Back to Index Page
© 1994 by Donald F. Robertson.
This article may be distributed at will, but only if it is not changed in any way, and only if the author's name, the copyright notice, the name of the journal it first appeared in, and this notice remain attached. In addition, this article may not be sold for money, or published for sale in any way, without the author's prior written permission.
This article originally appeared in Satellite Communications.
"A BAND OF PROPHETS COMING DOWN
FROM THE HIGH PLACE . . . AND THEY ARE
Donald F. Robertson
The photo on the World Wide Web page shows a silver-haired, fatherly-looking "Paul" standing in an open white coat with arms raised and thumbs up. Towering behind him are a Redstone missile and an early Atlas rocket of the types that launched the first Americans into space in Mercury capsules. Under the picture, there are a few lines of very bold text.
In part, the message reads, "Pledge for SATELLITE! YOUR [Trinity Broadcast Network] now covers the globe with 15 SATELLITES! Nearly 1 BILLION new souls can be reached through TBN EUROPE! This mighty voice . . . is literally able to say 'Hello World!' to the WHOLE WIDE WORLD with 24-hour Christian television. . . . Nearly 50 MILLION households in America have TBN available in their home via cable or DBS (home satellites dishes). Please pledge for SATELLITE TODAY!" [Italics and caps in original.]
The last sentence is a link to another World Wide Web page, where you can use your credit card to give money to the Trinity Broadcast Network.
Space exploration and humanity's religious impulse have always been closely linked. At their best, both address fundamental questions from the before dawn of history: Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? Science fiction films -- especially those that try to deal realistically with spaceflight -- often have overtly religious themes, most famously Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark's "2001: a space odyssey." Returning the favor, some organized religions now distribute their messages via an idea invented by that very same Arthur Clarke -- the geostationary communications satellite.
The Christian Broadcast Network founded by Pat Robertson claims to be the first religious organization to broadcast via satellite, beginning twenty-four hour Christian programming as early as "the 1970s." Today, they have been joined by many organizations, including the Vatican itself, broadcasting services in many different languages via satellite. This article will survey a few of the religious organizations that are using satellites, and look at what they are using them for.
Why satellites? In their unique style, the Trinity Broadcast Network probably puts it best. Only satellites can allow [Bold text] "this Gospel of the kingdom" [end Bold text] to be [Bold text] "preached in [Ital.] all the world [end Ital.] as a witness to [Ital.] ALL THE NATIONS, [end Ital.] and then the end will come." [end Bold text]
Until the end, the Trinity Broadcast Network will leave virtually no corner of the Earth un-saved. Its microwave message floods the United States from the Galaxy-V satellite located in geostationary "Clarke" orbit (125 degrees west), and over both the DirecTV and Dish direct broadcast satellite networks, according to Trinity. Their word also flows to Europe and the Middle East over Intelsat-804 (64 degrees east) and Europe's Hotbird-5 (13 degrees east); to Asia via Japan's JCSAT-3 (128 degrees east); to Australia, New Zealand, the South Pacific, and Southeast Asia via Intelsat-701 (180 degrees east).
Trinity continues to dedicate new satellite links, throwing "big switches" during "Praise-A-Thons." Translated broadcasts reach Spanish speakers in both Europe and the Americas with PanAmSat-9 (58 degrees west), Italians via Eutelsat's Hotbird-3 (13 degrees east), Brazilian Portuguese speakers on Brasilsat-B2 (65 degrees west), and Asian Hindi via JCSAT-3.
Mainstream Christian organizations use space technology for the same reason that the Christian Right does. Satellites are the cheapest way to reach the largest number of people with difficult-to-sensor broadcasts, especially in areas where ground-based infrastructure is poor or non-existent. An organization called The Word Network provides religious programming to urban African Americans via DirecTV. One of the big surprises of the satellite television industry was that it was also a hit in urban areas where cable should have had a lock on the market.
Asked about religious organizations using PanAmSat, company representative Donald Mayer said that the Global Catholic Network's Eternal Word Television Network is their "largest [religious] customer with the greatest reach." The network is broadcast worldwide over Galaxy-IR, Galaxy-XI, and PanAmSats-3, 8, and 9. In Europe, it is broadcast over Eutelsat-4 (13 degrees east).
PanAmSat also carries The Word Network's Urban Religious Channel on Galaxy-XI (91 degrees west) and via DirecTV; the Shepherd's Channel on Galaxy-IVR (99 degrees west), and Gospel Music TV on Galaxy-IX (127 degrees west).
Gayle Armstrong, a representative at Loral's Cyberstar division, said that both Opus Libani and the Christian Church use Loral's satellites to distribute Internet content. Opus Libani, produced in Lebanon, is the information source for Christian churches of the "Orient." Vanessa O'Connor, Corporate Communications Manager for Eutelsat, listed the following religious organizations as using her company's satellites: La Cadena del Milagro; SAT 7; the Three Angels Broadcasting Network (also available throughout the world on other satellite networks); Neuapostolischer Kirche (the New Apostolic Church); Sat 2000; Telespace; Miracle; and Good News.
