones. Profound ones. Poetic ones. Please do it. I’ll listen.

But do know that judgment, itself, is not remarkable. The world swims in it. It’s in the moral air we breathe, in and out of church, in every culture, and has been since the Garden of Eden.

But grace, well… that’s different. It’s THE difference, actually.

Grace is “amazing”, or so I’ve sung. Maybe there’s a reason people are, perhaps, more drawn to that song than any other.

And maybe that’s not so bad after all.

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