Preaching Beyond the Choir

About a year ago, John Konrad, the station manager at WGTS 91.9, a “family-friendly” Christian radio station in Takoma Park, Maryland, received a letter from a Jewish listener who said he’d heard a song that particularly resonated with him. “I listened to your station, and I cried,” he wrote. “The idealism and sheer feeling and love in these songs … is heartbreaking.”

Last spring, Asra Nomani, a Muslim writer living in the Washington, D.C. area, programmed “number three” on her car radio to 91.9, her spirits as a stressed single mother lifted by the lyrics she heard. “No matter how daunting your problems seem, this music gives you hope,” she said.

Christian radio stations have increasingly started promoting “family-friendly,” “positive” hits, avoiding more biblical, message-driven programming, and they’ve seen some unexpected consequences: a big gain in non-Christian listeners. The format change has caused increasing frustration among some Christian listeners.

Chad Hall, a former pastor in Cary, North Carolina, turned to his wife last summer and told her she could reprogram the car radio to nix the Christian stations. On Christianity Today’s Web site, he fired off a blog entry: “It’s official: I’m tuning out of Christian radio.” The music had become too sappy, he said, too upbeat. “I live in a real world that’s not always positive and encouraging, so Christian radio’s steady diet of sugary spirituality doesn’t promote sustaining faith.”

Hall said the new music doesn’t embody Christianity as a whole. “The scope of scriptural reference isn’t necessarily represented,” he said. “There’s a lot of this sort of, ‘God’s going to come to my aid whenever I need him.’ It certainly is true, but when it leads to Carrie Underwood—you know, ‘Jesus, Take the Wheel’—I mean, come on.” The song by country star Underwood tells the story of a struggling mother who loses control of her car as she drives on slick roads, her baby in a car seat in the back.

Christian listener Jason Ingersoll, an airfield management shift leader at Osan Air Force base in South Korea, criticizes contemporary Christian music’s “watered-down” lyrics for appealing to the masses. “The majority of the promoted Christian artists now don’t look any different or sound any different than mainstream artists,” he wrote in his blog, “but they throw that vague spiritual reference in every now and then, which allows them to separate themselves just enough to make them seem different.”

But for all the Christian listeners it has lost, Christian radio has grown nationwide over the last decade after it began marketing those so-called family-friendly hits, gaining 150 stations just in 2006, according to the Gospel Music Association. The number of listeners also has grown. After Takoma Park’s 91.9 began promoting “family-friendly” music in 2000, its audience grew from 75,000 listeners a week to about 275,000 in spring 2008. The radio station attributes its growth to new programming that is directed at a larger, faith-oriented segment of the population.

New listeners include everyone from the non-religious to Christians who never tuned into Christian radio before. In Culpeper, Virginia, David Little, a federal government employee who grew up in a Christian family, says, “I’m not religious. I don’t even consider myself faithful. I don’t pray,” but he admits he started listening regularly to Christian music with the recent change in format. “I literally listen to it every day,” he said. Allison Formanack, a student at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and a self-described agnostic, wrote in the opinion section of the campus newspaper last year that her Facebook “favorites” list was filling up with Christian bands. The music contained “themes of redemption and fulfillment,” she wrote, and its lyrics weren’t “blatantly Christian or religious.”

A 2005 survey by the Barna Group, a California-based research company that looks at Christianity and culture in the United States, found that 28 percent of non-Christian adults listen to Christian radio each month. The group defined Christians as those who had made a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” and who said that they would go to heaven because they had accepted Christ as their savior and confessed their sins.

Christian music sales have grown with this wider market, and Christian artists are breaking into the mainstream. According to the Gospel Music Association’s 2009 industry overview report, Christian and gospel digital album sales were up more than 38 percent in 2008 compared to the previous year. Last year, albums by Christian artists Third Day, Underoath, and Chris Tomlin all placed in Billboard’s Top 10.

Experts say this trend can be a double-edged sword, appealing to many but affecting artistic integrity. “Whenever there’s a trend, artists will jump on the bandwagon and produce music that they think is in keeping with the current trend, and that’s usually not good for art,” said Mark Allan Powell, a former rock critic for The Houston Post and author of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music.

Daniel Radosh, author of Rapture Ready!, a book on Christian pop culture, said much of Christian music has become “generic.” “I think the fact that committed Muslims can listen to Christian music actually says quite a bit, and I think not anything very good about Christian music these days.”

Back in Washington, D.C., Nomani, the Muslim mom, strapped her 6-year-old son into the back of her car. Tucked into her visor were CDs by Lynyrd Skynyrd, Celine Dion, and Pakistani band Junoon, but she tunes into Christian radio most of the time. “They have an opportunity to offer the mainstream market the kind of inspiration and hope that people really need,” she said. “I appreciate it if they can touch the hearts of people like me.”

Katie Balestra is a freelance reporter who has written for The Washington Post and studies journalism at Georgetown University.

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