Christian Journalism

In current usage of the term, Christian journalism relates most commonly to Christian periodicals. Only rarely is it connected with other media. It is not so closely tied to news in the narrow sense as is secular journalism. In the pre-Reformation church, “journalism” was for the most part confined to official announcements and newsletters. The Roman government used acta diurna, bulletins posted daily in public places. Beginning with Constantine, these may have taken on something of the character of Christian journals. The newsletters were sent out regularly by Roman scribes to businessmen and politicians in distant cities to keep them abreast of doings in Rome. Such newsletter service continued from European capitals into the 1700s, after printed papers became common.

With the development of printing at the time of the Reformation came the rise of Christian journalism in the form of pamphlets. It is doubtful whether the Reformation would have had nearly the impact without them. Luther himself wrote that “there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless He has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists.” His own tracts were the forerunners of modern periodicals, and they were highly successful. Four thousand copies of his address “To the Christian Nobility” were sold in five days. Roman Catholics also began to use printed materials, but they have been dogged to the present day by theological doctrines which fail to recognize the freedom of the press.

There was little effort to develop Christian journalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Puritans argued extensively in books and pamphlets, and recorded extensive history there, but despite many attempts to produce regular news journals in 1640-60, they never became seriously interested in periodicals. State churches saw no good reason to enlighten the masses.

Christian periodicals did not become established until the nineteenth century. In North America they took the form of highly partisan newspapers which bred much strife among Christians, but which nonetheless often enjoyed as much respect and readership as their secular counterparts. Religious newspapers were sold on the streets along with the others. During the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth, most Christian daily newspapers died out, to be replaced by weekly papers and magazines. Eventually many of these changed into or gave way to monthlies, and independent periodicals were replaced by denominational or organizational house organs. These have been the mainstay of Christian journalism for most of the twentieth century, and their proliferation has been little short of phenomenal, although virtually all require subsidies on top of circulation and advertising income.

Modern Christian publications tend to equate progress with improvement in physical appearance rather than rhetoric, and investment of resources has reflected this emphasis. The popularity of offset printing with its much cheaper picture reproduction has encouraged the trend. Articles, reviews, and editorials generally espouse strongly held theological positions, but little great literature has been produced. Emergence of the Jesus Movement, which immediately started dozens of new papers on inexpensive newsprint, may have been the start of a reversal away from the slick, multicolored, profusely illustrated pattern toward more concentration on quality editorial content, although the first issues carried rather standardized devotional and evangelistic material.

The scope of Christian journalism is seen in the size of the several “trade associations” in the field. In North America, these are the Catholic Press Association (435 member publications in 1971 with an aggregate circulation of 24,346,826), Associated Church Press (195 and 21,958,111), and Evangelical Press Association (195 and 11,400,000). There is some overlapping membership among these. Canadian editors, for example, have their own group in addition to belonging to one or more of the others. There are hundreds of other religious publications, mostly small, which belong to none of these.

All these periodicals rely upon mail promotion and delivery. Very few have been available on public newsstands. Many churches subscribe for their members. The prospect of sharp increases in postal rates during the 1970s spelled possible reconsideration of this distribution method. Most Christian publications have been selling large amounts of advertising space. In 1971 the top fifteen consumer-type Protestant periodicals received an estimated total of more than $3 million in advertising revenue. The advertisers generally are publishers of books and educational materials, organizations appealing for donations, insurance companies, schools, and travel agencies.

The liberal Christian Century was undoubtedly the most influential religious journal until Christianity Today was founded in 1956 to challenge its stature. As of 1972, both were being indexed in the standard reference work, Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, along with America, a Jesuit weekly, the liberal lay Catholic weekly Commonweal, and the monthly Catholic World. Christian Herald has also long been a leader. Decision, published by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, captured top circulation honors in going from an initial press run of 286,000 in 1960 to more than 4,500,000 in twelve years. The Christian Science Monitor is highly reputed as a daily newspaper for secular coverage; it devotes one page a day to Christian Science dogma. The African Methodist Episcopal Church prints the largest continuously published Negro paper in America, the Christian Recorder. The sprightly United Church Observer is the most prominent in Canada.

Most religious weeklies that survived the two world wars subsequently established sound footing and maintained wide respect. Most notable among these have been the Southern Baptist state papers, one of which, the Baptist Standard of Texas, has had a larger circulation than most national and international religious publications. Among weeklies that do remarkably well despite very small staffs are The Mennonite and Presbyterian Journal. Among the few churchmen who still recognize the incomparable value of a weekly is Carl McIntire, who edits and publishes the polemical but very timely Christian Beacon.

