THE WIRELESS GOSPEL
by: Randall Balmer
SIXTY-TWO YEARS AGO (CHRISTIANITY TODAY / February 19, 2001)
BACK TO THE BIBLE joined the radio revolution; now it is finding new media for its old message. A case study in evangelicals’ love affair with communications technology follows
Woodrow M. Kroll likes to arrive at the office early on the mornings he records his Back to the Bible radio messages. By eight o’clock he’s seated in a comfort-able swivel chair inside a plush and spacious studio, an open Bible and several pages of notes fanned out in front of him on an easel. “We’ll do two today and two tomorrow,” he announces into the microphone. fidgeting one more time with the stack of papers. Martin Downing, the engineer, nods from the other side of the window in the adjacent control room.
Kroll rehearses a couple of lines from the opening of his message, enough to provide a sound check. Downing makes a few adjustments and signals that he’s ready. Kroll clears his throat one last time. “Okay, this would be program 6146,” he says. “It’s 16 minutes long because it’s a Monday program. Here’s the IQ.” In the parlance of Back to the Bible, IQ is “interactive question.”
Kroll wants his daily broadcast to sound informal, so he opens his 25-minute program with a question from his interlocutor, Don Hawkins. Kroll then talks for 16 minutes and Hawkins asks several questions afterward in a gentle and easygoing conversational style that allows Kroll to highlight some of the points from the day’s meditation. The only problem is that Hawkins, who does a late-night call-in program, is seldom in the building when Kroll records the message, so it is Kroll himself who reads the question that he has scripted for Hawkins: “I like your topic this week, Wood, ‘becoming a caring Christian.’ There always seems to be a shortage of those kinds of people.” Kroll responds to himself, “Yeah, Don, that’s true, and it’s not a shortage of care among those who simply call themselves ‘Christian’ as opposed to being a Buddhist or a Muslim or something else. There’s a shortage of people who know the Bible. People go to church. People can quote John 3:16. They just don’t seem to be as caring as they need to be as Christians today.”
With that introduction behind him, Kroll segues into his radio message for the morning, a meditation on how “caring Christians walk differently.” Over the ensuing 16 minutes, Kroll alternates seamlessly between his outline and his Bible with the practiced ease of a veteran preacher and Bible-conference speaker, which he is. His speech occasionally betrays the hard, flat, Pittsburgh twang he picked up during a childhood in Ellwood City, Pennsylvania, before he set off for Bible school, seminary, and a career of teaching and preaching the Bible. Kroll had three stints at Practical Bible College near Binghamton, New York, for in- stance-first as a student, then as professor in the early 1970s and finally as presi- dent from 1981 to 1990. It was then that he succeeded Warren W. Wiersbe as the third president and senior Bible teacher at Back to the Bible. Kroll’s 16-minute allotment is rapidly drawing to a close. His eyes dart to the digital clock mounted on the far wall, and he glides into his conclusion. “Think of some of the ways that you can communicate through your lifestyle,” he says, “that you belong to Christ and that you care about others.” His cadence slows now. “Caring Christians walk differently. People know when you’re a caring Christian.”
It’s now time for Hawkins to interact with Kroll about his message, but Hawkins is still nowhere to be found; it’s not that he’s late to work, it’s only that his voice won’t be needed on this broadcast for several weeks. As Kroll delivered his radio message, Downing simultaneously recorded it digitally on a computer hard drive, made a backup copy onto a compact disk, and recorded another copy onto a cassette tape. “We want to make sure the message is clear and understandable,” he explains. “No technical distractions.” As the digital version moves to Neal Thompson, director of production services, the cassette tape goes to another department at Back to the Bible, where someone transcribes the message and someone else writes a script for the later “spontaneous” exchange between Kroll and Hawkins. Weeks later, the two men gather in the studio and record the banter for several of the broadcasts. The conversational exchange for the program recorded today will be added to the end of Kroll’s remarks, and Thompson will then produce the final version. He repairs any verbal slip-ups. If necessary, Thompson can patch in a phrase or even a word from a previous broadcast, and if Kroll is a bit long-winded on any given day-say 16 minutes and 37 seconds, as on this morning -Thompson simply punches a few keys on his computer and the message magically compresses to 16 minutes. “He’ll be talking faster, but the pitch is the same, Thompson says. He adds the music and patches in Kroll’s signoff: “Have a good and godly day, for of what lasting good is a good day if it is not also a godly day?”
