Dr. Glusker broadcasts over two TV stations and five radio stations in Maine.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, February 17, 1988, pp. 164-166. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This article was prepared for Religion Online by Harry W. and Grace C. Adams.
David L. Glusker outlines the major problem faced by mainline religious radio and television ministries – namely, how to raise enough money to stay on the air while avoiding offense by stressing fund-raising during broadcasts. That such programming uniquely reaches significant audiences – the homebound, the unchurched, as well as some regular churchgoers – seems valid reason to continue to search for solutions to the funding difficulties. Glusker suggests several options.
Few clergy or laypeople trust radio or TV ministries. These ministries are thought to be manipulative, theatrical, phony and often built around ego-centered clergy. Commonly one sees signs of a “messianic complex” when watching or listening to electronic church ministers.
When invited to become the fourth minister of the First Radio Parish Church of America in Portland, Maine, the nation’s longest continuously running nonsectarian radio and now TV ministry, I believed the worst about electronic gospel ministers. I was reluctant to join their fold, after having served local United Methodist churches for 24 years. However, as I have observed the electronic church from the inside for the past two years, I have slowly changed my opinion.
My church, consisting of radio listeners and TV viewers, is unique in America. I broadcast a four-minute-and- 15-second TV show each morning at 6:15 during the NBC news over two Maine stations. In addition, I produce a 24-minute Sunday radio program broadcast over five radio stations in Maine. The stations donate the air time for these broadcasts.
One can make few arguments against the electronic media’s effective use within and without the community of faith. In fact, our broadcasts now reach at least three distinct audiences that otherwise might be without any form of church service. The first, and perhaps smallest, is a group of shut-ins unable to attend services or be active in church — once, for many, the center of their lives. Now, cut off from any other source of spiritual nurture, many tune in every morning, or every Sunday morning, to stay in touch with a church.
A second audience comprises people who attend church with some regularity and who begin their day watching or listening to TV or radio broadcasts. They wish to start the day with spiritual support before they engage the world. For many of these people the “electronic devotional” is their only regular communication with God during the week. The third audience is the largest — at least 60 per cent of our total. It is made up of people who have no church connection or — usually — any interest in religion. This group represents the distinctive challenge and opportunity of broadcast ministry. No other clergy in Maine can speak to these people. Radio and TV may be the only way to address them, for as they turn the dial they may stop and listen to or watch a program.
Broadcast ministry does not necessarily lead to large income. We use a 20-second
closing statement, inviting viewer support and response, at the close of the morning devotional program. With an audience of approximately 25,000 for this program, and thousands of letters testifying to the effectiveness of the ministry, we find that about half our budget of $42,000 comes from our viewers. Both denominational leadership and local churches affirm our ministry. The Maine Council of Churches recently sent us a $2,000 grant for equipment.
However, even though the ministry is by all normal standards a success, it is in danger of cancellation due to inadequate financial support. The radio ministry — the older ministry and the one filling the most time (24 minutes each Sunday) — produces virtually no income.
In this regard media ministries face the same dilemma that confronts local churches: how does one raise enough money to sustain effective work without compromising the quality of the program itself? It is in that last danger that TV ministries have run into trouble. Without a sponsoring body or benefactors to underwrite the broadcast, it becomes necessary to use a significant block of time to solicit financial support. However, this promotional activity sometimes overshadows the message — i.e.,the reason for the ministry’s existence. Thus, TV ministry often falls into the trap of existing to raise money so that it may continue to exist.
It appears that mainline church ministries receive less financial support than those which represent conservative or fundamentalist churches. Mainline ministries — including ecumenical and denominational programs — have been on the air from the start of radio and TV broadcasting. Support for these programs currently comes from nonaudience sources that are committed to continuing assistance despite insufficient listener or viewer donations. Members of evangelical churches have a higher commitment than do main liners to support special ministries, media ministries in particular. On the other hand, the general public is more open to less judgmental and more mainstream messages but is reluctant to support any broadcast ministries.
Local churches of the mainline denominations hesitate to support ministries that do not originate within their own denominations. Our radio guests during the past year have included bishops from the Roman Catholic, Episcopal and United Methodist Churches, denominational executives from the American Baptist, United Church of Christ and Nazarene Churches; and the president of nearby Bangor Theological Seminary and the executive director of the Maine Council of Churches. In spite of our implied affirmation of these people, only about 25 congregations have included us in their benevolence budgets, and no denomination provides financial support.
So far we have limited our on-the-air fund-raising to brief announcements of appreciation, made at the close of each program, for gifts from churches that support our ministry. In our newsletter every other month, which goes to about one in 25 of our viewers, we solicit additional support. We have also sought help while attending denominational gatherings and conferences, ecumenical events and while preaching or doing other public speaking. A new direction in our fund-raising effort is to solicit major gifts from selected individuals by which to establish an endowment fund or to supplement inadequate support during an off year.
We have been unwilling to place our financial need ahead of the religious needs of the audiences we serve. We fear that even a few brief statements and monetary appeals will turn off the largest audience of all, the unchurched, and that we will lose credibility as spokes people for the church. On the one hand, we wish to spend our time sharing the Good News of God’s love through broadcasting. On the other hand, without successful fund-raising efforts our work will end. Raising funds while avoiding offense is our goal. It is one of the most basic and crucial aspects of any mainline efforts to respond to the worthy and compelling challenge of the electronic church.