The Danger In CCM and Family-Friendly Radio

by Kristen Gilles

in Songwriting/Hymn Workshop,Worship Leading

My Mask.
“You’re a unique snowflake. God is desperately in love with you. Because of that whole snowflake thing.” – pretty much every CCM song
— Jared Wilson, via Twitter

The tag line for one of our local Contemporary Christian Music radio stations is

“Positive. Uplifting. Safe for the Whole Family. Kid-friendly.”

After critically listening to this station during my commutes to and from work for the past several weeks, I’ve found myself asking these questions:

Is it really positive? Is it telling the truth? The WHOLE truth?

  • The truth that “I was born a sinner—I’ve rebelled against my Maker—and I can’t save myself”?
  • The truth that “I need Jesus to rescue me and give me a new heart”?
  • The truth that “If we are to share in His glory we must also share in His suffering”?
  • The truth that “This life is not all about me having it my way”?
  • The truth that “God graciously and generously sent His own Son to our broken world and offered Him up on the Cross as the perfect sacrifice for our sins; and in doing so, He destroyed sin’s control over those of us who confess His name and trust Him for salvation”?
  • The truth that “I am accepted by God only because of Christ’s merit—His perfect righteousness imputed to me”?

If Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) is not telling these gospel truths, if instead it’s telling listeners that they’re “special” and everything’s going to be okay, but without saying anything about the incredibly high price God has paid to make them His own special possession, or what He’s done to conquer the power of sin and death, and what He will do in returning to free us from the very presence of sin and evil, then it’s not wholesome, positive, safe for the whole family, or helpful.

It’s lying and pointing us away from Christ—the only source of Hope and Salvation for all mankind. It is preaching a false gospel that doesn’t talk about Jesus—who He really is and what He’s really done.

  • We don’t need more self esteem programming with a little religious language.
  • We don’t primarily need more encouragement to feel good about ourselves.

We need to be sobered up to the reality that we are sinners who will fall into the hands of the Living God either as His enemies or His reconciled, redeemed children. We need to hear the gospel which encourages us to confess our sins, believe in Christ, receive His sufficient sacrifice which makes us right before God, and turn from our sins to follow the way of Christ with the help of His gracious Holy Spirit.

I don’t listen to much “positive” Christian radio because although there are good songs and good artists, so much of CCM doesn’t herald the truth of the gospel. In the last few weeks of listening to more of it, I was hoping to hear more gospel truth-telling music. I’ve been left wanting, to say the least. And that’s been unsettling to me as a Christian songwriter. It compels me all the more to write songs that preach the gospel of Jesus Christ—the only Way, the Truth and the Life.

Christians, we need to more critically appraise the “positive, Christian” music flooding our car and home stereos. Before you buy the message or repeat it, make sure it resonates with the gospel. If it doesn’t, leave it. Be a listener advocate for gospel-centered music. And we songwriters need to lead the charge in preaching the gospel with our songs.

Read our Can We Trust The Contemporary Worship Music Industry?

Photo courtesy Sojourn communications intern Chelsey Scott

{ 27 comments }

Paul March 14, 2012 at 1:46 pm

I think we could have an identical critique of the pop radio stations that are across the nation. Lots of fluff not much substance. It’s the 2 part question of “is the music industry (unfortunately which is Nashville as a whole) putting out what they want….or is the industry just giving people what they want?”. I have always thought that ccm was woefully out of touch with what the real world was looking for, dealing with, or even thinking.

Kristen Gilles March 14, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Thank you all for reading and sharing your comments! To clarify, my point in writing this was not to point fingers at anyone, but simply to provoke all of us Christians to consider more thoughtfully whether the Gospel is truly being communicated in the “Christian” songs we’re listening to and writing. I think that anyone bearing the name of Christ should seek to tell the whole truth of what Christ has done for us and be careful not to relay or believe any half-truths (so we should all aim to know and remember and declare the Gospel). The Gospel alone is the power to save! And God alone is worthy to be praised for putting into effect His perfect plan to save us! Songs that declare what God has done to save us and make us His own special people (because apart from Him we truly are nothing) should certainly compel our hearts to sing His praises 🙂 I’m thankful for Christian songs that declare the Gospel and help us to rightly respond in praise to God! And I’m hopeful that God will continue to help His people live out and sing out the whole truth for the glory of His beautiful name.

