Five reasons why indigenous media ministries are vital to Christian witness in the Middle East and why they deserve your increased support
By Terence Ascott SAT-7 International CEO and David Harder SAT-7 International Communications Manager
Every Christian, wherever he or she may live today, can trace their spiritual roots to the Middle East, to a land where the church was birthed. Yet despite this great historical connection, today the Church in the Middle East is suffering and shrinking.
In many parts of the world the modern media, particularly radio, the internet and satellite television provide useful services, often complimenting information usually also readily available at a local church. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) however, these modern tools are not only helpful, they are indispensable and have become critically important to the very existence of the Church. Here are five reasons why indigenous media efforts in this turbulent region need and deserve your help.
1. The mass media are the only means to proclaim the gospel in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa
The region, which encompasses nearly the entirety of the western 10/40 Window and has a population of around 500 million people, receives the least amount of support in terms of direct funding and missions related manpower when compared to any other part of the world. This disparity is in large part caused simply by the sheer difficulty of living as a Christian in the region. Many MENA countries have strict governmental or societal rules that either prohibit or severely restrict Christian activities ranging from church construction to evangelism. These prohibitions make it extremely difficult for either local churches or foreign missionaries to witness to their faith in Christ.
The mass media, however, are increasingly popular. Beginning mostly in the early sixties, radio stations usually based in Europe brought Christ’s message of salvation to many who otherwise would have no other means of meeting a single Christian or ever hearing a gospel presentation. By the mid-1990’s satellite TV had become phenomenally successful in the region. Initially, the desire to watch satellite TV was driven by Middle Eastern people wanting uncensored coverage of the first Gulf War, available at the time only via satellite dishes tuned to CNN. The instant popularity of these dishes led to the 1996 creation of Al Jazeera and several other stations, including the first Christian Arabic satellite TV station, SAT-7. Today hundreds of Arabic channels are broadcasting from satellites in geosynchronous orbit high above the Arab world.
Satellite TV is so popular that even some Bedouins living a remote and nomadic lifestyle use car batteries to power their satellite receivers and TV’s. Many Christian media services have found a second and compendium avenue for their broadcasts: the internet, which is able to carry both radio and television services to some of the most remote parts of the earth—allowing people who are curious about the faith to log on, and receive right in the privacy of their own homes these channels though which they can learn about Christ. Middle Easterners appreciate the privacy, immediacy and communal nature of the internet as a vehicle to chat and interact. The internet allows viewers to respond immediately to what they have seen. Unfortunately governments can block some of these web-based services, but it is extremely difficult to obstruct radio and satellite television broadcasts which reach into living rooms in even the most remote and restrictive locales.
2. Middle Eastern churches are suffering and disappearing
In 1900, local Christians made up nearly 20% of the population of the Middle East. Today that number is less than 5% and shrinking. Some Christian leaders and social scientists say that within this generation we may witness the complete disappearance of the indigenous Church in the Holy Lands. Unfortunately it is far too easy to find examples of why: the young father who directed the Bible Society in Gaza was martyred for his activities; thousands of Christians are fleeing persecution in Iraq; in Turkey three Christians including a missionary were murdered for their faith in 2007; in many parts of the Middle East Christian homes and businesses are regularly threatened or attacked; unknown thousands of churches are operating underground and have little or no sources of outside support of any kind. Many indigenous church leaders in the MENA trying to lead these suffering congregations look to the Christian community around the world and wonder, “What are you doing to help us?”
The good news is that in much of the region huge numbers of people are spiritually thirsty. Their lives are difficult or even hopeless, and they are looking for answers they can’t find in their own communities. In some places churches are spontaneously being created. At SAT-7 we have received many reports of people who have come to Christ through our broadcasts and the efforts of other TV, radio and internet based ministries. These thirsty and new followers of Christ want to join churches and some have even started their own fellowships. Media ministries are providing a great compliment to local churches desperate for resources necessary to help young Christians. Media ministries also help place young Christians into local congregations and provide them with training material, courses, Bibles and other resources in short supply locally. For Christians living in extremely remote areas or for those keeping their faith a secret, media transmissions often provide the only source of encouragement and training. A woman in Iran recently told us that her city doesn’t have a single church so the only two things helping her grow in faith are her Bible and our broadcasts. Internet, radio and satellite television are playing a key role in helping train emerging Middle Eastern and North African church leaders.
3. The mass media reach women, the illiterate and other marginalized groups
In many parts of the MENA women are second class citizens. Even in the wealthiest countries in the region, they often spend a great deal of time secluded away from society. This makes them a difficult group to engage, even for people living in those societies. But satellite TV is extremely popular among women who tune in to soap operas and talk shows in huge numbers. And in internet chat rooms they can vent their frustrations and ask for help. Many programmes airing on satellite TV and radio now have complimentary internet chat rooms where the audience can go to ask follow up questions. One such show airing on SAT-7 received a huge response from Arab women desperate for relationship advice. People going to the chat room asked questions about what they had seen on TV, and many said the interaction with the counsellor had saved their marriages and also brought them into fellowship with Christ. This website continued to receive a large response, even after the programme finished broadcasting.
Functional literacy rates in the Middle East/North Africa hover at 50%. This low rate, among the worst for any region, means that even if we could give someone a Bible or other Christian literature, they couldn’t read it. This applies to Christians and non-Christians living in poor areas. But the broadcast media are easily accessible to those who can’t utilize any other modern communications medium.
