Chapter Six: The Electronic Church and Its Audience
Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?
Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink?
Who Is Watching, and Why?
In 1980, I was asked by TV Guide to write an article on the Electronic Church. The piece was published in mid-July with the cover headline "Why TV Evangelists Can`t Be Pastors." In the article I listed some of the innovations of the electronic evangelists, and then raised five questions:
- Does the electronic church separate people from their own community?
- Is the electronic church good evangelism?
- Has the electronic church become captive to commercial broadcasting?
- Are the values implicit in most successful electronic-church programs actually the values of the secular society it pretends to reject?
- Is the electronic church driving religious diversity off the air?
In a summary paragraph I said that the electronic church helps some people but misleads far more, and that in the long run it probably is doing more harm than good.
I had expected to get letters in rebuttal, since TV Guide reaches some 47 million readers. But I was not prepared for the deluge of letters that came in, almost 500 in all. Most, though by no means all of them, were supportive of the electronic evangelists. I replied to every letter that could be answered.
The letters were so intriguing and informative that I kept a tally of their basic points. Two-thirds of the writers were women, ranging in age from 15 to 90, and several correspondents made a point of saying that they were "not a frumpy old lady" or "not middle rural America." There was one "Truck Driver for Jesus" and one Jesuit Ph.D., but most merely described themselves in one way or another as born-again Christians.
Four basic themes emerged from the critical group. One, quite predictably, was a strong defense of various electronic church programs. For example, "I, for one, have found a personal relationship with Jesus Christ by watching the 700 Club and PTL Club." And, "Personally, Oral Roberts has made my day many times when I was depressed, and he does write me back."
A second response, almost as predictable, was a litany of the ills of our nation, focusing primarily on homosexuality, abortion, anti-Christian TV programs, and communism.
A third theme, often linked with the second, was the view that the solution to the problems facing America is to establish a theocracy. A fairly typical letter proclaimed, "I believe that the USA was founded as a Nation Under God and has had God`s grace all these years and only when the laws and Supreme Court decisions started to give more power to the secular groups has God`s Grace begun to diminish and soon we will no longer be a blessed nation."
But the theme I was not prepared for, either as to its intensity or its pervasiveness, was an angry outpouring against local churches and their preachers. Letter after letter accused the local church of being dry, unfriendly, cold, not filled with the Spirit, unbiblical, works of Satan, dead, or dying. "So many of the Starched Collar Ministers [these writers loved capital letters] don`t bother to help others after they preach their sermon and shake hands. It`s a cold howdy-do and goodbye." Or: "when I needed Christ I got social and community planning and programs and softball but no Jesus. People want truth and salvation." And: "PTL is better than any church I have ever attended, which is quite a few." Finally: "The (so-called) elec-tronic church has done a more valuable service to this country as well as many others than any boring, unholy-ghost-filled church around."
A few writers defended their local church, indicating that they attended regularly while also listening -- usually daily -- to the electronic preachers. But by and large the responses indicated that the local church simply is not meeting the needs of many, many people.
Unfortunately, the dry, unfriendly, and moribund condition of many mainline churches is not just a religious problem, for the vacuum that is created has spawned a crisis in the society as a whole. Franklin Littell points out that totalitarian creeds and systems have always arisen and come to power at times and places where religion was tired, ineffective, corrupted by privilege, and lacking in appeal to youth. From what I could determine from the letters, a goodly number of those who took up their pens to defend the electronic church against my criticisms are ready and waiting for some kind of totalitarian solution.
Many were lonely. Many were sick and tired of what life has dealt them. They wanted a part of the American dream: "The Bible says we are called to be the head not the tail and should have the best. . . . Please answer this as soon as possible and write back to me."
Some sought solutions in prejudice: "It`s the Jews like Mike Wallace that keep on persecuting Christians and they are in a position to be heard." Some already were in thrall to authority: "I go to my own church three times a week. But whenever possible I do listen to Bro. Falwell. I am sure he doesn`t want me to do otherwise."
A few were consumed by hatred: "P.S. Keep your hands off the work of God. You have no right!" And from an anonymous cassette tape recording: "Doctor William F. Fore -- it will give me great pleasure to slit your throat!"
