The press, as much as anybody, has been guilty of mishandling the statistics.

On Christmas Eve, 1906, wireless radio operators on ships sailing near Brant Rock, Massachusetts, heard voices. In fact, they heard a woman reading from the Gospel of Luke, and another singing Handel’s “Largo.” They heard the first wireless voice broadcast ever transmitted to the public. It was a Christian radio program.

Christian broadcasting (now called the electronic church) has come a long way since 1906. Religious television grew steadily through the 1950s and 1960s, then exploded in the first half of the 1970s. In 1970, Arbitron rating service monitored 38 syndicated Christian television programs. By 1975, when the growth leveled off, the number had reached 65.

In 1972, Pat Robertson was operating the only religious TV station in the United States. Today there are 65 religious stations. Moreover, that growth has been lopsided. About half of the syndicated programs were evangelical in 1972, but today 92 percent are.

In the last year, however, one question has sprung into prominence: Is the electronic church shorting out? A spate of newspaper and magazine articles has loudly announced declining audiences for controversial television preachers like Jerry Falwell and Oral Roberts. Triggered by a sociologist’s study that alleges that TV preachers boasted of inflated audiences from the start, some reporters have decided religious broadcasting is a fad beginning to pass.

Actually, the industry is still prospering. What the commentators have overlooked is the total audience of the electronic church, as opposed to the separate audiences of individual big-name broadcasters. Christian broadcasting as a whole faces the predicament of too much prosperity. ...

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