Is Christian Radio of the Devil? – Rick Shenk
Years ago a friend startled me by saying, “Christian radio is of the devil!” Of course, such a statement is meant to be provocative and not the whole picture. He did not intend to disparage missionary broadcasts of the gospel into unreached areas of the world. But he did want to challenge our daily exposure to many forms of Christian media.
Although the Internet did not exist when I first heard his shocking statement, such a sentiment might help provoke us to evaluate how we use Christian media today in its various forms — the Internet, social media, video, and, yes, even radio.
Over the years, I have found my friend’s challenge to be an important one because it exposes my un-assessed assumption that if something is “Christian,” then it is of necessity a good thing of God, irrespective of how I’m using it. Might the medium of Christian radio serve purposes in my life which are opposed to the very message it proclaims?
Let me offer five questions for evaluating your own use of Christian media, even as they often carry the greatest message to us and the world.
1. Am I learning to worship without community?
I wonder if Christian media may deliver many of the elements of worship, but without offering the full sense of worship that God intends. But you say, “I have worshiped!”
Christian radio, for instance, might give us the impression of a worshiping community in relationship, but does it really engage us as God has designed? For example, we may feel like we have a personal relationship with morning hosts, DJs, and “radio personalities.” This is understandable, because they use language that implies a relationship with the listener. Although no one would want radio hosts to sound diffident or unfriendly, what we experience as “relationship” is not a relationship in any normal sense of the word. They do not know us; we do not know them. We “know” about the persona that is projected through the medium. Not only is it a one-sided relationship, but it is a fantasy posing as a kind of relationship.
In contrast, true Christian community poses significant relational challenges. Perhaps this very reality makes us desire the comfort Christian media can offer. But what if the challenge of relationships in the body of Christ is a true good thing of God? What if God intends to sanctify us through gathering for corporate worship? Throughout the New Testament letters, for example, the writers assume that relationships are not easy, but difficult, essential, and sanctifying — and the challenge is significantly revealed in the drama of corporate worship.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “He who loves his dream of a community more than Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial. . . . Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it” (Life Together, 26–27).
Although we often fail at this in the gathered community of church, we also succeed — quite often. And to worship God with the people of God — in real, flesh-and-blood relationships — is what God created us for. Does Christian radio imply something easier — a wish-dream?
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2. Am I submitting to teaching without accountability?
I wonder if Christian podcast and radio often act against our relational accountability with Christian teachers. But you say, “I can check on the financial integrity of any nonprofit on the Internet!”
Accountability is not merely fact-checking or financial. More importantly, Paul tells Timothy that relationships are an intrinsic part of the message: “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men” (2 Timothy 2:2). Here Paul is speaking to his friend whom he personally taught. Indeed, that Timothy was taught in person is the key point for Paul: “Continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it” (2 Timothy 3:14).
Paul links the message with the messenger in a fundamental way. This is his explanation: “You . . . have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness” (2 Timothy 3:10). The person known to Timothy authenticates, validates, and is even a part of the message.
No such relationship exists in the mass media of Christian radio and podcasts. In this day of Facebook, Twitter, email, and texts, we need such intimate knowing; we need to witness, firsthand, who our teachers are in order to know their message. This is true accountability. Do we long for connection to those who teach us?
3. Am I experiencing the illusion of intimacy?
I wonder whether our favorite Christian media tend to isolate us from others instead of building intimacy. But you say, “Christian media connect me to my church family!”
Might it be that Christian radio, for instance, cultivates a false sense of community because it does not promote intimate (read: accountable and disciplined) relationships between listeners? That is, not only do we not know the speakers or the musicians, but as listeners, does it isolate us from each other?
Pandora and Spotify use individualism as a part of their business plan — your music delivered to you, individually. I suspect that Christian radio (and other genres of media and other types of private entertainment) typically ends up isolating us from each other. They deliver the ingredients of worship so that we worship — or are entertained — alone. And although there is no biblical injunction against private worship, the tendency of Christian radio is to privatize worship.
Musician Harold Best explains this sense of intimacy: “One of the realities of electronic and fabricated intimacy, in addition to its being artificial, is that it is almost entirely one-dimensional.” He means that it travels one way, from someone to us (not from us to them), and that we cannot know the person speaking or singing. It is as if the singer or speaker is saying, “‘What you see and hear is what we really are. There is no need for more.’ The artists may not want it this way, but that is the way the media work. . . . The whole person is hidden” (Music Through the Eyes of Faith, 167).
If we hunger for human connection, Christian radio and podcasts are not that connection. So, could it be that they feed in us a desire for independence, preference, privatization, and even isolation?
4. Am I cultivating a consumer mentality?
I wonder what the effect on the church will be if the elements of worship are delivered to us instead of our making them for ourselves. But you say, “Sometimes I need to just soak in Christian music while I drive!”
Perhaps. But for almost all of history, music was something people made together. And for most of history, we knew our teachers, and they were in the room with us. No longer. Most of our music is now made for us by people we do not know. What will be the outcome of this experiment?
Of course, this same challenge could be made against many of our worship services, not just Christian radio and music. Still, while the tendency to receive, rather than participate, antedates Christian radio and the Internet, I wonder if our modern media reinforce a wrong desire? Could it be a move toward a method which is out of keeping with the way the message is to be experienced?
5. Am I developing false standards for the church?
I wonder if Christian media tend to set a false standard for worship that makes us unsatisfied with “real church.” But you say, “I still love my church!”
Good, but I have heard the comparison of “real church” with Christian music and podcasts — and I have felt it. While all the elements of worship through Christian media are not perfect, they are as perfect as the producers want them to be. Those who deliver Christian media to us are able to deliver near perfection, if they choose to do so. But real worship in a real church with real people cannot do that — perhaps should not do that.
Christian media may subtly (or not so subtly) change our expectations for the gathered church. We may begin to wonder, “Why can’t church be as good as I feel it should be?” To what extent is that feeling promoted by our media consumption? Real church, in contrast, may have the great advantage of being imperfect.
What happens if real relationships — painful, challenging, personal, immediate, wonderful, hopeful, and sanctifying — seem less attractive than the pretend, false, and easy offer of Christian media? This concern may warn us of a possible danger. If we are still deeply connected to our church family, it may not be because of Christian media, but in spite of it. What if the glitter and style of modern media become the standard in our minds, even if we do not want it to be so?
Consider the Costs
So, is Christian radio “of the devil”? And not just radio, but our various forms of modern Christian media? About now, you should consider charging me with hypocrisy — this article is Christian media! No, the obvious truth is that God does use our modern media — including websites like this one — for which we can and should be grateful. Still, I also am grateful that my friend put the issue in such provocative terms. If he had just said, “Be careful,” I would not have thought so deeply.
Listen to good Christian music and podcasts. Listen in the gaps in your day. Read soul-nourishing substance online. But as you do read articles and blogs, listen to podcasts, worship to great music, and watch videos, please wonder with me about these questions. Consider our media’s subtle, and not so subtle, costs and effects.
Is Christian radio only the good we may assume?
Rick Shenk is professor of theology for Bethlehem College & Seminary, pastor at Village Church in Maple Plain, Minnesota, and author of The Virgin Birth of Christ.