Reading and answering these letters brought me to the disturbing conclusion that while the electronic-church programs may be providing inadequate and even misleading and harmful solutions to the needs of many of their listeners and viewers, at least they are bringing to the American scene an accurate awareness of what those needs are. And if my correspondents are reasonably representative of the electronic-church audience, most of the mainline churches are not even aware of the nature or the depth of the needs of these millions of men and women who live within reach of their own buildings and services and congregations.
What are their needs? They are simple: to be recognized, to be needed, to be of worth, to live in a world that can be understood, to be secure. And the issues that bother them are the very ones that bother members of the mainline churches: war and peace, the misuse of sex, the unjust use of political and economic power, how to find useful work and satisfying play, how to maintain a society open to many points of view, how to have relationships with other persons that are meaningful and rewarding.
These letters drove home to me the sobering fact that the Electronic Church is a formidable threat to mainline churches today, not because it threatens to reduce income or attendance, but because it has revealed a significant failure on the part of most mainline churches to deal with many of the people in their own neighborhoods. To their everlasting shame, the mainline churches have simply failed to understand and meet the needs of many people in their communities, people who are searching for a satisfying religious experience, but who have not found it in the mainline churches. These people, many of them alienated, unfulfilled, forgotten, or ignored, but also many dynamic, independent, and searching, are going to find what solace and direction they can from the superficial and ultimately harmful ministrations of the electronic church if they cannot find it in the mainline churches. For all of its problems, the electronic church at least has not ignored them.
Throughout the 1970s debate over the effectiveness of the new television ministries raged between the mainline churches and the electronic-church groups. Was the electronic church luring members away from the local church, or was it encouraging members to attend more regularly? Was it taking money from local churches or was it furthering overall giving? Was it an effective new evangelistic tool or was it merely reaching the already committed?
Mainline church leaders as well as many evangelical leaders tended to be critical of the electronic church. Its supporters were euphoric about its, and their, new-found power and prestige. However, neither side was able to buttress arguments with solid facts, because very little research had been focused directly on the new phenomenon. The charges and countercharges became all the more strident because of the lack of real information.
In July l980 the National Council of Churches` Communication Commission and the National Religious Broadcasters jointly issued an invitation to key groups on both sides of the controversy to join in a major research project to get at the facts. As a result the Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Television Research was formed, surely one of the century`s most broadly based religious coalitions. Eventually the $175,000 project was funded by some 39 groups -- ranging from "The Old Time Gospel Hour" (Jerry Falwell) and the Christian Broadcasting Network (Pat Robertson) to the U.S. Catholic Conference, the Episcopal Church and the United Church of Christ, and with representation from virtually every part of the religious spectrum in between.
The controlling idea was that even though each side disagreed with the other as to tactic and strategy, both wanted solid information. The groups could strive to agree on what questions they both wanted answered, and once the questions were clear, they could cooperate to hire the best professional researchers to find the answers. A significant advantage of this approach was that neither side could later attempt to discredit the results of the research on the basis that "they asked the wrong questions."
The Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania was hired as the primary contractor, with the Gallup Organization of Princeton, New Jersey, conducting the national survey. After two years of planning, field work, and analysis, the results were announced at a press conference held at the Graduate Center of New York City University on April 16, l984.1.
The study, consisting of two volumes and buttressed by dozens of charts, made the following major points:
1. The viewing audience for the electronic-church programs is far smaller than had been claimed. In l982 a Gallup survey found that 43% of the total population said that they had watched religious programming in the past 30 days, and another Gallup poll in l98l showed that 32% said that they had watched during the past week. This would work out to some 71 million viewers per week.
But what people claim and what they do are very different. Researchers have long known that people have a tendency to say what they think would please those asking the questions. For example, years ago public broadcasters discovered, to their sorrow, that the people who said they wanted more symphonies and ballet on TV really preferred to watch movies. To get around this problem with religious TV viewers, the Annenberg researchers went to several previous months of Arbitron television viewers` diaries, looked up the actual programs watched by day, hour and channel in the TV Guide, and thereby identified "confirmed viewing" -- in other words, what people really watched.
This information told a far different story. According to the diaries, there is a total duplicated national religious television audience of 24.7 million weekly for religious television programs. But this number includes many of the same people counted two, three, or even a dozen times -- if they watched that many programs during a week. Taking into account that the diaries may underreport by as much as 15%, the study estimated that an unduplicated audience of 13.3 million people watched at least 15 minutes of religious TV per week. This amounts to 6.2% of the national TV audience.