The Back to the Bible program leaves the building by Internet to Colorado Springs, where a server sends it up to a satellite. The nearly 400 affiliate stations then take it “off the bird” in whatever format they need: digital, analog, even a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
In the course of his morning meditation, Kroll tried to illustrate his point that change makes people uneasy, noting that the first speeding ticket in America was given to a New York cab driver on May 20, 1899. His speed: 12 miles an hour. Technological advances during the last century make 12 miles an hour seem glacial (unless you’re stuck on the Santa Monica Freeway at rush hour), but the pace of change in communications technology may be even more dizzying. The personnel at Back to the Bible recall that they edited their programs by cutting tape with a razor blade and splicing it back together as recently as five or six years ago. Downing pointed to a reel-to-reel machine gathering dust in the corner of the studio. “It will be going by the wayside soon,” he said, his voice tinged ever so slightly with sadness and nostalgia.
When Theodore Epp, the son of Russian immigrants, started Back to the Bible in 1939, he would have been thrilled to have a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Epp had been pastor of the Zoar Mennonite Church in Goltry, Oklahoma, but he resigned in 1936 to do evangelistic work with T. Myron Webb, a medical doctor turned preacher and radio evangelist. Epp occasionally filled in for Webb on the radio broadcast, also called Back to the Bible, all the while continuing his itinerant preaching. When Epp visited family in Nebraska, a young woman asked him, “Why don’t some of you radio preachers from Oklahoma come to Nebraska? We have no daily gospel broadcast here.” Epp considered the idea, and in the spring of 1939 he drove to Lincoln with $95 in his pocket, $65 of which had been donated for the purpose of starting a radio ministry. The $65 bought him 15 minutes of airtime on a 250-watt station for three weeks. Epp, with the blessing of his mentor, called his live broadcast Back to the Bible, and it aired for the first time on May 1, 1939.
After moving his operations briefly to Grand Island, about 90 miles west of Lincoln, Epp returned to the state capital in February 1942. The broadcast added live music (usually a gospel quartet) and increased its reach through telephone connections to KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, and WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota. Back to the Bible added a publishing division and a children’s program, and short-wave radio allowed its signal to reach Quito, Ecuador, by 1943. Today, Back to the Bible has branches in 15 countries. “More people listen to me abroad,” Kroll says proudly, “than here in North America. Indeed, Kroll’s spacious office at the international headquarters of Back to the Bible, located in northeast Lincoln, bears the marks of a traveler. There’s an inlaid wooden table from India, an antique chest from China, a couple of black ebony sculptures; framed posters of Switzerland and Paris hang on the wall, and two globes sit on his desk. His entire office is festooned with dozens of olivewood figurines from Israel. “I’ve been to the Holy Land 40 times now,” Kroll says. Bookshelves take up the entire wall behind his desk, although Kroll says he does most of his study at home. “I have always believed that the preparation of the messenger is more important than the preparation of the message,” he says. “I bear a special responsibility to prepare myself before coming to the microphone.”
Kroll sees himself as continuing the tradition of Bible teaching that Epp began at Back to the Bible in 1939.
“I have the best job in the world,” he says. “They pay me to study the Bible.”The Bible, he adds, has always been about substance. “I’m not here to entertain. I’m not here to instruct. I’m here to change lives.” He pauses for emphasis. “The Bible does that.” Theologically, Back to the Bible hews closely to a conservative evangelicalism, bordering on classical fundamentalism.
Kroll’s messages, meanwhile, lack tendentiousness, and his avuncular style continues a tradition that he inherited from both Epp and Wiersbe. His on-air demeanor resembles not so much a learned professor as a chatty neighbor who has dropped by with some good news and a bit of practical advice. A recent program, for instance, offered detailed guidance on choosing a new Bible, including a discussion of the distinctions among genuine leather, bonded leather, and Kivar hardcover materials. ‘Type size, friends, is important,” Kroll declared. But nothing is more important at Back to the Bible than the Bible itself. Like so many Protestant organizations in American history-.--the American Bible Society, the Gideons, Navigators, to name just a few-Back to the Bible centers on the dissemination and the understanding of the Scriptures. For more than half a millennium, since Johann Gutenberg invented movable type in the 1450’s, Christians have relied on successive forms of technology both to manufacture and distribute Bibles themselves and to spread their understandings of the Bible.
