A Voice to Reach the World
Adventist Review editor Bill Knott interviews Shawn and Jean Boonstra.
Adventist Review editor Bill Knott recently sat down with Shawn and Jean Boonstra, the husband-and-wife team now leading the Voice of Prophecy, to talk about the how Adventism’s oldest media ministry is winning new audiences.
KNOTT: You’ve been chosen to lead one of the most revered ministries in Adventism, one that’s emotionally closer to more Adventists than almost any other. But that revered name clearly needs an update for a generation that’s not content to simply remember their grandparents’ commitments. How will you bridge that generational divide—and the technological divide that has moved radio from the forefront of popular media to one among many media options?
SHAWN: That’s a giant question! Even though VOP launched in 1929—85 years ago—I don’t believe for a moment that it has outlived its usefulness—not if we go back to the core values that made this ministry so valuable in the first place.H.M.S. Richards understood the value of mass media (radio at the time) to deliver the Three Angels’ Messages behind the doors of people who might not be reached in any other way.The task he was trying to accomplish is by no means finished.There may have been some important shifts in the way that people use technology, but the task isn’t finished.People today have more access to media, not less.That’s the thought that drives me:Find what your audience is paying attention to, and get in on it.
I may have worked mostly in television up until a few years ago, but I’ve really been a radio person all of my life. From the time I was 7 years old, I had a transistor radio by my bed.It had a little braided cord earpiece, and as a kid, I would listen all night to the AM stations that would bounce into northern Canada at night, particularly in the winter.I still have a Grundig shortwave radio on my nightstand today.Shortwave was the Internet of 1910—the method tens of millions of people used to learn about the world around them. The ways people use radio have certainly shifted.We don’t all gather around the radio in the living room every evening as our parents and grandparents used to, but if anything, it’s moved into other and even more important arenas of our lives—in the car while we’re commuting; in the garage when we’re tinkering on a Sunday afternoon, on the job work via our headphones in our soulless work cubicles. So even as technology changes at an incredible pace, radio’s total impact on our lives has actually increased.
With all the change swirling through media ministries today, what stays the recognizable about VOP?
SHAWN: Building a bridge to the future means adapting to changing technology, but rest assured it, also means keeping the core values and principles that made this ministry so vital in the first place. There are still people to reach—hundreds of millions of people—and those people consume more media than ever before.This ministry is about taking God’s last-day message to the world, to the general public, in a way they understand, in a format they understand, and using all available technology that they use.
So what will we be doing? Well, to start with, we’ll maintain a strong and vibrant radio ministry. I’m already doing a weekly broadcast, the traditional pre-recorded broadcast that listeners have loved for decades. We build from that.But as we move forward over the next few years, you’re going to see the VOP going in a number of new directions.
Media today is undergoing a convergence. Television and Internet have already begun converging: many people today have a smart TV, a Roku box or an Apple TV.Internet and television have blended to the point where a huge proportion of younger consumers no longer subscribe to cable or satellite TV. They’ve cut the cord.
Other convergences are bursting with opportunity.Eventually, you’re going to see video, audio, and Internet all merge in a way that also makes them interactive, providing real-time response from those watching, listening, and experiencing our content. As a media minister, I can get data back from the audience. For the first time, I can know what they’re thinking and how they’re consuming media.It’s no longer one-way communication. Today, it’s not only possible to know exactly how many people listened to the broadcast, but we can know in great detail what topics piqued their interest. We can access data that tells us when we managed to scratch the listener’s itch, so to speak.Over time, we can fine-tune the content we provide in such a way that it actually gets the Three Angels’ Messages across to people in a context that is tailored by their own preferences.
How would I experience what you’re talking about?
SHAWN: If I begin to notice that Bill Knott always clicks on anything that has to do with English literature—if he always clicks when I mention Shakespeare or Lord Tennyson—then I can begin to funnel more of that content in his direction.I can tailor the product to meet your personality, to include material that you enjoy listening to. I don’t want to be too “Big Brother,” but if Google and Amazon can tailor content for your taste, I want to do that too. That’s important because God has been working with an individual for years before they come across the content I provide.It’s far more effective to figure out where God has been working in your life—the areas He’s been speaking to you about—and tap into those than it is to try and make you interested in what I have to say. The Bible is clear: I don’t actually have the ability to make you interested in spiritual matters.I don’t have the ability to “tune you in,” so to speak.But God does, and if I observe you long enough, and I can discern where God is speaking to your heart, then I can join the conversation at that point.I can show you God’s plan for you and for His church in these last days.
You appear to be envisioning a much different relationship between the person who listens to VOP and the assumed passive listener of radio lore. When do you anticipate some of these developments might come about?
