The Part Mass Media Can Play in Mission Strategy

by Tom Nash

Media can play a valuable role in mission strategy.

Media can play a valuable role in mission strategy. They can do many things well, but some things are best left to interpersonal contact. Below I will discuss the part each plays, and give some principles for effective media use. These ideas come from several years in missionary radio, more recent experience with satellite television, and about thirty years teaching courses in communication theory and research.

You might ask if mass media are still relevant in an Internet age. Yes, for several reasons. Even where it is available (mainly in larger cities), Internet use requires literacy and some degree of affluence. Where Internet penetration is high enough to warrant it, I strongly recommend it be used. But since the Internet primarily responds to user inquiries, other media must be used to create interest and drive people to the Internet. In areas with strong Internet penetration, we have seen diminishing use of print media, but no decrease in the use of broadcast media. 

Media are most powerful when one person can “speak” to many through some form of mass medium, such as print, radio, or television. For example, while it might cost $50 in time and expense for a missionary to meet face-to-face with a person, for the same amount the missionary might buy a radio spot that could reach one thousand people or more. 

Of course, a message received through some form of mass medium is not the same as a one-on-one, face-to-face meeting, especially if that meeting is with a trusted friend. Research shows that people are much more likely to be persuaded by one-on-one interaction. However, it is often too costly and takes too long. 

Mass media can do some things that would be difficult or impossibly expensive to accomplish face-to-face. It can cost effectively:

• Travel large distances into areas where Christian workers cannot safely go.

• Get the attention of people who would never go to church or meet with a Christian worker.

• Break down prejudices.

• Provide information. We get most of our information from mass media, and then discuss the significance of it with friends.

• Increase curiosity.

• Build a positive image.

• Raise awareness. In a society where Christians are a tiny minority, many unbelievers may be almost totally unaware of their existence. A presence in the mass media demonstrates that they exist.

• Generate contacts.

• Energize the Christian community. Knowing they are now more visible through media exposure often increases the Christian community’s boldness.

Although media can do many things cost effectively, research has shown them to be much less effective than interpersonal contact at persuading people to make an important life change. This suggests a two-part strategy: (1) use mass media to do the initial work of breaking down prejudices and developing contacts, then (2) follow up with personal contact. This is how mass media are generally used for advertising. Often the ads are designed to get the respondent to go to a store or a website, or to make a telephone call. The buying decision is usually made during the personal contact.

Partnerships Needed
The problem with the media plus interpersonal approach is that a considerable range of expertise is needed to do it well. What sometimes happens is that people or organizations attempt to do not only the part of the task for which they are equipped, but also other parts for which they are not equipped. When preachers, for example, design radio programs, you tend to get programs that sound like church services. These can almost be guaranteed to not win much of an audience.  On the other hand, broadcasters generally do not have the connections or skills to do effective follow-up of contacts.

Some large churches or other organizations may have the requisite range of skills, but most organizations will need to form partnerships to do the job well. 

Sometimes partnerships are built into the organizational structure. SAT-7, for example, was formed as a partnership of several churches and other groups working in the Middle East and North Africa. SAT-7 does the broadcasting and hands off the responses to partner organizations that follow up with interpersonal contacts. Several of the partner organizations also contribute content for the broadcasts.

In other cases, media expertise can be found in organizations that specialize in media and offer services to churches and missions. For example, HCJB Global, in addition to operating its own stations, also consults with and aids other organizations in establishing stations.

Where Does the Money Come From?
The funding model adopted by an organization will profoundly affect its effectiveness. Below are some of the models used for supporting media operations.

Advertising sales. Advantage: may be easier than seeking donations. Disadvantage: ads are annoying at best and may conflict with the Christian message at worst.

Time sales to religious broadcasters. Many “missionary” broadcasters operate under this model, charging churches and others for airing their programs. Advantage: it is an equitable way for the church to share in the cost of broadcasting. Disadvantage: financial need may cause the station to carry badly designed programs they would otherwise not choose to carry. Also, this model tends to lead to back-to-back religious programming, which is generally not very effective in reaching non-Christians.

Donations to the program or station (or both). Most religious broadcasts in the U.S. make appeals for donations over the air. Advantage: it is self-correcting. If listeners do not feel they benefit from the station or program, they do not support it. Disadvantages: non-Christians hearing the constant pleas for money may come to the conclusion that money is at the center of the programming. Also, since older Christians are more likely to donate, the programming tends to gravitate to this group, and therefore is not effective at reaching young people or non-Christians.

