Has religious broadcasting simply become another form of institutionalized Christianity?

Religious broadcasting’s recent claim to be an “electronic church” has been substantiated by the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll of evangelicals in America. Here at last is hard evidence that religious broadcasting has a vast and diverse congregation assembling daily before radio and television sets for instruction, renewal, and fellowship. These avid adherents of media faith share common beliefs, practice similar lifestyles, and together exhibit the classic characteristics of religious congregations in America, namely, voluntarism, pluralism, and a preference for an experiential expression of faith.

It should be no surprise then to find that this great church of the air, though it does not encompass all evangelicals nor even a majority, is archtypically evangelical. Compared to the public as a whole, those who watch religious television or listen to religious radio are more likely to have had a conversion experience, believe the Bible is free of mistakes, oppose abortion, believe in a personal Devil, abstain from alcohol, and hold to or engage in a host of other beliefs and practices characteristic of evangelicals.

In one sense, such news is disturbing to those of us who are involved in religious broadcasting. Does this mean we are talking to ourselves? Has religious broadcasting simply become another form of institutionalized Christianity, comfortably settled down in the delusion that we are reaching the world for Christ through the mass media? And if so, can we justify the money spent and the strategies employed in using these marvelous media that give us access to virtually every member of our communities?

These are searching questions, both for religious broadcasters and for those who make it all possible—the Christian public. Unhappily, there are no simple answers. The issues are more complex than they appear; whatever viewpoint you choose to defend, its opposite can be defended just as easily. For the moment, therefore, I will simply present some of the survey data along with observations that I hope will provide a background for my conclusions.

There is, first of all, the fact that more people watch religious television than listen to religious radio. This is a jolting reminder to radio people like myself that television always generates bigger “numbers” (listeners and viewers) than radio. I tend to assume that religious radio dominates the market because there are 1,100 religious radio stations and only a few full-time religious television stations.

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Although outnumbered in terms of stations, television makes up the difference through paid time on secular VHF and UHF stations in the top 50 markets. These programs include daily releases, usually in late night or early morning slots, along with Sunday morning paid time and television specials featuring well-known Christian personalities.

Actually, the ratings are reasonably close, with TV edging radio in every category except total hours spent listening weekly. Approximately 20 percent of the radio audience tunes in for three or more hours weekly, while only 14 percent of the television audience watches for three or more hours each week. Television’s highest ratings are in the one-to-two hour per week category.

All of this augurs well for television as a mass medium for the gospel. The growth of cable and futuristic satellite-to-home broadcasting promises even bigger and more accessible audiences in the eighties. No doubt Christian television will continue to be the creative medium, utilizing “talk show” formats, “magazine” style specials, and taping of live performances for rebroadcast. We can also expect to see more drama and the performing arts, as well as “family” entertainment.

This trend toward television entertainment flows from the natural demands of the visual medium. Unlike radio, technical or production obsolescence virtually guarantee program discontinuation. The days of television’s “spiritual talking head” are gone forever.

On the other hand, radio will probably continue to be a “service” medium as it is in the secular marketplace. As such, it will perform a more didactic role, providing a platform for teaching the Bible and promoting Christian values. But change is also in the wind for religious radio. As in television, sleek technology is being blended with an increasingly contemporary program style. Performance and production are prized, often at the expense of content; form is subduing content.

No one can deny that this movement toward modernity in the Christian media has produced beneficial results. But certain troubling questions remain. One must ask, for example, if the emphasis on contemporaneity is leading Christian television and radio into a theological never-never land. Many of the new people in religious broadcasting are mass media professionals and theological amateurs. Unlike the founding fathers who were almost exclusively preachers, today’s electronic media people are often college communications majors or people who have come into religious broadcasting from secular careers. This does not mean they cannot have effective ministries, but it does mean many of the newer programs have low doctrinal thresholds over which a lot of fuzzy dogma passes rather easily.