I’m almost hesitant to talk about everything that is possible, because we’re just getting started, and we’re dreaming right now. We’ve just taken over in the last year, and we have a lot of rebuilding to do. We’re also in the middle of moving the ministry. So the stuff I’m talking about—it’s going to take a little time.I don’t want people to get the idea that they’re going to see this all fall into place over the next few months, because this is going to take some time and effort. You’ll see us implement some of these things over the next five years. And some of it doesn’t exist anywhere in religious broadcasting, so we have to build it–dream it–from the ground up.
My understanding of The Voice of Prophecy ministry is that it was built from 1929 forward on the foundation of a largely Christianized, more or less biblically literate culture that understood the notion of the Second Coming, that understood the frame of apocalyptic prophecy as part of the biblical message. You often talk about reaching an unchurched generation—reaching a secular generation that doesn’t come to the table with any of that background. How are you going to keep your core audience that’s been with VOP for decades while also reaching out to that unchurched, biblically illiterate, or less literate, audience?
We sometimes make the mistake, in my humble opinion, of thinking that the way to reach a secular audience is with a secular presentation. While I believe you have to speak a language that people understand, I disagree with the assertion that we need secular content to reach secular people. If you read what Paul writes, he says, “Spiritual things are spiritually discerned.” It is impossible for me to interest a person in Christ if she is actually, purely, 100 percent secular. I just don’t have the ability to make that person interested in spiritual things.Paul is crystal clear about that in his first letter to the Corinthians: “… the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
I have no ability to suddenly make a truly secular person interested in spiritual things.It’s just not possible. However, I also don’t believe there are very many truly secular people out there. They may not have had the same exposure to Christianity that their grandparents did, but very few people are genuinely secular. Even some of the more rabid neo-atheists give their hand away occasionally; they’re not as secular as they’d like people to think.
And North America is far from being a non-spiritual society.People may be less into organized religion than they were a few decades ago, but they are still spiritually inclined.Dramatically so, in fact.And we shouldn’t forget the fact that even over the last 150 years or so, the popularity of biblical Christianity has waxed and waned a number of times.Revivals happen with noted regularity.
Now, is Christianity in America currently in decline? No question about it.Fewer people go to church. My own generation isn’t as dedicated to church-going as my parents’ or grandparents’ generation. But it’s far from over.I came across an interesting statistic the other day: when New Hampshire ratified the American Constitution in 1789, something like 17 percent of Americans attended church. Today the number is still around 34 percent–double what it was at the birth of the American republic.So in reality, we’re still ahead of where we used to be.
Of course, people are not as conversant in the details of Christianity as they used to be.They don’t spend a lot of time talking about historicism versus futurism, at least when you’re talking about Joe Six Pack.But for that matter, people aren’t as conversant in topics such as history or politics, either.
So we have to start where people are. But that doesn’t mean you have to start with a secular discussion. Watch the content that secular stations put out with surprising regularity: the History Channel and other documentary outlets almost seem to feature more apocalyptic material than religious stations do.Will the world end in 2012?Will we be wiped out by an asteroid?Is an alien invasion really possible?You know: the kind of stuff we have answers for!
We have to start where people are, but we don’t have to start with a secular discussion. I’m still always surprised how Daniel 2 has the ability to arrest the attention of the most relativistic, postmodern mind!After hearing it, they might still disagree with me. They might still dislike me on their way out the door. But most of them will be back, because they can no longer say for certain that there is no God. Now they have to consider the possibility, because Daniel 2 is hard to explain away.
So, unlike some Adventist critics in recent years who have talked about abandoning the landmark prophetic topics of our past to reach a new generation, you’re saying that apparently secular, unchurched, biblically illiterate people will respond to the great foundational truths we’ve always preached?
It absolutely works.I’ve proven it again and again, in some of the toughest cities on the planet. Daniel 2 is like a bucket of cold water over the head of the professed secular person. We often talk about how the world is secular, postmodern, but we make a huge mistake when we assume that people are happy in that condition. Nobody’s happy with uncertainty and disillusionment.
The core issues that speak to the human heart have never changed.We all become aware at some point in our lives that we’re going to die. And we all, generally speaking, we all feel cheated when it dawns on us that wedon’t have time in life to do everything we want to do.We feel cheated when we realize that we’re not going to be good at everything we’d like to be good at, and we don’t have time to experience everything we’d like to experience. Our bodies start falling apart before we can do all the things we’d like to do.
And even though we know, logically speaking, that death is coming for all of us, we still fight it.We still scream when we get there—“There’s something wrong with this!” It’s what Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 3:11: God has put eternity in the human heart.
