For the first couple of decades following its founding in 1959, TransWorld Radio’s German sister ministry, Evangeliums-Rundfunk (ERF), based in Wetzlar near Frankfurt, kept fairly close to the extended family’s radio-only mode. However, with the advent of VHS tape distribution in the 1970s, ERF slowly edged its way into video production and distribution, and then eventually into the television broadcast field.
But, whereas the paradigm for the radio and VHS tape ministries had been mainly one of teaching, discipleship and edification for committed Christians (many who lived in areas where Bible-believing churches were few and far between), the vision of ERF’s television department pioneers was in reaching out to the “highways and byways” of the TV airwaves with culturally-attuned evangelistic programs. These programs would be compelling and would use everyday language rather than many doctrinal and biblical-historial terms.
Expanding the Ministry into Television
A pragmatic rationale was that TV programming was much more expensive to produce than radio. If producers could afford to produce some television (in addition to 24/7 radio programs), then they had better make it count as an effective “guerrilla warfare” lance into the heart of the secular TV landscape. This seemed especially desirable due to a fundamental difference in the way people consume television versus how they view FM and MW radio. Television viewers channel-hop frequently (and thus may happen across the gospel), whereas radio listeners have real or figurative memory buttons on their radios set to the same four or five channels.
The timing for this entry into television was also providential. In the latter part of 1989, ERF’s TV studio complex was going into construction when suddenly and dramatically the Berlin Wall came down. Over night, regional TV airways in Germany’s heavily de-Christianized former-Communist East had become accessible. And the eastern Germany TV landscape was different from that of western Germany. Local TV stations were hungry for programs that were free and that provided solid production values like the talk-show and magazine formats that ERF was starting to produce on a weekly basis. These programs featured “living epistle” (1 Corinthians 3) testimonies and perspectives on a wide range of issues from vibrant German Christians with something to say and share.
A Decade Later
By the end of the 1990s, ERF had built up an ad hoc network of about forty such local and regional TV channels, virtually all of them with a completely secular programming base, and all but one which aired ERF’s Christian programs free of charge. (The exception was FAB, a popular commercial station in Berlin that charged a modest service fee per airing.) A somewhat uniquely German side benefit to having “Heimat TV” (local area TV) channels was and is the strong sense of regional identification that Germans have. This identification is often far stronger than their sense of national identity (except when it comes to international sports events like World Cup soccer). The local stations became quite popular. In one survey, roughly fifty percent of viewer respondents were non-believers for whom Christian broadcasts were an utterly new phenomenon indeed; people whose curiosity had been piqued or consciences pricked by the contents. These individuals began asking for more information about the subjects at hand from a Christian perspective as well as for Bibles and materials about the Christian faith. Some people, both nominal Christians and those from completely secular backgrounds, asked for personal spiritual guidance. Such individuals were referred to ERF’s professional counselling department. Some have invited Christ into their lives.
In 2000, ERF further expanded its broadcast reach by placing its flagship program, “Hof mit Himmel” (Courtyard to Heaven), onto NBC Europe, one of the thirty or so channels that are fed into eighty-five to ninety percent of all homes with cable access. The result was a doubling of viewer reactions, up to 7,500 responses per year. This was followed in 2002 with broadcasts via Astra satellite on the Stuttgart-based channel, B-TV, further upping theoretical technical reach to an estimated eighty percent of all German households. However, the word “theoretical” needs to be stressed. Actual average weekly viewership was estimated at 100,000—this in a country of eighty-two million people. One of the reasons for this low number is that these stations with nationwide reach lacked the A-list popularity of Germany’s big TV networks. Hence, the pull-in effect on secular audiences was modest.
One More Breakthrough
In 2002 another major breakthrough occurred: ERF joined dtcp, a partnership of (then-secular) independent producers. These producers banded together to avail themselves of equal access rules that were legislated after parliamentary concern that Germany’s TV industry ownership had become too concentrated within an oligopoly of two main conglomerates. The dtcp producers’ cooperative could thus tap into late night and early AM weekend slots reserved and set aside on VOX, one of the A-list channels. The rotational nature of the dtcp cooperative meant that ERF could run all-night marathon viewings of ten half-hour programs from midnight until 6 AM. These were interrupted “only” by breaks for telephone sex commercials, which ERF had no control over. However, it was generally felt among ERF leaders and others that broadcasting within this culturally-depraved environment was well within the purview of Christ’s command to go into the whole world and preach the gospel. And the results were encouraging. During each marathon viewing, hundreds of viewers would phone in and ask for more information about the Christian faith and for personal counselling.
ERF had two levels of interconnected phone banks, manned by twenty to thirty operators and twelve to fifteen phone counsellors. During and immediately after the marathon viewings, dozens of viewers called in (the average call length was thirty minutes). Many callers were up in the middle of the night watching TV due to insomnia induced by life problems. They were “ripe for the picking” and ready to be touched by the Holy Spirit. Lives were surrendered to Christ for the first time; recommitments of faith were made by those who had gone astray. Psalm 139:7 (“Where can I flee from your presence?”) was understood in a new way. Even in late night television, God’s Spirit was there.
However, there was also resistance from the enemy. Volunteers answering the phones endured bomb threats and verbal abuse. Early attempts at running live Internet chat rooms during the marathon viewing fizzled due to the aggressively anti-Christian tenor of some participants.
The digital revolution that has brought ever-cheaper production technology to the broadcast scene in recent years has also opened up a new paradigm for ERF. Expanded production into programming for Christians keeps with ERF’s motto: “Bringing people to Christ, and helping them to grow in Christ.” As of 1 January 2006, ERF began a two-hour (5-7 PM) daily slot on Germany’s 24/7 digital satellite channel, Bibel-TV. Features include a variety of teaching, edification and informational programs for Christians. Existing evangelistic programs (to catch secular “seekers” also tuning in) will also be aired. There are eleven tracks in all.