From Christian radio to a church near you
by Warren Cole Smith
Posted on Tuesday, August 19, 2014, at 4:15 pm
Within the past few weeks, a number of troubling stories have roiled the calm waters of contemporary Christian music (CCM). As I wrote two weeks ago, Michael Gungor, who leads the Grammy Award–winning band bearing his name, expressed public doubt about essential Christian doctrine. Last week, singer and songwriter Vicky Beeching, whose “Glory to God Forever” has become a staple of evangelical church services, announced she is a lesbian, which was affirmed by tweets from fellow CCM artists Kim Hill and Margaret Becker.
Expect such announcements to continue, because the Christian music industry’s “star-making machinery,” to use Joni Mitchell’s famous line, is designed to create hits, not necessarily artists with character and integrity. But to understand that, you must first know how the gears in this machine turn and how it relates to the greater Christian Industrial Complex.
The largest cog in this machine is Christian radio, with nearly half of its audience made up of non-Christians or nominal, non-church-going Christians. These listeners are also overwhelmingly female. The industry’s archetype is the mythical “Becky,” and station programmers often ask, “Will Becky like it?” when they choose the songs their station play. I’ve actually seen a Stepford Wife–like photo of a mythical, smiling “Becky” prominently displayed at stations to remind staff whom they’re trying to please.
When I researched this marketing strategy in 2009 for my book A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, Joe Paulo, the general manager of WRCM in Charlotte, N.C., one of the top Christian radio stations in the country, told me, “We call her ‘Debbie.’ But it’s the same idea.”
Paulo said he knows exactly who “Debbie” (or “Becky”) is: “She’s 35 years old. She has two kids. She drives a minivan and is married, but her marriage is not all she dreamed it would be. She goes to church pretty regularly, but not every Sunday. She’s mostly a stay-at-home mom, but she may work a few hours a week or may work seasonal jobs at different times of the year to bring a few extra dollars into the household. She cares about issues that affect her kids: food, education, health, family, leisure time activities.” Paulo said everything his station puts on the air must past the “Will Debbie care?” test.
There’s nothing wrong with this strategy. In fact, I give Paulo and others like him credit for their marketing savvy and for actually caring about people and wanting to attract them and meet their needs. But what’s played on Christian radio soon ends up being sung in churches.
Here’s how it works: Songs played on the radio generate sales and royalties, and those dollars fund the marketing of songs to church “worship leaders,” who discover that using radio hits in worship generate reactions of recognition and enthusiasm from their congregations and positive affirmation for them personally. Such reactions are easy to mistake for movement of the Holy Spirit—to those who lack discernment. A possibly apocryphal story about the late Christian musician Rich Mullins asserts that he once had a fan come up to him after a concert who said she “felt the Holy Ghost descend” during a particular verse of one of his songs. Mullins reportedly responded, “Perhaps, but I think that was the kick drum, which came in on the third verse.”
Megachurches, in particular, have large appetites for rousing radio hits that will “play to the back row” of large venues. These churches also set the agenda for the rest of evangelicalism for another reason: Churches that don’t use hymnals have to pay licensing fees to Christian Copyright Licensing International so they can legally perform these songs in worship. The bigger the church, the higher the fees. That money fuels the ongoing marketing of the songs that generate more royalties, which encourages more of the same.
The net effect is this: Bands that make music that survives in this system thrive, but the ones that get lost in the noise do not. It is a perverse cycle that contributes to many pathologies in the modern evangelical church—including the one that got this column started: Christian musicians who have mastered the machinery and achieved celebrity but do not display godly character.
I don’t want you to misinterpret what I’m saying. I think a lot of great music is being written and performed today. Social media and crowdfunding are creating opportunities for musicians, songwriters, and other artists that did not exist even a decade ago. I affirm these innovations and encourage Christians to take advantage of these new tools, which may, in fact, help solve the “cult of celebrity” that has overtaken the Christian Industrial Complex. Social media and crowdfunding require and encourage community, accountability, and innovation, qualities badly needed today.
But we are on the cusp of this change, not near its end. The star-making machinery of the Christian Industrial Complex still dominates, and likely will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. That’s why Christians who care about art and artists should pray and work in their own churches to encourage those with artistic abilities to develop those gifts—but also to develop the godly character they will need to persevere in their calling long after the bright lights have faded away.