A quick scan of the radio dial anywhere in the United States will almost certainly find an evangelical Christian singing, preaching, or talking. Focus on the Family airs on over 2,000 radio outlets, and the preaching of John MacArthur, Charles Swindoll, and the late J. Vernon McGee is broadcast thousands of times each day around the world.

In addition to these nationally known "radio preachers," countless local church pastors broadcast their sermons weekly or head down to the local station to pray or answer questions from callers. But this is certainly not a recent phenomenon. Evangelicals have been active in radio since it first dawned on the American scene.

Getting Started

Paul Rader (1879-1938) was one of the pioneers of Christian radio. Before becoming a famous evangelist, Rader had been a cowboy, a football coach, and a boxer. He pastored the Moody Church of Chicago from 1915 to 1921, and in 1922 started the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle on Chicago's north side. The 5,000-seat "steel tent" was erected to house a summer evangelistic campaign. When the crowds kept coming, the structure was enclosed and the evangelistic ministries of the "Tab" became a fixture of Chicago fundamentalism in the 1920s and early 1930s.

Rader utilized every means at his disposal to draw people to hear the gospel, including jazzy music and cutting-edge advertising. In June 1922 Rader received a call from William Hale Thompson, the mayor of Chicago. Thompson had recently built a radio station on the roof of City Hall. He invited Rader to come down and fill some time on Saturday, June 17.

Rader immediately saw the invitation as another way to get the gospel out. He once said of radio, "It can push out the walls of the biggest church and reach the unsaved man." He gathered the Tabernacle's brass quartet together and headed for City Hall. The quartet blew their horns into a makeshift microphone and Rader preached the first gospel message in Chicago radio history.

Radio's Rise

In 1922, radio was a new technology. Historian Tona J. Hangen explains that only a small number of "engineers and tinkering boys" owned radios in the early 1920s. By 1931, this had changed, as more than half of American homes owned a radio.

As radio in America grew, Rader's radio ministry grew with it. Beginning in 1925, Rader and the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle broadcast 14 hours of programming every Sunday for Mayor Thompson's station, including live broadcasts of the Tabernacle's services.

One of the most popular shows was the late-night, informal Back Home Hour, which featured Rader, normally a fiery preacher, chatting in a down-to-earth, conversational style. Additional shows included Request Hour and programs targeted at young children (Shepherd Hour), teenage boys (Radio Rangers), teenage girls (Aerial Girls), shut-ins (Sunshine Hour), and working women (Young Business Women's Council Hour).

Music was a major part of all Rader's radio programs. Sunday shows featured the Tabernacle's 200-voice choir and large brass band. One of Rader's producers recalls, "At one time there were 19 full-time musicians … carrying out Mr. Rader's prolific ideas of almost endless variety." As Rader and his staff worked, more and more people listened. By the late 1920s, they received up to 3,000 letters every week.

"By All Means"

As Rader grew his radio empire, he faced some opposition from those who viewed radio as the devil's tool. According to them, the airwaves were the domain of "the prince of the power of the air" and should not be tampered with. Rader responded to his critics, "There's nothing in the Bible that tells the world to come to the Church; but, there's everything in the Bible that tells the Church to go to the world! Radio takes the Gospel to the unchurched. That's why I'm using it!'"

Rader was not alone in his use of radio. Though some critics of popular culture were wary of radio, most evangelicals quickly embraced it. By 1925, religious groups operated one out of every ten stations in the U.S.

Evangelistic urgency combined with pragmatic flexibility regarding ministry methods enabled evangelicals like Rader to quickly appropriate new technologies like radio—and later television, movies, and the Internet—in order to spread their message. They were seeking to follow the Apostle Paul's example and "by all means, save some" (1 Cor 9:22).

Going National (and International)

In 1930, Rader signed a contract with the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) to begin a national broadcast of his daily morning show, The Breakfast Brigade. Rader's timing could not have been worse, given the onset of the Great Depression. The show ended soon after it began due to lack of funding. Evangelicals would have to wait a few years for their first successful national radio program.

Charles Fuller, who would go on to found Fuller Seminary, was the man for the job. Fuller was converted in 1916 while listening to Rader preach at the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles. Fuller's Old Fashioned Revival Hour aired its first national broadcast over the Mutual Broadcasting System on October 3, 1937. He built its audience to an estimated 20 million listeners by the mid-1940s. Evangelical radio had gone national.

In 1931, Clarence W. Jones, the producer of Rader's radio programs, left the Chicago Gospel Tabernacle to start the HCJB radio station in Quito, Ecuador. On Christmas Day, Jones broadcast the world's first missionary radio program. In many ways, as Jones once said, missionary radio "originated … in the Gospel broadcasting of Paul Rader." Within 30 years, radio organizations like HCJB, Trans World Radio, and Far East Broadcasting were broadcasting the gospel to every continent, at every hour of the day, in dozens of languages. Evangelical radio had gone international.

Paul Rader's first broadcast from a makeshift Chicago studio seems far away from the massive radio empires of contemporary evangelicalism and the international impact of today's missionary radio stations. But while much has changed, the desire to get the gospel out continues to drive the evangelical use of radio.

Mark Rogers is a Ph.D. student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is writing his dissertation on Paul Rader's role in the rise of 20th-century evangelical missions. Mark is the editor of Glimpses of Christian History.