Nathan Richey March 14, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Well said, Kristen. Your heart for our Savior is encouraging to me. Thanks for starting this discussion and getting us all to think about not just what we like in our music, but WHY we like it. If a song is not about who Christ is in truth, then can we honestly say this the song is Christian? Keep up the good work of lifting up the message of the Gospel.

Kristen Gilles March 14, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Thank you for this thoughtful reply, Levi! It’s difficult to write a piece like this without it seeming to be a general critique of the entire CCM industry. That wasn’t my intent at all as I’ve also been encouraged in the Gospel by many songs I’ve heard over the years through CCM. I grew up listening to almost nothing BUT CCM 🙂 I was just remarking in this post that lately a large percentage of the songs being broadcast on our local station seemed to lack the substance of the Gospel. I know this is not the case with all CCM songs. And I’m thankful for God working through CCM artists to speak Gospel truth to me throughout my life. I’d love to hear more of that when I tune in to the local Christian radio station 🙂

Kristen Gilles March 14, 2012 at 2:22 pm

Great thoughts, Nathan! I agree that we don’t need to throw out ALL Christian music but we should continue to listen with an ear tuned to the truths of the Gospel. I still enjoy listening to several CCM artists whose songs have encouraged me in my journey with Christ over the years. My heart is simply for the Gospel to be conveyed in our Christian songs 🙂 May God help us to write and sing and listen well!

Sandy Derrick March 14, 2012 at 3:34 pm

The problem I’ve noticed with my local “Family Friendly, Uplifting” radio station (in Nashville, TN), and others I tune to in my travels, is that they are trending away from “Christian” altogether. Sure the music is “positive;” but it is not chosen through the filter of a Christian world-view. Just because a song mentions Jesus, or church, or a preacher, doesn’t mean it is a Christian song.
Not to say that the CCM industry doesn’t share a portion of the blame for promoting some music that is theologically shallow or off-base. But I am encouraged by the majority of true CCM artists, and the music they produce.

Scott March 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm

Kristen – thanks for the article. It is interesting that the response to your article is proof of the dilemma that anyone who wants to communicate through word, sermon, or song faces. As a real lover of God’s word, and music (I am a pastor who plays guitar and have dabbled a little in songwriting) I see that what you are talking about is true in the Christian book market, in the sermons we hear on the radio and pod-casts, and in the Christian TV industry. How about in the flood of “Christian blogs”? So many people are free to “publish” their thoughts and ideas and convictions about Scripture, the Lord, and salvation (and what that means to our daily lives) that we really have to think carefully about what we listen to read. There are one or two songs that I hear on the radio network we listen to that really bug me because in the attempt to communicate the glorious truth about God’s love, they end up actually diminishing it. What we cannot afford to do is allow any human form of art, or communication, build or become the foundation of our faith. That place is reserved for God’s Word. Thanks for the article.

Kristen Gilles March 14, 2012 at 4:01 pm

Scott–Thank you! Well said with, “What we cannot afford to do is allow any human form of art, or communication, build or become the foundation of our faith. That place is reserved for God’s Word.” I desire, too, for God’s living, never-failing Word [Jesus Himself] to be the foundation for our faith as expressed in word, deed and in ALL art forms we produce 🙂 May God graciously help His people to know, understand and prize above all else, Him and His Word more and more each day.

Drew March 14, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Additionally much of CCM feels like we are praising ourselves for how much we love Christ. It feels superficial and self absorbed. Why don’t many CCM artists sing about how little they presently love Jesus? Or how hard it is to believe at present? There is a problem when there is little vulnerability in a medium that has a history of honest self expression.

I want to be able to sing “I am desperate for you, I am lost without you,” but I don’t always feel that way. I understand the beauty of wanting to feel that way, but additionally I would like to hear more CCM artists sing, “I believe, help me with my unbelief.”

