Are we witnessing a “quiet revolution” in Christian broadcasting? According to the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB), the answer is yes.
NRB Executive Director Ben Armstrong says some 200 new Christian radio stations were started last year. (Some of that growth, he says, is attributable to better record keeping.) And television stations with religious programming have increased by 71 percent in the last five years.
With this numerical growth, Christian broadcasters expect the electronic media to play an even greater role in fulfilling the Great Commission. Writing in Religious Broadcasting magazine, popular television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart said: “The tools [for world evangelization] are varied and many, including, of course, the missionaries.… However, the greatest propagation tool of all, that which will catapult ‘the witness,’ will be television.”
But ministry is not the only motivation for the growth of religious broadcasting. While non-Christian ownership of stations with religious formats is not new, some say it, too, is a growing phenomenon.
Martin Hamstra, owner of four religiously oriented radio stations in Washington State, estimates that of the 1,370 stations cited in the NRB directory, as many as 60 are owned by non-Christians, most of them among the newer stations. Said Hamstra, “Christians are an identifiable demographic constituency. Ad agencies find this appealing. In short, there’s money to be made in broadcasting to Christians.”
Those who buy program time on Christian radio and television stations are also attracted by the lure of money—in the form of donations. And critics frequently question some of the tactics used by religious broadcasters to bring in contributions.
The public image of Christian broadcasters has taken a beating recently. Last year, television faith healer Peter Popoff was exposed for using a hidden radio receiver to obtain information he claimed to be receiving from the Holy Spirit. And earlier this year, Oral Roberts made headlines by telling donors God would call him home if Roberts failed to meet his financial goal for a missions project (CT, Feb. 20, 1987, p. 43).
NRB’S Armstrong said the controversy over Roberts, who is not an NRB member, had nothing to do with his organization’s formation of an ethics commission to monitor the financial activities of its members, NRB’S Ethics and Financial Integrity Commission (EFICOM) is scheduled to begin functioning this summer.
Generally, the proposed NRB guidelines are not as strict as those of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), which require public disclosure of financial statements. Current EFICOM proposals call for members to submit financial statements to the commission, which will keep them confidential.
Armstrong noted, however, that the NRB proposals are not in final form. “People should wait and see how the guidelines come out, instead of attacking them prematurely,” he said. “They might end up being stricter [than ECFA’S].”
Armstrong added that comparisons with ECFA are unjustified, “ECFA exists for a generalized field of people. Our members wanted something for religious broadcasters. Bankers, lawyers, hospitals, and schools have self-regulatory agencies. This is our attempt to do the same thing. We’re sensing we’ve been a little remiss in our responsibilities.”
ECFA Executive Director Arthur Borden expressed concern about possible confusion over the existence of two sets of standards for similar constituencies. However, Borden said he was pleased the NRB is “recognizing the need for better financial responsibility,” adding that he hopes “every NRB member will go beyond the [proposed] NRB standards to meet our tougher standards.”
Concerns about financial accountability have been raised in the context of a continuing debate about the place of religious broadcasting in the church’s mission. Armstrong and other supporters of religious broadcasting, basing their views on the 1984 Annenberg-Gallup study on religion and television, say religious broadcasting does not compete with the local church.
The Annenberg study established that people who contribute financially to television ministries also contribute to a local church. However, the study did not specify whether those same people would contribute more money to a church if they were not contributing to a television ministry. Thus analysts still debate the study’s conclusions.
Quentin Schultze, professor of communications at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and an analyst of Christian broadcasting, says religious broadcasting may affect the local church in ways more important than financial. He is concerned about how the message and style of television religion, for example, “may be molding public perception of the nature of faith and organized religion.”
“A lot of people assume that media technologies will evangelize the world,” Schultze added. “I’m concerned that some [Christians] have come to depend on television preachers, instead of talking to a neighbor about Christ.”
According to Charles Arn of the Institute for American Church Growth, surveys consistently indicate that approximately 80 percent of those active in the church came because of the influence of a friend or relative, as contrasted to fewer than 1 percent who come as a result of mass evangelism (crusades and media).
Arn said he considers the term “television evangelist” a misnomer. “If these people are leading others to Christ, they’re not showing up in churches. The bottom line is not making decisions, but making disciples.” He said the local church is best suited to this task.
Still another concern is the theological content of the electronic church’s collective message. This is important in part because televised religious programs provide the only basis by which many believers in other parts of the world judge American Christianity.
James Engel, a pioneer in audience research designed to assist world evangelization, said he is concerned about that message’s “biblical fidelity, especially where a ‘health-and-wealth’ gospel is preached.” He called the health-and-wealth gospel “one of the great heresies of our time. It’s spreading like wildfire around the world, [and] it’s of great concern to missiologists.”
It would be a mistake to allow criticisms of religious broadcasting to overshadow its strategic role as an important source of education, inspiration, and comfort. Still, questions remain over whether the industry’s growth has exceeded its level of maturity.
Toward Ethical Fund Raising
A few years ago, Calvin College communications professor Quentin Schultze sent letters to 100 major radio and television ministries in the United States and Canada, requesting financial and doctrinal statements.
As a result, his name was placed on a number of mailing lists. Schultze reports receiving “a foam-rubber hospital slipper, numerous pennies, facial soap, and twigs from the Holy Land,” among other items. But he got only nine financial statements, and fewer statements of doctrine.
Organizations that do not respond to requests for financial statements violate one of the “Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship,” as set forth by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). This does not mean the ministry is not reputable. But requiring a response to those who ask for financial statements is one way to objectify the process of evaluating fund-raising practices.
Mark Lau Branson, a former fund-raising adviser who now works with an urban ministry, urges Christian organizations to ask themselves: “Am I fearful of donors receiving more complete information than I have provided in fund-raising materials?” Those with nothing to hide, he said, have no such fears.
“Unfortunately, some donors think it’s none of their business to ask questions,” laments ECFA Executive Director Arthur Borden. “We’re trying to make donors aware of their responsibility to know how their money is being used.”
As a general rule, says Schultze, ministries built on man-centered theologies, emphasizing “what man can receive from God, take the greatest ethical liberty.” In contrast, he adds, ministries stressing God-centered theologies make appeals to potential contributors based on information rather than empty emotion.
By Randy Frame.
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