Will “Debbie” Like It? The Christian radio to Christian church syndrome

20 Aug

From Warren Cole Smith (excerpt):

When I researched this marketing strategy in 2009 for my book A Lover’s Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, Joe Paulo, the general manager of WRCM in Charlotte, N.C., one of the top Christian radio stations in the country, told me, “We call her ‘Debbie.’ But it’s the same idea.”

Paulo said he knows exactly who “Debbie” (or “Becky”) is: “She’s 35 years old. She has two kids. She drives a minivan and is married, but her marriage is not all she dreamed it would be. She goes to church pretty regularly, but not every Sunday. She’s mostly a stay-at-home mom, but she may work a few hours a week or may work seasonal jobs at different times of the year to bring a few extra dollars into the household. She cares about issues that affect her kids: food, education, health, family, leisure time activities.” Paulo said everything his station puts on the air must past the “Will Debbie care?” test.

There’s nothing wrong with this strategy. In fact, I give Paulo and others like him credit for their marketing savvy and for actually caring about people and wanting to attract them and meet their needs. But what’s played on Christian radio soon ends up being sung in churches.

Here’s how it works: Songs played on the radio generate sales and royalties, and those dollars fund the marketing of songs to church “worship leaders,” who discover that using radio hits in worship generate reactions of recognition and enthusiasm from their congregations and positive affirmation for them personally. Such reactions are easy to mistake for movement of the Holy Spirit—to those who lack discernment. A possibly apocryphal story about the late Christian musician Rich Mullins asserts that he once had a fan come up to him after a concert who said she “felt the Holy Ghost descend” during a particular verse of one of his songs. Mullins reportedly responded, “Perhaps, but I think that was the kick drum, which came in on the third verse.”

Megachurches, in particular, have large appetites for rousing radio hits that will “play to the back row” of large venues. These churches also set the agenda for the rest of evangelicalism for another reason: Churches that don’t use hymnals have to pay licensing fees to Christian Copyright Licensing International so they can legally perform these songs in worship. The bigger the church, the higher the fees. That money fuels the ongoing marketing of the songs that generate more royalties, which encourages more of the same.

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