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).
The researchers, mostly a younger group, organized themselves through various scholarly associations, with the National Communication Association and the International Association for Mass Communication Research offering organizational support through interest groups. Over time a number of scholars created other institutional support networks for researchers. For example, Stewart Hoover at the University of Colorado established the Center for Media, Religion, and Culture; Jolyon Mitchell at the University of Edinburgh directed the Centre for Theology and Public Issues; and, more recently, Heidi Campbell at Texas A & M University established the Network for New Media, Religion, and Digital Culture Studies.
Approaches to studying religion and communication include focusing on the communication produced by religious groups, on groups and communication professionals focusing on religion and on ways to categorize knowledge about religious communication.