The Electronic Church

Is religious broadcasting creating an electronic church that substitutes an anonymous and undemanding commitment for the personal involvement of the local congregation?

William F. Fore, Ph.D., is the communications secretary for the National Council of Churches in Christ.
Most of us here are engaged in trying to reach mass audiences with the gospel, primarily through radio or television. Al though we know that a cardinal rule of good communication is to identify our audience, in reality we give far less attention to the audience—what they think, what they believe, how they act—than we give to our messages and the delivery systems we use to "reach" that audience.

Is anybody listening? If so, who are they? What are they doing? What are they thinking? What do they believe? Can we expect to communicate the gospel of Jesus Christ to them?

Let's look at what average Americans today are doing and thinking. Here's how the typical person over 18 spends his time during the 168 hours available each week. He spends 53 hours sleeping, 26 hours working, and 8 hours eating. Of 57 hours spent in leisure activities each week, 26.4 hours find Mr. and Mrs. Average American in front of the TV. Radio receives 21.3 hours; newspapers, 4.2 hours; magazines, 3.3 hours; with records and tapes coming in for 1.3 hours. Attending movies, sports, or cultural events occupies only 17 minutes of our Average American's week, while reading books trails the list with 12 minutes. All other activities fit into the remaining 24 hours.

Notice the amazing statistic that the average person in America spends more time watching TV and listening to the radio (combined) than he spends at any other activity in his life except sleeping—an average of 47.7 hours a week. That's two full days and nights every week!

And what is the average American thinking, especially about religion? A study just completed in May of 1978 by the Gallup organization on behalf of some 30 religious organizations, including the United Methodist Church, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Catholic Bishops, dealt with the religious attitudes and beliefs of both churched and unchurched Americans.

The study defined the "unchurched" as a person over 18 who has not attended a church or synagogue other than on holidays during the past six months, or who is not a member of the church. Forty-one percent of the population fell into this category. A "churched" person has attended a place of worship at least once other than on a holiday during the past six months, or is a member of a church. Fifty-nine percent of the population were so classified.

Surprisingly, the survey found that basic religious beliefs and practices have undergone remarkably little change during the past 25 years. For example, today, as similar surveys discovered in 1965 and in 1952, about 8 in 10 Americans believe that Jesus Christ is God or the Son of God. Thirteen percent believe Jesus was "another leader like Mo hammed," almost exactly matching the proportions recorded in the earlier surveys. The proportion who say they pray to God is about 9 in 10—the same pro portion as 25 years ago. And the 7 out of 10 who say they believe in life after death is essentially unchanged from 1952.

However, although there appears to be little change in basic beliefs, the importance of organized religion has dropped drastically over the past quarter of a century, according to the poll. In 1952, 75 percent of the sample said that religion was "very important" in their lives. This figure dropped to 70 percent in 1965, and to 53 percent in the current sample.

This sharp decline in the number of those who say religion is "very important" in their lives has been paralleled by a marked decrease in the percentage of Americans who say they received religious training as a child—from 94 percent in 1952 to 83 percent today.

Now what about the 41 percent (or 61 million Americans) classified as "unchurched"? Here are more surprises. Sixty-four percent of the unchurched in America today believe that Jesus was or is God or the Son of God. Asked if they "ever pray to God," 76 percent of the unchurched replied in the affirmative. And 74 percent of the unchurched said they would want their child to receive religious instruction.

Let's put all this together. Most Americans today spend more than 40 percent of their waking time watching TV and listening to radio—more than any other single activity—and remember that the phenomenon of television really began to have impact only about 25 years ago. During these same 25 years the average American's basic religious beliefs and practices have changed very little. But during that period the importance of organized religion to Americans has dropped drastically.

During that 25 years we also have seen the phenomenal growth of what I call the "electronic church." This is something new. By the term "electronic church" I don't mean all broadcasting done in the name of religion. I mean specifically those programs that present a preacher and a religious service and that are aimed at creating a strong, loyal group of fol lowers to that preacher and service. Most of the various electronic churches have similar characteristics—they feature a highly charismatic person; they tend to emphasize happy sounds, pleas ant faces, and images of success; the messages usually describe how bad the problems in the world are and focus on imminent doom, only to suggest that the solution to the problem lies in an individual's change of heart rather than by attempting to change the situation just described, and they usually involve highly sophisticated appeals for financial support.

There are other kinds of religious broadcasting, of course. For years Bible study programs, often supplemented by correspondence courses and involving personalized, effective feedback mechanisms, have existed. And there have been expressions of the religious concerns of all three major faiths on such programs as CBS's Look Up and Live; ABC's Directions; the one-hour specials on NEC that have included discussions of religious issues and questions; documentaries that provide effective models of the church at work; and music, dance, and drama that celebrate the good news.

Twenty-five years ago, only a handful of so-called evangelical broadcasters were on the scene—Charles E. Fuller, Oral Roberts, Billy Graham, Billy James Hargis, Carl Mclntyre, and a few others. Even 10 years ago the National Religious Broadcasters Association could count a mere 104 members.

