I don’t listen to Christian radio often, but occasionally I indulge. I admit I sometimes enjoy the upbeat Christian pop music, and every once in a while the radio personalities have some interesting things to say. While listening to one of my local Christian radio stations one afternoon, I heard a statement that struck me as somewhat odd. The announcer guaranteed that listening to their station for three hours each day would improve my walk with Jesus. Later on, I was promised that three hours per day of this station would improve my relationship with my spouse or children (again, guaranteed!). At the time this seemed strange to me, if only for practical reasons. What if I just happened to listen to the three worst hours each day? Or what if I only listened to music, and never heard a single sermon, devotional, or piece of inspiring advice? But really, the issue was not a practical one, it was theological. A radio station that plays some upbeat music and the occasional sermon or talk show is not the place I think of going to when I want to change my life.
I had forgotten all about this until just recently. While indulging in a little Christian radio a few days ago, I heard several “testimonial” advertisements promoting the station. In one ad, a woman said that she was fighting depression after a divorce, and listening to this Christian radio station lifted her mood and strengthened her faith. The part about lifting her mood didn’t surprise me, but when she described how listening to this radio station had strengthened her faith I was a bit shocked. Listening to this radio station apparently took the place of (or was simply more effective than) reading God’s Word, hearing it preached, and having it represented and confirmed for her in the Sacraments. In short, listening to Christian radio had had the effect of a means of grace.
The next ad I heard was only more shocking. This time, a woman described a point in her life when she was not a Christian and was struggling with suicidal thoughts. Somehow (I forget the details now) she was turned on to this Christian radio station, and after listening for a while and feeling better, she decided to give her life to Christ. There was no mention of a church or pastor being involved, only the radio station. In this case, Christian radio had not only taken the place of a means of grace (the preaching of the Word), but was apparently responsible for converting a lost sinner. Yet this too, according to Paul, is the province of the proclamation of the Gospel.
What worries me is not that Christian radio is having a positive effect on people. My worry is that many Christians are increasingly looking outside of God’s ordained means of grace to find what they need. More worrisome than that is the thought that they are finding their needs met not in faithful Gospel preaching and Sacraments, but in music. It is surely possible to hear a good sermon, occasionally, on Christian radio (although I can scarcely remember that last time I did). But in ads like these it is consistently the “uplifting music” that is cited as the main source of help and strength. There is no doubt that singing heartfelt praises to God can have a therapeutic effect. Singing praises, however, (or merely listening passively to others singing praises) is not a means of receiving God’s grace, but rather a grateful response to grace already received. The grace we receive from God comes through his instituted means: The preaching of his Word, especially the promises of his glorious Gospel, and the Word made visible in the Sacraments (especially the Lord’s Supper). Just as no amount of online sermons can ever replace the experience of gathering with fellow saints in the local church (something that we are in fact explicitly commanded to do), so also no amount of uplifting music can ever replace the true grace of God given by his own specially chosen means.