by Richard J. Senzig
An encouraging development in missions today is the increasing use of small media to communicate the gospel.
An encouraging development in missions today is the increasing use of small media1 to communicate the gospel. More and more missionaries are discovering successful applications of audio cassettes, slides, super 8 film and drama (among others) in their ministries. Why is it that these smaller, less complex media forms are often more effective in the third world than the mass media? To discover the answer, we need to understand some important characteristics of the mass media.
CHARACTERISTICS OF MASS MEDIA
First, mass media cover large areas. A low powered missionary radio station will blanket an area of several hundred square miles, while the signals from a super power transmitter may reach half way around the world. and cover a continent. But in the process, either signal can be heard by many different socio-political groups.
For example, a program beamed to East Africa in Swahili may be received and the language understood in several different countries containing numerous individual culture groups. But it is most difficult to communicate effectively in one program to such a diverse audience, even if the people do share a common language. Therefore, the attribute most often cited in favor of the mass media, namely, the large number of people that can be reached over a wide area, becomes the source of the broadcasters’ most awesome responsibility.
Second, the mass media operate at a significant distance from their audiences. This compounds the problem of large area coverage. To minister effectively from a long distance to many different cultural groups living in any one area is an exceedingly difficult task.
Third, mass media generally get less feedback from their audiences than do other, more personal forms of communications. While it is true that letters are written in response to mass media, at best they represent a relatively small portion of the entire audience. The more rural, remote, and economically deprived the mass media audiences, the less likely they will respond – Therefore, mass media planners must structure ways to seek feedback. But because of the large areas covered, and the distance between source and audiences, such a process is expensive and time-consuming.
This is not meant to minimize the contribution mass media can, and do make on the mission field. It does, however, point to significant obstacles that are inherent in any such work. In fact, the larger the scope of a media ministry, the more difficult it is to do well, because of the factors mentioned above. Third world media expert Wilbur Schramm has written that media ". . . risk being ineffective – indeed, being counterproductive – if they are used without adequate knowledge of the local culture where they are going to be received."2
ADVANTAGES OF SMALL MEDIA
It is for precisely this reason of localness that the small media are so ideally suited for use in many third world settings. The ability to obtain and program the small media, acquire feedback, and even involve the audience in production at the local level is perhaps the strongest reason for mission strategists, to give more careful attention to these impressive tools.
One great advantage of the small media is that the resident missionary or national worker can exercise local control over the medium. If the churches in a given district need instruction on a particular point of doctrine, the local leaders may prepare several cassettes addressing that issue. Response to the need can be swift because it is local. To meet the same need through radio or printed media could take weeks because of production and program schedules, not to mention the time lost in transporting materials to the media centers.
Another advantage of the small media is that audience members can be actively involved in production. It is an. axiom of cross-cultural communication that the most effective communicator is one from within the culture to which the message is aimed. When local peoples are given the training (which need not be extensive), experience, and tools, the small media can become their own, not an outsider’s voice.
Whether simply recording a church service for later playback, or using nationals to plan and portray scenes from scripture for a slide presentation, they become actively engaged in sharing their own expressions of the Christian life in a cultural context that is appropriate to their own people.
Another factor that makes the small media ideally suited to missionary applications is their flexible forms of presentation. They can be repeated as often as necessary to achieve understanding and are not limited to particular hours or days when they can be used. Illiterate people can understand the messages the small media present, and as previously mentioned, can even contribute to the process of creating those messages.
Small media are less complex than mass media, and frequently missionaries are able to produce useful communication tools in the most remote locations. National staff can be trained to produce programs and operate the small media far more easily than for the mass media.
The small media are rapidly becoming more available throughout the world. The resources with which to produce basic graphic and photographic communication are widely accessible in the third world. The increasing number of audio cassette players around the world make this a strategic medium, especially in communicating in the oral tradition with illiterate people.
Finally, the cost to build and maintain a mass media system is quite high, while small media are relatively inexpensive. Mission agencies need to give equal attention to investing in small media as to any other communication delivery systems, especially considering their appropriateness to third world applications.
HOW TO USE SMALL MEDIA
The use of small media on the mission field often begins by using them to distribute existing programs. A typical example would be to make radio programs available on audio cassettes, or to use audio-visual Sunday school materials (filmstrips, flannelgraph, etc.) from the U. S. Often these are well received, although program materials produced with a distinct western viewpoint can be difficult for nationals to comprehend, especially in the visual dimension.3
Another application for small media is what we might call he novelty factor. Here the media are used in villages where such media are not known, for the purpose of attracting attention or ascribing a sense of power to the one using them. An example is to tape-record a village discussion and then play it back to the participants, or to film them and later show them the motion pictures of themselves.
On first exposure to such things, the audience is likrly to run away in fear of the magical power that has captured their spirits Reports from several missionaries, however, indicate that villagers usually adjust to new media quite readily, although visual media tend to cause more difficulty for them.
