Ninth in the Series “Evangelicals in Search of Identity”

In the August 6 Footnotes column, Carl F. H. Henry discussed two of four areas where he thinks evangelicals need to work for progress: in recovering the sense of the community of believers, and in presenting a rationale for Christian faith. He deals with the other two areas in this article.

3. We evangelicals must inspire the mass media to portray evangelical realities to the restive world. Satellite radio and television may soon overtake the field. Frontier studies are now under way to determine the possibilities of launching a Christian satellite or of leasing time on already orbiting satellites.

The popularity of television, America’s prime communications medium, far surpasses that earlier enjoyed by the theater, newspapers, and radio; 98 per cent of the people now watch it, many of them almost addictively. Vigorous media engagement is all the more necessary if, as Malcolm Muggeridge contends, television promotes cultural decline by implicitly if not explicitly commending moral permissiveness as the virtue of modernity. No less does the medium accommodate cultural chaos by routinely evading the issue of fixed truth. Like the United Nations, television is far more a forum for spirited presentation of conflicting opinions than a tribunal for promoting discernment of right and wrong.

If evangelicals had launched a major university that included a college of creative and communicative arts to train Christian young people for vocations in writing and editing, radio and television, stage and screen, the Christian message would today enjoy wider and better exposure. Evangelical TV programming still falls largely into the so-called Sunday ghetto. No evangelical group has as yet developed a regular prime-time weekday program that effectively confronts secular society with the Christian challenge. For one thing, the cost of prime-time programming is staggering; also, network competition for ratings discourages the sale of prime time for religious purposes.

The Lansman-Milam petition to thwart designating educational FM and TV channels for religious organizations has been disallowed by the Federal Communications Commission. The objection that sectarian stations do not program contrary views was a veritable Pandora’s box: it would conform every station to a complainant’s point of view. It also raises questions about the “fairness” of secular stations that deal all too sparingly with the evangelical heritage, although evangelicals are now appearing at least occasionally on television talk shows. More than 700,000 letters deluged the FCC with evangelicals’ appeals for a nondiscriminatory ruling. The FCC expects all licensed stations to observe the “fairness” doctrine and stresses the need for constructive community relations.

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A number of independent Christian radio networks and television stations are already operating at the borders of large, wildly secular urban centers. Some evangelicals see cable TV programming as an alternative to station ownership and operation. Recently charismatically oriented groups have moved aggressively onto media frontiers; Oral Roberts has sporadically invaded prime-time television with a mixture of musical entertainment and spiritual ministry; Pat Robertson engages in direct evangelistic confrontation over more than fifty radio and TV stations. The National Courier, a fortnightly newspaper targeted for bookstore and shopping-center sale, is the latest of various charismatic efforts.

Most evangelical television programs, if not sermonic in nature, are largely experience-and event-oriented. World Vision has successfully sponsored famine-appeal telethons and televised other evangelical social concerns. For the most part Christian theism, if presented at all, is done so in an intellectually unpersuasive way to a generation in revolt against doctrinal and theological foundations for biblical faith. While evangelical programming does not on that account lack merit, it nonetheless fails to reflect comprehensively and cohesively the biblical view of life and the ultimately real world at a time when the great urban centers with their universities, newspapers, and other media have largely capitulated to secular pressures.

Enough evangelical churches are in financial or attendance trouble to warrant consideration of using at least one strategically located inner-city church building for high-quality FM or educational-TV religious programming. Such a center might also offer Christians various possibilities of training in writing, music, art, photography, and so on. The growing use of cassettes in extending educational preaching and evangelistic ministries is notably enlarging the perspectives of clergy, seminarians, and laymen; its fullest potential remains to be probed.

Wherever they are, evangelical college students should be counseled to pursue elective classes in journalism and creative writing. While content of writing is in the long run most important, a felicitous style does much to commend the truth in winsome ways and can gain a hearing when ideas run counter to popular prejudices. The temptation to capitulate to the devil is stronger when deception is cloaked in sparkling speech; why should not the truth be all the more regally robed? In this realm C. S. Lewis has put the devil to rout and the rest of us to shame.

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4. Evangelical churchmen will do well to reevaluate existing Sunday programs as to nature, serviceability, and timing. While local worship ought not to be reshaped by a particular media mentality, it need not be drab. Sunday-morning programs that involve the family in both graded and corporate participation in worship, education, and social fellowship offer challenging possibilities. To avoid the overall proliferation of church meetings, stop the decline in youth involvement and the erosion of the Sunday school, and solve the isolation problems of lonely members are high imperatives.

A prescribed headquarters format will no longer meet the varied needs of varied congregations. With an eye on the immediate church families and the community context, local leaders can examine existing needs, and by enlisting wherever possible resources within the church they will not only meet those needs specifically but will also promote leadership training. In some places Sunday-evening church meetings might be given over to high-school and college-age groups while older adults gather in neighborhood Bible studies or engage in prayer and testimony meetings or conduct seekers’ or new converts’ classes.

Three-day weekends and four-day work weeks, and crises in safety, transportation, and so on, call for imaginative church scheduling and programming. A proper balance of worship, evangelism, Christian education (including arts, crafts, and writing as potential evangelical tools in communication), service projects, and recreation can do much to demonstrate the wholeness of the Gospel for the whole person and for the whole world.


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