Religious Television: The American Experience by Peter Horsfield
Dr. Peter Horsfield is an ordained minister in the Uniting Church in Australia. He is currently employed on the Electronic Culture Research Project, a special initiative of the Uniting Church's Commission in Victoria to explore the impact of electronic media on global cultures and the implications of this cultural change on religious institutions and on the social experience and expression of religious faith. For ten years previously he was the Dean of the Uniting Church's Theological Hall and Lecturer in Practical Theology in the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. He has published extensively in the areas of mass communication and society and media, religion and culture. Among his publications are two books: Religious Television: The American Experience (Longmans 1984) and Taming the Television: A Parents' Guide to Children and Television (Albatross 1986). This book was published in 1984 by Longman, New York. The text was prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 5: The Struggle within the Churches
At the Electronic Church Consultation held in New York in 1980, one of the speakers -- psychologist and television researcher Robert Liebert — suggested that the growth of religious television in America had created a holy war within U.S. Christendom.
The situation I will describe has every hallmark of an intensifying war of survival among battling Christian groups . . . one between liberalism and fundamentalism and the other between local community churches and broadcast ministries.(1)
While Liebert's comments may have been oversimplified and deliberately overstated, he was accurate in highlighting the conflict which the growth of evangelical and fundamentalist television over the past decade has caused within different American church groups and leaders. In analyzing the social implications of religious television, it is essential to understand something of this conflict, for it illuminates the challenge which paid-time television programs have posed to established religious culture within the country.
As one analyzes the debate that has taken place in the churches over the use of television, one tendency becomes apparent: the major conceptualization of issues has come from the critics of the paid-time broadcasters rather than from the broadcasters themselves. The major energies of the paid-time broadcasters have been directed toward the practical exigencies of program and organizational development, increasing their technical competence, and fund raising. The broadcasters' strength has been in their capability as technicians of the medium rather than as theologians or philosophers. Consequently there has been little systematic "apologia" given by the broadcasters. This fact in itself has been one of the criticisms levelled at the paid-time broadcast organizations: that the development of religious television in recent years has been the result of opportunism and cut-throat free enterprise rather than soundly based theological strategy.
Any defense offered by the broadcasters is to be found scattered throughout journals and magazines, mostly in interviews where someone else is doing the questioning and the writing. Few articles have been written by the broadcasters themselves -- they are practitioners of the image, not the word. The most substantial raison d'etre for the broadcasters is provided by Ben Armstrong in his book The Electric Church. Yet even this book is light in conceptual development and strong in image creation.
The avoidance of sound defense of their activities, particularly in their relations with the church, is beginning to have an effect. The persistent criticisms made by thinkers within the church along with a growing body of adverse research is creating an increasing questioning of paid-time programming, even from people within similar theological traditions as the broadcasters themselves.
The debate in the church over the growth of paid-time religious programs has centered on several major issues.
The Nature of the Church
The growth of paid-time religious television and its many affiliated religious services, industries, and practices presents a radical challenge to established ideas about the nature of the Christian church. It proposes through suggestion and practice the possibility of a new type of church based on electronic connection, frequently referred to as the "electric" or "electronic" church.
Credit for the coining of the term "electric church" to describe this phenomenon has been claimed by Ben Armstrong. The term came to him on a plane flight to Chicago. Impressed by the lights of the city as the plane circled overhead, Armstrong saw them as an image of the "millions of religious broadcasting listeners and viewers" whom he identified as "the members of a great and new manifestation of the church created by God for this age -- the electric church." (2)
Armstrong's actual concept of the nature of such a church is ambiguous. On the one hand he suggests that religious broadcasting is a radically different structure of the traditional church: "a revolutionary new form of the worshipping, witnessing church that existed twenty centuries ago." As in New Testament times, worship again takes place in the home, with the new apostles of the air waves visiting these home-Christians through the radio and television. Through the electric church, power is once again removed from the church hierarchy and returned to the people. (3)
On the other hand, Armstrong suggests that the electric church must be understood only as an expression of one aspect of the wider structure and work of the church. "This electric church is not a replacement for the local assembly of believers but a complement to it." The element of corporate fellowship, according to Armstrong, must "never be eclipsed by the electric church."(4)
Before proceeding, it is necessary to clarify what is meant by the term "church," for the term is used in many different ways, both to describe the church universal and to describe a local
gathering. The church in its broadest sense is used to describe the community of people, across the ages, across denominational and national lines, which recognizes Jesus Christ as Lord and responds to his mission and message in worship, sacraments, fellowship, witness, and service. In particular historical situations, however, the church may take particular forms. It may be
organized hierarchically or congregationally, it may be strongly liturgical or loosely charismatic, it may be clearly defined in name and identity or loosely defined.