Unfortunately, this key finding was based on a questionable assumption. What Arbitron really provided was only the number of households viewing, and the households were then multiplied by the number of people assumed to be watching, to give the total audience . Annenberg researchers assumed 2.4 persons, which is the national average number of persons per household. But almost all religious programming is scheduled during fringe or even deep-fringe time, when the figure of 1.4 persons per household is usually used by the broadcasting industry. If this 1.4 figure is used, the number of people watching 15 minutes or more per week is 7.2 million.
But this is the number of people who watch only 15 minutes per week or more, and 15 minutes per week is not very much when the average viewer spends more than 30 hours per week watching TV. If we take the number of people who tune in one hour or more per week -- a more realistic definition of the "regular" viewer, the figures are considerably smaller, and using the 1.4 person-per-household estimate, the Annenberg data show there are about 3.76 million persons, or approximately 1.69% of the total population, who watch one hour or more of religious television each week.
Two years after the Annenberg-Gallup study was released, Pat Robertson`s CBN commissioned the A. C. Nielsen Company to measure the electronic church viewing audience again, including, for the first time, the cable-TV viewers, since CBN is carried on thousands of cable systems. CBN itself released the information from the proprietary study, amid considerable fanfare, reporting that the top ten religious programs attracted 40.2% or 61 million American households during February 1984.2.
However, analysis by Stewart M. Hoover the original Annenberg research team revealed that this information was misleading.3. The data measured anyone who had watched at least 6 minutes of any one of the programs during the whole month of February. Also, it measured the percent of viewers who were viewing at the time the top-ten programs were on the air -- periods such as early Sunday mornings when the total number of viewers is very small. The 40.2% turned out to be a percentage of only 33 million viewers, in contrast to the more than 100 million persons who view during prime-time each evening. Hoover also pointed out that any program has a certain probability of being selected at random, and that a program on the air when there are few viewers has a greater chance of being selected completely at random. He concluded that it is unlikely that the overall, unduplicated weekly audience for these programs is any larger than the 13.3 million originally estimated by the Annenberg study. He also showed from the Nielsen statistics that those who subscribe to cable TV are actually less likely to view religious programs than those without cable.4.
2. The electronic church is not effective evangelism, although it is an effective reinforcer of the existing religious beliefs of viewers. The Annenberg study reported: "The audience for religious programs on television is not an essentially new, or young, or varied audience. Viewers of religious programs are by and large also the believers, the church-goers, the contributors. Their viewing . . . appears to be an expression, a confirmation of a set of religious beliefs and not a substitute for them."5.
The research gave us a helpful profile of the average viewers. They are are somewhat older, lower in education and income, more conservative, more "fundamentalist" and more likely to live in rural areas of the South and Midwest than are nonviewers. Heavy viewers (those who watch one hour or more per week) are largely Southern Baptist (19%) and other Baptists (21%), followed by charismatic Christians (10.5 %), Catholics (10%), United Methodists (8.3%) and other Methodists (7.1%). The rest of the mainline churches, such as Presbyterian, Lutheran, Disciples, United Church of Christ, and Episcopalian, each make up less than 2% of the viewing audience.
Fully 77% of the heavy viewers of religious TV are church members, and almost all of them attend church at least once a month. Regardless of their denominational affiliation, they are much more likely than nonviewers to read the Bible, to pray frequently, to take the Bible literally, to believe "that Jesus Christ will return to earth someday," to report having been "born again," to believe in miracles, and to favor "speaking in tongues." They thus scored high on what the researchers called their "literalist/charismatic" scale.
When heavy viewers were asked whether watching religious television had changed their involvement in the local church, 7% said it had, and 3% said it had decreased their involvement. One in six said that religious TV contributed more than their church to their spiritual life, and one in three said that it contributed more than their church to their information about moral and social issues.
14% said that their viewing of religious programs was "a substitute for going to church", and about 20% said that they watched religious programs on Sundays during church hours. Of course, this figure includes many of the ill, the elderly, and those who could not readily go out to church, regardless of whether the electronic-church programs were on the air.
