Using Public Access Television to Reach Your Community

By: Earl Creps

Several years ago, a family in our church suggested we use their video camera to tape our services so that those who regularly missed them–our childcare workers, for example–could view them later. This operation gradually developed into an informal videotape-lending library that was helpful not only to those who missed our services, but also to unbelievers who might otherwise never set foot in a church building.

Each week I preached to my people–and to a live video camera–and never realized that I was staring right into one of God’s answers to the desire of my heart.

Like many towns in northern New England and other rural areas, Bath, Maine, is so far from a television transmitter that good TV reception is possible only by a cable hookup. But that fact, it turns out, is actually a blessing. The Lord showed us that a combination of our videotapes and the local cable company’s public-access channel could bring our message into thousands of homes in “the region at a low cost.

Cable operators frequently include for community organizations a public-access channel in their basic package of network and satellite programming. A call to the programming director of our cable company revealed that our VHS cassettes were compatible with the broadcast equipment used for their public access channel.

I explained that we wanted to air our Sunday morning services and asked about time slots and rates. After some negotiation, we arrived at a 90-minute slot at 7 p.m. on Thursdays, with a repeat at 1 a.m. on Saturdays-for $30 per week! At those rates, we had before us an open door.

In less than two weeks, our worship services, special music, and my Sunday morning messages were being broadcast twice a week to 10,500 homes. All of this was possible with no changes in our services, minimal alterations to our facility, and at a reasonable cost.

Simple Guidelines

1. Don’t be deterred by recent problems in prominent TV ministries. Scandals have plagued major TV ministries for two reasons: first, because of the power of the media to raise large amounts of money; and second, because media can produce personalities too large to be accountable to anyone. Working through a local cable channel avoids both of these pitfalls.

The cost, if any, of broadcasting on public access can be so low that no fund raising is necessary. Our church does none. In fact, some cities require their cable franchises to carry public-access programming free of charge, as well as to provide training, technical assistance–and even equipment and studio space.

2. Let your format flow from your vision, not the other way around. Perhaps I should have added a third reason nationally known TV ministries have been plagued by scandal: In several cases, the TV format began to dictate their vision, superseding the original vision given by the Lord. Thus the programs became locked into a cycle: “We need money so we can have a program, so we can raise money, so we can have a program, so we can raise money. . . .” Get the idea? The tail began to wag the dog.

So why even take the risk? After all, aren’t there many Christian TV shows on the air already? Yes–but yours may still be needed. A Gallup Poll revealed that in 1987, 25 percent of the American public watched religious programming each week. Since the Baker and Swaggart scandals, however, viewership has declined by about 30 percent! Thus, a huge pool of people have been turned off, burned out, or never reached by national programming-people who can be won over by television that is closer to home.

Although nationally syndicated programs are a valuable asset to the body of Christ on a large scale, they cannot (by definition) flow from the heart of God for a specific area. These ministries cannot know which time slots, formats, or follow-up methods are best suited to the conditions among the people of your town. With all their ability to reach, it still takes a local congregation to touch.

Our church’s vision is to be a house of prayer, a community for disciple-making and a place of healing. We realize, however, that many people who need God’s healing love are reluctant to come to a church. Already feeling guilty, they often fear they will only be further condemned by the preacher and congregation. Others have had a bad experience, or even no experience, with a church-and they are uncertain about what they are getting themselves into if they visit a service.

Our desire is to reach out to the lost and hurting where they are and as they are. Without a doubt, they are in front of their TV sets. For this reason, we schedule our program during prime time on a weeknight and again late-night on the weekend.

These time slots capitalize on maximum viewing hours, as well as take advantage of the shift-work nature of our community. Our late-night show comes on during the hours when workers at the local shipyard (8,000 employees) are coming home and unwinding from second shift on Friday night. Surprisingly, we have gotten more response from our 1 a.m. viewers than from our prime-time audience!