Roman Catholic theologian Richard McBrien suggests that a group of persons can be called a church when the following theological and pastoral conditions are fulfilled:
1. there is a corporate confession of the Lordship of Jesus;
2. this confession is ratified in the sacraments, particularly Baptism and the Lord's Supper;
3. there is a regular use of the scriptures in developing the life of the community;
4. there is a sense of fellowship within the group, i.e., a common awareness of the call to become an interactive community;
5. there is an acceptance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the conscious motivation for the community's values and ethical commitment; and
6. there exist certain formal ministries which are designed and exercised to enable the community to exercise and remain faithful to its mission and to provide order, coherence and
stability to its internal life. (5)
McBrien notes that each of these ecclesial elements admits of degrees: the reality of "church" is not equally realized in every place and in every community. But where such conditions are present to some degree, the reality of "church" is present to that degree.
It is doubtful that Armstrong, if pressed, would really want to defend the thesis that religious television could be classified as a new type of legitimate church, despite his theological meanderings in that direction. Many other broadcasters on different occasions have avowed that they are primarily "evangelistic" organizations, fulfilling some functions of the church's mission in complement to the church, but not replacing it. Their relationship to the church, it is frequently
claimed, is not that of a substitute but of a specialized service function.
Theologically, such television organizations, in their relationship with their audiences, are deficient in two characteristics that have traditionally been seen as essential to identifying a body as a church: they have no sacramental dimension to their worship and there is no meaningful sense of their audiences being a particular community in Christ.
While an organization may function as a Christian organization without possessing all attributes of the church, theologically it is held that such bodies do not contain all the conditions required for a full and competent expression of the depth of the Gospel, and require the correction of the church in its fullness. In Protestant practice, such groups have come to be known as "para-church organizations," groups which exist as a service function to the church without becoming a substitute for it. Members of these groups usually hold membership in a church. Whereas a
church is seen as essential to the continuing work of Christ, these para-church organizations have validity only insofar as their services are still needed.
The major criticism of the religious broadcast organizations is that while they may claim not to be a new type of church, in practice they are acting as self-sufficient churches and thus threatening the life of the church by displacing the functions and role of the church with their own inadequate
expressions of the Gospel. This functional displacement of the church by the religious broadcasters is identified in several ways.
First, religious programs and broadcast groups are diverting people's attention, loyalty, and financial support away from the local church toward the television organization. While criticisms of this nature have come primarily from mainline churches, which have experienced decreases in membership and financial giving in the past 15 years, in recent years criticism has also come from evangelicals.
In defense, broadcasters claim that their programs reinforce the local church. They claim that people's donations to their programs are "above and beyond" what is normally given to local churches, though it is difficult to envisage how church people can begin to give upwards of $500 million each year to broadcast ministries without having it affect their giving elsewhere. Broadcasters suggest that their programs actually boost the local church by channelling converts to their membership and by developing the commitment and giving of church members. The persistent problem has been that little concrete research has been done to verify either these claims or the criticisms, so that the conflict between broadcasters and the church has remained largely speculative, circumstantial, and finally very subjective. Some research on these issues is beginning to emerge and will be considered later in this work.
The second criticism levelled at the broadcasters is that their programs undercut the corporate functions of the church. Religious programs act as a functional alternative to the local church, thus decreasing attendance and involvement by reinforcing the social tendency toward the individualizing of religious experience at the expense of its corporate expressions, and placing a burden on the religious broadcasting organizations which they are not equipped to handle. Phillip Yancey, in an analysis of the work of the PTL Network, has noted
PTL is not the church; it is only a mouthpiece. But by appealing to the needs in humanity that can only be met on local, corporate-body level, PTL fosters exactly the kind of situation it is not set up to handle. (6)
The concerns expressed about religious television promoting the individualization of religious experience have strong empirical support. General research has demonstrated that television viewing increases the "privatization of experience," and has led to a decrease in social interactive activity. (7) More specific research has identified a similar trend in religious belief, with a developing attitude in America that sees religious faith as a private, personal affair. (8) This attitude reflects the emergence of what Carl Dudley calls "the new believers -- those who believe without belonging."(9)
Religious broadcasters certainly have not created this effect, but they have capitalized on it, and in acquiescing to it they have reinforced its application to religious faith and practice as well. Their programs reflect little of the idea that there is a wider church in which viewers should be involved. The programs have become self-sufficient churches in themselves, providing all services to viewers to maintain viewer loyalty. Once a year Rex Humbard even presents a televised communion service, "inviting all believers who are watching at home to gather around their televison sets." Humbard also visits foreign countries in which his programs are broadcast, occasions which Ben Armstrong refers to as "pastoral visits on a jet-age scale to a large but scat- tered congregation." Humbard frequently refers to himself as "your television pastor." (10) These broadcasters do not claim to replace the local church, but the images used and activities engaged in indicate an effort to present themselves as equivalent to the local church.
