Although this sounds like a call to action for today’s Christians, it was actually written in 1965 by Harold Morris, the first missionary commissioned by the Baptist Missionary Association (BMA) of churches. After his health forced him to leave his mission field of Brazil, he became a promotional worker for the BMA and traveled throughout the country carrying a heavy burden for the lost.
God gave him a vision to reach the masses through media, and on September 4, 1965, Bro. Morris began a Saturday afternoon radio broadcast on KSTL In St. Louis, Missouri “to make Jesus known to the multitudes of our own land.” In November of 1965 Morris named his program The Harvest Gleaner Gospel Hour (HGH), and three years later, it became a department of the BMA with Morris as its first director.
A man with incredible vision and a desire to be used of God, Morris used the best technology available to fulfill the Great Commission. When he recorded that first broadcast of the Harvest Gleaner Gospel Hour from the living room of his home in Conway, Arkansas, his intent was to “make full use of the best technical means of communication…Not to take advantage of these opportunities will be tragic, not only for us, but for a lost and disillusioned world. To fall behind the times, to use means not equal with the task is like using the pick and shovel to build our highways…We are under orders: ‘Go, preach, make disciples.’”
Understanding completely the importance of radio ministry to missionaries, he believed that “one radio broadcast can reach more people per week with the gospel than any missionary family can possibly do.” During his time as director, he established a relationship with Trans World Radio (TWR) that continues today; he sent music, sermon and Bible study tapes all over the world; and he sought after the highest powered radio stations in America and abroad on which to broadcast.
Sadly, in November of 1970 Harold Morris died from the heart complications that plagued him on the mission field. A former president of two Christian colleges, A.R. Reddin became director of Harvest Gleaner Hour in February of 1971. He soon addressed the need for print materials for follow-up correspondence to radio broadcasts, especially those detailing the plan of salvation, by issuing a plea to churches to respond to this financial need.
After a year serving as director, A.R. Reddin died in 1972, and Bro. Paul Bearfield, missionary to Taiwan and a HGH broadcast speaker for several years, came off the field to become the new director. During his tenure, twenty-two radio broadcast stations were added in three languages: English, Spanish (Puerto Rico) and Creole French (Haiti).
At the time, radio stations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas broadcasted those programs. In addition, there were translated broadcasts in Puerto Rico, Haiti and Mexico, but it would be three more years until HGH had its own native-language speakers.
To help finance the cost of the rapidly multiplying American and foreign radio stations, possible television broadcasting, the high demand for print materials and cassettes, increases in postage, and a new building, Bro. Bearfield traveled extensively to speak to churches and groups.
In June of 1975, with the intent to some day include television broadcasting, Harvest Gleaner Hour staff moved into a building in Conway’s industrial park. There were forty-four stations in thirteen states and three foreign countries that aired HGH radio broadcasts with 1976 and 1977 being the years of tremendous increase in foreign stations and languages.
It was during those years that HGH began gospel programming to the Middle East in Israel, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and other Arabic-speaking countries. Stations in Sierra Leone, Panama and the Philippines were also added. In all four of those countries, BMA missionaries played important roles in establishing broadcasts.
In December after years of prayer, Taiwan missionary Jack Bateman preached the gospel in his native tongue (Mandarin) to the millions of people on mainland China. Five programs were produced at an undisclosed location and brought back from the “Far East” to HGH studios by Bro. Bearfield.
In January of 1978, Harvest Gleaner Hour radio broadcasts were heard in three languages: Portugese, Illongo, and Mandarin. The much-anticipated Spanish and Arabic languages were added in 1979. Listener response letters to HGH included requests for booklets and tracts mentioned on the broadcasts.
HGH radio programs never asked for money on the air (and still do not to this day), but listeners often sent checks “to cover the broadcast expenses in our area.” Broadcasts, studios and costly production equipment was often underwritten as well, enabling the building to become debt -free in late 1978, just three years after it opened.
In 1979, there were seven on-site employees, two language coordinators and six speakers. The media ministry was growing, listeners all over the world were responding, and requests for new stations were increasing. Staying on the cutting edge of technology was a priority, so with production costs on the rise in 1980, a $20,000 computer was purchased to help employees “use our time more effectively”.
