Evangelicals and the Media

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Bible frontpieceThe media connections of many prominent evangelicals associated with the rise of the Religious Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s (Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, Robison) along with the lurid headlines connected with the televangelist scandals (Popov, Roberts, Tilton, Swaggart, the Bakkers) of the late 1980s has created a pervasive connection in the popular mind linking evangelicals with the electronic media. The world of big-time televangelism is hardly reflective of the style, theology, or ethos of all evangelicalism.

It does, however, reflect the importance of the movement’s revivalistic heritage as well as the very real fact that evangelicals have traditionally placed a major emphasis on the utilization of print, broadcast—and, now, satellites, computer-technology, and social-networking—to reach others with the Gospel. Beginning in the late 18th-century evangelicals successfully harnessed the printing press to flood America with inexpensive tracts, pamphlets, newspapers, magazines, books and bibles. The arrival of electronic-based media in the late 19th and early 20th centuries proved more problematic, however, as phonographs, motion pictures, and radio cut perilously close to the heart of traditional evangelical reservations about worldly entertainments. As time passed, most evangelicals were eventually satisfied that these devices could be used to teach their own and evangelize non-believers; a plethora of evangelical films, records, and radio programs ensued.

But, the public dimension of radio brought with it a set of unique problems. Because of the dynamics of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, protestant liberals’ control of denominational hierarchies and the Federal Council of Churches made them the primary recipient of free “public service” time from major urban stations and the national radio networks. Largely excluded from free airtime, fundamentalist broadcasters like Chicago’s Paul Rader and Los Angeles’s Charles E. Fuller were forced to develop alternative strategies that relied on their listeners to provide the funds that would enable them to purchase airtime and create independent “networks” for distribution of their programs. This strategy proved extremely successful and was applied directly to the television media.

Chicago Gospel TabernacleWith the gradual reduction of radio and television stations’ “public service” airtime that began in the late 1950s, evangelicals increasingly dominated the nation’s religious programming. By the 1970s most liberal protestants—unable or unwilling to compete with evangelicals in a “free market” media environment—had abandoned radio and television to conservative Protestant broadcasters (many represented by the evangelical National Religious Broadcasters). This set the stage for the success, publicity, controversy, and scandal that surrounded the “Electronic Church” from the mid-1970s on.

By the beginning of the 21st-century the importance of evangelical broadcast media had begun to diminish, largely due to technological changes and evolving economic realities. However, as technology and infrastructures change there has been no shortage of enthusiasm for attempts to broaden the evangelical presence in video and film production, on the internet, and in social media. It is safe to say that evangelicals will continue to embrace any new forms of communication and media that they feel might help them fulfill the Great Commission.

Evangelicals and the End Times >

©Larry Eskridge, 1996. Revised 2001, 2005, 2011, 2012

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