Kristen Gilles March 14, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Thanks for sharing, Drew! And thanks for provoking us to be more discerning and honest when we listen and sing 🙂

Bobby Gilles March 14, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Thank you for all the comments. I’m guessing that some of the negative reaction is from our inclusion of Jared Wilson’s “pretty much every CCM song” Tweet (which was my idea, not Kristen’s).

I’m sure even Jared would say that this was hyperbole — and as is generally the case with hyperbole, it is potent because it is indeed true of many CCM songs.”

We do enjoy plenty of songs by plenty of artists who are played on CCM radio here, like Chris Tomlin and Kari Jobe. But without doubt, many CCM songs fit the mold that Kristen critiques in this post.

In Acts 17, Paul praised the Berean church because they “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.” This is what we do when we hear sermons and songs, when read books and blog posts, when we watch TV, attend conferences, etc. We shouldn’t be mean-spirited and hyper-critical, but we should test and prove all things by God’s Word.

Tom Murphy March 14, 2012 at 7:27 pm

Amen Kristen! Much of what I am attempting to do with Biblical Counseling Through Song is to provide a means of helping those that are proclaiming the Gospel through their songwriting to find their niches within the Church.

As far as Christ centered Gospel songwriting goes, have you seen that the problem is primarily one of discipleship (i.e. songwriters not knowing the Gospel themselves) or one of writing for the masses (i.e. slapping a Christian label on otherwise mass appeal music to increase listener base numbers)?

Or another problem all together?

BTW, you, Bobby, and the rest of Sojourn are ones standing in the gap and providing much needed leadership. Are you guys coming to the Doxology and Theology conference?

http://www.doxologyandtheology.com/conference-info/

Church Chair Guy March 14, 2012 at 11:10 pm

Jared’s tweet made me both laugh and cringe. I have heard the same sort of statements numerous times and have had the same reaction each time.

John Kastamo March 15, 2012 at 12:05 am

Good thoughts.

“Positive. Uplifting. Safe for the Whole Family. Kid-friendly.” I can’t see this as a slogan used in the early Church – neither in Paul’s expeditions nor in our brothers and sisters’ anguishes at the hands of Nero. We seem to be pampering the bride of Christ in comfort (or, at least, keeping her from discomfort) rather than preparing each other for suffering.

Music expresses affections and, until recently, there seemed to be an objective beauty to it which everyone could acknowledge. I’m not convinced that music and worship styles are as much “a matter of preference” as we have made them out to be…

Surely, not all of CCM is bad. Lyricists may not be able to formulate theology, thoughts and affections like the saints of old could, but some songs are okay. Same thing with modern musicians. I really cannot, however, get myself excited about “a big, big yard where we can play football.” Please teach me about the Lord of glory “in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” with music that is as equally enthralling (and that matches the lyrics!).

zak parsons March 15, 2012 at 12:22 am

Have you heard of the Blast.fm? I found it recently and appreciate not only its musical style (on the heavier side) but also the continual use of scripture based around real life struggle and pointing it back to the cross.

John Bryant March 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Kristen, I work in CCM radio and heard about your blog through a discussion on an e-mail forum. You are basing your article on an experience with one radio station. Please don’t judge all of CCM radio based on an experience with one station. Some stations are very well-programmed and some are not. I agree with you that some of the songs pitched to us appear vanilla in nature, but many of them are not. Ultimately, the station’s program director is the gatekeeper for what is played on that station. The PD has a lot of choices of what to add to the playlist. If you feel the music is lacking, I would encourage you to contact that PD and express your concerns. Perhaps you should see if the station needs volunteers and spend some time within its walls to see how God is working. He cannot be put in a box and is able to work in ways that we don’t always understand. The music may not be touching you, but it is reaching someone, or that station wouldn’t still be on the air.

