Wherever he or she may live today, every Christian can trace his or her spiritual roots to the Middle East, to the land where the Church was birthed. Yet despite this great historical connection, the Church in the Middle East today is suffering and shrinking.
In many parts of the world, modern media—particularly radio, the Internet and satellite television—provide useful services which often complement information also readily available at a local church. In the Middle East and North Africa (ME/NA), 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 our help.
1. Mass media is the only means to proclaim the gospel in many parts of the Middle East and North Africa.
The region, which is almost the entirety of the 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 by the sheer difficulty of living as a Christian in the region. Many ME/NA 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.
Mass media, however, is increasingly popular. Beginning in the early 1960s, radio stations typically based in Europe brought Christ’s message of salvation to many who otherwise would have no other means of meeting a single Christian or hearing a gospel presentation. By the mid-1990s, satellite television had become phenomenally successful in the region. Initially, the desire to watch satellite television was driven by Middle Eastern people wanting uncensored coverage of the First Gulf War. The instant popularity of these dishes led to the 1996 creation of Al Jazeera and several other stations, including the first Christian Arabic satellite television station, SAT-7. Today, hundreds of Arabic channels are broadcasting from satellites in geosynchronous orbit high above the Arab world.
Satellite television is so popular that even some Bedouins living a remote and nomadic lifestyle use car batteries to power their satellite receivers and televisions. 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 remotest parts of the world.
This allows people who are curious about the faith to log on and receive channels through 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 immediately respond to what they have seen. Unfortunately, governments can block some of these web-based services; however, 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 twenty percent of the population of the Middle East. Today, that number is less than five percent 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 this could be the case:
- The young father who directed the Bible Society in Gaza was recently 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 source of any outside support. Many indigenous church leaders in the ME/NA 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 cannot 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 television, radio and Internet-based ministries. These thirsty, 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 does not 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 ME/NA church leaders.
3. Mass media reaches women, the illiterate and other marginalized groups.
In many parts of the ME/NA, women are second-class citizens. Even in the wealthiest countries in the region, they often spend a great deal of time secluded from society. This status makes them a difficult group to engage, even for people living in those societies. But satellite television is extremely popular among women who tune in to “soap operas” and talk shows in large numbers. And on Internet chat rooms they can vent their frustrations and ask for help.
Many programs airing on satellite television and radio now have complementary Internet chat rooms where the audience can 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 television, and many said the interaction with the counselor had saved their marriages and also brought them into fellowship with Christ. This website continued to receive a large response, even after the program finished broadcasting.
Functional literacy rates in the Middle East/North Africa hover at fifty percent. This low rate, among the worst for any region, means that even if we could give some people a Bible or other Christian literature, they could not read it. This applies to Christians and non-Christians living in poor areas. But the broadcast media are easily accessible to those who cannot utilize any other modern communications medium.
Unfortunately, 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 his or her 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. 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 birthrates fall and populations rapidly age in the West, in the ME/NA the trend is completely opposite. In much of the region, people under age twenty-five are in the majority. This younger generation is open to new ideas and new technologies. Internet usage among the young is skyrocketing—although the ME/NA still lags behind the rest of the world. Despite increasing educational opportunities and even technical expertise, young people in many ME/NA 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 instead of 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 programs and say watching television with their friends is one of their regular activities. This is especially true in conflict areas or repressive societies where young people simply cannot safely gather together 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 recognize 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 ME/NA where Arabic and other local languages are very poetic.
Additionally, listeners and viewers prefer to listen to messages delivered in their own heart languages. In the ME/NA, 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 offenses through their efforts. Additionally, groups that are not based in the ME/NA occasionally take an aggressive tone because they do not have to fear local retaliation. Unfortunately, indigenous Christians and churches are often the first target for retaliation whenever an offense is caused. Ministries such as SAT-7, which has a board of ME/NA 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 neighbors. It can be very difficult for someone to witness to an enemy; however, if the neighbor of an Arab Christian knows and respects the person, that neighbor will be more likely to hear his or her 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 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 appreciate the broadcasts. Al Jazeera and several other Arab stations recently 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 non-Christians to the gospel while they are young, they will have a better understanding of their Christian neighbors and be more willing to accept their messages later in life. Many young viewers do not 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. However, in the Middle East and North Africa the expense is well worth the outlay. Media provides some of the only tools which are effective in a region resistant to both typical mission 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 Corinthians 16:9). Those of us who are partnering with the local church to create productions for use on radio, Internet and satellite television 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 SAT-7 Viewers Are Saying
“I would like to thank SAT-7 for their love and care. The SAT-7 channel is such a part of our lives that we no longer can live without it. Your programs are like water for thirsty souls. Your programs are very interesting; they deal with our daily life problems so we don’t feel that we are alone in this world.” – 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.” – 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 programs, but because my family likes to watch other Arabic channel, my only chance to watch SAT-7 is while they are sleeping. I also cannot get into the chat 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 programs. 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 programs toward any religion.” – man in Algeria