Many religious organizations use satellites to distribute health information and education to remote communities which cannot easily be reached in any other way. This is especially true if the target audience is a thinly-spread minority diffused through a much larger dominate population.
A "registered charity" called Sat-7 broadcasts analog and digital Christian television over two satellites to the Arab world's Christian minorities. According to Sat-7, "The Middle Eastern skyline was transformed in the 1990s with the advent of the satellite dish and un-censored international broadcasts. By , one-hundred million people in the region had direct access to satellite television [and] . . . ninety-percent of the population had at least one television set."
In fact, "even the poorest, including those who live virtually on the street, seem to have at least a black-and-white set. A television is a priority purchase for any family and, for most, their only source of information or entertainment." At the same time, "increasing numbers of people are illiterate," many of them children, and television is the only way to reach them. Soon, Sat-7 expects new ninety-centimeter satellite television dishes to cost the equivalent of one-hundred dollars.
Well over half of Sat-7's programming is locally produced, according to the organization. This includes street interviews, drama, discussions, investigative reports, childrens' programming, and micro-enterprise programs showcasing small business entrepreneurs. This is "in a region where unemployment is rampant and large amounts of capital for business activities [is] difficult to obtain," according to Sat-7. In the future, bibles and other books will be available for download via Internet connections over Sat-7's satellites.
Sat-7 was formed by twenty-five Christian agencies and started broadcasting in 1996 with only two to three hours per week of Arabic broadcasting. In 1997 this was up to eighteen hours over two satellites. 2000 saw daily two hour broadcasts and experimental webcasts, and a move to an evening prime time slot. In 2002, Sat-7 expects to introduce non-Arabic language broadcasts and increase service, ultimately to a twenty-four hour digital television and Internet broadcast via a single satellite. John Rogers, Sat-7's Chief Operations Officer, said, "The conversion to digital receivers [in the Arab world] is happening faster than was previously expected. . . . Industry momentum may be such that the majority of Sat-7's viewers throughout the Middle East and North Africa will have digital receivers within two years."
Compared to some organizations, Sat-7's requests for funding seem decidedly low key. Sat-7 requests donations for "initial capitalization and recurrent annual operating budgets, estimated at about $6.5 million." Today, broadcasts are over Eutelsat-W2 (16 degrees east) and the Eutelsat Hot Bird-5 (13 degrees east). Since Sat-7 uses European satellites, the broadcasts are easily received in Europe. In September 1999, Sat-7 founded Sat-7 Norden to offer Christian programming in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland.
Another global operation is the Three Angels Broadcasting Network, a twenty-four hour Christian television and radio network based in Illinois. 3ABN offers what they call "divorce recovery programs," as well as "drug and alcohol rehabilitation, cooking and health programs, stop smoking and weight loss, programs that deal with children and family issues, organic gardening, natural home remedies, gospel music programs," and others.
One of the most well-established satellite services is "distant learning," where educational materials are distributed to remote locations via satellite. The United States, with its vast areas of low-density population, is ideally suited for this type of service. LearnAtChurch -- the "t" is displayed as a cross -- distributes Christian educational programming to "the local church," and to reach the "unchurched."
The service is broadcast over the EchoStar Dish Network's satellite used for specialized programming (61.5 degrees west). A special antenna, or a second one, is required to receive these broadcasts in addition to EchoStar's regular television programming. LearnAtChurch says they support "church Pastors and Elders by equipping them for excellence in ministry using cutting edge media tools, innovating programming, and state-of-the-art equipment." The Campus Crusade for Christ International imposes "spiritual content oversight and approves the network content." In turn, the CCCI uses the service to communicate to staff and field offices around the world.
The monthly basic fee starts at forty-nine dollars for an individual or small church, rising to $149 for a large church with one-thousand or more members. For an additional charge, LearnAtChurch provides Bachelor's and Master's degree religious courses via the American Open Learning University. No fundraising is allowed on any channel -- "You can count on quality programs without solicitations" -- however, congregations may raise funds by selling supplemental materials and hosting the educational programs at their church.
LearnAtChurch provides a full-time Christian television channel, and part-time content produced by more specialized denominations. These serve "specific groups, such as CCCI, Promise Keepers, Concerned Women for America, and others, by making their content available to our open subscriber network or as a private feed that will only be viewable to an authorized user group."
Programming fare ranges from pastoral strategies for responding to domestic violence, to such practical advice as "A Wife's Responsibility to Help Her Husband," "Ministering to Christians Married to Unbelievers," and a program where "Stu discusses the joys, trials, and tribulations of raising masculine sons."
