December 17, 1939. One radio program. One station. One Midwestern city.
By God’s grace, that first broadcast of “The Back to God Hour” launched a multimedia ministry that has grown wildly beyond the imagination of its pioneer founders.
Or maybe not. Perhaps the vision of sharing the gospel with people worldwide, using every available modern media tool, was exactly what they had in mind.
“Since Back to God Ministries International (BTGMI) started 75 years ago, our mission has been to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, to help those who want to follow Jesus know him better, and to strengthen the church,” said BTGMI director Kurt Selles.
BTGMI’s history goes back to the early 1920s, about the time the “new” communications tool—radio—took root as an entertainment medium in North America. Leaders in the Christian Reformed Church sensed the potential of radio as a means of spreading the gospel. By the time they put together an official proposal for synod, however, disaster struck: the economic crash of 1929.
But the dream didn’t die. These leaders kept praying and studying, and in 1938 synod appointed the first permanent Radio Committee. A little over a year later, the first broadcast of “The Back to God Hour” aired on Chicago’s 20,000-watt station WJJD.
People responded, and more stations asked to air the program. By 1948 more than 250 stations carried the broadcast. At least 60 percent of the mail pouring in came from non-CRC listeners.
These listeners requested discipleship resources. So in 1950 the ministry created a devotional booklet called The Family Altar (now called Today). It wasn’t long before the subscription list swelled to 40,000 and then nearly doubled over the next four years. This little devotional book has blessed tens of thousands of people throughout many generations.
The CRC was convinced of the power of media to proclaim the gospel, disciple seekers and new believers, and grow Christ’s kingdom. And the ministry was always looking for ways to be on the cutting edge of media outreach.
In 1953, Dr. Peter Eldersveld, the denomination’s first permanent radio host, used the next wave of media delivery—television—to launch a teaching series called “Law and Love.” And the ministry continued to grow.
Beyond the Borders
The vision to reach beyond North America opened doors for BTGMI to expand into other languages, first Arabic (1958) and then Spanish (1965).
“In the decades that followed those humble beginnings, Back to God Ministries International’s outreach continued to develop ministries in French, Indonesian, Portuguese, then Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and, in 2009, Hindi,” said Selles.
“Today we work in 10 major world languages,” he said. “We still use radio in places where radio remains the primary form of communication. But today more and more we use the Internet and social media channels to deliver our programs.”
To better reflect the worldwide multimedia impact, Synod 2008 approved changing the agency’s name to Back to God Ministries International.
“Back to God is really an orchard of ministries that grew from that single program started in 1939,” explains BTGMI ReFrame Media (English ministry) leader Rev. Steven Koster. “This shoot that began as one small tree has really grown into many fruit-filled trees.”
Thanks to faithful prayers and support from the CRC and many individuals, BTGMI’s media outreach has been a blessing to millions of people.
Sharing God’s Love
Kevin is a new believer who used the Chinese-language Today to grow in faith.
A successful iPhone app developer in Beijing, Kevin wanted to receive the daily devotional through his smartphone. Although the Chinese team didn’t have the budget for such a project, they had been praying that God would provide the resources. When Kevin contacted them and volunteered to develop the devotional app for free, the Chinese team knew God had answered their prayers.
With this app, people in China can now receive Today on their mobile phones and also access other Christian resources in their own language.
Kevin says, “I was energized and filled with joy by this project. What a spiritual journey for me!”
People in many countries use BTGMI daily devotionals as a discipleship resource. BTGMI produces and distributes more than three million print devotionals in seven languages annually. In several places, new digital technology is changing the world. More than 500,000 people receive the devotionals by email, social media, and smartphone apps every day.
Oleg Gives Back
In some areas of Russia’s Far East, satellite radio is the only way for people to receive information. For Oleg, a child living in a military family in 1991, it was even more difficult.
“When my father heard about a radio station within reach,” says Oleg, “he got a powerful military receiver and we started to listen to Back to God programs on Christian radio.”
That’s how Oleg came to know Jesus.
“Because I listened to Christian radio, I understood that radio is a very powerful tool for proclaiming the gospel,” he says.
Today Oleg hosts a call-in radio program for Back to God Ministries’ Russian outreach. The program serves as a safe place for Russians to ask tough questions about the Christian faith. The network covers almost 90 percent of Russia through satellite, reaching people who otherwise might not seek out information about Christianity.
“This is very important for Russian people,” Oleg says. “Still now people are not willing to express their thoughts, feelings. But radio is something special. You could be alone in your room and listen to the radio station. You can call the studio and it could be anonymous.
“Our goal is to tell people that there is hope in Jesus Christ. And our second goal is to bring people to local churches.”