Larry March 15, 2012 at 4:59 pm

As I choose music for our band to lead with in corporate worship I fit the songs into a specific template. I am not interested in leading or even singing/playing songs that have a horizontal message. I choose songs that flow vertically, songs that sing to and about the characteristics, qualities, and majesty of God. Songs that magnify the name of Jesus. I have been criticized by some that have come through the band for choosing narrowly relative to song writers. The truth is there is a small universe of song writers that are writing songs of true praise and worship and doing it well.

dan March 15, 2012 at 9:48 pm

Wow, this has the feel of a slight over-generalization. Is it possible this post and its opinions are rooted in a feeling of anger or entitlement over not being able to get your songs played on the radio?? It’s ok – you wouldn’t be the first to feel that. To characterize the whole CCM radio format and by association, every radio station utilizing that format as being less than faithful to the gospel, feels a bit extreme. I forgive you though. And I wonder – is this feeling what a worship pastor would feel if a parishioner came up and slammed the performance quality (or the antiquated KJ lyrics, or the flatness of the vocal tones, or that one measure where you missed a lyric) of the church band after service? maybe?

Bobby Gilles March 16, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Hi Dan,

Kristen and I haven’t made any efforts, queries or plans to get on CCM radio. This isn’t about any kind of sour grapes in that regard. The number of readers who have agreed with us in the comments, “Liked” this page and spread this content virally in other ways should tell everyone that the sentiment of this article is one that many, many Christians share.

Also, Kristen hasn’t said anything that quite a few CCM artists who have had radio success haven’t also said — and some of their comments are in fact more incendiary. For instance if you click on our “Can We Trust The Contemporary Worship Music Industry” link on the bottom of Kristen’s post, you’ll see links to articles by Gungor and Vikki Beeching that illustrate this point.

And this wouldn’t be like someone telling a worship pastor “Your vocals were flat today.” This would be like telling him “There was no clear gospel presentation in this service.” And this exact scenario DID happen to our own worship pastor in the early days of our young church. Kristen and I are glad that he was humble and wise enough to accept this critique and to steer all of us on towards biblically-sound music for worship: http://mysonginthenight.com/2011/12/01/abstract-worship-songs-enough-already/

As Kristen said in her post and as we’ve each said in comments since then, we like many CCM artists and songs. We’ve created playlists in this blog featuring a lot of them, and will do so again next Tuesday with our 34-song Easter playlist. And next month I will be interviewing an artist who has had a great deal of success on CCM radio in the past couple years.

And as John Bryant pointed out in his comments above, the degree to which there is a problem in CCM varies widely depending on the station involved. We’re sure there are many good stations, with PD’s who make solid choices.

I’ll end with this: In my many years being involved in music for the church on a number of levels, I’ve heard “Christian” music defined by many artists and other industry insiders as existing for:
1. The edification of the saints
2. Praise to God
3. A witness to the lost

Some would say it doesn’t exist for #3 so much, but others are adamant that it does. Nearly everyone says it exists for the first two reasons.

If this is true, then we should create music as the Bible prescribes (in verses like Colossians 3:16) and describes (in the Psalms and in the various hymn fragments contained within the New Testament, like Philippians 2:6-11 and Colossians 1:15-20).

This doesn’t mean that every song has to have a complete gospel presentation. It doesn’t mean that every song has to be “deep.” The psalms vary widely in content and tone.

But it does mean that, in general, our set lists (whether in church, on an album, a live show or on radio) should clearly present the gospel: God is holy, we are sinners, Jesus is our savior.

Again, many artists and stations are doing a fine job of this, but many are evidently not — as a lot of our commenters here have attested, and as even many CCM insiders have attested.

Bobby Gilles March 16, 2012 at 12:45 pm

And thanks to everyone who has chimed in — pro and con. It’s a conversation worth having.

David March 17, 2012 at 4:37 pm

Kristen (and Bobby,)

Thank you for this article and for the way you have responded to the criticism!

I have worked in radio for over 25 years, most of it in Christian radio, and I have seen a drastic change in that time. You hit the nail on the head with your observations, and I can tell you from personal experience that “family friendly, kid safe” radio is a carefully crafted movement that is designed more to build revenue through increased listener-ship than it is about spreading the Gospel. In fact, I saw the PD purposely refuse songs and replace programs that did portray a Gospel message because they were considered to be too “preachy” and might turn-off potential listeners/donors!