The Gallup summary pointed out that while religious TV viewing does not seem to be associated with lower levels of church attendance, volunteer work, or church contributions among the heavy viewers taken as a whole, it does seem to be associated with lower religious involvement among persons over 50, divorced persons, those who require assistance in going places, persons with low levels of education, and those who have become dissatisfied with their local church. In other words, while the electronic church probably is not causing much of a decrease in mainline church attendance, it does provide an attractive alternative for a relatively small group who find watching television an acceptable substitute for attending church.
Financial giving to the cause of their choice is another way people reinforce their religious beliefs. The most highly visible electronic-church ministries were the most likely to request money, and their requests were numerous -- 40% of all programs included at least three requests for money during the course of each telecast. The average requested ranged from a minimum of $31 and up to $600 per program. No mainline program in the survey asked for a specific amount of money.
Most people who gave to the electronic church also to gave to their local church, and vice versa. However, only 6% of all viewers were regular contributors to religious programs. An additional 13% contributed "once in a while," and 5% more gave to "special appeals only." But those who did give gave a great deal. Of the 6% regular contributors, 40% gave to three or more programs. Their contributions averaged $35.17 per contribution, and the mean total contribution was $95.24 per year.
Another part of the reinforcing process is individual contact. A third of viewers said that they had been contacted by mail during the past year. Twenty percent said they had received five or more letters, and ll% reported that they had written to or called the programs they watched. On the other hand, only 3% said that they had received a telephone call from any of the programs.
One of the more revealing questions had to do with "outreach" by the viewers themselves. Viewers were asked with whom they often discussed the programs they watched. The replies were: family (23%), friends (13%), and others at church (6%). Only 5% mentioned that they ever discussed the programs with their pastors.
Heavy viewers watch broadcasts which affirm what they already believe. The national survey used the "literalist/charismatic" index of evangelical belief (as opposed to membership in an evangelical denomination), which showed that holding these beliefs was more strongly associated with the viewing of religious programs than any other single factor -- including attending church, contributing to a church, participating in community activities, income, age, or sex. Belief in the "literalist/charismatic" worldview was the most important single factor in determining whether a person watched religious television.
The conclusion drawn from the research is that electronic church broadcasts rarely speak to people outside their natural constituency, but speak to people already highly "religious" in terms of their literalistic and charismatic beliefs. Electronic-church programs, in the words of the researchers, "serve primarily to express and cultivate, rather than extend or broaden, existing religious beliefs in the lives of viewers who turn to them."
3. The roles of people are essentially the same in the symbolic worlds of both the electronic-church programs and general television programs. We have seen the way in which television cultivates a worldview by defining "roles" which people play -- telling who is important, who is not, which people can do what. The researchers found that the roles that people play in the world of religious TV are by and large the same as the roles they play in general TV.
In the programming of both religious and general TV, men outnumber women three to one. In both, men are dominant. In both, women tend to be young. In both, the professions are vastly overrepresented, although the clergy are very prominent in religious TV while they hardly appear at all in general commercial programs. Perhaps most important, as the study puts it, "in both prime-time drama and religious programs, blue-collar workers, the unemployed, the retired and housewives are practically invisible."6.
The worlds of religious TV and general TV are also similar with regard to children and the elderly. While children and adolescents comprise about a third of the U.S. population, they account for only 4% on religious TV and 6% on general TV. The elderly, about 12% of our population, make up little more than 3% of those appearing on either religious or general programs. Nonwhites are also underrepresented in relation to their real numbers in the actual population.
However, religious TV contains a few unique distortions all its own. 5% of all participants in religious programs claim to have been healed either during or after the telecasts, and the healers on the programs play major roles. But most recipients of healing are women, while the healers are men. It is men who are the clergy, who quote the Bible (and its authority), and men do not suffer from as many ailments or personal problems as do women.
The world of religious TV has even more ailments and personal problems than general TV. Fully three-quarters of the programs mention family, financial and health problems, unemployment, or physical handicaps. The solutions are usually "spiritual" in nature. The researchers were able to identify only one specific cure proposed for all ailments, namely, making a financial contribution to the program. In fact, financial contribution as a solution was suggested on one-fourth of all the prominent electronic-church ministries. It was never mentioned on mainline church programs.
4. For most heavy viewers of religious television, watching the programs is both an expression of belief and an act of protest against the world of general television.
