Understanding the Market For Christianity - a Report on Asian Christian Strategy

James F. Engel, Director, Billy Graham Communications Program, Wheaton Graduate School
[ to cite ]:
James F. Engel (1974) ,"Understanding the Market For Christianity - a Report on Asian Christian Strategy", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 01, eds. Scott Ward and Peter Wright, Ann Abor, MI : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 505-510.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 1, 1974    Pages 505-510


James F. Engel, Director, Billy Graham Communications Program, Wheaton Graduate School

In spring 1973 I spent nine weeks in Asia and the South Pacific. My purpose was to meet with leaders of the national churches and with missionaries and to assess the effectiveness of the marketing strategy of the church. This paper gives a brief review of the main observations and conclusions.


Countries in Asia and the South Pacific represent a rapidly changing environment: burgeoning population growth, teeming cities, young people cut free from tradition, materialism and economic well-being as a motivating philosophy, and militant evangelistic efforts on the part of Buddhist sects and Muslims.

It is encouraging to note the extent to which goal orientation and concern for management strategies have pervaded mission societies, communication agencies, and some segments of the national churches. In part, this appears to reflect the healthy influence of management training seminars held during the past few years, as well as the influence of church growth theories and methods.

Goal orientation, in turn, is accompanied on the whole by an openness to change and a desire to be accountable to God for results. There is a questioning of current strategies and a seeking for new ways to be more effective in reaching people with the Gospel and building them in the faith.

This optimistic picture, however, must be tempered by reality. In became crystal clear in my travels that there are some real impediments to progress:

1) Failure to base strategy on understanding of audience decision processes

2) Program orientation

3) Fragmentation within the communication community

4) Absence of measures of effectiveness, and

5) Conflict between missionaries and nationals


The role of the church according to its historic Biblical mandate is to bring people from no effective awareness of Christ and His message to fully trained discipleship as illustrated by the following continuum:


Everyone will fall somewhere on this continuum. The communication task, then, is to meet people where they are in terms of understanding and move them toward decision and true discipleship.

If the majority of people in a society or audience segment have only a distorted awareness of Christ, it is likely that they will screen out communication which focuses only on the plan of salvation. The essential communication task rather is one of sowing or pre-evangelism. Communication content must challenge presuppositions, raise questions, present the Christian alternative. Communication, in turn, will be effective only if-it can speak clearly to these issues and move people toward decision.

Clearly most people in Asia fall into the first third of the continuum. No more than 2% of the population of Japan, for example, is Christian, even Korea with nearly 100 years of missionary activity is still 90% non-Christian. The same is true in Indonesia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the other countries. Even the Philippines, while largely nominally Roman Catholic, cannot be said to have progressed much beyond the need for extensive sowing of the Word of God.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of communication efforts are based on the unverified assumption of sufficient audience awareness to permit large-scale reaping through the mass media. Missionaries and nationals both freely admit the fallacy of this reasoning, but little, if anything, is available in the language of a given society or audience segment which effectively meets the purposes of pre-evangelism. In other words, it is probable that much communication is improperly targeted and hence falls on unresponsive ears.

This is equally serious in the cases of literature, tapes, and radio programs directed toward discipling the Christian. There is some material available for initial followup. Also, there are commentaries and serious works aimed toward the trained worker. But there is a gap of significant proportions in terms of content for the relatively mature believer who is progressing toward the goal of training others. Furthermore, there is little firm evidence that available material is being used for its intended purpose by the believer.

The problem is further compounded by the fact that most literature, while translated into the language and cultural idioms of the audience, nonetheless is written in the west for those with western thought patterns. It is highly unlikely that much of this literature is meeting its intended purpose of leading people to an initial decision or to growth in discipleship. The number of books written by national authors in the countries visited can be numbered on two hands. National leaders, in particular, pointed out the seriousness of the resulting communication barrier. Some missionaries also seemed to recognize this fact, but there is little movement to rectify the situation. It should be noted in defense that the number of qualified national authors currently is quite small. This problem however, can be met with concentrated training in writing. At the moment such training does not seem to receive high priority.

IN SUMMARY, it appears that a large proportion of Christian communication effort is undertaken without careful regard to the audience and hence falls short of potential. Here and there one can find some bright spots.

The Christian Television Associates of Melbourne, Australia, for example, have produced a series of pre-evangelistic spots to run on secular television. There are of excellent technical quality, and market research has demonstrated good listenership and recall.

In addition, a C4MA research team is doing audience research with college students in Indonesia to determine whether or not a magazine can be effective in sowing and reaping.

Finally, the Bible Society of Southeast Asia has based a marketing strategy on research which shows laymen how to present the Bible to other laymen in terms of demonstrated and felt audience needs. The goal of the Society is to distribute 500 million copies of the Bible by 1980 compared by 22 million in 1972, and it is pursuing a sound marketing strategy to this end.

Fortunately, the need to study audience decision processes empirically and to "scratch where people itch" with communication content was grasped by the majority of those this writer interacted with. The problem at this point is to provide training to implement this approach.


