06.15.15

The Uncertain Sound of Christian Radio

America offers a sprawling smorgasbord of pleasures and delights. With my family’s move back to the States, we keep discovering small wonders we didn’t have abroad. For example, what a wide variety of Oreos are available in the U.S.! Living in the Cayman Islands, we had no idea. Then there are highways. Trust me: If you have highways and you move to a country without them, you will miss the blurring breeze created by speeding down a long open road. It’s one of life’s little pleasures. Then there is commercial-free radio — a perfect joy-inducing companion to driving the open road while munching on vanilla Oreos!

We discovered Sirius radio when we had to purchase a new car once back in the U.S. Sirius radio grants us an uninterrupted mood, an extended marinating in whatever music or programming we choose. Some days the Soul Town station transports me back to an era when singers actually had to sing and love songs had more of the clever, restrained, romantic poetry of the Song of Solomon. Then there are the uninterrupted days of soaking in the jazz standards of the Real Jazz station. And yes, it really is real jazz, straight-ahead —none of that Kenny G elevator stuff.

Over the months I’ve enjoyed listening to Kirk Franklin’s praise with its wide sampling of our gospel tradition. The listener gets treated to everything from the traditional to the contemporary. I heard many of the songs in my boyhood home, when secular stations still devoted Sunday mornings to playing gospel music and my mom blasted it over the morning noise of preparing breakfast and rousing eight children from snoring slumber. When I listen to Kirk Franklin’s praise, I listen as that little boy cleaning the house to blaring gospel music. (Incidentally, why should gospel music be the soundtrack to merciless work? Somebody didn’t understand grace in my home!)

But I also listen to the station as a committed Christian pastor, which means I listen with a caring concern for what the song lyrics communicate and/or teach. So I ask a host of questions: How does this artist handle the Truth? Am I made to look to Jesus or to the artist? In what way am I helped to love my Lord and Savior more deeply? Does the song make the gospel clear? Am I listening to an accurate portrayal of the Christian life? Can I detect an honest portrayal of the human condition? Does the song encourage Godly ambitions and priorities? Am I instructed or catechized in Christian truth so I am helped to live? Does it uplift and encourage in a soul-deep way? It’s along these lines—informally as I listen—that I’m deciding whether or not a song is “good.”

I love Christian radio. It’s made a huge impact on my walk with the Lord. But I have to honestly conclude that the musical trumpet of Christian radio — with all its many wonderful blessings — makes an uncertain sound. We are sometimes left wondering if we are being summoned to battle, enticed to a party, or even hearing the melodious beckoning of pied pipers. The uncertainty comes from the blending of very different theological commitments sung in succession.

Consider the theological underpinnings represented in these two songs, which I heard recently — one after the other:

“Better Than Blessed” by Louise ‘Candy’ Davis

I’m blessed, better than blessed, praise the Lord –
I’m blessed, better than blessed, praise the Lord
I may not have houses and wealth
I may not have all my strength and health
but I’m blessed, better than blessed, praise the Lord

Many times I had to learn my lesson
for I did not, I did not appreciate my blessings
I complained that I had no shoes
then I saw a man with no feet to use
and I know I’m blessed, better than blessed, thank you Lord

I’ve got no mind to complain at any time
Got God mixed my clouds with the bright sunshine
Though this is a rough and rocky road I’m on
I know, I know, it’ll take my poor soul on home
and I’m blessed, better than blessed, thank you Lord

I’ve got God the Father above me
I’ve got his Son Jesus Christ walking beside me,
I’ve got the Holy Spirit within me

and I’ve got all of God’s Angels all around me
and I know I’m blessed, better than blessed, thank you Lord
I’m blessed, better than blessed, praise the Lord
I’m blessed, better than blessed, praise the Lord

Sis. Davis helps us to see that external circumstances are sometimes difficult, but that does not mean the people of God are not blessed. She sings of her sin in complaining, only to realize others have more difficulty than she. So she rules out complaining and trusts the Lord to bring her home through life’s difficulties. That’s the stuff of traditional, God-believing, hope-embracing African-American Christianity.