The paid-time religious broadcasters may reject the concept of an electric church, but functionally they appear to be promoting the concept. In doing so, they are removing the important aspects of the Christian faith which can only be communicated through an interactive, person-to-person community: personal challenge to change within a supportive community, individualized teaching, and personal-care functions such as counseling, support, and continuity of relationship. In their place is a one-way program viewed in isolation. Sustaining-time programs generally do not fall into the same trap. Not being dependent on their audience for financial support, they do not need to cultivate audience loyalty by the provision of centralized images, services, and emotional satisfaction.
The Mission of the Church
When the paid-time religious broadcasters do make the effort to defend themselves and their enterprise against their detractors, they do so by demonstrating how their programs further the mission of the church. In particular, they focus on three major areas of the church's traditional activity: evangelism, pastoral care, and social and political influence.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists have traditionally been heavily oriented toward evangelism -- the communication of the Christian message to those who are ignorant or unconvinced of its validity.
Paid-time religious broadcasters are almost totally unrestrained in their praise of the potential of radio and television to contribute to the task of evangelism. Jerry Falwell, for example, has commented: "We have not yet touched the hem of the garment with respect to the great opportunities we as Christians have to spread the gospel."(11) Similarly, Ben Armstrong asserts that "broadcast religion touches more people than all the churches combined." (12)
Most of the religious broadcasters make available in-house statistics on the number of people who have been converted through their programs. These figures are frequently couched in comparative terms, highlighting the effectiveness of these programs in comparison to the more modest efforts of local churches. For example, a recent PTL leaflet noted that "PTL Counselors in 1979 prayed with some 28,143 people to receive Christ as Saviour. These new converts would represent a new church of over 500 people every week started by PTL."(13)
Critics have long suspected that such figures are exaggerated, but it is only in recent years that research statistics have appeared to confirm some of these suspicions. These findings will be dealt with in detail in the research chapter on religious broadcasting and the local church. It is sufficient to say here that studies call into question the validity of the figures given by the broadcasters to justify their evangelistic activities. Many of those who are claimed to have been converted through the programs turn out to be people who were already Christian or who have been confused about why they were calling a broadcaster, or who called seeking help of some other kind. (14) Other studies also raise questions about the durability of the changes effected on people through these programs, even when the programs seek to work in close conjunction with a local church. (15) Though people may be genuine at the time of contact with a religious broadcaster, research studies indicate that very few continue this change in a local church or Christian community. (16)
In spite of these findings, religious broadcasters continue to affirm the great contribution they are making to the evangelistic outreach of the church. Ben Armstrong still states that "penny for penny, per capita studies indicate there is no better way to reach the largest number of people with the life-changing news of Jesus Christ than through radio and television." (17) Others are beginning to question not only the accuracy but the honesty of such claims, even suggesting that by raising millions of dollars each year in the name of evangelism the broadcasters are perpetuating a massive fraud among well-meaning but naive religious supporters. Falwell's claim that his program was viewed regularly by an audience of 20 million people, a figure widely quoted during the preelection period in 1980, is totally without substantiation: in November 1980, according to Nielsen figures, the audience was 1.2 million, a figure of which Falwell would have been well aware. Similarly, Armstrong's claim that "religious broadcasters are reaching more people than all of the nation's churches combined" has doubtful statistical validity. The study on which Armstrong's claim is based indicated that only 20 percent of a national sample listened to a radio broadcast often and 28 percent listened occasionally. (18) Armstrong combined these two figures to conclude that in an average week 47 percent of the America population turn on radio or television for at least one religious program, a rather doubtful conclusion. These figures certainly do not tally with other research, such as the Nielsen surveys which list the combined audience for all syndicated religious programs on television in November 1980 as 19.1 million adults and children. Nor do the figures describe the limited outreach these programs have among non-church goers, a characteristic that will be considered in more detail in chapter 9.