Fundraising done independently from the broadcast. This “missionary” model of fundraising raises money from one group to benefit another. For example, I have helped to write and produce materials to help SAT-7 raise money in the U. S. to help with its broadcasting work in the Middle East. Advantage: it makes it possible to minister to groups who have little inclination or ability to give, such as children in the Middle East and North Africa. Disadvantages: it requires a lot of hard work. Also, many who have a heart for ministry find fundraising difficult and even distasteful.

Some broadcasters use more than one of the above methods. Failure to think clearly about the implications of the funding model can make the broadcasts ineffective. 

Which Media?
The availability of media varies a great deal from place to place. Some considerations:

• Who is your target audience? If your purpose is to evangelize young people, you would select very different media than if you are trying to energize established Christians.

• What media does your intended audience listen to? Young non-Christians probably do not listen to a Christian radio station. You could do a survey to find out what stations they listen to.

• Can you buy advertising on the most popular media? You can almost certainly reach more non-Christians per dollar by buying spot announcements on popular secular stations or ads in secular publications than by placing programs on Christian stations or publications. However, if your purpose is to nurture and encourage Christians, then use the Christian media, if available.

Print vs. broadcast. On a cost per thousand basis, broadcasting is almost always cheaper than print because it is inherently much less costly to radiate electro-magnetic waves than to grind trees into paper, print it, and physically distribute it. However, print has one huge advantage—it lasts. While someone’s interest might initially be generated by broadcasting, chances are he or she will look in a telephone directory or newspaper to find the address or get more information. Therefore, your ministry should, at the minimum, be listed in whatever kinds of directories are available in the area so that interested people can find you. 

Public relations vs. advertising. Sometimes it takes surprisingly little effort to get news stories carried in local media. This is especially true if your ministry is engaged in something that serves the public interest, such as providing medical clinics, literacy programs, or the like. Usually you will be more successful if you cultivate a personal relationship with the news editors and/or reporters for the local news media. A great advantage of getting a news story run is that it will be seen as more trustworthy than an advertisement. However, some media outlets are more likely to run news stories if you also advertise in their publication or on their station.

Internet. If there is a sizeable Internet penetration in your area, then you must have an attractive Internet site. Young people, especially, will be much more likely to find you on the Internet than in print. But you will need media exposure to drive people to your website.

Multi-media approach. People will be more likely to trust a message they have received from more than one source. But balance this consideration with the next.

Reach vs. frequency. Reach refers to the total number of different people who see or hear a message at least once during a campaign. Frequency is the average number of times each person is exposed to the message. Since media messages are not as powerful as face to face, you will generally get more response if the average person sees or hears your message several times. People don’t seem to “get it” with just one or two exposures. If you had the budget to buy one hundred radio ads, it would generally be more effective to put all one hundred on one station than to place twenty each at five stations. If you can afford only a few ads, run them about the same time each day so the same people are likely to hear them repeatedly.  

Television vs. radio. In general (but with some exceptions), television is a more family-oriented medium; radio is best for teens and young adults.

Broadcasting vs. print. Often broadcasting is used to generate initial contacts, then print is used for follow-up. This works because the relatively expensive print pieces are placed in the hands of those who have requested them, greatly increasing the probability that they will be read. Of course a person must be able to read to make use of print material.

Outdoor. Billboards placed in high traffic areas can be cost effective, but the message must be designed to be read at a glance, in two seconds at most. 

Local vs. National or International 
Early in my career I served with Far East Broadcasting Company mostly on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Our primary target was China, four hundred miles away, which we reached with a very powerful medium wave transmitter. We were heard in Shanghai and along the coast of China, as well as on any local station. There were few local stations in some areas of Asia; therefore, listening to distant stations by medium wave (AM) or short wave was popular. The missionary radio giants, especially FEBC, HCJB, and TWR, covered the entire world with shortwave transmissions, and much of it with medium wave. However, in more recent times there has been a proliferation of local stations in much of the world, along with cable and satellite stations. Accordingly, in recent years missionary broadcasters have been establishing more and more local stations in various countries. Here are some considerations:

Don’t confuse “potential audience” with actual audience. Stations sometimes mislead when they report their audience size because they may report the total population of the areas where their signal could be received if people had the right equipment and chose to watch or listen. This is called “potential audience,” but the actual audience is always much smaller, and in some cases may be almost non-existent. 

