But the challenges of content and prophetic presentation still lie head

Religious broadcasting has influenced profoundly the Christian community and the secular public during the past 25 years.
It trumpeted the gospel literally to the ends of the earth. It caused directly or proximately the rise of parachurch ministries. It thrust evangelical doctrine and practice into the mainstream of American social, political, and religious life.

For the first time in history, the gospel has been presented for all the world to hear and see. That achievement is undoubtedly the fait accompli of religious broadcasting. But that is not all. Religious broadcasting also served as a kind of closed-circuit communications system by which evangelicals came to a sense of national self-realization.

In essence, a vast parish of the air was formed, a fellowship without membership. Through this electronic church, the body of Christ perceived its fundamental oneness despite secondary differences in doctrine and polity. The medium and the message were the same: we are one in the Lord and we are strong in the power of his might.

The Past Achievement Of Pioneers

Religious broadcasting in the modern sense did not take shape until the late fifties and sixties. But visionary pioneers of an earlier day already had grasped the significance of radio for evangelism and teaching. Stalwarts like Walter Maier, Paul Rader, Donald Grey Barnhouse, Charles E. Fuller, M. R. DeHaan, and others built national radio ministries from small beginnings in the 1930s and 1940s.

Others, like Percy Crawford, Rex Humbard, and Oral Roberts, launched television ministries in the early fifties. So did the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Seventh-day Adventists, and Bishop Fulton Sheen.

All of these people were ahead of their time, but Percy Crawford’s quantum leap to FM radio and UHF television in the late fifties opened the doors to religious broadcasting as we know it today. Crawford obtained licenses to own and operate FM stations in a day when most people did not even know what FM was. His venture into UHF television in 1960 in Philadelphia was so conceptually advanced it failed; not enough people had UHF receivers.

Crawford’s far-sighted advocacy of FM radio and UHF television resulted in a rapid increase of Christian-owned stations. These stations in turn laid the financial foundation on which the evangelical media explosion of the seventies was built. Although UHF has not equaled FM’s swift rise to broadcast media power, it is carving out sizable audiences and generating profits. All the Christian television stations on the air today are UHF.

After the death of Percy Crawford in 1960 and the failure of his station in the same year, full-time Christian television retreated to a dream until Pat Robertson put WYAH-TV on the air in 1962 in Norfolk, Virginia. Robertson, a Yale lawyer turned religious broadcaster, was to Christian television what Crawford had been to Christian radio. He opened several UHF stations in major markets and led the way to the production and distribution of syndicated Christian television programs. Robertson’s other firsts included the introduction of organized Christian fund raising on television and the use of cable and satellite technology.

The Current Competition Of Programs

With the multiplication of Christian stations came a growing demand for program material. First in the line of supply were the established programs, those great warhorses of religious broadcasting in which orthodox doctrine, traditional semantics, and conservative style converged. Before the decade of the sixties ended, there was a host of new programs and more to come.

These newcomers were evangelical enough in doctrine, but their message was packaged in an increasingly modern style. Tension grew between the old and new, strained, and finally divided religious broadcasting into fundamentally two camps: traditional and contemporary.

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The focal point of debate was music—and little wonder. Just when evangelicals were getting into broadcasting, everybody under 30 was dropping out of society, or so it seemed. Rock music was in, and before long its ripples reached the rapidly developing Christian music industry. The debate has diminished somewhat, with contemporary music holding the upper hand in terms of stations favoring the newer sounds.

The gospel music industry was just one of many Christian enterprises and ministries that flourished in direct proportion to the growth of religious broadcasting. Christian publishing houses and bookstores, the Christian counseling revolution, advertising and marketing firms, and various parachurch organizations, including nationally known evangelists, all found a mother lode of exposure and support in religious broadcasting.

Perhaps the most interesting but least explored aspect of religious broadcasting has been its role in carrying ideas within the Christian community. Political ideology of the religious right traveled well on the religious wavelength. The modern charismatic movement virtually exploded through Christian radio and television. The “Christian psychology” movement did the same.

The rapid expansion of stations and program material brought diversity and specialization to religious broadcasting—perhaps more than we need. With some 1,600 radio and 40 television stations operating on full-or part-time religious formats, marketing threatens to change from servant to master. Vendibility and salability have become key questions as the focus of our concern shifts from asking what shall we say to how shall we say it. Market research, demographics, and audience response vie for position in front of calling, conviction, and content.

The Coming Necessity Of Cooperation

Management and programming issues pale in significance when compared to the problems technology imposes on religious broadcasting. The Christian world is about to be future-shocked by an invasion of space-age multiple delivery systems that will either fulfill hopes for evangelizing the world, or shatter religious broadcasting beyond repair.