No matter who you are or what your background is, you’re likely going to struggle with this. You can go to any culture, any civilization on earth, and they have rituals that to help them cope with the idea that they’re going to die. Or they’ve developed a mythology that somehow mitigates or dismisses the reality of death. They have something that tries to assuage the pain.
That’s common to all human beings.
Guilt is another one.I don’t care how much we try to build structures and coping mechanisms in society to help us to dismiss feelings of guilt, we all have this intrinsic feeling that something is wrong with us. Just look at Greek mythology. Before you get to end of the story, what do you discover in the protagonist’s life? A tragic flaw that prevents him from getting what he wants or becoming what he wants to be. That’s because all human beings have this sense that there’s something wrong with the human race.
In Christian thinking, the problem is sin.That subject is anything but irrelevant, because people still sense it: there IS something wrong. There’s something wrong with MY heart, with my neighbor’s heart, with everybody.What is it?
We may have to back up to very foundational issues with this generation, but this idea that people are not religiously inclined?Nonsense. Human beings are struggling with the same things we’ve struggled with for thousands of years. The core human problems never change.
You’re not only reinventing a ministry with a great variety of new media outlets, but you’re also relocating it. Tell me about the process of choosing a place to locate the ministry headquarters after a long history of VOP as a southern California ministry. How are you going to make it work?
It’s true: we have to move. The Adventist Media Center in California is closing its doors: we had to find a new home. So we prayed about it.We ended up visiting 11 communities, and there were a lot of exciting possibilities. A number of individuals and organizations asked us to come and look at what they had to offer, and I was overwhelmed by the generous support and positive attitude that people had for The Voice of Prophecy.
But there were several things about Loveland, Colorado that kept it at the top of the list. The cost of living, its central location, the quality of life–these factors made it very attractive. The cost of living is such that our operating expenses can drop significantly without affecting the quality of life for our employees.In fact, the quality of life is likely to improve, and we can redirect those same cost-of-living funds directly into the evangelistic efforts of the ministry.We’re talking many hundreds of thousands of dollars saved for the work each year.
And when you’re a self-funded ministry, that’s a big deal.
As it turns out, the most traditional location for The Voice of Prophecy proves to be Loveland, Colorado.This is something I wasn’t really aware of until after the decision was made to go to Loveland. Campion Academy is where H.M.S. Richards went to school. He was their first graduate—and the commencement speaker the next year! He was baptized in Lake Loveland. So really, even though VOP has been in California for 85 years, in some ways, we’re bringing the ministry home.
JEAN: Not only does this ministry have deep roots in Colorado, but the lifestyle is very attractive to our team. We really hope that those who work with us have the opportunity to live in a great environment to raise their families. And our new location is very central, as Shawn mentioned, to get to different places throughout the country, to visit far-flung families, to participate in a wide range of events and occasions. And we’ve had tremendous support from our longtime partners in California. They understand the reasons for our move, and they’ve been very supportive, very happy for our future.
In previous experiences with media ministries, Jean, you’ve led initiatives that worked on developing child and youth audiences. Do you expect that to be part of your future at VOP?
Yes, definitely. In the near future? Probably not, just because of the many tasks that are involved in transitioning the ministry to Colorado, and some of the new outreach efforts. But certainly, we want to reach out to the whole family. Kids and youth are extremely vital to our mission. And the Discover Bible School has originated some things for kids that we plan to continue to develop—to create new digital formats. So yes, you’ll see that happen in the next few years.
I want to follow up on the description that VOP is largely self-funded. Give me some sense of the sums, if you can, that need to be raised annually from friends of this ministry in order for you to run the viable program you’re describing.
Maybe it would help to describe what it is that we’re funding, and then tell you what that costs. One thing that we’re not going to do as we move into the future is to function as some sort of spectator sport. My conviction is that my job is not to ask people to support my ministry; I’m doing this to support the ministry of individual church members in their outreach.
What I want to do with The Voice of Prophecy is help raise everybody’s courage.
We have the right message; we have the right methods; we have everything we need as a people, except (in many cases) for courage.I want church members to understand that God can use them to lead someone to Christ.
I’ll be demonstrating possibilities in the broadcast and media production. I’ll be demonstrating possibilities in our large urban evangelistic efforts. But more importantly, we’re going to start training and resourcing local churches in a way that enables them to be The Voice of Prophecy in their communities–so that local church members can do in their communities what we’re doing on the air and in major urban centers. So it’s not just, “Hey, Listen to what Shawn and Jean are saying on the radio.” It’s not just, “Look at the campaign they held at such-and-such a city.” This is about God’s whole church doing this together.
