Celebrating 71 Years of the Back to God Hour

By: Steven Koster

April 11th, 2010

Scripture Reading: Romans 10:14-15

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This program, the Back to God Hour, has been on the air for over 70 years. And this episode today is the last program that we will be recording under the name The Back to God Hour.

Does that mean this is the end? Such a transition raises a host of questions: Will there be a new program to replace The Back to God Hour? Will we find new ways to reach out in North America? Will we continue internationally? What has been the impact of this program over 70 years?

All these questions need answering, and we'll be wrestling with them over the next half-hour, with some guest appearances along the way. We'll see what God has done through the seeds of this program, both at home and abroad, and glimpse at what the future holds.

THE BEGINNING AND HISTORY OF THE BACK TO GOD HOUR

70 years is a long time, especially in broadcasting. Already in the Roaring 20s, when young men were still telling stories of the Great War in Europe, church fathers in the Chicago area had a passion for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ through an exciting new technology known as radio. It was the Internet of its day, a new and yet unformed medium and industry. But it wasn't until 1939 that the first Back to God Hour program hit the airwaves. Delayed by the Great Depression, that first program aired on December 6, 1939, in Chicago.

The speaker was Professor Henry Schultze, soon to be president of Calvin College. After thanking God for the opportunity to broadcast His Word, Professor Schultze continued an introductory prayer in lofty King James English. He said:

We beseech Thee, O Spirit divine,
that Thou wilt accompany us as we work through the season now begun
so that the messages brought today and on the Sundays that follow
may cheer and comfort those in sorrow,
may sustain and guide those in affliction,
may strengthen and encourage those that are weakly stumbling along life's pathway,
may fill the hearts of the faithful with joy and peace,
and may move men everywhere to a renewed consciousness of the great glory of our God...

And that has remained our prayer for all of these seven decades.

Peter Eldersveld

In those first years that followed, there were a variety of speakers on the Back to God Hour, much like we've had in recent years. But in 1943, Peter Eldersveld joined the preaching team, and in 1946 he became the first full-time radio preacher.

It was a new era for The Back to God Hour. Letters from listeners continued to double regularly throughout that first decade. Dr. Eldersveld had to pioneer a new course as a broadcast minister, being neither a parish pastor nor an itinerant evangelist. His duty as a radio minister was more than evangelizing the masses; he also felt a responsibility for the care and nurture of Christians who were already established but maybe alienated from churches. Many of these Christians had attended church but were not well grounded in the historic Christian faith. Throughout The Back to God Hour's history, its broadcast ministers have been sensitive to the needs of both groups: the lost sheep as well as the sheep in the fold.

The program then was formatted very much like a worship service, complete with Choir. For many years, to provide music on air, the choir at Calvin College was wired in on telephone lines from Michigan to the WGN studios in Chicago, providing live performances to complement the sermons.

Joel Nederhood

After almost 20 years as the sole radio pastor, Dr. Eldersveld was joined by a young minister named Joel Nederhood in 1960. Dr. Nederhood served as an associate broadcast minister, specializing in following up with listeners, producing Bible study material, and working with congregations in local outreach. But only five years later, in October 1965, Dr. Eldersveld died suddenly. Joel Nederhood was soon asked to fill the shoes of the radio pioneer. They were large shoes to fill.

But soon, Dr. Nederhood not only took over the Back to God Hour program, but also developed new radio programs, pioneered television broadcasts, expanded the international work, oversaw the construction of new broadcast studios, and developed a fundraising network to sustain the organization. At one point in the 1980s, Dr. Nederhood appeared on television early every morning with the Faith20 program. He offered a word of encouragement as stations resumed their broadcast day. Remarkably, thanks to the miracle of cable television, these messages were carried across North America, in New York, to Toronto, to Chicago, to Los Angeles.

In all, Dr. Nederhood led The Back to God organization for over 35 years, bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to millions.

David Feddes

As Dr. Nederhood moved more into television and other endeavors, another young pastor stepped behind the microphone on the Back to God Hour.

David Feddes began preaching on the program in 1991. Pastor Feddes emphasized what he termed "worldview evangelism," showing how the gospel story shapes every area of life, from ethics and relationships, to business and politics, to art and culture. He also oversaw the expansion of the broadcast in western Africa, cultivating a series of congregations across southern Nigeria.

Recent History: Last 4 Years

When David Feddes moved on from Back to God to pursue a Doctoral degree, we resumed the idea of a rotating team of pastors, each taking on several weeks at a time for a sermon series.

But now the time has come for something new altogether, maybe something more interactive and conversational. Clearly the seeds planted in 1939 grew into a flowering tree, but what will follow The Back to God Hour? We'll explore that question in more detail in a few minutes.

ORGANIZATION HISTORY & INTERNATIONAL GROWTH

But first, we need to see how that flowering tree, that one program that started in Chicago, has borne fruit, seeding hundreds of programs around the world.

