Current evidence challenges the charge that religious broadcasting is hurting the church.
The so-called electronic church is booming. In a recent “Today” show, Tom Brokaw noted the religious radio-TV audience numbers an estimated 130 million per week. Forty-seven percent of the American people regularly tune in to religious programs; by contrast, only 41 percent of the people attend church services. Clearly more Americans receive religious instruction and spiritual inspiration from the television screen than from the pulpit. On the surface, at least, TV and radio religion are a booming success.
But the “electronic church” has also come under increasing fire as a religious liability rather than a spiritual asset. The liberal establishment has ranged itself solidly against it. Roman Catholics (remembering the halcyon days of Fulton J. Sheen) are more ambivalent, but except for charismatic Catholics, they have not generally extended their blessing. Even some mainstream evangelicals have indicated severe reservations about its contribution to the Christian church—although most evangelicals, and particularly evangelical charismatics, have lent it at least qualified approval.
We must, therefore, raise the question: Is religious broadcasting a help or hindrance to the Christian faith?
Arguments we hear mounted against it are formidable: (1) It offers a cheap grace—a religion that solves all problems in this world and the next with no moral demands upon its devotees. (2) Its gospel is simplistic—only believe and everything will be all right. In this life you can be healthy and wealthy if not wise, and in the next all will be rosy and comfortable (not much is said about hell, which seems, oddly, to disturb some liberals). (3) It avoids the hard issues of our twentieth-century civilization. Instead of facing up to the really important and difficult moral issues, it majors in details of personal religion like pornography, or in nonissues like prayer in the schools and Sunday blue laws. (4) Its message is determined not by moral conviction but by what the traffic will bear. No Elijahs can spring out of the TV circuit, for the Ahabs of this world will not support them financially. In effect, true religion is prostituted and TV religion becomes self-serving religious entertainment that offers the public whatever it is willing to pay for. (5) It weakens rather than strengthens the local church. As John Mariani sums up neatly, if not elegantly: “Preachers on the tube take money out of church coffers and bodies out of church pews.” Mainstream, liberally oriented churches have lost millions of members in the last two decades. And money—big money—does pour into the coffers of the religious broadcasters. Time magazine estimates $51 million to Jim Bakker of PTL; $47 million to Pat Robertson of the 700 Club; $46 million to Jerry Falwell and Moral Majority; $25 million to Rex Humbard; $20 million to Jimmy Swaggart; $11 million to Robert Schuller; and, all told, according to the Wall Street Journal, over a half-billion—each year and growing.
What shall we say to this indictment? Shall we denounce religious radio and TV programs en masse? The problem with this broadside against electronic religious programs is that it may very well fit some, but when intended as a general characterization and condemnation of religious broadcasting as a whole, it is false.
Take the matter of the gospel. The so-called gospel presented by Mormonism, transcendental meditation (TM), the liberal establishment generally, and the legalistic side of Roman Catholicism, is not good news at all, and it is certainly not the Christian gospel. This gospel is the good news that God loves us, and on condition of faith or personal commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, offers to forgive us freely of all our sin. Further, he accepts us into his fellowship, and gives us the Holy Spirit to empower us to live meaningful lives, morally better than we ever could live on our own. The fact is that much of the current opposition to radio and TV religious broadcasting boils down to a single objection: “We don’t like the message.” In reality, the objection is not against religious broadcasting but against the religious views of the broadcasters and especially against their success.
The most serious charge is that contemporary religious broadcasting by its message and its method is hurting the church. But the evidence is all against this charge. Christian Broadcasting Network marketing specialist John Roos discovered that 34 percent of the viewers became more involved in a local church and only 2 percent less involved as a result of listening to religious broadcasts. Another poll by the American Research Corporation in Irvine, California, found a 26 percent increase in church attendance against a 9 percent decrease as a result of listening to religious programs over radio and television. In a study for the National Council of Churches, electronic church consultant Robert M. Liebert, professor of psychology and psychiatry at New York University, declared:
“There is little reason to believe that the electronics are actually pulling people away from churches they would otherwise be attending. Rather, people have left the traditional denominations and their traditional services and then found satisfaction or identity with electronic church offerings … there is some research suggesting that exposure to electronic services moves people to join local churches, and not to estrange themselves from community involvement.” Or as Ben Armstrong of National Religious Broadcasters says, “The liberal groups are apprehensive about the electronic church because we seem to be succeeding.” He adds, “Naturally, people who have been moved by gospel broadcasts seem to have joined evangelical churches, where the sermons, Bible teaching, and basic theological approach are similar to what they’ve heard on the air.”