I’m committed to putting The Voice of Prophecy and its resources at the disposal of the entire church. This is your ministry, not mine.And I want everyone to enjoy the kind of success in their corner of the field that we’ve been enjoying in ours. God has given me the opportunity over the years to enjoy driving the Cadillacs of church ministry.I’ve worked for It Is Written Canada: I’ve worked for It Is Written International.Now again, with The Voice of Prophecy, I’ve been handed another Cadillac.
I wish every church member could drive a Cadillac! So that’s what I want to do.I want to teach our members how to find phenomenal interests in the community; how to get those people through the doors of the church; how to share what we believe; how to ask people to join the church; and how to incorporate those new folks into the life of the church.
I want our church members to enjoy living an evangelistic lifestyle.I want them to see people respond to our message.I want them to see just how powerful it is.
So we will be engaging in major urban evangelism. That does cost something. Every time you take on a major city, you’re investing something like half a million dollars. The investment is well worth it because it’s not a one-time thing, a brief event, if you do it right. Ideally, it’s a three-year relationship with the churches in a city that leaves behind church members excited about doing this themselves.
If you do it right, you’ll never have to return to the city, because the church members now know what to do.I’d like to move every church member past this idea that they need a professional “closer,” a professional evangelist to come and win the city for them.
What do we need to start making all of this happen? About six million dollars a year. That would bring us back to what we used to be—or at least, it would be a good start.It would include new methods of interactive media outreach, major urban evangelism, equipping and resourcing churches, and of course, a number of humanitarian outreach projects each year.
In recent years, the ministry has fallen on hard times, but we’re already seeing dramatic evidence that God is turning it around.When we hit about $6 million, we’ll be on our way to returning this ministry to the powerhouse it once was.
How do you go about raising $6 million a year? Does that happen through sponsorship experiences, or letter-writing campaigns? Tell me how you plan to do it.
JEAN: We held our first annual event in Palm Springs last December, and had a wonderful response from our friends there in the Palm Springs area—listeners who have been very supportive of VOP over the years. But we’ve decided to create this new sponsorship program because it’s really a team effort. Our sponsors are the lifeline of this ministry, and nothing happens without them as a part of it. Our sponsors really are an extended part of the family. So this coming fall  we’ll meet three times—three different weekends—throughout the country to share, to dream together. And every month we also publish a letter that we send to homes.We call it our monthly appeal letter, and, for example, after Shawn finished his recent evangelistic series in Indianapolis, we focused on telling the stories of what happened there, sharing those with our sponsors, with our community. We want to give people the best opportunity to participate in effective evangelism. The letters present opportunities to participate, and they give us an opportunity to demonstrate that the investment is working.
It’s not a one-time event, as Shawn said. We’re going to reach out now to Minneapolis, and potentially, Seattle.
So you’ve already got several major urban areas in focus?
SHAWN: We’re already booked out on major urban outreach several years in advance. We’re in Minneapolis in February . We’re looking at Seattle in 2016. I’m particularly excited about that one, because the Pacific Northwest is traditionally a tough place to evangelize.People say it can’t be done there. I happen to know it can be done there, because that’s where I cut my teeth on evangelism.
All the changes that have you’ve described must be having a major impact, Shawn and Jean, on you and your family. Many supporters are very interested to know how your family is doing with all the moving and the adjustments. What’s life like right now?
SHAWN: This is, I believe, my 23rd or 24th lifetime move. Moving is old hat for me. Jean and I have been married just over 20 years, and we’ve moved ten times.Some of those moves have been across town, but many have been major moves. And while moves are always stressful, we’ve come to trust God. And our kids?It has been tough on them.But they’ve known for about a year now that we’re leaving Maryland, and they’re perfectly happy with the decision. They’re all geared up to go to Campion Academy.
JEAN: They’re actually excited!
SHAWN: We’ve always been a ministry family. The kids aren’t just spectators to what Mom and Dad do. They participate wherever they can. I just took my youngest to Australia with me for an event. Jean took both girls to India because we partnered with Asian Aid, and they went to open a slum school and to meet a woman The Voice of Prophecy is going to support in saving girls from prostitution. So the kids are involved; this is a lifestyle for all of us.
Is it easy? No, nobody likes moving. On the list of life’s stressors, it’s always up there near death, unemployment and divorce.We’re in the middle of packing right now, and we actually don’t have a home to go to in Colorado. We’ll be living out of our car for a while, which we’ve done a number of times, and it always works out. God always has something in mind.And our permanent home? That will come in the kingdom!
I hope you have something in Loveland before then, too!