The application of any communication medium for the sake of attracting attention must be handled carefully. In fact, an overreliance on such an approach might well result in a missionary’s ministry being hindered, if he first has to overcome the reputation of being a great magician or some kind of deity! The truly effective missionary – communicator is one who builds personal trust relationships with those he serves rather than relying on gimmicks.
NEW USES DEVELOPED
While the use of small media on the mission field has grown up around these basic applications, exciting new uses are being developed by a number of missionary personnel. Those with the greatest potential are based on the concept Of locally produced material made for specific local applications, usually featuring voices or faces of the people themselves.
Missionary cassette pioneer Vigo Sogaard came to this conclusion and writes of his experience, "The cassette is not radio or a church service, although at first we recorded church services and radio programs on cassette. However, we soon discovered that was poor use of a potentially effective media. Today all our material is made specifically for cassette, and we are willing to spend up to ten times longer on production than we did in the begining."4
What are some of these "made for the medium" applications?
1. Music. There are numerous reports from missionaries of successful uses of audio cassettes recorded with indigenous Christian music. In some cases the music in entire hymn books has been recorded and distributed. The use of national church choirs or singing groups has proven effective, and one missionary reports, "The music (cassettes) has had a marked effect on the singing of the churches."5
2. Drama. This appears to be an extremely effective means of communicating in the third world. Dramatic readings from scripture, dramatized Bible stories, or even dramatic vignettes from the lives of local Christian people fit in well with the storytelling traditions of many non-western cultures. The small media (both audio and visual) lend themselves well to local production of such material.
3. Dialogue. One of the advantages of small media is their usefulness in small groups to stimulate discussion. Programs that state or dramatize a problem, but which remain open ended, can provoke dialogue that enables the participants to work through the problem together. Coupled with a trained leader, such programs can be used for evangelism as well.
4. Scripture. The recording of scripture portions has proven to be very valuable in working with illiterate people.6 Dramatizing scripture in traditional story-telling modes or even setting portions to music are other possibilities.
5. Education. The small media are particularly well suited to various educational efforts. Training national church leaders and providing materials for them to use in their ministries can be done in part by small media. More work needs to be done to develop small media-based TEE programs.
6. Links to Big Media. Several experimenters have used organized groups of local people to produce radio programs using simple cassette recorders. The people are free to choose whatever material they like within some broadly drawn guidelines. Quite on their own and with a minimum of training, the groups in one such AID-funded development project produced programs including mini-dramas, reports on significant events in their community, recorded group meetings, musical presentations, seasonal "specials," interviews, and greetings to fellow participants in other villages.7 The potential for adapting this idea by using local churches as the production group seems promising indeed.
HOW TO REALIZE THE POTENTIAL
This is hardly an exhaustive list, but it should serve to give an idea of some of the potential the small media have for mission field applications. What can we do to fully realize the potential?
First, more training is needed to equip missionaries with the basic skills necessary to use the small media. Very few Christian colleges or seminaries have adequate facilities, class offerings or trained faculty in the audio-visual areas, especially as they apply to the third world. Educational planners need to give more thought to this need.
Second, mission agencies need to recognize the potential of small media and encourage those on their staffs who are now using them to experiment and develop new applications. More funds should be invested in research and development. Mission planners should be aware of the key role small media can play in communicating the gospel at the local level.
Third, missionaries currently using the small media should share their ideas and experiences through articles in journals and mission agency publications. Perhaps the growing interest in small media will lead to the formation of an information clearing house, or even an association of those interested in the field. The small media are not the perfect media for all communication tasks on the mission field. But when used correctly, they can have a positive impact far beyond their physical size or technical complexity. Let’s take the small media out of the "toy" category and give them their rightful place as powerful tools for the communication of the gospel.
1.The term small media as used here refers to less complex and less cosily media forms that are not intended for mass audiences and that are easily controlled by the user. They include such things as audio cassettes, slides, overhead transparencies and silent film. They are more participative in nature than big media, which include all mass media including Sound motion pictures, and are characterized by their technical complexity, high cost, and lack of control by the user. For a further discussion on of the differences between these two terms, as well as a penetrating analysis of their value as tools for instruction, see W, Schramm, Big Media, Little Media (Beverly Hills: Sage Publication, 1977).
2. Wilbur Schramm, Mass Media, and National Development, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1964), p. 122.
3. Many practical considerations of visual literacy are found in Andreas Fuglesang, Applied Communications in Developing Countries: Ideas and Observations (Upsala, Sweden: The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation, 1973).
4. Viggo Sogaard, "On Track with Cassettes.” Interlit,. June 1977, p. 6. For a complete manual for cassette work see Sogaard’s Everything You Need to Know for a Cassette Ministry (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, Ind.. 1975).
5. Vicki Tweddell, "Cassettes for the People of the Longhouse and Jungle." East Asia Millions, June/ July 1977, p. 60.
6. Ibid., p. 59.
7. James Hoxeng, "Programming by the People. An Ecuadorian Radio Experiment." Educational Broadcasting International, March 1977, p. 30.
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