In many African countries, mission-spawned publications are among the most widely read and are sold on newsstands because they serve secular news as well as religious purposes. There are some daily Christian newspapers published in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. L'Osservatore Romana, voice of the Vatican, is the world's best-known religious daily. In Indonesia Christians have their own daily newspaper, Sinar Harapan (“Ray of Hope”), begun in 1961. It distributes 65,000 copies daily, is twelve pages in length, and in size is the largest newspaper in the country.

The most-respected training ground for Christian journalists has been Syracuse (New York) University, which has a department of religious journalism in its school of communications and which offers bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in communications. Wheaton (Illinois) College and Oklahoma Baptist University offer graduate programs in Christian communications which embrace journalism.

Evangelicals have seized opportunities in radio and television to a much greater extent than liberals. Thousands of Christian programs took to the air, and hundreds of Christian stations have been commercially successful. Few broadcasts and telecasts, however, have been concerned enough with timely affairs and current developments to warrant the designation of journalism. Most have simply followed the pattern of church services. The coming generation will probably have more sophisticated media such as cassettes, electronic video recordings, and facsimile at its creative disposal.

A definitive work on Christian journalism has been long overdue. Indeed, an authentic philosophy of Christian journalism relating reportage to evangelism, service, education, worship, and fellowship has been desperately needed. Under the influence of empiricism, secular journalism long championed a theory of verifiability wherein biblical truth must be labeled “opinion” and subordinated to the “facts” of observable data. In recent years, a new art form of journalism that is basically existential has risen to compete with the objectivity school. To do justice to its scriptural origin an evangelical view must be developed which transcends both these theories of meaning.

In the British Isles, the nineteenth century could aptly be called “a continuing communication revolution” in the field of print and journalism. Technical developments with faster transportation made possible the distribution of periodicals on a national scale. Modern Christian journalism in Britain can, however, be dated from the Wesleyan Revival of the eighteenth century. Before the foundation of the Religious Tract Society in 1799, John Wesley* and his friends were using tracts on a wide scale. The first Christian magazines, it should be noted, were either collections of sermons aimed at the elect, or tracts-stories or homilies-designed to reach the unconverted. The Religious Tract Society really shaped the magazine revolution of the nineteenth century. Originally founded as a means of developing new styles of print evangelism, the RTS became a worldwide enterprise, producing literature for distribution in many languages and countries.

As the century proceeded and reform movements developed, Christians were faced with the implications of wider literacy. The Society for the Propagation of Christian Knowledge, like the RTS, became a foremost publisher of “wholesome Christian literature.” Magazines such as The Sunday at Home and The Leisure Hour offered superb combinations of articles on travel, popular science, the arts, literature, etc., combined with very readable articles on Scripture. Later The Quiver and Cassell's Family Magazine mingled popular appeal with spiritual content; The Sunday Strand had evangelist George Clarke as editor.

Denominational newspapers also flourished in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, particularly as so many evangelists were deeply involved in journalism. The firebrand Hugh Price Hughes, with his campaigning Methodist Times, was obviously encouraged in literature evangelism by D.L. Moody.* Former missionary Michael Paget Baxter was another great crusader in print with his Christian Herald (still the best-selling Protestant weekly in Britain) and The Signal. World War I saw for the first time free church evangelists working as chaplains on an equal footing with Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Reports sent home from the front, published in Christian papers at home, helped prepare the way for interchurch evangelism and ultimately the ecumenical movement as well as the cause of Christian journalism.

Between the wars, some of the finest campaign journalism was seen in papers like The Methodist Recorder and Joyful News. The 1930s tended to be years of retrenchment, however, and radio, movies, and television (the latter in its infancy) held out alternative attractions to reading. World War II closed down many publications, and the bombing of London destroyed the premises of many publishing houses. Crusade (monthly) magazine, launched in the 1950s by the Evangelical Alliance, was probably the most noteworthy feature of the decade, but twelve issues a year does not give scope for much “hard” news. Where such is found it is generally in denominational publications such as Church Times, Church of England Newspaper, and Baptist Times. Of the interdenominational weeklies, The Christian tried to blaze new trails in offering a wide range of news coupled with a professionalism of presentation, but it fell a financial casualty in 1969. The British Weekly, launched by W. Robertson Nicoll in 1886, still maintains a precarious existence, having changed hands several times in the past two decades. The Life of Faith (founded in 1874) maintains its traditionally strong links with the Keswick Convention.* The Roman Catholic weeklies-the Catholic Herald, The Universe, and The Tablet-while their ecclesiastical attachment is never in any doubt, offer an imposing treatment of international affairs as they overlap the religious scene.