Whether we like to admit it or not, Christian music is influenced by popular culture, to the point where it's often imitative rather than innovative. Perhaps the most clear-cut example of this is the new "Christian alternatives" to American Idol— including Gifted (TBN) and Gospel Dream (Gospel Music Channel).
Can you blame producers for trying? Idol is a cultural sensation, the most popular show on TV. Fox Television's programs surrounding it typically benefit from the massive audience. And Idol is a goldmine for advertisers.
It's also the only reality show I can stand, not merely for the musical focus, but for its "purity" as well. Like programs from the golden age of television, Idol doesn't rely on backbiting contestants, outrageous behavior, or shocking developments, though it's had its share over six seasons. Ultimately, it's a glorified singing contest; in the end, contestants sing and viewers vote—simple as that.
The concept is so simple you'd think American Idol would face serious competition. Yet the networks—Fox included—have failed to deliver alternatives that rival Idol's enduring popularity. Many (including Idol's producers) have tried to adapt the format to everything from dancing to inventions. Success has been fleeting at best.
Remember "Today's Superstar," the 2002 sing-off on The Today Show that crowned Christian pop vocalist Kristy Starling? Or Oprah Winfrey's "Pop Star Challenge" in 2003, which named LaShell Griffin winner? We've seen talent competitions for country stars, rock bands, even an official spin-off for younger viewers called American Idol Juniors. They're all little more than faint memories now.
So it's no surprise that we also now have Christian talent searches like Gifted and Gospel Dream. But do these shows make a lasting impact on culture, or do they merely exist as an alternative?
Good Intentions, But …
In a recent poll, we asked readers what they thought of Christian alternatives to American Idol. The results were fairly evenly split: 46 percent were in favor of such programs, 54 percent against.
Of those in favor, more than half said the top reason was their desire for "a similar program with its heart in the right place." Which could mean a number of things—including the same philosophy that Gifted has chosen: "A talent show where the only goal of the contestants (and the judges) is to glorify God."
Good intentions indeed, and they're likely accomplishing that goal. But in the end, it's still just a talent competition, with contestants vying for a contract with a Christian record label. The labels hope to find tomorrow's superstar and sell albums, even offering compilations featuring the finalists (like American Idol). The networks hope viewers will tune in to help carry their company. And viewers probably aren't expecting these shows to be a worship service as much as a source of entertainment.
Yes, we can glorify God in anything we do, if our hearts are in the right place (Colossians 3:16-17). And while a Christian talent search might have its heart in the right place, it's still a lot like Idol. All of these shows—Christian or mainstream—are in the business of entertainment, looking for your patronage to keep them going, and looking to make money.
Of those voting in our poll against a Christian version of Idol, half felt that such programming comes across as "derivative and inferior." Another 15 percent thought that a talent competition by definition cannot be focused on glorifying God, preoccupied instead with finding the best of the best. And the other 12 percent of voters wondered if we really need an American Idol for Christians when Christians are already making inroads with American Idol.
Former American Idol stars Clay Aiken, George Huff, Mandisa Hundley all have been open about their faith, particularly now that they've moved on from Idol. For that matter, Carrie Underwood's star-making single after winning the competition was the prayerful, award-winning single "Jesus Take the Wheel."
The faith brigade continues this season as well. At least half of the 12 finalists seem to be Christians—some professing their faith clearly, others more subtly.
Jordin Sparks has garnered the most attention in CCM circles. The daughter of former NFL player Phillippi Sparks, she regularly performs at her home church, was a finalist for the Gospel Music Association's Seminar in the Rockies, and even opened on tour for Michael W. Smith, who gives his endorsement.
Melinda Doolittle is a graduate of Nashville's Belmont University, a Christian school, and has sung backup for the likes of CeCe Winans, Denver & The Mile High Orchestra, and Aaron Neville. She's not only impressed everyone with her vocal prowess, but also her humble attitude—friends describe her as a "really strong" Christian woman and a prayer warrior.
Chris Sligh, the son of missionary parents, has attended three different Christian colleges in the last ten years. Lately he's served as a worship leader at his home church while fronting his own band, Half Past Forever. On Idol, he's already performed songs by Mute Math and dc Talk.
They're not alone. Phil Stacey has attended two Christian universities and is a minister of music at his home church in Jacksonville, Florida. LaKisha Jones has the support of her friends and family from her home church in Michigan, who say that "her faith is important to her." Her new friend Stephanie Edwards apparently shares similar values, praying to God for his will before her performances.
I don't entertain any ideas that American Idol is a Christian show, any more than a company that employs Christians is necessarily a Christian company. Some would argue that it does no good if Idol contestants can't voice their faith during the broadcast (previous contestants have been asked to downplay their faith on air). But is it still possible that the show can be used according to God's purposes?
In Idol, Not of It
When you get down to it, both types of shows—Idol and the Christian alternatives—can glorify God. Either one is capable of being used by the Lord.
A show like Gifted may glorify God because it's more intentional in its display of praise, even if it's ultimately a talent contest with a niche audience. It may not been seen by the millions who watch Idol, but I don't think the Christian alternatives are necessarily about reaching the masses. They're primarily shows by Christians, about Christians, and for Christians—and there's value in "preaching to the choir."
It could be that the point is to work on a smaller level—filling a need rather than becoming a phenomenon. Such programs are not too unlike the local church when they put on a talent show or fellowship event.
On the other hand, it would be a mistake to assume that the Christian alternatives have a "monopoly" on God, because God can certainly work through American Idol—with the bonus of reaching a much larger audience. God uses his people—and his people are taking the Idol stage in greater numbers than ever. They might be asked to limit their expressions during the broadcasts, but they may find more opportunities to express their faith the further they progress—especially since it's live television watched by millions. Who's to stop the winner from publicly glorifying God before an audience of that magnitude—and risk turning off the legions who voted for him or her?
Additionally, this year's American Idol introduces "Idol Gives Back," a two-day concert event to raise awareness and money to fight poverty in the U.S. and Africa. In addition to numerous guest stars—including Bono, Josh Groban, Gwen Stefani, and Pink—the show's six finalists will perform "inspirational songs" by Quincy Jones. How inspirational the broadcast will be remains to be seen, but who can say how contestants might be able to manifest their faith those two nights?
Meanwhile, who can say what these contestants may accomplish behind the Idol scenes in the weeks ahead, as they build relationships with fellow contestants, the show's producers, and even the major recording artists they work with? And who can say what these contestants might accomplish in their post-Idol days—as have previous Christian contestants—as they share their faith through touring, record deals, albums, interviews, and various other appearances.
We're all given a chance to live out the Christian walk in any profession and opportunity set before us. And that certainly includes being a contestant in a nationally televised singing competition. Whether they're performing in a program seen by a few thousand or hundreds of millions, the "gifted" can glorify God in either scenario. Just as long as they remember that they're participating in Idol, and not literally becoming one.
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