Much of the technological hardware is already in place. Cable and pay television have widened the public’s viewing options. Two-way cable systems, where both parties can see and talk to each other, have been tested successfully. A nationwide Christian media counseling service beckons. Videocassette recorders and videodiscs will soon make it possible for a local Christian bookstore to offer concerts, revival meetings, or teaching sessions—video and audio—for the price of a record. Low-power television, soon to be in use, and UHF/VHF translators, already in use, augment broadcasting’s ever widening delivery system.

It is easy to imagine ways this gadgetry will increase religious information available to Christians and the general public. But even the wildest dreams would find it hard to anticipate what is coming in satellite and computer technology.

Picture, if you will, a worldwide Christian satellite system pumping out 24 separate television signals and 24 separate FM signals to earth. That makes 48 new listening and viewing options available to anyone who is plugged into the right wire or who owns the necessary equipment.

Talk about specialization and fragmentation! Talk about gospel glut! Every conceivable audio and visual need will be covered. Every taste in music, every unique ministry, every interpretive whim and wish—all can and will find their way to these highly specialized channels. And this is only part of the story. Computer technology will link up with these satellites and provide staggering amounts of data for home computers. Using microtechnology, the computers will relay information subvisibly and subaudibly right in the satellite signals. An entire Bible can be sent in seconds; Strong’s Concordance in minutes. These can be stored for later use in the form of printouts on the television screen, hard-copy teleprinters, and even facsimile pictures. Answers to counseling questions, what the Bible says on any subject, what a certain Bible expositor has taught or written or believes, out-of-print books, live missionary updates—anything and everything will be at your fingertips with home computers.

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If your system lacks “storage” space, you can program your request on the computer. It will “watch” the continuous flow of information desired until you are ready to use it.

All this seems far-fetched, but it can and will happen unless we come to the end of the age, humanly speaking. A world Christian Consortium, along with its United States member called Project Lookup, is already organized and plans to launch the first of three Christian satellites by 1985. The first satellite will broadcast to North and South America, the second to Europe and Africa, the third to Asia and the Pacific. Each will have its allotted 24 television channels plus 24 FM subchannels. Plans call for using 12 television channels at first and eventually increasing to full operation.

It must be apparent to even the casual observer that religious broadcasting stands on the edge of a brave new world facing challenges unlike anything previously known. These appear to fall into four categories.

First, technology. Religious broadcasting must develop a strategy for dealing with the rapid advances in delivery systems. Economically viable and business experienced, evangelicals now have the capability of damaging their own cause through the unrestrained use of technology. Indeed, the Christian marketplace has already reached the breaking point through overlapping signals and competing program material.

Technology has become a special responsibility. The daring we must summon is not that of dauntless pioneers, but rather of the courage to submit ourselves to one another in the Lord so that we can use the new technology before it uses us. There is no more room for blind ambition in religious broadcasting, no matter what lofty motives are offered in its defense.

The second challenge of the future will be to devise ways to reach the many people who do not listen to or watch religious broadcasting. Documented audience research shows that religious broadcasting regularly reaches less than 5 percent of the total available radio and television audience in the United States. We are not broadcasting the Good News; we are narrowcasting it to a highly defined, previously interested audience. This does not mean we are failures, but it emphasizes the fact that we have a long way to go before we are effectively utilizing the mass media at our disposal for world evangelization. Nor will the matter be resolved by adding new stations, cable, satellite, or other delivery systems. The problem remains: How do we attract the disinterested unbeliever?

The third challenge will be to fulfill our responsibility to speak prophetically as well as scripturally to current issues. Evangelical participation in politics is big news, and I congratulate activists who have forced America’s leaders to recognize and respect the majority of the electorate who adhere to Judeo-Christian moral values.

We must be careful, however, not to make religious broadcasting synonymous with a certain political philosophy. How are we to speak to the whole of society if we are perceived by the public as the Knights Templars of the airwaves? Who can argue with our outrage at abortion, sexual immorality, and the divorce rate? But what about American wastefulness in a hungry world, or penal reform, or racism? Does not the prophet have a word from the Lord on these and other issues that affect us all?

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The final challenge of the next quarter-century in religious broadcasting is program content. There is no way around this issue if we are to be religious broadcasters. Our mandate is to tell the truth about heaven and hell; we must preach Christ to those without hope and without God in the world. And we have a responsibility to believers as well; we must correct, rebuke, and encourage with great patience and careful instruction. No doubt the most difficult aspect of this challenge will be to tell the truth so people can understand it. It will not be enough for us to say it. We also have to ask, Did they understand us? And further, Did we understand them?

Ultimately, the Holy Spirit must convey divine truth to the human mind and will. But this does not relieve us of our responsibility to present the gospel with clarity and relevance. The listening and viewing public of the future—Christian as well as secular—will be more critical than audiences of the past 25 years. Simple solutions to complex problems will not easily win a hearing, nor will truisms and clichés.

The challenge is clear: to communicate the Word of God in such a way that all the world will understand truly that Jesus Christ alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

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