Because most radio listening tends to be away from home, local stations predominate because they are easy to receive in cars and on portable radios. They also carry local news, which is usually more important to people than international news.

Because most television viewing is in the home, satellite and cable connections are feasible in some areas. Typically, satellite and cable offer many channels, so the audience is fragmented into smaller and more specialized segments. 

In some parts of the world, such as the Middle East and North Africa, there are few local stations, and most of these are controlled by the government. Where the local stations are not very appealing, distant stations, especially satellite television, has become dominant.  In recent years, I have done volunteer work for SAT-7, which operates two full-time satellite channels in Arabic (one a children’s channel), and channels in Farsi (the language of Iran and parts of Afghanistan) and Turkish. They are attracting an actual audience, based upon surveys, of about fifteen million viewers. Their potential audience (the total population of Arabic, Farsi, and Turkish-speaking people in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe) is about 500 million.

In some parts of the world, government restrictions make local Christian broadcasting impossible. The only alternative may be international broadcasting. Generally, the more restrictive the local broadcasting, the more listening/viewing to international broadcasts.

In tribal areas where there are many different languages, each one spoken by only a few thousand people, small local stations are the only feasible alternative if you wish to speak to the people in their “heart language.” HCJB Global, among others, has worked with several missions, especially in Africa, to provide technical assistance in establishing many small FM stations which are often operated by local churches. Many of them operate with just a few watts of power, sometimes provided by solar panels. In some situations, this station is the only one in the area, and so has a huge influence in a small area.

Short (Announcements) vs. Long (Programs)
Should you use short, typically sixty second “spot” announcements, or broadcast longer format programs, perhaps twenty-eight minutes long? Typically, religious broadcasters have opted for the longer format because it fits better with the sermon tradition. However, there is a huge downside. Typically, the more popular stations will not sell time for anything longer than a minute (or sometimes two minutes). That is a very rational decision for them. Their revenue is directly related to audience size.

If a popular station is foolish enough to sell a half hour of time, when the “religious” broadcast comes on, most of their audience will change stations. No rational program manager would do anything that would cause the loss of so much audience. So, if you choose a program length longer than about sixty seconds, you will likely not be able to get it on a popular station. If a station is willing to sell you the time, it probably has little audience!

Put another way, if your goal is to reach a large number of non-Christian young people, your best choice in most places is to use radio spot announcements. However, if your goal is to encourage and build up Christians, and there is a Christian channel available, then a longer format might be best. 

Reasonable Goals and Expectations
The decision-making process has been modeled in many ways, but it is hard to beat the one given by Paul in Romans 10:14. Paul asks how people can call on God if they don’t believe in him, how can they believe unless they have heard of him, and how can they hear unless someone tells them. So the progression is:

Hearing (Awareness) — Mass media most effective here
Believing — Both mass media and interpersonal contact are effective

Calling (Commitment) — Interpersonal contact most effective here   

The Bible uses another analogy—planting, watering, and harvesting. We see that there is a process that takes place over time, and that there are different needs at different points in the process. 

It is as pointless to ask someone who has never heard of Jesus to trust him as Lord and Savior as it would be for a farmer to drive a combine over a freshly-plowed field.

To judge a media campaign’s effectiveness on the number of conversions assumes that mass media are effective at harvesting. They are not. While some will come to the Lord directly as a result of media, it is much more likely that the media campaign will break down prejudice or provide information, and that the “harvest” will come later, usually in a face-to-face situation. 

So if counting conversions is not an adequate short-term measure of effectiveness, then how can a media campaign’s effectiveness be measured? 

• Before the campaign begins, a “pre-test”—a questionnaire—could be given to determine the knowledge and attitudes of the intended audience about Christ.

• The media messages would then be designed to start where the people were and take them to the next step.

• A post test given after the campaign would measure the change in knowledge and attitude that occurred as a result of the media campaign. 

This is a self-correcting strategy and much better than assuming you know where people are in their knowledge and attitudes, and also how they were affected by the campaign. If the campaign yields little or no success, you have the opportunity to try to figure out why and try again. 


Dr. Tom Nash is professor emeritus at Biola University, where he taught for twenty-six years. He holds a B.S. in broadcasting from John Brown University, an M.A. in radio-television-film, and a Ph.D. in communication from Michigan State University.  

EMQ, Vol. 46, No. 3, pp. 336-342. Copyright  © 2010 Evangelism and Missions Information Service (EMIS).  All rights reserved. Not to be reproduced or copied in any form without written permission from EMIS.


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