The first International broadcast

In 1953, Back to God received a phone call from an anonymous caller who first played a short recording of a past Back to God program over the phone. The caller said "I took the liberty of sending a Back to God Hour recording down to the new 30,000-watt radio station, HCJB, in Ecuador. Last Sunday, they broadcast that message on their short-wave signal, and it traveled all over the world. What you just heard was a recording I made from my short-wave receiver almost 2,000 miles from the source of the broadcast."

Soon, The Back to God Hour began broadcasting regularly out of Ecuador, and letters came in from around the world. 23 countries were represented the first year, including Japan, Germany, England, Australia, Philippines, Iraq, Africa, Korea, Mexico, Brazil, and Venezuela. This was the beginning of International broadcasting for Back to God, but it was in English, repurposing content intended for a North American audience. How could we reach an international audience with programming that was more relevant to their culture?

In 1958, Bassam Madany, born in Syria, was appointed to open a new media missions field: Arabic-language programming. His role was to preach the gospel in Arabic for an Arabic culture, speaking in a way that both the ears and the hearts of Arabic listeners could hear God's call.

Letters came slowly at first, then in hundreds, then in the thousands. This was the first International language ministry for Back to God, in, of, and for the culture.

A few years later, in 1965, Juan Boonstra became the Spanish language minister, opening yet another part of the world to media missions in a native language and culture. Soon, other languages followed, French, Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, and Hindi.

 

Interview with Bob Heerspink

Joining me now is Pastor Bob Heerspink, one of the pastors on The Back to God Hour and the Director of Back to God Ministries International itself.

Bob, we've heard about how The Back to God Hour grew from a shoot to a tree to seeding other media ministries around the world. What does that look like today? What's going on internationally at Back to God Ministries?

Steven, I think the essence of where we've come to is found in the name change we underwent a few years ago, from the Back to God Hour to Back to God Ministries International. We truly are a multi-media ministry now that's involved in work around the world. It's an international ministry that is involved in ten major languages; we have forty discipleship offices around the world. We're involved in all levels of media - not just radio and television, but more and more, the internet.

Well, we have ministry centers all around the world, in Brazil, in Hong Kong, in Tokyo, in Russia. Bob, what's the common bond between all of these ministries?

We have common strategy and that's to work with the global church in building the church through media. We have indigenous teams in places around the globe, and it's those indigenous teams that are producing the programs and driving the ministry. We want to speak the gospel in the language of the people who hear. We also have partnerships with churches and denominations, because we truly believe it's not just getting the word out through the airwaves or even on the internet, but it's connecting those who listen to our programs, those who read our devotionals - connecting them to the church and building them into the community of faith right there in the local places where they live and work.

Interview with Rev. Jimmy Lin

Also with us in the studio is Pastor Jimmy Lin, director of the Chinese language ministry of Back to God Ministries International. He's been leading and developing our media ministry in China for nearly 20 years. Welcome Jimmy.

Thank you

Jimmy, China is a fascinating place, very different from North America. Could you give a brief overview of your ministry there?

Sure. The first thing that is special about China is that it is still a Communist country; so we have to reach our audience from outside the country. In the past we used short-wave and strong AM stations. Now days, because it's more free in China now, we use internet, we use text messages, we send in CDs and DVDs - just different channels to reach the people.

The second thing is because the audience is so big, 1.4 billion people, we have to do the programs in very different formats. For example, a lot of people in China want to learn English, so a bi-lingual program is a strong part of our ministry. We also want to reach out to the children, so we have children's programs. And then, because churches are not so developed, there are a lot of false teachings, so teaching programs are important too.

Tell me a little bit about the cultural context of China being different from North America?

Because China has been a Communist country for over 50 years, a lot of people under age fifty don't have any idea about Christianity. That's positive and it's also been negative. It's positive because they don't have the baggage of a lot of jargons or a lot of misunderstandings or misconceptions about Christianity. But the negative part is that it's almost a blank sheet. So in our programs, we can't assume that they know much about what we have been talking about in the West. So we have to give them a lot of details, use symbols and ideas. That's the first thing.

The second thing is the Chinese culture is less open, more reserved than the Western culture. So, a lot of people will be listening, but they may not want to write to us or email us, but those that actually write or email will pour out their hearts to us. So there's a positive side and a negative side.

So what would be a typical kind of response you would get from a listener?

Well, I'm just looking at a few of them. The first one, I'll just read because it's in English, this one is actually written to Mark, one of our producers of the bi-lingual programs. This listener said, "This is my first time listening to your program, I really enjoy it a lot and I want to ask for a copy of the TODAY devotional that you are talking about in the program." So they usually say they like the program or ask for something.

Another example is this lady who is asking about - she's actually pastoring a church and there are a lot of false teachings that are coming in from Korea, into this place so she's asking us for a lot of materials - CDs, DVDs, and booklists - that deal with different ideas or essential Christian doctrines. So, usually its reflections or asking questions or asking for materials or help.