Sadly, one marginalized community in the region is often overlooked, even by the local church. That group is the disabled. Across most countries in the Arab and Muslim world, the disabled and their families are considered as having been cursed by God. The disabled person brings shame to their family, so these individuals are often kept from participating in society. Broadcast ministries that reach out to this marginalized group show Christ’s compassion and demonstrate that the local Christian community has an important role in helping improve local societies, and we have received many positive responses to such programming. One non-Christian mother of a disabled child told us she initially was concerned about being involved in a show recorded at a Christian studio, but that in the end it was one of the best experiences of her child’s life.
4. Indigenous media ministries offer the best way to reach youth and children—the largest demographic in the Middle East and North Africa
While birth rates fall and populations rapidly age in the West, in the MENA the trend is completely opposite. In much of the region people under age 25 are in the majority. This younger generation is open to new ideas and new technologies. Internet usage among the young is skyrocketing, though the MENA still lags behind the rest of the world. Despite increasing educational opportunities and even technical expertise, young people in many MENA countries look to the future with a sense of dread and hopelessness. Nearly all youth struggle because of limited employment opportunities in often state controlled economies where access to position is determined by connections not merit. Christian Arab, Iranian and Turkish youth face the added pressure caused by ostracism or outright persecution.
In this environment young people are searching for answers—and they are looking to the mass media. They flock to chat rooms, send text messages to radio and television programmes, and say watching TV with their friends is one of their regular activities. This is especially true in conflict areas or repressive societies where young people simply cannot gather together safely away from their homes.
5. Indigenous media ministries are sensitive and effective
While nearly anyone can rent a channel on a satellite broadcasting into the ME/NA, those who have worked in cross-cultural ministry recognise that usually the most effective communicators to any given community are people of that community. Anyone who has had a message interpreted knows the challenge posed by idioms and local expressions. This is particularly the case in the MENA where Arabic and other local languages are very poetic. Additionally, listeners and viewers prefer to hear messages delivered in their own heart languages.
In the MENA two types of broadcast ministries seem to exist. For one type, the majority of programming is made up of Western religious television dubbed into Arabic and other local languages. The second type broadcasts primarily locally-made content. Occasionally outside broadcasters are unaware of local moirés and can cause unintended offense through their efforts. Additionally, groups that are not based in the ME/NA occasionally take an aggressive tone because they don’t have to fear local retaliation. Unfortunately, indigenous Christians and churches are often the first target for retaliation whenever an offence is caused. Ministries such as SAT-7, which has a board of MENA Church leaders, are accountable to the local church. These community leaders help set up and guide programming policies.
Additionally, local Christians understand what it is like to live as a minority. They are open to bridge building, to the concept of “dialogue” that is often looked upon derisively in the wider evangelical community. Dialogue does not necessarily mean compromise; it can often mean an opening of doors once non-Christians come to a better understanding of their Christian neighbours. It can be very difficult for someone to witness to an enemy, but if the neighbour of an Arab Christian knows and respects them, that neighbour will be more likely to hear their testimony. This approach, of respecting others, including those of different denominations and religions, is important and helps to build bridges of understanding which lead to greater opportunities to witness to the “hope which lies within” all followers of Christ.
Children living in these difficult situations are often desperate for safe places to gather. Television and other media can provide zones of safety. At SAT-7 we have many children writing from various conflict zones saying how much the broadcasts mean to them. Many non-Christian parents have also written to tell us how much they also appreciate the broadcasts, demonstrating how children’s programming draws entire families to watch Christian messages. Al Jazeera and several other Arab stations have launched children’s channels which include a fair amount of religious material. It is vital that we reach children and youth while they are open to new ideas. By exposing the gospel to non-Christians while they are young they will have a better understanding of their Christian neighbours and be more willing to accept their messages later in life. Many young viewers don’t wait until later and choose to follow Jesus or walk closely with the Lord from a young age.
Mass media efforts are expensive, often costing much more than traditional church planting or even medical outreach, but in the Middle East and North Africa the expense is well worth the outlay because media provide some of the only tools which are effective in a region so resistant to both typical missions enterprises and efforts of the local church.
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “a great and effective door to the Gospel has been opened up to me, but there are many who oppose me” (1 Cor. 16:9). Those of us who are partnering with the local church to create productions for use on radio, internet and satellite TV know of their effectiveness. And so do the millions of viewers who are tuning in. But without greater prayer and financial support from our Christian family around the world, many of these efforts could stumble or go silent.
What are you doing to help indigenous media efforts for the sake of Christ in the Middle East and North Africa?
Messaged received by SAT-7 from its viewers:
“I would like to thank SAT-7 for their love and care. I would like to tell you that the SAT-7 channel is such a part of our lives that we no longer can live without it. Your programmes are like water for thirsty souls. Your programmes are very interesting; they deal with our daily life problems so we don’t feel that we are alone in this world.” – A man in Egypt
“I really appreciate the great efforts you exert. I live in Iraq and due to the circumstances that we have every day we cannot go out very much. I dare to say that SAT-7 is the only source for our spiritual growth and entertainment. I like very much the Christian songs because they are a source of joy and hope in the midst of hardship that we face.” – Woman in Iraq
“I would like to thank you for your encouraging message that brought hope again to me. I am a regular viewer of your wonderful programmes, but because my family likes to watch other Arabic channels, my only chance to watch SAT-7 is while they are sleeping. I also cannot get into the chat room because it is forbidden in my country.” – Man in Syria
“I would like to thank SAT-7 for the love, reconciliation and messages of peace that are conveyed through your programmes. It is a channel that is committed to Christ’s message of love and reconciliation. I am a non-Christian and I never feel any prejudice in your programmes towards any religion.” – Man in Algeria
(Statistics quoted in this article accurate at original publication, 1 Jan 2011)