Awareness of the limitations of television in evangelism is now beginning to permeate the thinking of evangelicals as well, people who have traditionally been supportive of the programs. Evangelical radio broadcaster Tom Bisset, in an article uncharacteristically honest for an evangelical broadcaster in its self-analysis, reviewed the research of evangelical Christianity in the U.S. commissioned by Christianity Today and felt forced to question the composition of the religious programs' audience:
Does this mean we are talking to ourselves? Has religious broadcasting simply become another form of institutionalized Christianity, comfortably settled down in the delusion that we are reaching the world for Christ through the mass media? And if so, can we justify the money spent? (19)
Similarly James Engel, Professor of Communication at the evangelical Wheaton Graduate School, and responsible for the training of evangelical communicators, places himself among a "large and growing group within this industry that are calling for some rethinking of basic assumptions and a restoration of a ministry cutting edge that seems to have been lost in some quarters." (20)
Pastoral Care and Counseling
Paid-time religious broadcasters argue strongly that their programs are meeting needs among people who are not being touched by the traditional church. There can be no doubt that the broadcasters have the capacity to stir a response in certain of their viewers. The immediacy and intimacy of communication by television and the host's presence in the viewer's home has meant that Christian television programs have been able to tap human needs and concerns which would otherwise go untouched by the church or other social agencies. The effectiveness of the medium in touching these needs and establishing an evocative relationship between the viewer and broadcaster had led to a shaping of many of the religious programs toward this aspect of the market by cultivating a strong emphasis on and appeal to personal concerns such as well being, personal contentedness, satisfactory relationships, and physical health and healing.
By establishing opportunities for viewers to contact them with their problems, either by phone or mail, broadcasters have uncovered a mass of social unsettledness. The PTL Network's claim that in 1979 over 478,000 calls were received on their "prayer lines" is one indicator of this response.(21) WXNE-Channel 25, the CBN station in Boston, in the first two years of its operation from 1977-79, logged 36,225 "counseling" calls, the majority of which were simply "prayer requests," people calling in to express a concern and to request a prayer for themselves or someone else. (22)
Critics of paid-time religious television programs certainly do not attempt to deny the fact that a need for counseling exists or that something needs to be done about this need. Their criticisms center on the methods used by religious broadcasters to uncover these problems and their effectiveness in addressing the problems they encounter.
Because of the lack of personal interaction and support resources and the demands of dealing with mass requests for help, the counseling and care offered can be little more than hasty advice based on quick judgments, a criticism also levelled at media psychology programs. (23) Further pressure is added to the counseling situation by the financial pressures on the programs' counseling services and their secondary role as name-getters for subsequent mailings and financial solicitations. The danger, as broadcaster Torn Bisset suggests, is that the broadcasters are offering a "band-aid salvation: fast-talk and quick cure in the era of feeling." (24)
Evangelical writer Phillip Yancey elucidates this problem with a case he encountered while serving as a telephone counselor at PTL; at the time, he was doing research on the organization for an article. In the center at North Carolina, he received a call for help from a woman in California who was struggling on her own to raise two troubled children on welfare. The call, for Yancey, illustrated the dilemma faced in dealing with problems under such conditions;
This lady, eager to do right, but unable to cope with the pressures of her world, represents millions with great human needs. PTL and other programs like it tap into these needs, awakening a thirst for justice and hope and joy. Yet television is limited; it is not the church, and so its help is incomplete. What the Californian woman needs is some old-fashioned, sacrificial Christian love -- someone to be her friend, to keep her sons sometimes, perhaps to help out financially. I can't help wondering how many of her Christian neighbors are too busy watching TV to give her that love.(25)
Yancey suggests that the broadcasters' limited ability to meet the needs they arouse may result in leaving persons bitterly unsatisfied rather than convinced of the church's concern. This inadequacy is even more unacceptable when one considers that, as a recognized part of the church, religious broadcasters have access to one of the most widely dispersed and pervasive networks of pastoral care in the country -- the local church. Yet broadcasters rarely use the facilities available through these local churches. Several personal experiences of this author suggest this lack of follow-up. As a local clergyman working in the Boston area, the author gave his name to CBN Boston and was accepted as one of their local referral pastors to whom cases that needed extended follow-up were referred. In the two years of acting in this capacity, however, he received only five referrals from the CBN station in the area. In-house figures from the station indicate that from the 36,225 calls received by the station during the years 1977-79, only 1,118 referrals were made to a local church or clergy- man in the area. (26) The author also wrote to five of the broadcasters seeking their advice on living as a Christian. Only one broadcaster included the name of a local church from which he could gain further information, and no local church made contact with him as a result of his enquiry, even though two churches of the same affiliation as the broadcasters' existed on the block where he was living.
