Advances in technology have a way of changing the world around us. With an institution as old as religion, the means and methods of reaching your audience are bound to change over time. While there’s no real replacement for community worship and togetherness, technology is making it easier for people to study religion and feel connected to their faith.
In the Beginning
Of course, the first technological leap to drastically affect the spread of religion (and the spread of all information) was the printing press. Prior to the invention of movable type, written documents could only be duplicated manually, a painstaking process only a few were even able to undertake. Since the written word was not proliferated as it is now, most people were illiterate. It fell to religious leaders to read and interpret teachings for their congregation; therefore, the only way to worship was to attend organized services.
Once written texts became easier to reproduce, literacy rates improved and people were able to study their faith on their own or in small groups. New interpretations of beliefs began to sprout up, and religions diversified and became more focused on the personal.
The 1920s saw the advent of the radio, as well as the beginning of decline in America’s rural population. Radio provided a way for Americans in isolated rural areas to stay connected to the nation and with their faith.
The first religious radio broadcast took place on Jan. 2, 1921 from Pittsburgh Calvary Episcopal Church. Some pastors and religious orators initially viewed the airwaves as frivolous, if not outright evil. Still, religious radio stations grew in number, climbing from 29 in 1924 to 71 in 1925. The fruit of these roots can still be seen in today’s model of the church; Aimee Semple McPherson found national fame through religious radio. She went on to build one of the first megachurches, a practice that is still gaining in popularity in today’s time.
By the end of the 1920s, more than half of all American homes featured a radio. Americans everywhere could feel connected to a congregation, no matter where they were. During the era of the Great Depression, religious broadcast was considered a public good, so Americans looking for communion didn’t have to look hard. However, as radio stations sought to bring more followers into the fold, the messages they preached became increasingly broad. These phenomena would continue in the golden age of the small screen.
Television Takes Hold
The Great Depression brought a resurgence of tent-revival preaching in the Midwest and South. However, television did not become widespread until after World War II. Religious television took hold primarily in evangelical denominations of Christianity. This new media allowed pastors, preachers and religious leaders to reach a much wider audience in a more immersive way.
In the beginning, religious radio stars began making the switch to TV. Fulton J. Sheen, hailed as “the first televangelist” by Time magazine, made the switch after two decades of successful radio broadcast. In 1952, Rex Humbard, another religious radio personality, became the first to have a weekly service broadcast.
Television became the primary in-home entertainment in the 1960s and 70s, and the careers of well-known televangelists, such as Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jerry Fallwell and Pat Robertson, took off.
While televangelism continued to attract large audiences, it was riddled with criticism and scandal. The financial practices of televangelists were frequently unclear. Many preached that they were wealthy because God wanted them to be, which is considered contradictory to the traditional gospel by many Christians. Televangelists also became involved in the political arena, leading these church leaders to mix politics and religion in the pulpit.
World Wide Web of Faith
The Internet has proven to be both a blessing and a curse to organized religion. On the one hand, the Internet provides a way for Christians to further personalize their religious experience.
Religious affiliation has declined through the era of the Internet’s pervasion. The Internet is the ultimate in the spread of information—information curated by users in whatever manner they would like. Thoughtful science videos and articles, collections of outdated beliefs, supportive communities for those leaving religion and secular spiritualism are chipping away at America’s faithful.
However, the Internet isn’t all bad for believers. Like any tool, it’s how you use it that dictates the finished product. Podcasts, simulcast worship services, Christian message boards and mailing lists all provide ways for churchgoers to stay in touch with their congregation no matter where they are. The Internet also provides new resources for pastors and religious leaders. From online theological degrees to sermon builders, the Internet does have value for religious leaders and communities.
As technology continues to advance, religion will change with it. Believers will find new and innovative ways to explore and grow their faith, no matter what the future holds.