Throughout American history evangelicals have regularly looked for new ways to propagate the gospel. When George Whitefield, an itinerant preacher from England, traveled throughout the Atlantic colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, local preachers very often denied him access to their pulpits. Whitefield simply preached in a barn or in the village square or at venues like Society Hill in Philadelphia. There, Benjamin Franklin, a member of the audience, calculated that Whitefield’s stentorian voice could be heard by 10,000 people. Whitefield’s very presence in Philadelphia presaged the ways in which technology would change the world: the embryonic Industrial Revolution moved traditional gathering places from churches to market-places and other new “social places,” like Society Hill. Whitefield also took advantage of new printing technologies to disseminate thousands upon thousands of pamphlets, magazines, and other materials.
Less than a century later, Methodist circuit riders brought the gospel to the rontier, especially the Cumberland Valley, and when the rail lines sliced across the continent, colporteurs rode the rails, carrying Bibles and tracts both to fellow travelers and to settlers along the way. In the 20th century, evangelicals embraced electronic media with unabashed enthusiasm. Aimee Semple McPherson and Charles F. Fuller used the radio airwaves to preach the gospel long before Franklin Roosevelt discovered the value of radio as a communications medium. In television too, evangelicals seized the opportunity to flood the airwaves with the gospel, and their programming was remarkably more effective than that of Roman Catholics and mainline Protestants, whose idea of riveting television was to broadcast their Sunday-morning services.
In a previous generation of electronics, before the age of Dolby and digital and compact disks, the audio standard was “high fidelity.” Millions of middle-class families in the 1950s and 1960s purchased a “hi-fl” for their living rooms, a combination tuner and turntable contraption so large that it was a piece of furniture. Americans marveled at the audio fidelity of their hi-fls. But evangelicals have long worried about a different kind of fidelity-fidelity to the gospel-and the potential for distortions in the headlong plunge into technology. Did McPherson compromise the faith with her theatrical productions out in Los Angeles? Surely something was lost in the translation when Kathryn Kuhlman and Oral Roberts enjoined their auditors to place their hands on the radio receiver or the television set to receive divine healing.
Perhaps the largest distortions, both political and theological, occurred in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of the televangelists. The preachers of the Religious Right largely abandoned the noble heritage of 19th-century evangelical activism, which fought for the interests of those on the margins of society, in favor of a con- servatism virtually indistinguishable from the ideology of the Republican Party. Other television preachers peddled a feel-good message devoid of theological con- tent, or they advanced the name-it-and-claim-it, God-will-make-you-rich heresy. Was technology responsible for these distortions of the gospel? Probably not. Technology itself is morally neutral it can be used both to eradicate disease and to obliterate entire cities, for instance, but as media technologies make other demands that amplify some of the worst tendencies in evangelicalism, especially the weakness for populism and the cult of personality. Many evangelicals, lacking creedal formulas or strong denominational organizations, tend to galvanize around charismatic preachers, who all too often fall into the trap of pandering to popular tastes and prejudices in order to shore up their popularity. Survival on radio or tele- vision depends upon the conjoined twins of ratings and contributions, so the temp- tation to play to the audience-whether by providing entertainment, by offering shallow affirmations or sensational predictions or by reinforcing the prevailing political nostrums-becomes for some too great to resist. At that point, a different form of “fidelity,” fidelity to the gospel, is sacrificed on the altar of popularity and approbation.
The alacrity with which evangelicals have embraced new forms of media, how- ever, belies the popular stereotype that they are suspicious of innovation or tech- nology. Nothing could be further from the truth, especially in the arena of corn- rnunications technology, where evangelicals have been pioneers more often than naysayers. Back to the Bible once again provides a case in point. “Ten years ago we were a radio ministry,” Kroll says. “Now we’re a media ministry.” At Back to the Bible that means changing the paradigm from broadcast only to a variety of media, including videocassettes, television, a “family of radio broadcasts” and the Internet. “We’re devising ways to hold people for longer than half an hour” Kroll says.
For Back to the Bible the movement into other forms of media is a dicey one, and Kroll measures his words carefully for fear of offending his radio affiliates, on whom he depends to carry his programs. In truth, however, it is the radio stations that have abandoned Back to the Bible, to some degree, at least. More and more affiliates in recent years have changed their formats-PM stations moving to music and AM to talk-and in the process they have cast aside more substantive programs like Back to the Bible. The classic Bible teachers, those who approach the microphone with an open Bible and little else, are falling out of favor in the media world (and perhaps in evangelicalism generally), but Kroll refuses to give up the fight. He says that when he teaches the Bible he asks three questions: What does the Bible say? What does the Bible mean? How does it apply to my life?
