In the ever-evolving tapestry of human communication, technology has consistently played a profound role in shaping the dissemination of ideas and messages. From the humble quill and parchment to the revolutionary printing press, we’ve witnessed the transformative power of innovation in connecting people with the Christian faith. Continuing our journey through the corridors of time, we now explore the captivating chapters of radio and television and their pivotal influence on the distribution of sermons and the Christian message. As these mediums illuminated the airwaves and screens, they carried the teachings and words of faith to the world’s furthest corners, uniting hearts, transcending borders, and nurturing the essence of the Christian faith in unprecedented ways.
Interested in contacting ships, Guglielmo Marconi on 13 May 1897 sent out the first radio signal in the form of Morse code across open water but it wasn’t until December 23rd, 1900, that Canadian inventor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden sent his voice over a 3+ mile distance. Textbooks report that On Christmas Eve, 1906, Fessenden became the first person to make a public radio broadcast. This might not be accurate but it’s reported that ships at sea picked up Fessenden’s signal (on 5 kHz AM) as he played O Holy Night on the violin and read a passage from Luke Chapter 2. Although he never intended it to be public, this might have been the first time any form of Christian message was transmitted over radio.
The first station to receive a radio license from the U.S. Department of Commerce, KDKA Pittsburgh, broadcasted the Sunday evening vespers service of the Calvary Episcopal choir on a cold December morning in 1920. This was the first time a church service was broadcast over the radio. Fast-forward to the early 2000s a report by Barna Research Group reported that more adults—141 million—experience the Christian faith in a given month in the United States through Christian radio, television, or books than attend Christian churches (132 million). Breaking this finding down, the report discovered that 52 percent of American adults had tuned into a Christian radio program in the previous month, that 38 percent of these listeners tuned in to a teaching, preaching, or talk show program; and that 43 percent of this population had listened to a Christian music station. These all started from the early pioneers of the radio movement such as Paul Rader, Charles Fuller, Donald Grey Barnhouse and other pastors and evangelists.
In the summer of 1922, Paul Rader brought a brass quartet to the roof of city hall and preached a sermon in a makeshift studio on local station WHT. The success of this cameo appearance encouraged Rader to reach an agreement with radio station WBBM to broadcast fourteen hours of religious programming every Sunday. This marked the beginning of religious broadcasting on a notable scale, a phenomenon that leapt across America. An integral part of Sunday traditions soon became gathering around the radio to hear sermons from pastors like Rader.
Within a decade of Rader’s pioneering display, religious radio broadcasting sparked a newfound enthusiasm for spreading Christian teachings beyond church walls. It wasn’t just preachers and pastors using this technology; choirs and gospel groups found a new stage for showcasing both their faith and talents.
In 1935, Roman Catholic priest Charles Coughlin’s controversial broadcasts marked a significant shift in religious programs. His program reached an estimated 30 million listeners at its peak, engaging audiences with his chats on religion and politics. While this mixture of politics and faith marked a change in the tone of such broadcasts, it increased the visibility and reach of religious discourse in day-to-day conversation.
C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity radio broadcasts that began during WWII profoundly shaped Christian thinking in the mid-20th century – his presentation of Christian ideas in everyday language revolutionized the way theology was conveyed on the airwaves. By the time of television’s era, his series could arguably be called a precursor to the Christian television shows many of which mirrored Lewis’s practice of connecting Christian teachings to listeners’ everyday experiences.
As civilization entered the atomic age, television arose as the new influential medium in human communication. Declared as the most potent force for the propagation of Christian teachings in the late 20th century, television fundamentally transformed religious broadcasting. Just a few years had passed since the Final TV Transmission Standards were adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 1941, when Oral Roberts pioneered the first Christian Television program in 1954. Oral Robert’s revolutionary live ‘Healing Crusade’ attracted millions of viewers who embraced the shifting paradigm of experiencing faith.
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, breakthrough figures like Reverend Billy Graham utilized the sweeping power of television to propagate the Christian message. His ‘Crusades’ were televised global events unifying millions, erasing borders, and making faith an accessible concept.
The advent of televangelism—led by luminaries such as Oral Roberts, Rex Humbard, Jerry Falwell, and later, Jim Bakker—heralded a new chapter in Christian ministry. Broadcasting church services, Bible studies, and religious talk shows, these televangelists reached millions of American homes, significantly enhancing the reach and scope of Christian teachings. From the thick swirling clouds in Oral Robert’s monumental Miracle Crusades to Billy Graham’s teachings climaxed by the passionate call for public commitments of faith, TV church became an intriguing viewer’s experience. Despite its criticisms — ranging from sensationalism to objections arguing that worship should be a corporate communion — it stood unwavering, impacting millions of believers and curious onlookers alike.
Cable television then emerged as a powerful tool in the 70s and 80s, making Christian programming accessible to even more audiences. Pat Robertson’s The 700 Club introduced a discussion capsule, gathering Christian leaders for issues centred on biblical perspectives. Various Christian networks such as Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), and Eternal World Television Network (EWTN) rose to prominence. Bolstered by satellite distribution and later, digital streaming, these channels filled each hour of day and night with Christian programming that catered to believers and seekers globally.
In closing, the advent and evolution of radio and television unarguably reshaped, revolutionized, and enhanced the transmission of Christian sermons and the distillation of religious messages, bestowing unprecedented reach and accessibility. Embraced by visionaries who recognised the transformative potential of these platforms, millions could simultaneously connect with the tenets of their faith, irrevocably dissolving the limitations set by geographic and temporal restrictions. Religious broadcasts dramatically reshaped Sunday traditions, buttressed faith journeys, and introduced the gospel’s melodies into homes everywhere.
As we push forward into the age of podcasts, live-streaming and digital evangelism, the bloodline of passion and principle seen across technology’s past creates an electrifying anticipation for what awaits us in future chapters of this story of faith, fellowship and broadcast. Uniting forces of tradition and technology has been, and remains key to propagating the Good News. Transported on these invisible wings of radio waves and pixels of light is a timeless message made even more pervasive, increasing rapidly the quest to walk faith into corners hitherto unexplored.