Over the last 40 years, communication research has paid increasing attention to religion. Early research in this area – in the 1980s in the United States – focused on the then new phenomenon of the “electronic church” (or television evangelism) as more and more preachers, mostly evangelical, took to the increasingly available cable television channels to provide religious services. In fact, Churches and other religious groups had employed broadcasting from early on: in the 1930s the BBC and other national broadcasters produced Sunday religious programs; the Vatican launched Vatican Radio under the supervision of Guglielmo Marconi; the U.S. Federal Communication Commission required stations to provide free airtime to Churches; preachers like Bishop Fulton Sheen and Dwight Moody achieved national prominence in the U.S. However, these efforts attracted little interest in the early days of communication research.
Things changed with the electronic church. Several factors help to explain the interest. First, a somewhat controversial religious movement, one not aligned with the major religious groups in the United States and regarded negatively by many, became a very public participant in the entertainment and political worlds. Second, the growing academic area of communication studies saw religious audiences as a key research interest. Third, encouragement and funding for research came both from established Churches debating whether they should pursue similar ministries and from an American research tradition looking for new audiences who could provide more evidence of audience motivation.
Finally, individual scholars helped to establish individual research and teams with publications on the electronic church (Robert Ableman, Stewart Hoover, and Peter Horsfield), religious journalism (Mark Silk and Yoel Cohen), the youth religious audience (Lynn Schofield Clark), and online religion (Chris Helland).