In an earlier reply, John Bryant suggested that you contact the PD if you have a disagreement with the music. That is certainly good advice, however, I can tell you that people who do that are often labeled as “Crusaders” in the family friendly movement. They are the types of listeners that are considered to be a pariah and it’s actually better to get rid of them so they won’t waste the staff’s time with their complaints. You can “disagree” if you join the listener music panel, but your disagreement will mainly take the form of a low score on the “hook” of a song. Try to offer too much input and you’ll become a “Crusader” and will be removed from the list.

As John stated, not every station is this way. It seems like his station may have a different attitude about their listener’s concerns, and I applaud that! Unfortunately, more and more of those stations are being seduced by the family friendly model because it does produce results…but at what cost?

Being “real and relevant” with the music (and the jock talk) has come to mean toning down the references to Jesus or using “positive statements or thoughts” instead of Scripture. Why? Because, some people are offended when you talk about Jesus, and using Scripture either sounds preachy or it might make the DJ or the singer/songwriter sound more “spiritual” than the listener. Either way, it doesn’t attract listeners and that means lost revenue.

To those who would use the argument that “it is good to attract listeners so they can hear the Gospel,” let me dispel that myth. It would be good to attract listeners for the sake of the Gospel, but where is the Gospel message? True, there are some artists whose music does present the Gospel, but what about the artists whose music is purposely written so that it doesn’t sound too “Christian” so it can cross over to secular radio? What about those artists who don’t want to be overtly “Christian” because they want their fans to be encouraged but not feel condemned? We all need encouragement, but what is more encouraging than God’s Word? Shouldn’t their fans, and therefore the listeners of CCM radio be able to tell the difference between secular and Christian?

Scripture tells us that we must live in this word, but we aren’t to conform to it. Sadly, that is being ignored more and more. In its current state, and especially if it continues to compromise, CCM radio is contributing to the problem instead of using the privilege of its platform to make a real difference for the Kingdom of God.

Thank you for your post, and I pray that those who would become defensive when they read it will stop and truly see what you’re saying. It’s not about pointing fingers, nor is it about “sour grapes.” It’s about getting back to a heart that beats for its First Love, Jesus Christ, and your heartbeat sounds loud and true! God bless you both!

dan March 18, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Bobby, and David:

I really appreciate the discussion; and the thoughtful, humble & intelligent replies.

Bobby, it sounds like, for the gospel’s sake, you and I are in nearly complete agreement. Another approach to the songwriting and story telling on CCM radio not addressed here, is how Jesus taught in large part: parable. The laying down of a story about everyday life, alongside a kingdom principle. There are many songs in this vein that don’t meet your above criteria, and yet still share a facet of Jesus, the living Word.

And, while the tactic of self-attack can be good to reveal weaknesses- and CCM radio stations have weaknesses as well as strengths– hopefully we’re not attacking presuming to know or possess the perfect or only way to present the life giving message of God’s word. No church, pastor, person, or radio ministry can lay claim to presenting the gospel perfectly- or to have the best way. Though, some can do it wrongly.

Here’s another aspect from inside. Radio is a product. Radio is not the Church- but a part of it, like maybe the ipod in the pants pocket of the body of Christ. Like Coke or Tide or Apple- radio is a product which people choose to use or not use, based on beliefs and expectations. For radio ministries who desire to reach the lost (grow listenership), they have to engage listeners and potential listeners with ministry that works in cooperation with meeting brand expectations.

More in depth conversation could be had on that last aspect – brand. But that would perhaps work better off forum, in person. With an intentionally programming, intelligent, articulate, spirit filled and born again PD of a CCM station or network.

Rich Tuttle March 20, 2012 at 9:33 pm

I really dig this article. I wrote about the same thing a few years back (shameless plug alert! http://sounddoxology.blogspot.com/2009/06/why-i-love-and-hate-christian-radio_22.html )

I wrote that three years ago hoping for some change, but since then it’s gotten even worse. Thankful for voices in the church that continue to speak up and for songwriters known and unknown that write amazing songs.