Of course, this does not mean that all is well in religious broadcasting. The so-called electronic church is not really a church. At best it is but an instrument of the church. It must guard against competing with the local church. In the long run, it must be evaluated in terms of the contribution it makes to the church. Some religious broadcasts, in spite of loose claims, are not Christian in any legitimate sense of the term. Some broadcasters need to give far stricter accounting of their finances—especially when they appeal over the air for funds. Christians must learn to discriminate and exercise responsible stewardship in their support of programs. Spiritual discernment is needed to detect perversions of the gospel and to insure faithful preaching of the Word of God. Good taste is essential so the gospel will not fall into disrepute. Evangelical Christians cannot escape responsibility in these matters, for most religious broadcasting today is made possible by the financial gifts of committed evangelicals. If they pay to support poor quality programs and fail to support better programs, then the good will automatically be weeded out, the poor quality programs will thrive, and the cause of Christ will suffer accordingly.
Radio and television, with current developments of multiple channels and cable lines, present new challenges and unlimited possibility for the Christian church. The already significant role of religious broadcasting has not begun to peak. Its potential for evangelism can scarcely be exaggerated. There are 50 to 60 million unchurched Americans, but they all watch television. Some can be reached through preaching and straightforward evangelistic appeals. More can be won only indirectly by imaginative programs of cultural significance and entertainment. Perhaps an equal number live on the fringe of the nominal church—members, but uninstructed in Christian faith. These, too, can be reached by television. Well-taught Christians can profit from biblical instruction and spiritual nourishment. Bible schools of the air offer large possibilities for instruction of high quality now otherwise impossible in many communities. Wholesome entertainment for the family, programs for children, a Christian interpretation of the news, possibilities for Christian ministry to the local community and to the world at large—all are open to an enlightened and imaginative use of electronic media for the gospel and for the enrichment of our Christian experience and of our lives.
But this will not all come automatically. We must plan for it, and demand it, and work for it, and pay for it, and pray for it—that this marvelous instrument may be used, not for evil, but for good.
Recent changes in interpretation of the Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom give rise to a pressing question: “What can I as an evangelical Christian do to preserve this freedom for others and myself?”
If it has truly become a serious question whether a group of religious students can meet constitutionally on a public college or university campus (like any other student group), there would certainly appear to be an urgency that we wrestle with the issues raised. If a church must spend substantial sums to hire an attorney and defend in court its right to release a staff member whom it has discovered to be a practicing homosexual, something in our law or judicial system must be amiss. And most disconcerting of all, if home Bible studies are subject to governmental prohibition, what is free from the long arm of the secular state?
We recognize that these are very sensitive and complex issues on which sincere Christians hold differing presuppositions and beliefs. Moreover, we would unequivocally affirm our own commitment to the historical and constitutional separation of church and state—a principle we believe to be beneficial to both. However, when separation is interpreted to require discrimination against religious persons or practices, rather than governmental neutrality toward particular religious groups, it is incumbent upon responsible Christians to seek to correct the resulting imbalance.
The first thing concerned Christians should do in response to the issues that have been raised is to become adequately informed. Too often we have been guilty of acting on incomplete or even inaccurate information, without carefully thinking through long-range implications and ramifications of our actions. John R.W. Stott, in his excellent little book, ChristianMission in the Modern World (InterVarsity, 1975), advocates the formation of “study and action groups” to respond to such issues. He wisely explains that he “deliberately used the expression ‘study and action groups’ because we Christians have a tendency to pontificate from a position of ignorance, and we need to grapple with the complexities of our subject before recommending some course of responsible action.…” To this we can but offer a resounding “Amen.”