Every once in a while, Oleg gets feedback from people who have been listening to the program for months or even years—individuals who, like Oleg, didn’t know much about the Christian faith.
“Those people are in church now,” Oleg says. “They’re saved now. It gives great joy to my heart.”
It’s About Giving
Several years ago, Pastor Ruswang, listener community coordinator for Back to God Ministries’ Indonesian outreach, visited a small community in Jawa Barat, Indonesia, to tell the villagers there about the Savior.
Agus, a thin, cheerful man in his thirties who lived in that village, was captivated by the pastor’s message. He wanted to know more, so Ruswang gave him a Bible with simple instructions: “Read it.”
“I read my Bible, but I didn’t understand,” recalled Agus. He visited Ruswang in the neighboring village to ask more questions.
Instead of giving him books or sermons, Pastor Ruswang gave Agus a job: to translate Back to God Ministries’ radio programs from Indonesian to Sundanese (his native tongue). Each day Agus translated devotions, prayers, and Scripture readings. And each day he learned more about Christ.
For Agus, Christian radio is not just a staple in his home; it is his livelihood. He now works as a freelance repairman for Back to God Ministries’ Indonesian outreach, traveling with listener community leaders around the country to offer support to radio stations and individuals.
When asked what he likes most about being a Christian, Agus put it simply: “It’s about giving, sharing, caring, loving.”
Serving the Kingdom
Jerry An is the new Back to God Ministries Chinese program director. He has been instrumental in developing an in-country presence that is changing the future of Christian broadcasting in China.
He notes, “The daily average that people spend on smartphones is more than two-and-a-half hours. Do they have enough good Christian content? Can we share the gospel on smartphones? That really is the biggest opportunity for us.”
The Chinese ministry team, together with several other BTGMI language teams, is developing social media and e-magazines to advance ministry by using new media.
An explained, “Social media is growing so fast in China. In China you may not be able to establish a Christian TV or radio station—but you can have it on new media. You cannot establish a Christian newspaper; you can have it on new media. There is plenty of space for us to use today’s media. That is a wonderful opportunity for us to embrace.”
ReFrame Media leader Steven Koster adds, “We really want to be there for people wherever they are. Whether they are old or young, close to God or not close to God. We want to be there through all kinds of different channels and efforts—especially online. We can reach so many more people worldwide through the Internet than we could through a local radio broadcast or with paper and ink.”
When visionaries dreamed more than 75 years ago of how God might use the “new” media tool, radio, they could never have imagined one day reaching millions of people in nearly every country of the world.
“As we look back over the past 75 years, we are so grateful for God’s faithfulness,” said Kurt Selles. “We are grateful for the countless opportunities we’ve had to share God’s love and to see people come to know Jesus.
“We don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know how media will change. But God is faithful. We trust him and we remain committed to proclaiming the Good News, to helping people grow in their knowledge of Jesus, in order to see the church grow and God’s kingdom come.
“Thank you for partnering with us to tell Jesus’ story and share his love—to those in our own churches and to people around the world.”
You can read more of these stories at BackToGod.net.
As the English outreach of Back to God Ministries International, ReFrame Media takes up the mantle laid down 75 years ago, said Steven Koster, director of ReFrame Media.
“We are a media ministry to English speakers, sharing the good news of Jesus in an increasingly vital mission field at home and abroad.”
Koster notes that many church members are unaware of the vast array of discipleship resources available to them through BTGMI and ReFrame Media.
“People are surprised when we share the list of English programs out there—supported largely by CRC ministry shares—offline and online. Programs like ‘Kids Corner,’ ‘Walk the Way,’ and ‘Spotlight’ are designed to develop lifelong followers of Jesus, sharpen and challenge your witness for Christ, and demonstrate practical everyday evangelism.”
To learn about all the ReFrame program streams, visit MeetReFrame.com.
At a Glance: Global Impact of BTGMI
- Active in 140 countries through radio and TV broadcasts, resource distribution, and discipleship centers
- Reaching people in nearly every country through 35 websites and more than 55 social media sites.
- Nearly 30 million touchpoints with people each year through letters, phone calls, emails, text messages, online interactions, and event attendance.
The Church at Prayer
- Praise God for 75 years of media ministry and for his faithfulness in providing resources and gifted media teams who share the gospel with people around the world.
- Pray for people who live in areas of the world where conflict and persecution make their lives difficult. Pray that BTGMI’s media outreach in these areas will bring peace and hope through the good news of Jesus Christ.
- Pray for seekers who are hearing the name of Jesus for the first time through media ministry. Pray that God will use BTGMI and its local partners to disciple them and bring them to faith in Christ.
For monthly prayer updates, visit BackToGod.net/pray.