Our particular time slots also make clear that our TV ministry is an outreach from our church–not a substitute for our church. The needs of shut-ins are handled more efficiently by videocassette than by an entire cable program. Our goal is to take our ministry into every living room in the county-not to give Christians a reason to stay home.

Because we are located in a down-to-earth, industrial area of coastal Maine, we believe it’s best not to produce a slick, high-tech “show,” but simply to tape and air Sunday morning worship services as they are. We want our community to see us as we are. This “raw” approach allows our viewers to feel they are having an authentic experience with our congregation, rather than just watching a show about us.

Formats, of course, are almost infinite in their variety. Broadcasting a worship service is perhaps the easiest type to produce. But other churches are experimenting with the production of concerts, talk shows, interviews, phone-in programs–and the list is growing. The important thing is that the format issue from the vision God has given you for reaching your area.

3. Be prepared to make some changes–but not many. At the first mention of television, your church may get a trifle nervous–owing to some of the troubles mentioned earlier. In my case, after obtaining the support of our church, I addressed these concerns from the pulpit.

First, I stressed that a cable telecast would require only a small expenditure of funds. (Basic video equipment can be purchased for less than $1,500. If buying equipment is a barrier, perhaps someone in the church who owns a video camera would loan it to you for taping in exchange for the church paying to have the camera serviced regularly.) Building modifications involved only the hanging of a blue curtain behind the platform to provide a more telegenic background and the adjustment of a few overhead spotlights for better lighting.

I also assured the congregation that there would be few changes in the way we did things–and that we certainly weren’t going to do anything so radical that we would fall into the errors exposed by the recent scandals. After all, people who are on television fall-not because of TV, but because they are people. One person asked me if I would be getting a makeup man for the show. I assured him no one was going to get this preacher into cosmetics! A more significant question was whether our people would be
willing to worship openly and come to the altar if they knew they would be on TV. We found that after a few weeks, the church got used to the video camera, and today no one even thinks about its presence. It’s simply another piece of furniture in our sanctuary.

4. Talk it over with your local cable operator. You will find that many public-access cable channels are underused and that programming directors are anxious to attract new shows to fill their time slots and to generate revenues–if they are not required to provide them free.

The programming director and other franchise personnel will be able to give you invaluable technical assistance with format, equipment, lighting, sound and camera locations. They may even be willing to review your program periodically and give you pointers on how to improve.

Your cable operator has the equipment to produce music, credits, graphics, etc., for your broadcast. Many video cameras also have add-on graphics packages that will allow you to put text on the screen. During the closing credits of our show, for example, we list our church services times and invite viewers to call with questions or needs.

Once you are on the air, you can cross-advertise by running print ads for your show in the local TV directory. You can also add “call forwarding” to your church’s phone line so that those who phone in during your show can have their calls routed to the homes of trained follow-up workers.

Past experience in broadcasting taught me that it takes months perhaps years–of repetition to build an audience for a local mass-media program of any kind. Thank God that He is bigger than our experience and smarter than our textbooks! Our church received feedback about our broadcast almost immediately, and we’ve continued to receive more and more responses. People are watching, and barriers are being broken down!

In the three years that we’ve been on the air, our cable program has produced some wonderful fruit. Seldom does a week go by without someone–usually an unbeliever–telling me that he or she saw our church on television. Others in the congregation are experiencing the same thing. The Lord is speaking to needy men and women through this medium.

The program has generated a number of visitors to the church and, about a year ago, brought the first family into our fellowship. This first “TV household” has already brought a second family. Our cable franchise has recently expanded its coverage by more than 20 percent–bringing our program into more than 12,000 homes twice weekly–so we are looking for more growth in the years ahead. Perhaps best of all is the knowledge that we are fulfilling our commission to sow the seed of the Word into the soil of the human heart. If we do our job, God will do His job of giving the increase. Millions are waiting.

(The above material appeared in the July/Aug./Sept. 1992 issue of Growing Churches Magazine.)

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