In June of that year, Bro. Bearfield attended a conference during which he heard about a fundraiser called a “walk-a-thon,” which he adapted as the first HGH Walk-A-Thon. He had led the ministry for eight years and knew the broadcasts could reach more people if it could be aired on more stations and in additional languages, particularly in the “heart languages” of its listeners.
In October of 1980, churches throughout the BMA held twenty-mile walks for the first time and raised three times the amount of Bro. Bearfield’s goal. The Walk of Faith had increased budgetary funds that helped expand the media ministry, and in the next six years the event raised even more funds.
Paul Bearfield passed away on January of 1986 and the Board named Bro. George Reddin executive director two days later. His first major objective was upgrading the recording studio at a cost of $90,000. Not long after that quote came in, a check was received for that exact amount, reassurance for Bro. Bearfield that God would indeed be with him during his time there. In addition to quality production equipment, he also focused on quality team members “whose talents exceeded my own.”
By 1987, the name Harvest Gleaner Hour had become problematic. It was hard to enunciate clearly, and the word gleaner was unfamiliar to many. During a brainstorming session with advertising executives, Bro. George was asked the purpose of Lifeword, and he replied, “To spread the words of life to everyone around the world.” Harvest Gleaner Hour soon became “Lifeword.”
In the early 1990s, the Lifeword team began targeting unsaved listeners by experimenting with short format, one-minute dialogues using current events and humor to attract listeners who would never tune in to a religious broadcast.
International outreach has always been a major thrust of Lifeword, especially identifying language groups with limited gospel witness by radio. Priority has always been given to areas served by BMA missionaries. With diligent research and on-going consultation with BMA Missions Lifeword expanded into multiple languages, a total of thirty-five when Bro. Reddin retired.
Relocation remained a back-burner issue until the staff outgrew their building in Conway’s industrial park area. In 2005 Lifeword purchased a $2.4 million location in downtown Conway. That property has now become the BMA Global Ministry Center, housing the offices of Lifeword, BMA Missions and DiscipleGuide.
After Bro. George retired in April of 2011, Steve Crawley, who had joined the staff as director of finance and development, became executive director. His vision for the future became the next chapter in Lifeword’s history: a closer collaboration the Department of Missions and Disciple Guide by moving from a level of cooperation to integration for the purpose of functioning together more strategically.
As part of this effort, Lifeword’s new philosophy for global missionary media activity became one of pushing the responsibility to foreign producers. While continuing to come alongside them, train them, and support them through the initial process, the ministry would no longer erect a structure requiring infinite support. Instead, temporary “scaffolding” would be built through training then “taken down” and moved to another region of the world once churches had taken ownership of the broadcasting.
In addition, Crawley’s vision of integrated departments became a reality during his tenure. The former Lifeword campus is now home to the BMA Global Ministry Center (GMC), which houses Lifeword, BMA Missions, DiscipleGuide, and BMA Foundation staffs. Cost savings from this move have enabled Lifeword to take advantage of additional opportunities and do more ministry with less funding. One example is the community radio stations that use low power frequencies for ministry work within a five to seven mile radius of their towers. Since 2014 when the first one was installed, these locally run stations have come before or alongside missionaries planting churches in village settings.
Steve Crawley put Lifeword on firm financial footing before he resigned in February of 2017, but he continues to oversee accounting. Donny Parrish, who joined the team a year before Crawley’s resignation, was named executive director of Lifeword in May of 2017. Soon after, he began to implement his vision to use Cloud technology to expand the ministry’s global footprint. After the Cloud is built, Lifeword’s website, lifeword.org, will be a place for people to access the gospel in their heart languages from anywhere and at any time.
Parrish and the team’s ultimate goal is to have a gospel presentation available in audio and video in 200 of the world’s languages. Producers, station managers, translators, engineers and broadcasters around the world are helping make this effort possible. Lifeword USA staff members but more than a thousand all over the globe working to produce Cloud content that can be downloaded, shared and streamed.
Harold Morris could hardly have imagined the technology used today to spread the gospel through media. From a one-man broadcast at a garage in Conway, Arkansas, to a worldwide staff producing programs in 42 languages, Lifeword is making Jesus’ name famous on a global scale.