Brigham Young University also offers educational programming via both EchoStar's Dish Network and DirecTV. Seventh Day Adventists offer the Adventist Communications Network's satellite service. They broadcast complete religious services and "special satellite prayer meeting series" like "Israel in Prophecy." This early 2001 series exposed "popular teachings about the rapture, Israel, a rebuilt temple, and Armageddon." The Adventist "satellite ministry is hastening the coming of Jesus as it simultaneously touches thousands with the gospel."
While we wait, two new companies, Sirius and XM, each plan to entertain us with one-hundred channels of satellite-delivered radio. Sirius plans Christian music programming, while XM plans to broadcast Christian-oriented talk and music from Salem Communications Corporation.
Space technology allows religious content to be broadcast to the world. The technology also allows programming to be uploaded from a single religiously-significant location, then broadcast via satellite. The Christian High Adventure Global Broadcasting Network moved its programming facilities to Jerusalem when Israel withdrew its military presence from Lebanon and Lebanese Christians followed. According to a report in the Maranatha Christian Journal, this network "broadcasts gospel [radio] programming to different parts of the world through daily satellite feeds," becoming "the first such organization to work from a base in Jerusalem." The group's leader, John Yockey, said, "It's amazing to think that we have the opportunity to reach every country in the world from this strategic location via satellite."
To all appearances, Christians -- particularly the Christian Right -- dominate religious satellite programming. Few technologies have the power of satellites for proselytizing, and few religions are as aggressive as some Christians at adding to their flocks, so it is hardly surprising that they were early adapters of satellite broadcasting.
Paul A. Soukup, professor of communication at Santa Clara University and author of "Media, Culture, and Catholicism," wrote about this subject in an academic paper. He thinks, "The rapid adoption of new communications technologies by Christian churches stems [among other factors] from a generally optimistic view of technology [which] leads to a willingness to try new tools." He quotes Paul VI as saying, "The church would feel itself guilty before God if it did not avail itself of those powerful instruments which human skill is constantly developing and perfecting. With their aid, [the church] may preach 'upon the housetops' the message which has been entrusted to it (Evangelii Nuntandi, No. 45)."
The Eternal Word Television Network agrees. "Throughout history, men have used the means available to spread the revelation of God. . . . Continuing to the present day, the technological advances of mankind have made it possible for the Word of God to be spread to the farthest corners of the world."
Another motivation was suggested by John L. Allen, Jr., writing in the National Catholic Reporter. "A rejection of secular media [leads the Christian Right] to feel much more enthusiastic about creating a sub-culture of religious programming." The Christian Right also has the money. While the cost per viewer may be low, broadcasting via satellite and cable "is an extraordinarily costly undertaking," wrote Mr. Allen. "To some extent, the ability to get on cable [and satellite] turns on the ability to raise money. The combination of a theological commitment to proselytize and access to the resources to pun it off have given the Christian right a near-monopoly on religion on cable [and satellite]."
To a degree, this is a matter of religious choice. Some religions exist quietly in the background. For example, from a very different corner of the religious -- and political -- spectrum, Neo Celtic Pagans were very early and wide-spread adapters of Internet technology. Their adherents, frequently in the computer industry, often have the money to afford satellite technology, but I was able to find no sign of their using satellites to spread their message. Why not?
A practitioner told me that Pagans tend to be very individualistic, distrustful of authority, and have little interest in proselytizing. Pagans talk a lot, but usually it is to each other; they don't like to listen to sermons from an authoritative source. Even though they are widely and thinly distributed throughout the United States and Europe -- the ideal satellite audience -- the "many-to-many" model of the Internet works much better for Celtic Pagans than the "one-to-many" model of satellite broadcast.
Christians appear to dominate satellite use in the United States, but are not quite the only ones distributing their message from on high.
A beautifully designed United States-based Web site called IslamiCity -- "For Soul and for Spirit" -- re-broadcasts daily prayers from Masjid Al-Haram and Masjid An-Nabawl via "Live Satellite Webcast." This non-Arabic speaking author watched part of what appeared to be a religious soap opera streamed via Real Player over a DirecPC antenna. Demonstrating the power of satellite and Internet technology to reach listeners regardless of the policies of their countries, IslamiCity includes readily accessible links to a number of religious sites that are overtly opposed to the Middle Eastern policies of the United States.
Religious broadcasting uses a much smaller segment of the world's satellite capacity than I expected when I started researching this article. PanAmSat, Cyberstar, and Eutelsat all agreed that religious organizations use a tiny percentage of their spacecraft. Eutelsat's Vanessa O'Conner said her organization is "currently broadcasting about 850 channels." She listed only eight of those as religious. Yet, religious broadcasting from satellites to rooftop antennae is clearly of great importance to some religions.
"And they come down from the high place to the city, and he speaketh with Saul on the roof." 2
2 1 Samuel 9:25, Young's Literal Translation of the Bible.
Back to Index Page