If the paid-time broadcasters see themselves as being complementary to the local church, as they claim to do, there is little evidence of a genuine effort on their part to develop a working relationship with the churches, particularly in the area of ongoing care. This unwillingness is strange, for the local church offers many of the pastoral-care facilities lacking in the broadcast organizations: continuity of interpersonal relationship, group support, the possibility of extended personal counseling, and the sacramental and interactive aspects of worship.
The lack of continuity in the counseling relationship and the lack of genuine individual responsiveness created by the mass-counseling methods employed by broadcasters make a mockery of genuine pastoral care and religious compassion. The intimacy of communication claimed by the broadcasters falls very short as an acceptable model of Christian concern and communication for several reasons.
First, the implied intimacy of the relationship is basically dishonest. The presentation of the broadcaster as a compassionate friend is actually a selective, edited, and cultivated image neatly honed by market research and designed to evoke a particular response. The host may individually be a compassionate person at times (there are several accounts suggesting the opposite for some broadcasters) but such intimacy and compassion lack plausibility when not expressed in specific, spontaneous, interpersonal situations free of the watchful, editorially corrective eye of the camera.
Second, the broadcasters' intimacy and compassion are not interactive. A television host cannot respond specifically to a person's situation. Yet for many Christians this mutuality, responsiveness, and vulnerability of one person to the other is the essence of the Christian message of the incarnation (i.e., "in the flesh"). As theologian Harvey Cox has noted: "God's message to humanity was not emblazoned across the sky (but) was written in the life and suffering of a man who was willing to open himself to the abuse and contempt of those who rejected him."(27) In removing this aspect of vulnerability, one removes the essence of the Christian concept of love.
Third, a one-way, electronic relationship lacks the creative challenge and demands which a loving relationship brings. Not only is the viewer unable to share his or her reactions in the immediacy of a person-to-person encounter with the broadcaster, but the viewer does not have to expose himself or herself personally to the judgment and demands of the message as it is embodied in the actual presence of another person, with the incongruities and decisions that the presence of another person involves. In the artificial relationship of broadcaster to viewer, the broadcaster becomes the lackey of the viewer, forced continually to provide what is explicitly or implicitly demanded under the threat of being discarded and replaced by another when he no longer fulfills the desires of his viewer.
Because paid-time religious broadcasters refuse to recognize these inherent limitations of the medium and thus refuse to compensate for them in the presentation of their message, they are in constant danger of removing the nonverbal, experiential, and interpersonal dimensions of religious faith and substituting in their place a passive observation of pseudo-religious spectacle.
James Taylor has suggested that if the early church had had the use of mass media more people would have known about Christianity but far fewer people would have been converted to become Christians themselves. (28) Increasingly, church leaders are questioning how a demanding gospel can be communicated on a medium such as television, which is characterized by the peculiar qualities of being entertaining, relaxing, and un-demanding of personal effort or exertion by its viewers.
Social and Political Impact
Jerry Falwell is one broadcaster who has justified his broadcasting activities on the basis of the political visibility and impact they have given to the church: "Television and radio are enabling the Christian community to reach a level of public exposure and contacts never before possible."(29) Falwell is one obvious example of an otherwise unknown preacher who gained national publicity through his broadcasting efforts. Other religious television personalities have achieved similar fame, particularly during the recent presidential elections.
It is difficult to assess objectively the actual impact which these programs have had. The number of articles which appeared in the news-weekly magazines at the time does give some indication of the perceived potential of these movements during the 1980 presidential election. (30)
While these programs may have given religious spokespersons greater publicity than they had had for some time, there has been substantial criticism within the church of the paid-time broadcasters' political activities. Though there were a few social commentators who challenged the right of the broadcasters to influence the elections, most religious critics did not deny the right of the broadcasters to exercise power in this arena; it is the business of religious faith to attempt to influence society in the direction of greater good, and many of the critics were themselves veterans of the social rights activities of the 1960s. The criticisms were directed rather at the nature of the changes being sought and the methods used to achieve these changes.
