This is an article from the November-December 2000 issue: Crossing Boundaries

The Unlikely Missionary

The Unlikely Missionary

Radio rises to the challenge of the unreached people groups.

Radios have often been referred to as "portable missionaries"and with good justification. They provide direct access into the homes of the majority of people around the worldrich and poor alikeand thereby offer the church a wonderful challenge. Countless people today have had their first introduction to the Gospel by means of their radio set.

Growth of Radio

The growth of radio around the world has been quite dramatic since the first voice transmission was made in 1906 (Fig.1). Since 1950, growth has been more than tenfold and continues with no significant sign of decline.

Globally, we see considerable regional differences in the distribution of radio sets in the world (Figs. 2 and 3).

The penetration in some of the Asia's largest countries (Fig. 4) shows the most dramatic increase to be in China, but trailing off after ten years of rapid growth. Despite the increase in television and satellite transmissions we have continued to see radio firmly entrenched as an enduring mass medium.

International broadcasters continue to invest heavily in radio transmission equipment. Research shows that good broadcasters have increasing audiences as they adapt to the changing times and listening habits of their audiences.

As a technology, radio has become much more diverse and adaptable making the radio set a most versatile, low cost instrument of entertainment and information.

How have missions seized on the potential of radio for evangelism and church planting?

Radio in Mission

It did not take long for the church to see the potential for radio in world mission. The first missionary radio station HCJB went on air in Quito, Ecuador on Christmas Day 1931 with the Voice of the Andes. Originally confined to the Spanish language for Latin America, HCJB World Radio later branched out into other language services that reached out into many parts of the globe.

Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC) was next. Starting out with a short-lived venture to China with a station in Shanghai in 1947, FEBC set up operations in Manila, Philippines and began broadcasting from there in 1948.

Trans World Radio (TWR) began in Tangier, Morocco, in 1954 with the intent of reaching Spain with the Gospel. That same year, they also launched Radio ELWA in Liberia, West Africa, broadcasting in the major languages of the region.

By 1958, there were 20 international Christian radio stations operating around the world. This number doubled by 1964. Today, Christian radio spans the globe, not just with short wave installations but also on FM and AM stations as local opportunities open up.

The World by 2000

In 1985, the presidents of the missionary radio organizations mentioned above signed a joint declaration of intent which became known as The World by 2000.

They were soon joined by Feba Radio and later by Words of Hope, IBRA Radio, Back to the Bible and Galcom. Their intent has been to work and plan together to make the Gospel available by radio in all of the world's major languages (spoken by one million people or more) so that everyone would have opportunity to hear, understand and believe.

The Challenge Quantified

The Radio In Church-planting Evangelism (RICE) initiative had already prepared detailed data regarding the language services that each of the major broadcasters were providing. This became the platform on which the statistical analysis was built. Without first knowing what was already being done we could not begin to assess what we stillhad to do. Data by David Barrett in the World Christian Encyclopedia (1982) provided initial information on major world languages and the challenge they posed.

Early data suggested that there were 128 major language groups without Christian radio broadcasts that seemed likely candidates. But further research revealed more languages needing broadcasts. By 1994, the total rose to over 200, yet by that time 55 new language services had already been added (Fig. 5).

Four countries, all Asian, emerged as having the largest number of languages without a Christian broadcastIndia, China, Indonesia and Pakistan (Fig.4). India topped the list with more than 30 such languages. However, with the addition of World by 2000 language broadcasts, the raw numbers of people in these countries without Christian broadcast in their own language has declined dramatically. The exception is China, where there is considerable debate over whether the majority of the remaining peoples can be adequately reached through Mandarin.

The work done by Wycliffe Bible Translators in their Ethnologue provided the bedrock of information on languages and dialects on which World by 2000 research was based. The Joshua Project has since amplified this to lead us to a better understanding.

One difficulty in processing language data has been in drawing distinctions between written language and spoken language. Some languages are identical when written, but when spoken come out as distinctly different languages like the written Min Nan Chinese and the spoken Amoy, Fukienese, Hakka, Swatow, Taiwanese, etc.

There has also been the problem of mutual intelligibility in groups of a single ethnic origin but speaking a wide variety of dialects which are not understood by the others apart from a trade language. Dying languages are also a problem as a national language taught in schools becomes adopted as the lingua franca.

Governments have also played an active role in overlooking the interests of minority language groups. In a number of instances, misleading statistics have been published that do not even recognize the existence of certain minority language groups.

Sifting through these various factors has contributed greatly to an understanding of the complexities of language as we have sought to determine whether the need for a certain language broadcast really exists.

