“I became a Christian because of listening to evangelical broadcasting!” Many times we have heard this statement in the testimonies of Christians in mainland China. While the conservative attitude of China’s government since the 1950s closed the door to overseas missionaries, at the same time it paved the way for Christian evangelical broadcast ministry.
The positive forces for the development of this ministry included two aspects. First, in the suppressive era under Mao, China’s government strictly filtered outside information so that listening to overseas radio programs became a popular way for the Chinese to make their own connection to the world. Moreover, since locally produced Chinese radio programs were, at that time, limited in both quantity and quality, disappointed and bored audiences often accidentally tuned in to Christian radio stations. The style of Christian broadcasters, which was gentle and compassionate in comparison to the typical aggressive “Red Guard” style, proved to be highly attractive to the audience. In this way, evangelical programs won many people to Christ.
Nevertheless, the political and social climate changed dramatically after Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, resulting in liberalization and technological advances. Over time, the changes that this produced have unavoidably brought many new challenges to broadcasting ministries.
Upgrading of Local Programming
The first challenge has been the rapid progress seen in the upgrading by secular stations of local programming that is aimed at a contemporary Chinese audience. Broadcasters have become cordial and humorous and programs are related to real life rather than being political propaganda.
Shanghai Eastern Radio Station provides several examples of this. For one of their programs, they invited the mayor of Shanghai to answer call-in inquiries from city residents. Their DJs now play the latest pop songs. Entertainment programs are produced. More recently, their radio/TV station purchased a helicopter for their news programs. Needless to say, these programs have gained wide popularity among local audiences.
These changes exemplify secular radio’s strong ambition and capability for producing inviting, first-class programs. The successful experience of Shanghai Eastern Radio Station acted as a stimulant for other broadcasting stations in China, many of which have been making stunning changes and progress in their own productions. Unfortunately, overseas evangelical programs often cannot compete with this upgraded local programming in terms of their immediacy and relevancy to the local audience. As a result, today, Chinese audiences tend to choose local programs over evangelical ones.
Availability of Technology
As a result of the recent “open door” policy of the Chinese government, items such as televisions, video cassette players and VCDs have become more and more popular in Chinese households. VCDs of popular movies are sold in the streets for only ten yuan (around US$1.25). According to an article entitled “Internet Heat in China” published by Reader’s Digest (November, 1998, Chinese version), by the year 2000, mainland China will become one of the major international markets for personal computers; moreover, the number of internet users will increase to 10,000,000. These new technologies have rapidly been replacing the previous dominant role of radio broadcasting, and, as a result, the attraction that evangelical broadcasting has had for non-believers in the past has been greatly reduced. Thus, the probability that people unfamiliar with gospel programming will tune in to it by chance is declining.
Typically, local broadcast stations use the mid-wave frequency. To avoid jams caused by the repetitive use of the same frequency in one area, each broadcasting station must register its broadcasting region and frequency with its national administration office prior to starting its operations. Due to geographical restrictions, the same frequency may be used in different areas.
To date, the Chinese government continues to prohibit the operation of local evangelical broadcast stations; therefore, all current Christian programs must be broadcast from overseas stations. In past decades, the number of local Chinese stations was quite limited, which enabled the overseas evangelical stations to easily avoid the frequencies used by the local stations. However, in recent years, the number of local stations has been growing rapidly and the task of avoiding frequencies already in use has become much more difficult for evangelical stations. In the case of repetitive frequencies, an evangelical program may barely be audible for its audience. In the future, this problem will become even more severe.
Facing the Challenges
Over the centuries, the church has always needed to face the challenges of its time. When government restrictions terminated the presence of foreign missionaries in the 1950s, the use of evangelical broadcasting to share the gospel with the Chinese people was explored. As the pages of history have again turned, Chinese broadcast ministry has encountered new challenges and must again adjust its strategy. Today, evangelical stations are seeking new methods and strategies. For several years now, Kairos Communication Service International has been seriously considering these challenges and planning the necessary adjustments it must make. As a result, it will make the following changes in its future work.
Style and format change of broadcast programs.
Although evangelical broadcast ministry is facing many challenges, traditional broadcasting still has room to develop in the remote countryside of China. Thus, target audience and program types will be adjusted for this. While the impact of evangelical programming to non-believers is weakening, the potential of using radio to provide spiritual guidance to new believers in China’s harsh environment should not be neglected. Therefore, program production will be shifted to focus on programs aimed at discipleship and Christian growth. Churches in mainland China today are facing serious problems of insufficient numbers of servant leaders as well as rising waves of heresy. The development of discipleship programs can offer significant help for the growing Chinese churches. Moreover, educating believers to share the gospel may provide a remedy to the weakening impact of evangelical broadcasting to local nonbelievers.
Broadcasting is a highly competitive commercial market. Whether it be pre-evangelical or Christian-targeted programming, trite and prosaic programs will not stand up in the intense competition. Programs in which the gospel message impacts the life of contemporary audiences must be produced.
Use of modern technology and media.
In addition to broadcast ministry, Kairos is expanding to share the gospel via other multi-media. Audio books, video books, CDs, Karaoke, hymn master, and internet ministry have all received very positive responses in both mainland China and overseas leading us to believe there is a great need in all these areas. As we seek to meet the new challenges that face us, we recognize that each age has its own unique needs, and the tools and techniques that are available to us for sharing the gospel must be used accordingly. Nevertheless, passing the message of Jesus Christ to our fellow countrymen has been, and always will be, our foremost purpose and mission.
Article adapted and reprinted with permission from “Interflow”, published by Kairos Communication Services International, December 1998, Vol 98-III.