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Indeed, methodology now offers itself as the new orthodoxy. Artistry, creativity, and relevance are the latest buzzwords. Loving, caring, and understanding are more often subject matter than atonement, justification, and sanctification. And while the former are commendable, the latter are indispensable. Without them, the Christian faith in the mass media becomes a band-aid salvation: fast talk and quick cure in the era of feelings, to use psychiatrist R. D. Rosen’s description of the cultural, psychological, and spiritual climate of the seventies.

What we are seeing today, then, is a programming drift away from teaching and preaching toward counseling, interpersonal relationships, holistic living, and physical healing. Not surprising, the CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll shows a correlation between these programming trends and the felt needs of the Christian radio and television audience.

After salvation, those who described themselves as evangelicals listed physical well-being, the need for love and affection, and the desire for meaning in life as life’s most important needs. These three—health, love, and purpose—swept second place decisively, dividing three quarters of the total votes almost evenly. Other seemingly important needs, such as financial security and personal freedom, lagged far behind.

The willingness of religious broadcasters to adjust their programs to listener needs and wants is encouraged by two factors. First, there is immediacy of response. If a broadcaster touches a “hot” subject even accidentally, he will know about it in a week or even days. Mail, the broadcaster’s lifeline, is a built-in polling device that records audience preferences with Gallup-like accuracy. So, unless broadcasters have ironclad formats, their programs begin to focus on those issues and emphases that bring in the mail—and the money. The necessity of paying for air time also prompts broadcasters to follow the money. Thus comes the bogeyman of religious broadcasting: solicitation of funds and the various program devices designed to generate income.

No subject in religious broadcasting is touchier than money. From dubious secular reporters to staunchly fundamentalist pulpiteers, people and pastors probe, dissect, and decry the huge sums of money that pour daily into the electronic church. I know of no person, group, or church outside of religious broadcasting with a complimentary word on the subject.

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No one knows exactly how much money is donated annually to religious broadcasting, but the sum total, whatever it is, has to be staggering. Recent estimates on the annual revenues to the major television broadcasters include: Oral Roberts, $60 million; Pat Robertson, $58 million; Jim Bakker, $51 million; Jerry Falwell, $50 million; Billy Graham, $30 million; Rex Humbard, $25 million; and Robert Schuller, $16 million. But this is not all. Millions of dollars are given to numerous smaller radio and television ministries, with some of the larger radio ministries approaching and possibly surpassing television programs in income and expenditures. An educated guess would put the figure somewhere in excess of a billion dollars, a sum used by several major U.S. papers including the New York Times, and corroborated by Dr. Ben Armstrong, executive secretary of National Religious Broadcasters. If one takes into account the advertising revenue and sponsorship income produced by religious stations themselves, the figure approaches $2 billion.

While we cannot tell precisely where contributions to religious broadcasting come from, we do know that members of the electronic church are among those evangelicals who give the most money to “church or other religious organizations.” According to CHRISTIANITY TODAY-Gallup Poll data, 26 percent of those who watch religious television said they contribute 10 percent or more of their income to religious causes. An additional 12 percent reported giving between 5 and 9 percent. The figures are even higher for radio where 28 percent contribute 10 percent or more, and another 15 percent give between 5 and 9 percent. Even if one allows for considerable audience overlapping, it is apparent that religious broadcasting is in touch with a sizeable group of generous contributors.

Naturally, pastors and church leaders bemoan this financial drain—not to mention the threat of alienated affections among members who seem ready, even eager, to join in the ventures of electronic empire builders. Yet these same pastors fail to recognize their own responsibility in the great religious broadcasting dollar debate. When people are allowed to become spiritually, emotionally, or intellectually impoverished, they become vulnerable to powerful electronic media personalities and presentations. Indeed, it is this very susceptibility that invites the gospel merchandising that is a matter of concern to Christian leaders. Ideally, religious broadcasting should supplement the local church. But until the local church fully assumes its teaching and pastoral responsibilities, the electronic church will continue to be a surrogate church providing instruction and fellowship for spiritually hungry people.