Then, as we all remember, came the tremendous boom in religious broad casting. Stations learned they could sell time for religion and still get the same approval of the FCC as for sustaining time. Many sincere, highly motivated evangelists learned that through radio they could reach millions of people, just as many entrepreneurs and opportunists learned that they could make lots of money.

At last count there were some 1,064 religious radio stations and 25 religious television stations, and the number continues to grow at about one per week. The Christian Broadcasting Network, already on satellite, is developing a feed to its network of some 800 affiliates that carry its programs. The PTL organization has similar satellite plans. In addition, CBN has begun erecting a new international headquarters in Virginia Beach, Virginia, that will include 4 TV studios, a hotel, and graduate schools for the study of law and business, at a cost of some $50 million. PTL is building a similar multipurpose $10 million facility near Charlotte, North Carolina, with classrooms, auditorium, amphitheater, and extensive recreational and camping facilities.

What worries me about all this activity is not the financial success nor the big-business aspects of this evangelism—although I suspect it should worry them. What worries me is whether this electronic church is in fact pulling people away from the local church. Is it substituting an anonymous (and therefore undemanding) commitment for the kind of person-to-person involvement and group commitment that is the essence of the local church?

Even the most highly respected exemplars of the electronic church have discovered that it is relatively easy to raise funds through radio and TV but that it is almost impossible to channel that support and interest back into a local church. Two studies of the Institute for American Church Growth released in January, 1978, indicate that mass evangelism is simply not an effective method of increasing church membership. In a study of the hundreds of thousands of "decisions" registered by the Campus Crusade, for example, only 3 percent were ever incorporated into a church. Though we can be grateful for even that figure, what about the thousands, perhaps millions, who are growing increasingly satisfied to remain outside the church and to get their religion exclusively through an electronic box?

Martin Marty recently described this competition between the electronic and the local church: "Late Saturday night Mr. and Mrs. Invisible Religion get their jollies from the ruffled-shirted, pink-tuxedoed men and the high-coiffeured, low-necklined celebrity women who talk about themselves under the guise of born-again autobiographies. Sunday morning the watchers get their jollies as Holy Ghost entertainers caress micro phones among spurting fountains as a highly professional charismatic (in two senses) leader entertains them.

' 'Are they to turn off that very set and then make their way down the block to a congregation of real believers, sinners, off-key choirs, sweaty and homely people who need them, people they do not like but are supposed to love, ordinary pastors who preach grace along with calls to discipleship, pleas for steward ship that do not come well-oiled? Never. Well, hardly ever.

"Since the electronic church, you re mind me, at least 'preaches Christ' and thus may do some good, let it be. Let its members pay for it. But let the church catch on to what is going on, and go its own way, undistracted by the offers of 'cheap grace' or the language of the cross without the mutual bearing of the cross."

I don't believe it is fair to place all the blame on the radio and TV evangelists. Part of the problem lies in the very nature of the mass media. If they were two-way, community-building, interpersonal media, giving everybody a chance to talk and interact, they wouldn't be mass media in the first place. One price we pay for an economical delivery system is that it is very authoritarian—one speaking to many. It doesn't allow for individual expression.

But another price the mass media exact has gone largely unnoticed. Radio and TV—especially TV—tend to provide a substitute for reality that eventually can begin to take the place of reality itself. The other day I saw in Broadcasting Magazine an ad by Group Westinghouse Broadcasting Company, the owner of many stations. The head line read: "This year, thousands of kids are enjoying 'Summer Camp' without leaving home." The copy went on: "For too many kids the end of the school year used to mean the end of learning. And the beginning of boredom. But not now, thanks to 'Summer Camp,' Group W's new series of weekday half-hour pro grams that bring the outdoors into the living room. Shot on location at the LaRonda (California) YMCA Camp, 'Summer Camp' shows real kids discovering the wonders of nature. With the help of an experienced counselor, they learn how to paddle a canoe, build a weather station, cook outdoors. . . . The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette calls it 'the next-best thing to actually going off to camp.'

"Obviously, here is a program with the very best of intentions. But to what ex tent does it divert kids from going out into their own back yard, or front side walk, and learning how to deal with life instead of with images of life on a cathode tube?

My point is that exposure to the media tends to separate us from the world of reality, creating for us, in fact, a new reality. According to the New York Times, a commanding officer of a U.S. Army base in Germany recently attributed the high divorce rate of service men stationed there to the absence of English-language television. "When they go home at night," the officer said, "there's nothing to do but to talk to each other, and what they see and hear they don't like." Have the media so conditioned us that we are able to handle only media life, and not real life?

The situation, I predict, is going to get worse. In July, 1978, the Washington Post ran a feature called "Television in the '80's" in which 10 very informed persons speculated about the future of television. Most of them predictably described the new wonders we could expect—84 channels in the home, attendance at any event you desire anywhere in the world at the push of a button, "the greatest collection of entertainment talents ever available to the public," and so on. But Erik Barnouw, the broadcasting historian, had a different perspective. He acknowledged the home screen, the computer printout, the connection by optical fiber, but he had this additional observation: "In other words, people won't have to go to the office every day because they'll be able to have a face-to-face conference through the television system. . . . Instead of going places, you're going to have these 'meetings.' . . . Now I see all these things developing enormous psychological problems be cause these devices are designed by people who love gadgets and who don't like people very much."