Immediately following Candy Davis’ song came David Frazier’s “Favor.” Consider his view of the Christian life.

“Favor” by David Frazier

I’m walking in the favor of God,
His grace and mercy has brought me this far.
I will believe all His Word says about me.
Lack and poverty is not my destiny.
I’m walking, I’m living,
I’m walking in the favor of God.

Favor, favor, I speak favor over my life

I’m walking in the favor of God,
His grace and mercy has brought me this far.
I will believe all His Word says about me.
Lack and poverty is not my destiny.
I’m walking, I’m living,
I’m walking in the favor of God.

His favor is better than life to me,
the blessings of Jesus make me rich, brings victory
I will believe all His Word says about me.
Lack and poverty is not my destiny.
I’m walking, I’m living,
I’m walking in the favor of God.

Favor, favor, I speak favor over my life.
Favor, favor, I speak favor over your life.

In the opening couplet, it sounds as if Frazier will modernize Davis’ refrain. He pays homage to God’s grace and mercy. But the next two lines tell the difference. Davis resigned herself to trusting God in the midst of her relative suffering and want; Frazier denounces “lack and poverty” as “not my destiny.”

The two give us really different pictures of the Christian life. Davis lives in a world where God’s people suffer and are still better than blessed. Frazier wants us to believe that “speaking favor over our lives” eliminates any “poverty and lack.” Listening to Davis, we may presume that if a Christian suffers these things it’s at least in part because they lacked faith or failed to “speak favor.” Though Frazier believes that his worldview is based on “believing all that His Word says about him,” it’s Davis who gives us the biblical view without ever referring to the Bible.

Davis sings in the vernacular and rhythm of ‘the folks.’ She’s traditional, perhaps “ol’ timey” for some. But whatever she may lack in contemporary sound and speak, she more than makes up for with this more accurate portrayal of a strange reality: “When we are weak, then we are strong.” Or, as the sacred writer puts it in another place:

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed;10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. ()

Seems the Bible tells us to “endure hardship like a good soldier” and to remember that “great is our reward in heaven” when we are persecuted. The Bible tells us in so many places that when we suffer we are, in fact, “better than blessed” if we are Christ’s.

I plan to continue tuning into Christian radio. But I long for Christian radio to trumpet accurate notes about the Christian life and Christian doctrine with undiluted clarity and consistency. When it doesn’t, it most certainly confuses many a listener and undermines the faith of some.

We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; 10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. 11 For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. (ESV)

Thabiti Anyabwile
Thabiti Anyabwile serves as a pastor of Anacostia River Church (Washington DC). He is the happy husband of Kristie and the adoring father of two daughters and one son. Holler at him on Twitter: @ThabitiAnyabwil

C’mon Up!

  • Lewis Oneal

    The last 3 sentences sum up my frustration with many artists who identify as Christian regardless of style.

  • Jeremy Taylor

    Great thoughts, Thabiti! I’m so glad you made these observations and articulated them so well. Regarding the last three sentences – As frustrating as it is, I don’t believe we’ll ever see this happen in Christian radio (or the Christian Music Industry as a whole for that matter) because the producers do not perceive their role as pastoral. They don’t ask the questions you ask here, as much as it would help. It might even be possible that both of these songs were played back-to-back intentionally, knowing the different theologies would appease a wider audience. I think your observations here are a great argument for why church music leaders should have pastoral hearts. They should ask, “What do we sing that forms us to believe that Jesus is more beautiful and believable than the things of this world and gives us a longing for Heaven?” This is a way church music leaders can function pastorally and prophetically in an age of uncertain sounds.

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  • jeyjey34

    Songs about “favor” and “blessings” are why I more often than not find myself listening to Contemporary Christian Worship music. Artists like Chris Tomlin, Kari Jobe, Michael W. Smith to name a few portray a biblical view of God and relay a message of praise to our Lord.