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Now we come to the nub of the matter. How effective is religious broadcasting? What does all this time and money amount to in view of the scriptural command to “go and make disciples of all nations?”

I am tempted to answer with self-criticism and a scathing judgment of my fellow broadcasters. Surely there are grounds for doing so. For all our impressive accomplishments, we are talking largely to ourselves while most of America (and the world) goes unevangelized in the mass media.

According to the CHRISTIANITY TODAY—Gallup Poll, 85 percent of those who listen to or watch religious broadcasting profess to be converted. Even more disturbing, so far as evangelism is concerned, is the fact—documented by national media ratings surveys—that religious broadcasting is reaching less than 4 percent of the total available radio and television audience. We are spending $2 billion a year to do this?

There is further reason for self-judgment. A professional smugness seems to have settled on religious broadcasting. We are well organized, technologically slick, economically viable, and becoming increasingly influential politically. Yet in spite of all this, or perhaps because of it, religious broadcasting is fumbling about seeking its bearings, trying, it seems, to discover its very reason for being.

Still, I will be careful not to judge the effects of religious broadcasting. These cannot be quantified by surveys. Nor can polls measure the rich blessings and benefits produced when the Word of God is presented, Christian values are reinforced, and a Christian interpretation of public affairs is offered day after day to people who otherwise would hear and see only the secular viewpoint. I know about the joys of religious broadcasting first-hand: people coming to Christ, growing spiritually, finding guidance, comfort, and fellowship when it cannot be found elsewhere. All these and more are the evident results of our work. I therefore leave judgment about the spiritual effectiveness of religious broadcasting to him who judges all mankind righteously.

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However, I will criticize the strategy of religious broadcasting—which promises to be easy since there is no strategy. Religious broadcasting has simply happened, growing slowly at first with the paid-time programs of visionary radio pioneers in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, then more quickly in the 1960s with station ownership and the advent of “full-time” Christian formats. Then came the phenomenal burst of the 1970s, which continues to the present, bringing with it multiple media ministries in radio, television, cable, and satellite.

The market seems to be bearing the traffic well, so we can expect more of the same. Yes, friends, we have something for everyone. What are your tastes? Traditional, progressive, Pentecostal, or dispensational? Do you prefer middle-of-the-road music or gospel rock? Is your choice ethnic or black, entertainment, prophecy, missions, counseling, or Bible study? What you want and will support, we have or can provide.

In all of this, program producers, stations, and advertising agencies will vigorously defend the right of everyone to follow his/her calling and fill the airwaves with the gospel according to his/her own viewpoint. After all, the more programs and stations we have, the more the gospel is getting out, right? Wrong.

Just because there are seven or eight religious radio stations in a market does not guarantee religious domination of that market’s broadcast media, nor does it guarantee additional listeners and viewers. It simply guarantees the fragmentation of the available, hard-core Christian market. If the Gallup Poll and various national media ratings companies have taught us anything, it is that there is a limit to the number of people who will watch religious television or listen to religious radio in its present form. The addition of new programs and stations splinters this audience in an ongoing process that stops only after the last dollar of program support is culled out of the market.

This ever-increasing duplication of services, particularly with regard to Christian nurture, is the bane of religious broadcasting. It is inexcusable in light of the Great Commission, and if left unchecked, will eventually make religious broadcasting a carbon copy of the fiercely competitive secular marketplace where the dollar is boss and the profit and loss statement dictates program content.

The question that remains is this: Can religious broadcasting change its course—can it revise its goals and implement a new strategy for reaching the world for Christ through the mass media? Certainly the electronic church could effectively continue its teaching and fellowship functions with fewer programs and stations—as well as less money.

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What if broadcasters relinquished all Christian nurture responsibilities to one or two stations in each market, sold their other stations, pooled their economic resources, and took aim at owning or gaining control of network-affiliated VHF television stations in the top 100 U.S. markets? Such media could be utilized for spot announcement preevangelism and referral evangelism to local hotline phones, churches, and Christian radio stations. Operated like other television stations, with the exception perhaps of certain editing policies regarding objectionable material, these stations would offer little or no traditional religious programs. Instead, selected prime-time spots would be opened at regular intervals for creative new Christian programs along with the finest Christian cinema and new efforts from Christian performers and artists.