Dean George Gerbner and his Annenberg School team have been studying American television for more than 20 years. One of their most significant findings is that general television has a "mainstream" effect in our culture. That is, TV cultivates a commonality of outlook that tends to be shared by all heavy viewers. We have seen that general television is, in many ways, the common mass ritual of American "civil religion." Therefore we should not be surprised at their finding that general television relates to and cultivates religiosity in its own way. The Annenberg report boldly suggests that "commercial television viewing may supply or supplant (or both) some religious satisfactions and thus lessen the importance of religion for its heavy viewers."6.
But in its study of religious television, the Annenberg team discovered something new. They found that there are two television mainstreams and the two differ greatly from each other. Religious TV`s mainstream tends to be conservative and restrictive and puritanical. General TV`s mainstream tends to be politically moderate, somewhat restrictive, and populist but not puritanical.
This means there are significant differences in the attitudes and values of the viewers of each mainstream. Heavy viewers of religious television are more likely than light viewers to describe themselves as conservative, to oppose a nuclear freeze, and to favor tougher laws against pornography. They also are much more likely to have voted in the last election, which helps identify one of the strengths of the electronic-church movement.
Heavy viewers of general television tend to describe themselves as politically moderate, are more likely than light viewers to favor a nuclear freeze, and are not as concerned with pornography. They are far less likely to have voted in the last election than light viewers, which goes a long way toward explaining the continuing reduction in the percentage of those who vote in general elections in the United States.
Heavy viewers of religious TV tend to attend church, but heavy viewers of general TV tend not to attend church. The same difference in response holds true for making contributions to the local church, for participating in nonworship activities at a church, and for social attitudes such as upholding the traditional role of women, being dissatisfied with today`s moral climate and holding traditional and more restrictive sexual values.
Religious conservatives sense this conflict between the worldview of general television and their own worldview. For this reason they understand their viewing of religious programs as both an act of protest against the "evils" of general television and an affirmation of their support for the worldview expressed within the electronic-church programs.
These characteristics of the mainstream of general television are significant, because for many years general television has been functioning as a powerful, if not the most powerful, cultivator of our society`s over-all values, attitudes, and behavior. It may well be, as the study puts it, that "for matters of religious importance, experience, participation and dollars, the churches` principal competition is not the television ministry but general television."8.
What conclusions can we draw from the research findings? First, while the electronic church does not represent a serious institutional threat to the mainline churches, it does pose a threat to mainline theology, particularly in the areas of mission, evangelism, and education. The electronic church is not an institutional threat, because its audience is relatively small and static. Two-thirds of its viewers are not affiliated with mainline churches, and those who are by and large are giving both to their local church and to the television ministries of their choice. Furthermore, more than three-fourths are members of some church, and attend regularly.
But the research also shows that the electronic-church programs consolidate and reinforce a restrictive and narrow view both of religion and of the world. Evangelism, in the sense of reaching out to find and convert people not already reached, is ineffective, although in some of the ministries much is made of the importance of reaching people outside the United States. Mission is focused on nurturing those who already strongly hold literalist/charismatic beliefs. Education is essentially one way, emphasizing the obligation to make financial contributions to keep the program going. Furthermore, most of the distortions of general television are found within religious television, except that sexism, authoritarianism, and an emphasis on simple and crass answers to problems are even more blatant. At almost every point, the underlying theology of the electronic church is at odds with the theologies of the mainline churches.
At the press conference announcing the Annenberg-Gallup study, a member of the audience, himself an electronic-church broadcaster, summed up the report by commenting, rather wistfully, "It looks like the research is saying that all that religious TV is doing is to make people feel good and to get them to keep on doing what they`re doing!" -- to which one of the researchers replied: "That`s exactly right!"
Second, the research revealed that it is general television, not religious television, that is really challenging people`s belief systems and their church attendance and financial support. It is the heavy viewers of general TV who attend the least, give the least, and believe the least. And, of course, general TV is far more pervasive than religious TV.
It is clear from the research that a major task confronting religious organizations must be to learn how to deal with television, so that people can control it rather than be controlled by it. Unfortunately, the research also shows that the electronic church, by adopting the utilitarian "whatever works is good" approach of The Technique, has become part of the problem rather than part of the solution. However, both the electronic church and the mainline churches are dwarfed by the immensity of the challenges posed by the power of television itself.