A second observation is that more Christians should become involved in the vocations from which decisions such as these originate. Evangelist Luis Palau has compared Christians to manure, making the analogy that where Christians “pile up” in one place they begin to stink—but when they are spread out, they fertilize the land. There is a lot of wisdom in that. The application in our present context is that if Christians are to be salt and light in the legal and governmental institutions of our society, we simply must become more directly involved in them. Much has been written recently about Christians becoming involved in politics, and it is not our intention here to treat that whole controversial subject. Rather, we are simply advocating that individual Christians should regard law, politics, government, education, and other areas from which these sensitive policies are developed and promulgated as alternate fields for Christian mission.
Though vocational calling into one of these fields may be absent, many avenues remain available to someone concerned that our legal system maintain a healthy, neutral relationship with religion. Those avenues, which are available with respect to sociopolitical involvement generally, would include (but not be limited to) the following actions:
1. Pray. We are commanded to pray for those in authority; while this should not be used as an excuse not to get more personally involved, it is believed that this is one Christian responsibility that is often overlooked.
2. Form or become involved in an existing “study and action group,” either under the auspices of a single church or in connection with Christians from different churches, but with common concerns.
3. Once you feel confident your opinions are based upon adequate information, communicate them to others, including other Christians, politicians, government bureaucrats, administrators, lawyers, judges, and anyone else who is involved or interested. (While it is inappropriate to communicate with a judge about a particular case, it is entirely appropriate to attempt to educate a judge about a current issue.)
4. Where possible, personally meet with individuals involved in pertinent issues, especially those on the local level. For example, calm and reasonable discussion of objections to humanistic sex education or “values clarification” courses with local school officials and administrators can be very productive.
5. Join organizations that exist to respond reflectively and constructively to these issues. The Christian Legal Society (P.O. Box 2069, Oak Park, Ill. 60303), through its affiliate, the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, is one such organization.
6. Encourage Christian young people, or others who may be faced with changes in vocation or avocation, to consider a calling to a ministry in law, politics, government, education, or some related area.
If one understands the Christian mission to include all that God’s people are called into the world to be and do, there are probably few needier mission fields at the present time than our own public institutions. It has been argued that a primary reason for such a need is the relative neglect by Christians in this century of their responsibility to be involved in the affairs of this world as well as the next. But the price of religious freedom is eternal vigilance. If religious freedom as we have known it in America is to continue, it will most assuredly require a return to this age-old battle by large numbers of men and women of evangelical Christian conviction.
Since last year was the year of evangelicals and politics, we are concerned that the political agenda may override the church’s evangelistic imperative. We hope I political differences will not put unnecessary stumbling blocks in the way of anyone’s giving a serious hearing to the claims of Jesus Christ, which transcend politics.
The more that political positions become identified with Christianity, the more danger there is of confusing allegiance to a cause with allegiance to Christ himself. The more that “Christian” reasons are given to bolster partisan positions, the more reasons there are for those who don’t agree with those positions to turn away from life’s most important issue: confession of faith in Christ as Lord and Savior.
“Evangelical” stands for both historic doctrinal orthodoxy and proclamation of the evangel. From all we can discover, the need for intelligent, loving witness of Christ is still critical. What reader of this magazine does not know of someone who at this moment is living independently of Christ’s lordship; of someone who has never experienced release from sin’s guilt and condemnation?
A number of denominations, religious organizations, and concerned lay people are joining forces to call evangelicals to find better ways to evangelize. The American Festival of Evangelism at Kansas City, July 27–30, will serve as a rallying point for Christians who want to mobilize for evangelism. Perhaps “festival” is not the best word to describe the gathering. The program will include hard-hitting analyses of current issues as well as down-to-earth instructional workshops. Now is the time for local churches to plan to participate.
One may think that a couple of days of talking won’t transform churches; but a start has to be made somewhere. If only a handful of people in a church get turned on at Kansas City, who knows what the results will be?
We must not permit evangelical visibility to impede, or to be mistaken for, true evangelism. “Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel!” cried the apostle. “Knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade men,” he said. Holy fear must permeate evangelicalism if the people who love to take the label are to live up to its evangelistic tradition in 1981.
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