The usual approach to communication strategy is to begin with a concept of needed content and media and then to implement that strategy regardless of environmental conditions. For example, we observed an attempt to begin a publishing operation in one country with the same list of translated western titles which were sold in another country. Only by accident could these two very different countries have identical communication strategy. The danger, of course, is that the program will not meet the needs of the environment and results are short of potential.

A marketing orientation, on the other hand, is initiated with an analysis of the environment, especially the audience. From this information, communication goals are determined, and a program is then designed and implemented. In short, the program is adapted to the environment.

What is the problem with a program orientation? Basically it lies in the fact that communication strategy is undertaken without clear awareness of the communication task. To cite another example, at least six major Christian publishers in one country are competing for a market for religious books which, at the moment, totals less than 10% of the total population for reasons of low literacy and economic wealth. This is further compounded by the fact that there is no means to distribute books exactly by a few stores in major cities, colporteurs, and individual missionaries. But each organization nonetheless endeavors to expand its publication program regardless. A marketing orientation, on the other hand, would inquire into other means to bring needed content to the people who cannot now buy books. Yet such vehicles as audio cassettes have received little consideration.

Once again it is necessary to return to the unmistakable fact that communication requires knowledge of the audience as the first stage. Otherwise it is impossible for a national literature committee to decide on appropriate titles. It was gratifying to note how two major groups in Korea grasped the need to study the communication needs of Christians as the basis for a discipleship program utilizing various media in combination.


While there are literature fellowships and other loosely structured groups in some countries, it became apparent that evangelical communicators, on the whole, are working without real awareness of what others are doing. The result, of course, often is unnecessary duplication of efforts. This was observed in every country which was visited. Often this writer addressed groups in seminars who were meeting for the first time.

The problem becomes intensified when one assumes a multimedia perspective. There is only fragmentary appreciation of the role of different media and the manner in which each can complement the others at different stages in the continuum on page two. Books cannot assume the whole task anymore than shortwave radio. The answer to penetration of a society ultimately is a multi-media system of cooperating agencies. This is not to make a plea for merger--rather, the intent is to underscore the need for better communication among communicators.


Successful marketing strategy (creatively adapting to a changing environment) assumes the existence of clearly stated, measurable communication goals. Unfortunately, it was discovered that measurable goals are rarely used in Christian communication, with the result that there is no way to assess accurately the effectiveness of efforts.

Sales of literature is one measure of effectiveness, but no one can say whether or not readers are helped in terms of the decision process in the continuum on page two. Similarly, the return of letters to a radio station or other Christian organization cannot provide a firm indication of the effects of a message on an audience.

Who is reading or listening? With what effect? are the great unanswered questions. The only real exceptions are the listenership studies begun by Far East Broadcasting Company in Manila and by the Christian Television Associates in Melbourne.


Finally, the familiar problem of relationships between missionaries and nationals is as yet unresolved.

In the first place, Christian media organizations in Asia, almost without exception, are managed by missionaries. This is complicated by the fact that only a few showed real evidence that they are training nationals to fill their positions. One exception is a Word of Life Press in Korea where the missionary manager by job description is rapidly "working himself out of a job". It is his objective to bring about a totally nationally-run organization as soon as possible.

The fact that this is not taking place in many other quarters gives rise to real tensions. Some missionaries are accused by nationals of empire building. An objective analysis has led this writer to conclude that there is some truth in this charge. Others claim that the fundamental problem is a basic lack of trust in the ability of the national. This charge also seems to have credence. Pressures for change are building to the breaking point as was demonstrated by the imminent severing of relationships between the national church and missionaries in one major denomination in a country in Southeast Asia.

One frequently implemented remedy to this situation is a literature committee composed of both nationals and missionaries. The nationals claim, however, that the missionary still dominates, partly by intent and partly by the fact that he controls the funds. Thus, this is not as effective a solution as it might appear to be on the surface.

National leaders, in the final analysis, most frequently asked to work side-by-side toward a common goal. Ultimately, the best working relationship observed on this trip was a missionary communication specialist working as a resource person at the request of the national church. This type of role is needed, especially in the area of training.


It has not been the purpose of this report to paint a negative picture, because the writer returns with a distinctly optimistic evaluation of future prospects. The need is to assume a marketing orientation and to base communication efforts on research and measures of effectiveness. This, in turn, should largely be the task of the-national church assisted in significant ways by trained professionals working in a missionary capacity.

There was a widespread agreement on the above points and genuine commitment to put the needed changes into place. The Anglican Diocese of Sydney has taken the lead and provided an ideal model for other to follow. A complete marketing analysis and strategy statement has been prepared and published by the Mass Media Commission under the editorship of Alan Nichols, and it is well worth the careful analysis of any in the field of Christian communication. Other similar efforts should be expected in the future.

The great need now is to provide training in research methodology, communication strategy, and communication technique from the perspective of a multimedia system. Unfortunately, such training is now offered only at Wheaton Graduate School and on a more restricted scope (primarily research methodology) by Daystar in Africa. Training centers must be multiplied around the world with the primary intent of equipping the nationals to accomplish their task. Missionaries, of course, have a significant role also as resource personnel. This assumes, of course, that they are equipped with the necessary tools for this purpose.