Thank you so much Jimmy. What's amazing to me is how all this-multiple international ministries, all produced by local indigenous staff, headquartered in all the major centers of the world, all of this grew out of this one little program, The Back to God Hour. It's truly a tree that seeded a worldwide orchard, bearing fruit a thousand times over.

And our next question then back to North America. The International forest has grown so much, but what is going on in North America? If this is the last Back to God Hour, is it the end of our media ministry at home? We'll wrestle with this question right after this break. Stay tuned!"

REFRAME AND ENGLISH LANGUAGE MINISTRY

This is The Back to God Hour, and in fact it's the last Back to God Hour. We've been celebrating the 70-year history of the program, and we've seen how The Back to God Hour seeded multiple international ministries around the world, but what about North America?

Well, just as we've grown internationally, a whole new crop of gospel resources is blossoming in English.

The English-language ministry that presents The Back to God Hour is now known as ReFrame Media, and ReFrame Media offers a whole range of radio and Internet-based programs.

The goal of ReFrame Media is to help you see how God is already at work in your life, whoever or wherever you are. We believe that when you see God's story unfolding around you, your perspective will be re-framed. You will come to see things as God sees them, and everything about you will be transformed.

And since we speak differently to children than we do adults, for example, ReFrame Media offers a range of programs that target different audiences. And increasingly, we use a range of media technologies, not only radio, but also Internet websites, podcasts, and social media. We use many tools to reach you and yours with the good news of Jesus Christ.

Yet we have one unanswered question: If this is the last Back to God Hour, does that mean ReFrame Media will no longer offer any program that looks at life in light of the Bible? This is the question we've been dancing around the whole time-what replaces The Back to God Hour?

Groundwork

The good news is that ReFrame Media is indeed offering a new program that stands squarely in the voice and tradition of The Back to God Hour. The new program is called GROUNDWORK, where we dig deeply in the soil of scripture as a foundation for our lives.

Like The Back to God Hour, Groundwork explores God's Word in depth but it does so in conversation.

With me again is Bob Heerspink, and also David Bast, together they are the co-hosts of Groundwork. Welcome Gentlemen.

B: Thank you
D: Thank you, great to be here.

Tell me a little bit about these changes, why this name-change? Why this format?

B: Both of us at Back to God Ministries International and Words of Hope have had long-standing Bible teaching programs. They've been a blessing to people for many, many years, decades actually. But now we‘re bringing the two programs together into something new, Groundwork, which is a new program for a new audience.

D: It was a little hard to combine the names of our two different programs. You don't want to have "Back to Hope," maybe "Words of God," would have been good. But this is really a joint effort of two ministries, of two denominations we're affiliated with and we think it's a wonderful model of cooperation; the real ecumenicalism is on the front lines of doing ministry. We're aiming this program at a new generation. It's a new century, you need to change and freshen things once in awhile, and that's the point.

B: And that's why we've changed the format as well. Before, both of our programs we're monologues, now we're engaging in dialogue and the hope is that when people listen into this new program, that they'll feel drawn into the conversation, that they'll feel more part of it.

D: Yeah, just like now, we're going back and forth, not reading a script. Bob and I are trying to use this approach to teaching the Bible, where we draw people into a conversation, and they're like listening in around the table with us.

B: And that's where social networking really becomes a powerful tool for what we're doing. Because we're not only airing a program on radio, we're doing work online. There's a website where people can come and comment about programs, they can engage in dialogue with us, and they can leave suggestions and comments for upcoming programs.

So what do you hope Groundwork will accomplish?

D: Well, I think the first thing that comes to my mind is I hope we will continue in the footsteps of our predecessors in these ministries. For 65 and 70 years, respectively, our two organizations have been known for solid biblical teaching and really, we intend to continue that to the best of our ability. We want to dig into the scriptures-that's the Groundwork part-and share that word in a way that applies to our lives.

B: We have a very deep commitment to the power of God's word, both of our organizations. And we're continuing that in making this a program that really focuses on unfolding specific passages of scripture and what they mean for our lives. But there's a new component too and that's the new media side of things-pulling in the internet, encouraging people to communicate with us in ways they have never done before. We're excited about that fact that through this approach we're going to create a whole new audience for Groundwork.

Thank You Gentlemen, we look forward to hearing Groundwork next week.

PARTING WORDS

Friends, God has been good to The Back to God Hour. This program has grown into so much more than a single broadcast. Yet this is not our story, but God's story. We pray that this ministry continues to bless you our listeners, and the many listeners of many programs worldwide. May the Lord bless you and keep you, and make his face to shine upon you.

About the Author

Steven Koster

Rev. Steven Koster joined Back to God Ministries International in 2006, bringing a wealth of media knowledge and experience, as well as a heart for outreach. Rev. Koster's journey to this ministry comes from a passion to use media and technology to build communities in Christ.        

As English ministry leader, Rev. Koster oversees the production of various media and discipleship ministries. He and his team continue to develop new avenues for reaching English-speaking audiences throughout the world. He also speaks and writes about issues of media in worship.

Steven and his wife Deb enjoy leading pre-marital counseling and marriage enrichment seminars.

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