Elecronic Church in the Balance
If we take into account the analysis of the message of the electronic church, and the findings of the research, how, on balance, does the electronic church come out? I identify two positive contributions made by the electronic church, and five negative consequences.
First, the electronic church has accurately diagnosed the spiritual hunger of millions of people who are reacting intuitively against the inhuman and unchristian worldview of our media culture. The TV evangelists understand that people are hurting because they feel ignored and not needed, because they are often treated like commodities by business and like dummies by politicians, because they doubt their own worth and feel they have no real say in how their world is run.
The motion picture Network contains a memorable scene that describes the way such people feel today. In that film, the TV newscaster, like the electronic-church preachers, discovered that there is a vast group out there who are alienated and deeply frustrated. On his newscast he tells them to go to the nearest window, throw it open and shout to the world, "I`m as mad as Hell, and I`m not going to take it anymore." The film is fictional, but the alienated millions are not -- and the electronic church has identified their frustration.
In contrast, the mainline churches by and large have failed to identify with these people, or even to recognize they are there. Consequently, they have failed to minister to these new kinds of needs on the part of millions who live within reach of their ministry. In fact, the mainline churches are perceived by many to be a part of the problem -- which is why they are called "dry, unfriendly, cold, dead, or dying," while the electronic church ministers are perceived as those who care because "they answer my letters."
Second, the electronic church has fashioned a number of new models of interactive communication that creatively combine the technologies not only of television, satellite and cable, but also the computer-driven "personalized" letter, books, pamphlets, and study courses, the WATS-line telephone system, and regional and local groups used for referral and follow-up. Whole new systems of communication have been invented which the mainline church thus far have almost totally ignored.
On the other hand, I believe the electronic church has failed miserably adequately to meet the needs of the people it has identified so accurately. It has failed for two reasons: because it has not taken seriously enough the demonic nature of general television; and because it has proceeded on an inadequate understanding of the nature of the Christian gospel.
First, the Electronic Church separates people from their own communities. Television already has substituted itself for many of the things we used to do communally: go to movies, attend local sports and concerts, participate in clubs and meetings. For many people television has become a substitute for each of these activities. Now it is is moving in on church participation. The electronic church undoubtedly does reinforce the religious convictions of many regular churchgoers. But for some it provides an easy and convenient substitute for face-to-face church attendance. The Annenberg research shows that at least 14% of electronic-church viewers admit that their viewing of the programs is a substitute for going to church.
The community of believers, the local church, is central to Christian faith and life. It is there that believers find the living embodiment of their faith among their neighbors. It is there that they confess their sins and find forgiveness and act out their faith and shore up one another when they slide back. The strategy of the electronic church is wrong to the extent that it would substitute a cathode tube and a phantom, nonpeople church for the church of real people with real needs and a faith to share in the midst of real lives.
Second, the electronic church is not good evangelism. As far back at l978 a study by the Institute for American Church Growth indicated that mass evangelism is not an effective method of increasing church membership. Another revealed that most people come to church as a result of someone personally known to them or because of strong pastoral leadership.9. Still other studies have shown that more than 80 our of 100 people who have joined the church in recent years came because of the word of a friend of relative. Far fewer than one out of 100 have come as a result of electronic evangelism.10. The Annenberg research revealed that the viewers of the electronic-church programs are essentially those who already hold strong religious beliefs, and that the programs themselves function to confirm these beliefs. The programs reinforce the believer rather convert the nonbeliever. Even from the point of view of the electronic church, these programs have more value as encouragement to the faithful than as evangelism to the world.
Third, the electronic church has become a captive to the commercial broadcasting system and its demands. Once broadcast preachers buy into commercial broadcasting, they have to follow the rules of the system: get more money to purchase more air time to reach more people to get more money -- a never-ending cycle that is truly vicious. To capture and hold these ever-larger audiences, it is necessary to please an ever larger part of the population -- never offend, or challenge, or put the hard questions that biblical religion requires. Because of the financial demands of commercial broadcasting, the electronic church cannot afford to talk much about suffering, shared need, or requirements of the cross, about justice and humility, and giving one`s self (not just one`s checkbook) in love to one`s neighbor.
