It was supposed to be a Christian comedy show about Jesus, but a lot of Christians weren't laughing.

A Dutch evangelical television station recently canceled a proposed program about a comedian having fun with the Gospel of Mark, after many station supporters canceled or threatened to cancel their membership.

The decision by Evangelische Omroep (EO, "Evangelical Broadcast") highlighted the challenges Christian media in the Netherlands face as they try to reach secular audiences with edgy programs while depending on membership for funding.

"That's always the tension we feel," said Jan-Willem Bosman, business director for EO. "We are funded by members who are Christians, but we do not make programs for them. We want to use media for people who do not know Christ."

Mission-minded public broadcasters such as EO must also compete harder for audience share—and with more government oversight—against commercial media in a highly secular country.

Still, Dutch Christian media are surprisingly robust, offering more innovative programs than the preaching-based, 800-number approach of much U.S. religious programming.

That's largely due to the uniquely Dutch tradition known as pillarization, in which religious, political, and other interest groups formed their own media, schools, and other institutions around a common ideology. Those in the Protestant and Catholic "pillars" mostly read their own newspapers and watched their own TV shows. The government funded these groups' media based on how many members each had.

EO is one the remnant religious pillars, but its 450,000 members compose a minority of its TV viewers. Programs range from talk and game shows to documentaries and children's fare. It also produces radio programs and three magazines.

While groups such as EO still receive membership-based government funding, they are increasingly up against ad-driven media. Further, government channel coordinators now wield some authority over what programs public networks may produce.

"Ratings have become much more important than in the old system," said Geert Heetebrij, a Los Angeles filmmaker who has written and produced documentaries for EO. "They're constantly trying to come up with new formats, trying to find an edge."

A striking example: 40 Days without Sex, a reality show on which single young adults were challenged to live up to the title. It drew droves of viewers and sent many to EO's website to learn more about the Bible's teachings about sex, Bosman said.

But many felt EO went over the edge with A Man Walks on Water, the proposed comedy show where a comedian would learn about Jesus in conversation with the host. Bosman says false rumors sank the experimental show before it had a chance.

"It's a razor's edge they got caught on trying to be relevant," Heetebrij said. "That's the conflict they face all the time: How to be relevant in a secular, pluralistic land."

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The Netherlands national news agency also reported on the show's cancelation.

Previous Christianity Today articles on evangelism include:

Servant Evangelism | How Luis Palau, thousands of volunteers, and a gay mayor are trying to transform Portland. (October 31, 2008)
Why Evangelize the Jews? | God's chosen people need Jesus as much as we do. (March 25, 2008)
Getting Back on Course | It's time to return to the priority of evangelism. (November 2, 2007)

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