by Paul H. Virts
In a recent worldwide survey of Christian communication media people, the major question respondents asked was about the effectiveness of various methods of communicating the gospel.
In a recent worldwide survey of Christian communication media people, the major question respondents asked was about the effectiveness of various methods of communicating the gospel. Second, they wanted to know which media are the most effective for specific purposes and for specific audiences. We’ll discuss answers to these questions in this article.
Much research has been done in the past 50 years to assess which forms of communication are the most effective in changing people’s attitudes and behavior. In communications theory, this study is called the diffusion of innovations. Summarizing a great deal of research, Everett Rogers says that the mass media (radio, television, magazines) are most effective at making people aware of and providing information about new ideas or products. On the other hand, Rogers also demonstrates that interpersonal forms of communication (those that permit face-to-face communication) are most effective in actually getting people to change their minds and behavior. People are influenced to change by the people they know and trust, especially if they can see the advantages of adopting the new idea. Both the mass media and interpersonal communication are important in helping people to continue to hold to a new idea or use a product.
The implications of communications theory research for evangelism are important. We can expect the mass media to be most useful in making people aware of the gospel and in providing basic information about Christianity. But it is unclear which of the media are most effective in creating awareness. On the other hand, we can expect people to make decisions to accept Christ because of the direct influence of other people, but a question remains about whether the mass media have any influence at this stage. It is unclear how media are involved in stimulating Christian growth after conversion.
Research was conducted among Christian communicators to determine the extent to which findings from diffusion of innovations research hold true for evangelism and follow-up. Questionnaires were distributed to nearly 2,400 people on the mailing list for the International Christian Media Commission, an organization devoted to improving the skills of Christian communicators around the world. Questionnaires were returned by 278 people from 53 countries. People who are citizens of European and North American countries constituted the largest proportion of the sample (50 percent), but a significant number of respondents were from Africa (25 percent), Asia (15 percent), and Latin America (3 percent). Most of those who completed the survey were men (91 percent), or were under the age of 50 (63 percent), or had a college education (72 percent).
The major question asked of these Christian communicators was which media they thought were most effective for various stages in evangelism. Evangelism was divided into the following steps: (1) raising curiosity about Christ; (2) leading someone through the plan of salvation; (3) giving someone the opportunity to pray to receive Christ, and (4) helping a person to mature in his or her relationship with Christ. The types of media or forms of communication included electronic and print media as well as interpersonal and group communication, plus traditional or indigenous media (dancing, painting, story-telling, poetry reading) and miscellaneous forms of communication.
Number and type of media. Two generalizations emerge about respondents’ use of media for evangelism. First, they use a number of media to communicate the gospel. On the average, they listed nearly five media they use in one form or another. Second, print electronic media are the two categories of media most frequently.
Nearly one-half of all those in the sample use books (49 percent), tracts (48 percent), one-on-one discussions (48 percent). Four in 10 use small group discussions (43 percent), local radio (40 percent), and magazines (37 percent). The media in the mid-ranges include film (31 percent), international radio (30 percent), television (27 percent), and large group discussions (26 percent). Fewer than one in five (19 percent), use traditional, or indigenous, media.
Raising curiosity. As might be anticipated from research on the diffusion of innovations, people perceive that the mass media are most helpful in raising people’s curiosity (creating awareness) about the gospel (see Table 1). Of all the media mentioned as being most effective at arousing curiosity, nearly six in 10 (59 percent) were electronic media. Radio (24 percent), television (17 percent), and film (12 percent) were the electronic media mentioned most frequently.
The print media were rated a distant second in arousing curiosity (15 percent). Only one in 10 said interpersonal forms of communication were most effective in arousing curiosity, while even fewer (6 percent) rated forms of group communication as effective.
Leading through plan. The selection of media changes rather dramatically for leading people through the plan of salvation (see Table 2). More than one in three (37 percent) media listed were for one of the two interpersonal methods (one-on-one discussions and the telephone) for leading a person through the plan of salvation. But a significant number of choices (16 percent) were for the two group methods. Thus, the interpersonal and group methods of communication account for more than one-half (53 percent) of all responses.
One in four of the media selections (25 percent) were for print media, with books tracts being the most popular choices. One in six choices (17 percent) were for some type of electronic medium. Only a handful of responses fit the traditional/indigenous media category.