Since the basic purpose of American commercial television is to attract an audience, it has cultivated a taste and expectation for instant gratification and simple answers. It doesn`t handle complicated or challenging ideas very well. So in seeking huge audiences, the electronic-church preacher has to fall in line, providing trivial and superficial religion, a quick fix for people`s anxieties. It has to reduce the gospel to slogans -- "Something good is going to happen to you today" -- and to present a magical God whose favor can be bought by the highest bidder.
Fourth, the values implicit in most successful electronic church programs are actually the values of the secular society it pretends to reject. Strip away the constantly repeated "praise God" and the "Lord bless" and you discover the real values: material success, power, winning, security, wealth. This is true idolatry -- to absorb the secular society`s vision of success and self-centeredness and then justify it with a coating of verbal Christianity. This is in effect selling indulgences -- a return to the very evils against which the Protestant Reformation rebelled some four centuries ago. The electronic church feeds America`s growing alienation and narcissism, its "me-ism." "Me and my TV religion" fits neatly with "Me and my TV."
Fifth, the electronic church is driving religious diversity off the air. In their eagerness to get an audience, the radio and TV preachers have been willing to pay for air time -- time which should be available free, as a public service to religious groups in every community. As recently as l959, 47% of broadcast religion was "sustaining," that is, available free to local and national churches. Today approximately 8% is available without charge; the rest is available to the highest bidder, without regard to whether the program relates to the needs and interests of the community.
But if money now becomes the only basis for access of any kind -- religious, educational, political -- to radio and television outlets, within a few years only the largest and wealthiest electronic evangelists (and teachers and politicians) will be able to stay on the air. Instead of remaining a free and independent institution, religion (and education and politics) can become just one more handmaiden of the secular commercial society.
The electronic church is great show business, a powerful audience grabber, and very much in tune with the times. But its popularity is more indicative that it has become just a part of TV`s entertainment package with a religious gloss than that it is the good news of the Christian faith.
Therefore, so far as the mainline churches are concerned, if they can`t beat `em, they shouldn`t join `em, because, fortunately, the mainline denominations have an alternative which is unique, nationwide and highly biblical: the local church.
If local churches in America were to begin taking the needs of the American people as seriously as the electronic church now does, and if they began to meet those needs in fundamental ways, we might indeed witness a national revival unparalleled in our history.
New styles of worship, new forms of community, new approaches to communication will be required. But the local church is the place where this must take place, in face-to-face, long-term involvement of people with each other. The gospel simply cannot meet people`s basic needs for recognition, involvement, worthiness, growth, and, indeed, for salvation, without person-to-person interaction over a long period of time.
Community is essential to humanity. But the new forms of communication require to redefine some of the ways by which community comes into being, and to fashion communication processes which include the feedback and mutuality essential to community and to the life of its members. At the same time, our theology requires us to consider not only what the churches can do in the use of television, but also what they should do. Too often the religious response has been to ignore one or the other of these demands, and thus either to retreat into the irrelevancy of purity, or else to embrace uncritically the tools and powers of society. In the next chapter we consider communication strategies that attempt to avoid both of these dangers, and to suggest what the churches can and should be doing, in production, education and in dealing with the structures of the television industry itself, to be both relevant to the needs of the culture and faithful to the demands of the gospel.
1. George Gerbner, Larry Gross, Stewart Hoover, Michael Morgan and Nancy Signorielli; and Harry E. Cotugno and Robert Wuthnow, "Religion and Television", a Research Report by the Annenberg School of Communications, University of Pennsylvania and the Gallup Organization, Inc., 2 vols. (New York: National Council of Churches, April l984).
2. David Clark and Paul Virts, "Religious Television Audience: A New Development in Measuring Audience Size," paper presented at The Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Savannah, 1985.
3. Stewart M. Hoover, George Gerbner, Larry Gross, Nancy Signorielli, and Michael Morgan, "The Religious Television Audience: A Matter of Significance, or Size?" Philadelphia: Temple University February 1986.
4. Ibid., p. 34.
5. Gerbner, vol. 1, pp. 2-3.
6. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 52.
7. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 10.
8. Ibid., vol. 1, p. 12.
9. Martin Marty, "The Explosion in Evangelical Television," Laity Exchange, a monograph of the Audenshaw Foundation (London: Audenshaw Foundation, 1978), p. 3.
10. Martin Marty, The Invisible Religion," Presbyterian Survey, May 1979, p.13.