How the Broadcasters Have Responded

As the data became available and was interpreted, one of the first exercises was to sift through all the information gathered to determine who would be responsible for what. A process of "stewardship" was adopted whereby each language listed was designated a steward who would become the gatekeeper of information for that language. Until World by 2000 the major international Christian broadcasters had never convened meetings to plan together or discuss strategy. This was a new experience. It meant coming together on a regular basis to review the latest progress while building trust and becoming familiar with the work each of the partners. It also meant times of prayer and fellowship. Publicly it meant putting on joint presentations and providing a united front to other missions.

Thanks to this combined effort since 1985 the number of new language services has been significant: Of the 372 mega-languages identified 111 new language services have been added (or discovered to be on air) while only 78 languages remain that appear to still need broadcasts.

Figure 4 (at left) reflects World by 2000's progress in four Asian countries where the number of language groups was high. In India it shows how the number of people groups unreached by radio has been reduced as new language services had been added by TWR and Feba Radio. China, on the other hand, has quite a large number of groups but these are relatively minor compared with the overwhelming Mandarin-speaking Chinese population. Many Chinese minorities are also largely inaccessible in remote areas. Tight security makes program production extremely difficult. Not so in Indonesia where the number of language groups without Christian broadcast has almost vanished thanks to efforts by FEBC and TWR.


World by 2000 may have had the appearance of playing the numbers game specifying how many languages to go and how many put on air. But there have been safeguards to build quality into the exercise, specifying a standard of at least 30 minutes per day in each language added wherever possible. A daily 30-minute broadcast amounts to a significant ministry if it contains programming that attracts many listeners to hear about Jesus.

In some instances the partners have worked together in joint partnershipas in Mozambique between Feba and TWR. In others programs produced by one of the partners has also been broadcast by the other to maximize the exposure.

Progress in the World by 2000/World by Radio Vision of the 372 Megalanguages they have identified:

    93 had existing broadcasts in 1985
    90 have been covered since 1985
    111 languages have been added (or discovered to be on the air) since 1985
    78 languages are still in need of broadcasts

In some instances the partners have worked together in joint partnershipas in Mozambique between Feba and TWR. In others programs produced by one of the partners has also been broadcast by the other to maximize the exposure.

In the Makonde language of Tanzania and Mozambique Wycliffe Bible Translators have actively worked with program producers to produce programs promoting the reading of the Scriptures they have translated.


At the ground level the impact has been quite significant. On the one hand this has been confirmed by the number of letters arriving from grateful and curious listeners. On the other it was confirmed by local churches and mission agencies who reported that they were benefiting greatly from the increased visibility the broadcasts gave to the Gospel. Christians living in predominantly Muslim areas who had once been a despised minority now found status because of the broadcastsin many instances the first in their own native tongue.

Most affirming of all has been the growth of local churches. In Mozambique the Makhuwa are exuberant about the broadcasts that have transformed their church life. Most of their members are converts through the radio broadcasts from TWR. In Indonesia believers have been baptized secretly away from their hometown after being led to Christ through the programs. These are from areas where any overt witness by local Christians would have been impossible.

In Russia the Chuvash minority are now being reached in part through a local FM station sponsored by a local church in their community. The church is broadcasting via a small suitcase transmitters supplied by HCJB World Radio. Many of these low-power stations are now being used around the world.

What About the Future?

As we face the future we see some interesting trends emerging. We see radio as a robust tool for the Gospel for the foreseeable future in spite of the massive technological changes that are taking place.

Its greatest contribution to missions is that it goes where people cannot easily visit. It goes behind political, religious and geographical barriers. But more importantly it goes into people's homes and finds individuals there.

The breadth of radio continues to expand with huge economic and social differences between contemporary city dwellers on the one handand the virtually unchanged lifestyles of tribal peoples on the other. Technological change also means that it is becoming harder to define what radio is. Computers and mobile phones today can both deliver "radio" programming to modern society and the Internet potentially makes the outreach global.

With increasing interactivity via the Internet we expect programming to become much more interactive, with the listener feeling part of an active community with the broadcasters.

We are also beginning to see Christian broadcasting becoming more involved with community development projects, bringing a witness to the Gospel by helping address social issues of various kinds.

No one knows what radio will ultimately become, but we can be sure that the delivery of sound programming will continue to evolve. We need to adjust to the changes while not overlooking the tribal peoples upon whom technological change makes an impact at a much slower rate.

With the turn of the millennium World by 2000 has been transformed into World by Radio. Its basic mission remains the same but growing attention will be given to the effectiveness of broadcasts and the impact they are having on church growth.

Ultimately the challenge is not the technology but the programming. To attract listeners, hold their interest and draw them into a relationship with Jesus Christeither directly or indirectlyit needs to be contemporary, contextual and engage their interest. If these conditions are applied to our Christian broadcasts we will continue to see people's lives impacted for the Gospel through faith in Christ.

Frank Gray is V.P. of International Operations & Programming for the Far East Broadcasting Company (FEBC). Eila Murphy is a Research Coordinator at FEBC.


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