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Religious Broadcasters Look to the Future

Convention: Annual gathering offers glimpse of rich history of evangelicalism in the area. Participants also learn how to use technology.


ANAHEIM — About 5,000 evangelical broadcasters, programmers and vendors began assembling at the Anaheim Convention Center on Saturday to study the Internet as the next missionary frontier, learn to appeal to Generation X-ers and exchange ideas with people of "kindred spirit."

The National Religious Broadcasters' 54th annual convention, which runs through Tuesday, also offers a glimpse of the rich history of religious broadcasting in the Los Angeles Basin, as local program producers, ministries and station owners gather for the biggest event of its kind.

Program producers scour the floor for station managers to broaden their distribution, stations search for programming, and everyone takes the opportunity to get up-to-date technology and study the legal issues facing the field.

"The NRB is the granddaddy of all religious broadcasting conferences," said Harold Sala, president and founder of 34-year-old Guidelines Intl., based in Laguna Niguel.

Guidelines, which offers five-minute radio programs on family life and other "insights for living," is carried on more than 600 stations in a host of languages.

The event marks the first time the convention has come to Orange County, long considered "a hub of Christian activities," as Sala put it.

For decades, the convention remained near Washington, D.C., close to the nation's halls of political power, where the organization could flex its lobbying muscle. But in the wake of several high-profile scandals involving televangelists such as Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker, organizers have tried to woo a broader base of support. The event was held in Los Angeles in 1993 but hasn't been on the West Coast since.

"Just the fact that they are out there in California is a very progressive step for the NRB," said Stephen Winzenburg, a communications scholar at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, who has studied religious broadcasters for more than a decade.

"Now they realize that there's more to life than politics."

The convention audience includes smaller evangelical programmers with toned-down religious messages, many operating on a shoestring.

Living Life Ministries, a half-hour Christian cable television talk show based in Laguna Niguel that has aired for little more than a year, is hoping to grow. The program will be showcased along with more than 30 other cable shows from around the country.

"We were so thankful to hear it was coming here," the show's host, Kim Kihm, said of the convention. "It gives us the opportunity to share the best highlights of our shows . . . and you never know what the Lord can do with that.

"We're hoping for exposure, for broader distribution, to meet people who could be guests on the show, and people who might get involved in the ministry."

National Religious Broadcasters represents more than 800 radio and television station owners and operators, program producers and others "to ensure access to the airwaves for the Gospel" and to see that "the best possible standards are preserved," organization officials have said.

Orange County's powerhouses of religious broadcasting are not members of the organization. Paul Crouch, founder and president of the Tustin-based Trinity Broadcasting Network, withdrew in 1990 after an inconclusive yearlong inquiry by the group's ethics committee, which looked into complaints about his business practices and treatment of employees.

The Rev. Robert H. Schuller, whose "Hour of Power" television show is the largest nationally syndicated program of its kind, has never expressed interest in being a member, said organization spokeswoman Sarah E. Smith.

This year's convention theme is "Announce His Message," and the lineup of speakers is less political than during some election years. In 1994, Iran-Contra figure Oliver L. North and six other GOP personalities spoke. Last year, former Vice President Dan Quayle offered a key address.

On the schedule for Saturday's opening general session were Wellington Boone of Wellington Boone Ministries in Atlanta, one of the most prominent African Americans involved in Promise Keepers, a men's spiritual movement.

Franklin Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham and his heir apparent, is the event's other key speaker and will address a luncheon audience Monday.

Exhibitors will present the latest in audio and visual technology, while promoters for Christian entertainers and Christian-based publishers will offer up their latest talent.

One of more than 40 seminars scheduled promises to teach attendees about "Generation X and the Irrelevant Church," saying that twentysomethings are the future of every ministry: "Art, music, buying trends, clothing, speech are all being changed by the enigmatic generation in modern history," the catalog states. "Find out who they are, what they believe and how to reach them."

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