In past years a great deal has been written about the so-called “electric” church. By this is meant those religious broadcasts that come on radio and television each week. Their number, it seems, is boundless. One can find, especially on Sunday, a constant barrage of religious programming: from local church services to brief messages designed for special instruction of the listener. There are, in addition, a surprising number of Christian radio stations and television stations which broadcast daily the gospel message in word and song—at least these profess to do so. Many of these broadcasts are supported by the listening audience, although also local churches and even commercial concerns support others.
The first religious broadcast on the new medium of radio was made on January 2, 1921 from the Calvary Episcopal Church of Pittsburgh, Penn. Today, there are an estimated 130 million people who listen on a Sunday morning to one or more religious broadcasts. It is claimed that 47% of the population of the United States listen to at least one religious program a week. Over 500 million dollars are spent annually on religious broadcasting. (The above figures were culled from the book: The Electric Church, Ben Armstrong, author.)
The success stories of some of the television religious broadcasts are widely known. There is Robert Schuller with his Hour of Power television broadcast from the “crystal cathedral” in Garden Grove, California. This is a church of the Reformed Church of America. The membership of this congregation grew from zero in 1955 to more than 8,000 in 1979. Those who have heard Schuller, with his “possibility thinking,” can understand how such a broadcast has wide appeal. It does not, however, present the full message of the gospel. It is rather a program designed to make the listener feel good.
Another famous program is the Old Time Gospel Hour, with its messages by Jerry Falwell, the leader of the Moral Majority movement. The broadcast comes from the Thomas Road Baptist Church at Lynchburg, Virginia. It claims more than six million viewers in the U.S. The broadcast began in 1956 by the church which then had but thirty-five adult members. In 1978 its membership was 15,000.
There are, too, various denominational broadcasts, coming for the most part over radio. There is the Lutheran Hour, the Back to God Hour, the Words of Hope (Reformed Church), and many others. We have our own small contribution: The Reformed Witness Hour, which has been aired now for over 39 years. Some of our church services are also aired: and on a regular basis by our South Holland, Illinois and Lynden, Washington congregations.
It is this “electric” or “media” church which has aroused considerable controversy both within and outside of the churches. There is an attempt by the non-Christian to still these broadcasts or place greater restrictions on them. But also much disagreement arises within the churches concerning the value of such programming.
That many of these broadcasts are appealing is evident from the fact that they attract a wide listening audience and millions of dollars of listener support. In fact, most of these programs could not possibly continue without the millions contributed by the listeners. Even most of the religious stations, whether radio or television, are maintained through listener contributions. There is something which attracts people to this sort of thing.
The complaint is heard that the “electric” church takes away from regular church attendance. Perhaps. However, in the book mentioned above, the author claims that in the United States, with its many religious broadcasts, four out of ten people attend church at least once a month. In Britain, where religious broadcasts are severely restricted, only one out of 14 attend church once a month. His conclusion is that the many religious broadcasts in our land in fact promote regular church attendance.
Several points ought to be made about religious broadcasting. Without evaluating each individual broadcast, it can be pointed out that religious broadcasts provide the means to reach areas and countries which otherwise never heard the gospel. The transistor radio brings to the very poorest of the poor the means to hear the Word. In places where no missionary has ever set foot, there Scripture can still be presented. In countries where the preaching of the Word is forbidden, still many can hear by way of radio.
Even within our own land, many who do not or can not come to church have heard the Word. Some who had never set foot in church, have turned on their radios and have heard truths of Scripture. Many shut-ins also make use of such broadcasts when they are unable to attend church personally.
Also for our churches the “electric” church has proved to be a means of reaching out to present the truths of God’s Word as these are proclaimed in our own churches. Though sometimes the response is disappointing, there is evidence that many do hear and listen. More work could likely be done also in this field by our own churches in order that the gospel might be presented clearly and emphatically in a world where compromise and apostasy seem to be the order of the day.
But what of the objections, sometimes strenuously presented, to the “electric” church? One objection is the question of money. The “electric” church drains off a vast sum of money—estimated to be well over 500 million dollars annually. Questions are raised: if local churches had access to such amounts of money, what additional work could they not do in their own areas and in the field of mission work? In fact, do not the local churches actually suffer because funds otherwise contributed to them, now go to the persuasive television preacher? There are many churches which have a great struggle to survive—while many TV preachers seem to wallow in affluence. They are able to build crystal cathedrals and vast educational complexes.
For the faithful child of God, there ought to be no problem, The Problem would likely be with one who is unstable, one who fails to understand his responsibilities given in Scripture. Such an one could be easily swayed to support the unnecessary and questionable by an eloquent preacher on radio or TV. The faithful-Christian understands the place of the church of Christ on the earth. He knows his responsibility to support this cause of God’s kingdom too. Therefore, within our own churches I have seen no evidence that any local church suffers be cause of the “electric” church. The child of God must wisely use of his possessions that God’s Name may ever be glorified.
A second complaint is that the “electric” church provides a substitute to regular church attendance. There are those who easily stay home from church—and listen to “church” on television or radio. And no doubt this is often the case. The “electric” church has become the excuse for violating the fourth commandment in more ways than one. It becomes a “vacation” church—when one wants to vacation in a place where he can not serve God in church, then he can convince himself that a radio sermon serves the same purpose. Some would travel on Sunday—while listening on their car radio to the “electric” church. This way, one can get the best of two worlds: vacation travel and church at the same time.
Where the “electric” church is thus abused, this abuse must be condemned. It must be pointed out again that the faithful Christian understands the place of church: its fellowship, the preaching of the Word in the congregation of God’s people, the opportunity to give for the poor and the kingdom there. Whatever purpose the “electric” church serves, the Christian knows that it can never be a substitute for the gathering of God’s people each Sunday.
There are, however, two other serious concerns with respect to the “electric” church. The first is the easy and pervasive way the lie can be spread. The “electric” church has all kinds of preachers: from Pentecostals to Arminian. These men who speak are effective, fluent preachers. Those that come not with the truth of God’s Word, yet come in His Name (or claim that they do), deceive many unstable souls. Many become followers of men-but not followers of Jesus Christ. It is this which remains a constant threat to Christians not well versed in the Word of God.
But there is a second matter related to the above. The media can easily be used by the antichrist and his followers to set up a religious organization second to none. One is impressed by what a few men have accomplished in but few years in their television ministry. Think of a Schuller or a Falwell. What an “empire” these men have built in just a short time! Can you then imagine one man, combining the persuasiveness of all these presently on TV, able to attract millions by his “message,” able to raise vast sums of money—appearing regularly on TV? What such a man could do in the way of uniting churches, helping the needy, establishing “Christianity” as a popular religion! A popular religion making use of the modern developments in communication would be considered the ideal which men had long sought. There is not only regular TV, but also now cable TV and satellite communications. With all of these, the ends of the earth could be reached. Many would sit at the feet of one leader, eagerly listening to all he had to say. And I strongly suspect that this will happen too.
This is not to frighten the child of God. All of these things must be, until Christ comes again on the clouds of glory. In fact, it seems to me that the “electric” church and the media used, is itself a reminder to us how near to the end we actually are. Though others have said this in the past ages too, never have so many means been available to be used by one world power and one church to accomplish that prophecy of Scripture that antichrist would come. Be ready and watch: the end draweth nigh!