More and more evangelicals, he laments, skip over the first two questions in their rush to the third. “We’re becoming bottom-liners,” he says. “When we do that, we lose Bible literacy.” But even in the face of what he calls “church lite” (more taste, less filling), Kroll detects a growing hunger for understanding the Bible, not merely applying the Bible. He notes that although Back to the Bible’s largest demographic is, predictably, 55 and older, its second-largest is 18-25. Reaching this audience and keeping its attention-requires new strategies, and it requires vaulting into new technological territories.
“Technology, for us, is really the name of the game,” Kroll says. “We’re committed to using every medium at our disposal to reach every person in the world.” If technology is the name of the game at >Back to the Bible, the name of the tech- nology person is Chad Williams, a tall, athletic man who bears the title Director of Internet Services. His office cubicle is tidy, and he uses phrases such as “growth curve” and “philosophy of an effective Web site” with effortless familiarity. After graduating from Grace University in 1993, Williams started his own home-based computer business. Back to the Bible hired an outside contractor to build a Web site in April 1996, and Williams came on staff the next year to develop it further.
When he started in 1997, about 400,000 people visited the Web site every month. Today, Backtothebible org receives more than 1.675 million “page visits” a month. Six staff members keep the Web site going, and people from 185 countries have visited the site. It’s not difficult to understand why. The Web site is attractive and (in the jargon of the Internet) user-friendly. You can watch a videotaped greeting from Kroll, click on today’s meditation or take the Bible Challenge quiz, the most popular page on the site, which offers multiple-choice answers to such questions as: “Abraham’s servant gave what gifts to Rebekah, Isaac’s future wife?” The site provides “hot buttons” to all of Back to the Bible’s programs as well as to a section called “Getting to Know God.” There’s a chat room (“Big Questions”), a way to make a contribution online, and the inevitable store for ordering books, calendars, CDs, music, tracts, and gifts. Transcripts for all of Back to the Bible’s radio programs are available online, together with a search capability; a Sunday-school teacher, for example, can type in “marriage” and instantly gain access to radio transcripts addressing that topic. Staff members answer about 1,200 e-mails a month generated by visitors to the Web site.
One of Back to the Bible’s more popular programs in recent years is The Bible Minute, a 90-second spot “demonstrating the daily relevance of God’s Word.” Although it was devised for radio stations “especially suited for drive-time hours,” the organization’s promotional materials read Williams and the Web people at Back to the Bible have adapted it to the information age. If you visit The Bible Minute Web page (backtothebible.org/minute), you can click a small icon at the bottom of the page and download a transcript of today’s Bible Minute for your Palm Pilot.
Maintenance of the Web site itself is time-consuming. The organization has enlisted volunteers to transcribe some of the programs, and the Web team is always looking for new material. “Every six to 12 months we like to refurbish the Web site so it has a different design, look, and feel,” Williams says. The site itself is updated approximately half a dozen times a day. “We send the changes by Internet to the server in Grand Rapids, Michigan,” Williams says. (The site is hosted by Gospel Communications’ Gospelcom.net.) “We just press a button and, boom, it’s live,” meaning that the changes have gone into effect.
Where is all of this technology going? Williams laughs. “That’s a good question,” he says. “The challenge when you’re part of a ministry with limited resources is to know where to invest your time and resources. “Maybe in five years we’ll have more people listening to us over the Internet than over the airwaves,” Kroll allows, “but radio is still our flagship. We’re going to ride this flagship forever.” Kroll also takes a larger view, recognizing that all media have limitations in light of Jesus’ command to go into all the world and preach the gospel. “There will always be a need for live bodies,” he says. “Someone in India once told me that they regard Back to the Bible as God’s Air Force, but we still need ground troops.” Kroll shifts in his chair and considers the implications of the Incarnation-the Word made flesh-on media ministries like Back to the Bible. “Obviously, I want people to know that there are real human beings involved with our ministry, but using media as a form to get the message out doesn’t bother me.”
Randall Balmer is Ann Whitney Oiin Professor of American Religious History at Barnard College, Columbia University, and author of Blessed Assurance: A History of Evangelicalism in America.
February 19, 2001, (pgs. 48-53)
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