The Christian public, on whom broadcasters keep a watchful eye, should find this approach quite acceptable. Certainly it would be no worse—and probably it would be better—than if these same stations were securely owned. Money would be no problem once the stations were purchased since they would be operated commercially. Those who are concerned about good stewardship and the reinvestment of donated dollars will be happy to know that commercial television is where the big money is in broadcasting. No money would be lost, and indeed, much would likely be made and further invested as the new strategy developed.

Once owners had divested themselves of their radio properties and invested in television, new radio stations would take their place in response to the demand for time created by the reduced supply of religious stations. Division would produce multiplication! To increase financial viability further, broadcasters, churches, and Christian organizations could set aside funds regularly for this coordinated media evangelism effort. A 10 percent tithe of the present $2 billion religious broadcasting budget would provide an extraordinary start!

But alas, it will never come to pass. We will all—broadcasters and audience—prefer to continue with things as they are, admitting the needs, admiring the possibilities, but bowing to the realities of evangelical independence, individualism, and the entreprenurial spirit. Programs will proliferate, new stations will continue to appear in markets already inundated, and 96 percent of the American television and radio market will go untouched by the modern day marvel of being able to present the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone through the broadcast media.

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How Broadcasters See The Problems And Opportunities

Mr. Bisset has asked questions that need desperately to be asked. Yet, there is no easy way to correct the faults—it seems as if they will, get worse before they get better. There are people who are weak in the faith because their leaders are weak in the faith. Consequently, the only thing I feel that should be done about this is for magazines such as CHRISTIANITY TODAY—plus symposiums or seminars—to bring these problems constantly before the broadcasters. This would help make them understand their tremendous responsibility, plus the effect they have, both for good and bad, on their listeners.


Baton Rouge, Louisiana

God has allowed the development of modern technology in the electronic media to provide the church with tools for the propagation of the gospel. In spite of their limitations, television and radio are enabling the Christian community to reach a level of public exposure and contacts never before possible. Religious broadcasting is used of God today to reach thousands who would never hear the gospel any other way, and to be a source of ministry to the sick and elderly.

Mr. Bisset very appropriately points out the problems; I wholeheartedly agree with these concerns. I am convinced that we have not yet touched the “hem of the garment” with respect to the great opportunities we as Christians have to spread the gospel. We must use these opportunities while they are available to us. We could introspectively evaluate the problems and limitations for so long that the door of opportunity would close upon us.


Lynchburg, Virginia

Religious broadcasting is designed to supplement the local church and not to be a surrogate church. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, I am extremely pleased the UMC is planning to purchase television stations. May we in the church seriously reevaluate our responsibility to use the TV and radio medium as a real supplement to reach those who can be attracted to the church, and to minister to them when they are confined away from the church services.


Tulsa, Oklahoma

Our concept is to present our programs in as simple and as direct a style as appropriate. On the 700 Club, for example, we are ourselves in a relaxed and straightforward relationship with our guests. We feel comfortable in this approach. However, to maintain professional standards in our industry and to be effective in the marketplace, a degree of entertainment and showmanship is sometimes necessary. Communication by mass media is not the same as the direct personal contact between pulpit and pew.

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Our programming covers a broad spectrum in order to reach a wide variety of human interests. These range from traditional church worship services and music to Bible teaching, news briefs, contemporary Christian music, discussions of current events, economics, international relations, finance, social conditions, good health, biblical prophecy, principles of Christian living, and so on. All have Christian dimensions for the benefit of our audiences.


Virginia Beach, Virginia

Carl F. H. Henry, first editor of Christianity Today, is lecturer at large for World Vision International. An author of many books, he lives in Arlington, Virginia.

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