Response opportunity. As predicted by the research on diffusion of innovations, interpersonal and group methods of communication are considered more effective when it comes to giving people an opportunity to respond to the gospel. In our study, nearly two in three of all media (64 percent) selected as being effective in this regard fit into one of these categories (see Table 3). Only about one in five (18 percent) selected some electronic medium and even fewer (13 percent) chose some form of print media. Again, traditional/indigenous media were nominated by only a handful of people (1 percent).
Discipleship. Print media take the top spot among media in helping people to mature in their faith (see Table 4). Four in 10 (40 percent) of all media selected as being most effective in discipleship are print media, with books leading the way (29 percent). Group methods, particularly small group discussions, placed a strong second (29 percent). Books and small group discussions account for more than half of all nominations for discipleship (56 percent). Only about one in six (16 percent) responses fit the electronic media category. However, both mass media categories (print and electronic) together account for more than half of all responses (56 percent). In the view of our respondents, interpersonal communication and traditional/indigenous media play a lesser role in discipleship, while print media and methods of group communication play a major role.
A number of key generalizations emerge from this study:
1. Christian communicators normally use a multiplicity of methods in media evangelism, but lean heavily toward electronic and print media. Interpersonal and group discussions are used, but are not as popular as the mass media. When asked for examples of creative ways they have used the media, respondents are significantly more likely to list electronic or print than interpersonal or group media.
2. The appropriateness of various media shifts with the steps or activities involved. Electronic and print media are particularly important for creating awareness or arousing curiosity about the gospel. Interpersonal and group come into play when one leads a person through the plan of salvation and asks for a decision. Print media and group methods are particularly important in helping a person to mature in the faith.
3. Traditional (indigenous) media are virtually ignored in the matching of media with steps in evangelism.
4. All respondents are willing to use the mass media, but older respondents seem to have greater faith in the efficacy of the mass media. Younger people (especially those under 30) are consistently more likely than others to express reliance on interpersonal and group media.
5. Our respondents have numerous questions about the media they are usingâ€”how effective they really are, selecting the right medium for the audience and intended purpose, and so on. Significantly fewer have questions about their audiences and even fewer express concerns about administrative matters (media financing, for example), or ethics and integrity.
Our analysis of the survey data reveals some interesting observations. While Christian communicators say that the electronic and print media are particularly suitable for arousing people’s curiosity about the gospel, they fail to structure their media to attract people to Christ. For example, much of it contains language that only Christians can understand. Very rarely do they use things like drama that non-Christians are accustomed to. Their radio and television programs use sermons and traditional church music.
Most of their books are nonfiction rather than fiction. In short, most of the content is much more likely to help Christians to grow in their faith than it is to arouse curiosity about Christ. There is little evidence that the Christian communicators trying to interest people in Christ seek to understand their non-Christian audience, or adapt to its expectations.
Some communicators are developing programs to attract non-Christians. Some broadcasters, for example, are producing programs to meet social and physical needs, with the secondary purpose of stimulating curiosity about the gospel. Some are using fiction and drama. On the other hand, they face criticism for producing content that I "hides" the gospel.
To use electronic media to arouse curiosity about the gospel, it may be necessary to broadcast on state or commercial, rather than religious stations. That’s where the majority of non-Christians are watching or listening to most of the programming they consume. Christian authors will need to write books that appeal to non-Christians and distribute them in places where non-Christians are most likely to find them, such as secular bookstores. Of course, competing in the marketplace with all the other media means that Christian programs and books will have to be first class.
The use of Christian books for follow-up best matches our evangelical communicators’ expectations of the roles of the media. Most of our popular Christian books are written for Christians. Given the dominant role that books and group communication play in Christian growth, one would expect to find a significant number of Christian books with group study guides.
One other concern raised by this study is the apparent lack of awareness of and use of traditional, or indigenous, forms of communication. Such forms include visual media such as dancing or painting, or oral media such as story-telling or poetry reading. Because of the pervasiveness of electronic and printed media in their own cultures, Westerners have tended to emphasize these media at the expense of more traditional, indigenous forms of communication in non-Western cultures. Much more attention needs to be given to developing messages that employ these indigenous forms of communication.
Though the participants in this survey tend to agree that mass media are best at creating awareness of the gospel, and that interpersonal and group methods work best at persuading people to accept that message, there are still a significant number of people (nearly one in three) who attribute powers of persuasion to mass media messages. This may reflect an overly optimistic view of the power of the mass media. But we must be careful that we do not entirely rule out the persuasive impact of the mass media. In some settings, i.e., restricted access countries, a person may actually move through all the steps in the evangelism process based on exposure to mass media messages, with little or no interpersonal or group influence.
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