CDT June 3, 2012 at 12:10 am

I don’t know what music y’all are listening to. But the Christian music I listen to totally honors the Lord. Much of it is “psalm-like”. Much of it focuses on the blood of Christ and His incredible sacrifice – which causes me to be aware of my own sinfulness. Much of it focuses on God’s provision for me in the midst of struggle. AND YES! It IS an alternative for my kids. Maybe it isn’t what “you” want to hear. But I have teenagers, and I would MUCH rather them listen to CCM and the Christian radio in my town (Houston, that is) than the secular options available. What is most frustrating to me (and I tend to be hyper critical) – is when we as Christians go on these meaningless witch-hunts. Please, people. Let’s UNITE! Christ unites. Satan divides. If you don’t like your Christian radio station, then listen to CD’s or http://www.oneplace.com. All wonderful options. But Christian radio has a beautiful place in the Christian family. And many who are unsaved – have become SAVED as a result. Let’s stop shooting each other.

Bobby Gilles June 3, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Thanks for your comment! Sounds like you’ve got a great station in Houston.

We do feel all the criticisms of this post are warranted in regards to many CCM songs and radio stations, and that we’re obviously far from alone in feeling this way. But as you point out, there are many solid songs and good stations.

I do take issue with “meaningless witch-hunts” though, for two reasons:

1. The Bible commands us, in many places, to test and judge all messages, and it gives us the example of the “noble Bereans” who daily searched the scriptures when Paul preached to them, to see if the things Paul preached “were so.”

2. Literary and music criticism is a valid exercise. It sharpens the minds of art lovers and consumers, and it helps artists become better (even if the artist disagrees with a work of criticism, the act of disagreeing sharpens his critical skills and opens his mind to different ways of viewing his work).

Having said that, we agree that even if a Christian does not like his or her local radio station, it is wonderful that so many albums are available and so many internet stations and websites exist. Anyone can now find godly music that meets their aesthetic and theological standards.

Sam B April 11, 2013 at 1:41 am

I don’t understand why you believe that a radio station dedicated pretty much entirely to born-again, forgiven-from-their-sins, followers of Christ should broadcast music directed to non-believers about their need for a savior. Do non-believers need a savior? Yes! Do they listen to CCM? Not a chance.

Keith April 6, 2014 at 12:31 am

Thank you Bobby and Kristen,

The music you’re addressing pervades much of Christiandom and your comments need to be said. And no, in reference to another’s comments, I do not agree that this article is “rooted in a feeling of anger or entitlement over not being able to get your songs played on the radio”. Some people just don’t get it. I appreciate that you recognize your responsibility to God of proclaiming the Gospel in music, and how you proclaim it.

Some of the current music is good, but I now am personally more drawn to worship with much of the older Christ-honoring music which resonates with me of the obvious consecration to God of the singers and songwriters. Very often those songs speak to me of their struggles and how God met their – and can meet my – needs.

I also have searched in vain on KLOV’s website for any of their stations’ program lists that would include any sermons (hopefully solidly Biblical) that I could recommend to friends to listen to. I try to encourage friends to listen to the local Christian radio stations, or listen online, that do carry such programming.

If you and others would like to listen to the sometimes older music that I have come to love and value for how it speaks to my heart and draws me to worship the Lord, this is a direct link:

http://www.live365.com/stations/kathyisbell

or go to http://www.live365.com, then search for “Sacred Turntable”, to go to the same website. I believe you’ll appreciate what Jesse and Kathy Isbell are providing on this website. Also, Bible Broadcasting Network plays similar music, along with sermons, at http://www.bbnradio.org . Some of these songs, sometimes by the singers presented, are available on http://www.youtube.com, and have also blessed me as video presentations.

(I found this article and your website accidentally just tonight when I was doing a search for – I think – sermons or the music content on KLOV – to determine how to present it to friends who have asked about it.)

Thanks

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