I wouldn't say for a moment that the purveyors of the electronic church don't like people very much. But I still say that, unwittingly or by design, they are building huge audiences that bring them fame, wealth, and power, but which in doing so substitute a phantom, a non-people, an electronic church, for the church of real people with real needs and real gospel to share in the midst of their real lives.

It is no accident that the local church, the koinonia or community of believers, is such a central part of our Christian faith and life. This is where we find Christ; this is where we confess our sins and find forgiveness and regeneration; this is where we act out our faith and where we shore up one another when we slide back in the faith.

As I see it, the problem with the electronic church is that instead of testifying to the gospel and showing the manifestations of its power in people's lives, it tries instead to be the gospel. And in attempting to be the gospel in a medium that can deal with people only in the mass, with no opportunity for interpersonal relationships, the electronic church inevitably comes through as a mere expression of cultural religion, aping the values and the glitter and the trappings of the very values and kinds of success that we profess as Christians to reject.

This is not to say that we cannot see the mass media as an evangelistic tool. But if we do, we must be prepared to deal with the media in ways that reflect our faith in Jesus Christ and that correlate that faith with the requirements of the mass media.

Albert van den Heuvel, general secretary of the Netherlands Reformed Church, recently suggested five elements of evangelization, all found in our worship, that can give us clues to the way we must deal with the mass media.

First, we have to be as honest and as self-critical as our confession of sin shows us to be. If in the media we try to look better than we are, or hide our mistakes, or make look good what is inexcusable, we betray the gospel message.

Second, we have to be willing to demonstrate that we live on promises and forgiveness rather than on successes. If in the media we try to look as though we are profitable servants who do good and thereby earn our own salvation, we be tray the gospel message.

Third, we will have to give praise to God and take the blame ourselves. If in the media we try to claim that God is on our side and gives us easy victory, we betray the gospel message.

Fourth, we will have to show that God loves sinners more than the righteous. If in the media we portray ourselves as model citizens who uphold the morals of society, judging all those who are wrong, and if we do not show mercy and under standing for the poor, the minorities, and the powerless, we betray the gospel message.

I think we can relate to the mass media in ways other than simply using it for our messages. We are aware that the media communicate the values of our culture—the values of power and wealth and property, the values of narcissism, of immediate gratification and creature comforts. It is easy to see how completely at variance these values are with those of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet we find ourselves living in a society based on these materialistic values rein forced and established by mass communication media at the rate of some 48 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Thus it seems to me that one of the most important things to be done is to help people understand what the mass media are saying to us, what values they are rein forcing, and what view of God and man they preach. Until we can help people identify the myths and values underlying our society, and evaluate them from a perspective that transcends the materialistic limitations of that society, we are bound to be dominated and even controlled by that materialistic vision.

But where can this analysis take place? Hardly in the home, which seems permanently tuned in to radio and TV already. Not in schools, which have largely abdicated their responsibility for moral and ethical values. The most likely place for such an analysis is where people—adults and children—regularly come together on a face-to-face basis, and for a time try to deal with the real world apart from the mythical world of TV. In other words, the church. The church must be involved in media education as a basic part of its moral training. The local church is almost unique today in providing a place where people can get together to deal constructively with such a problem.

Still another role for the gospel in the media is in the area of news. If the church will merely be the church—that is, if it will feed the hungry (next door as well as in Chad) and visit those in prison (literally) and speak out against the powers and principalities that rig the tax laws and perpetuate injustice, and if it will constantly champion the just causes of the poor and the powerless—then without doubt, news media will give us more exposure than we can ever purchase for programs of our own. No one had to buy time for coverage of Martin Luther King's march in Selma or the "I Have a Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. If the church will be the church, the media will take care of much of the church's message.

And finally, I think that although our evangelization programs cannot hope to succeed by trying to be the gospel through the electronic church, we can and must do much more in our programs to point people toward the gospel and to prepare them to accept the gospel mes sage. We can do this in many creative ways. We can help some of that 61 mil lion "unchurched"—many of whom already have deep religious convictions—to consider at least the possibility that in the local church they may find some of their needs met. We can tell the stories of God at work in the lives of people through drama, through comedy, through documentaries, through entertainment and discussion. We can sensitize people to the real problems and moral ambiguities facing us today. We can develop programs that encourage discussion at home, in the car pool, at the office, or in church the so-called two-step process of communication.

But in all of this, we will have to resist being taken over, and taken in, by the power of the media and its cultural biases. We will have to resist the temptation to try to be the gospel in the mass media, to be an electronic church, which pulls people away from the real local church, that place where the people of God find the strength, the guidance, and the courage to persevere in the faith that God is in Jesus Christ. No amount of "success," whether measured in mil lions of dollars or even in millions of persons reached, is worth that.

Text of a paper presented at the Seventh-day Adventist Broadcasters Council, August 21, 1978, at Oxnard, California.
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William F. Fore, Ph.D., is the communications secretary for the National Council of Churches in Christ.

January 1979

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