Central to the criticisms has been the conviction shared by many religious leaders that the exercise of social power should be directed by a concern for justice on a representative basis rather than a concern to impose one's own particular standards and beliefs on others. The criticism of Chris- tian broadcasters by others within the church was that they were using the inordinate power they had gained through the unrepresentative mass media to promote their own preferred and highly selective causes rather than to encourage the exercise of responsible representation.
The continual focus on several select moral issues to the avoidance of others at times caught the broadcasters in embarrassing contradictions. One method by which they attempted to rally support for politicians who supported their particular causes was by endorsing a "rating" system which collated scores for each individual legislator according to how that legislator voted on several issues considered by the broadcasters to be "Christian" issues of the election. When the scores were tallied, however, several recognized and highly respected Christian legislators, including Jesuit Robert Drinan of Massachusetts, evangelical Mark Hatfield of Oregon, and Paul Simon of Illinois received extremely low ratings on their legislative behavior as it reflected their "Christian" commitment. At the same time two Congressmen who received the top score for their "Christian" legislative activity were shortly to be convicted for criminal activity: one for accepting a bribe of $25,000 in the Abscam scandal and the other for homosexual solicitation of boys in Washington.
The paid-time religious broadcasters claimed to represent the biblical position on political issues, but the biblical basis of their policies was seen to be rather suspect. Spurious biblical warrant was quoted for increased military spending and the development of American nuclear capability. Other issues upon which they focused attention, such as abortion, homosexuality, pornography, and prayer in public schools were found to be of minor biblical concern compared to other issues which they avoided, such as justice and God's concern for the poor.
Television certainly offers the potential for social and political impact by religious broadcasters who seek to use it in that way, and yet, the example set by broadcasters in the 1980 election year left much to be desired in the eyes of many Christian leaders and adherents.
The Methods of the Paid-Time Broadcasters
Considerable criticism was directed toward the conservative broadcasters because of the highly competitive nature of their methods in attracting viewers and in promoting their own cause. Their willingness to compete against other religious broadcasters in the open market blended nicely with the spirit of free enterprise and gave the television industry an unexpected financial blessing by enabling it to sell time for religious broadcasts rather than provide time without charge. In the process, however, the paid-time broadcasters undercut cooperative ventures among the different churches and frustrated the efforts of other religious leaders to encourage justice and an attitude of social responsibility within the television industry.
This competitiveness of the paid-time broadcasters has its basis in conservative theology, which is strongly competitive in concept. Salvation is conceived of as a struggle between God and the devil for the soul of the individual. With the alternatives being eternal blissful heaven or everlasting punitive hell, this battle frequently is intense. Christian discipleship is understood largely as competition against negative forces, either within oneself or within one's environment. Providence is seen as God's working on the side of the believer or the faithful to promote his or her cause and to frustrate the opposition. The resolution of these conflicting forces, achieved through divine competition, is seen as the dynamic by which the divine will works out its purpose.
When the struggle is understood in these eternal dimensions, the more mundane consequences of competitiveness, such as lack of representativeness in the presentation of religious culture on television can be seen as almost inconsequential. The competitiveness tends to minimize cooperation with other religious groups not within the close parameters of one's own theological tradition. In fact, competitiveness between Christian groups is seen as more desirable than cooperation because competitiveness acts as a stimulus to better performance whereas cooperation becomes time consuming and modifying.
Mainline churches, on the other hand, without this strong emphasis on snatching people from the threat of hell, have tended to interpret mission less as competition and more as nurture, cooperation, and action for social justice. In relation to television, this mission has expressed itself as attempts to be responsible in their approach to and use of television by stressing cooperative ventures, justice in programming through the representation of the variety of community beliefs and aspirations, and social responsibility through encouraging humanizing programs and television's responsiveness to the needs of society.
This approach has run counter to the evangelical approach. Because the paid-time broadcasters' emphasis on competitiveness has coincided with the same stress in the television industry as a whole, they have been favored. Mainline groups have been critical of this advantage taken by the paid-time broadcasters because it has frustrated their efforts to encourage stations to act responsibly in the public interest. In accepting their advantage, paid- time broadcasters have also acted selfishly, ignoring the interests of the community as a whole in favor of their own particular interests. Such power, according to the mainline churches, should be used not to further one's own advantage exclusively but also to further the interests of the community through advocacy functions and a general critique of the broadcast system. These functions, they claim, are not being fulfilled by the paid- time broadcasters.
The Church and Culture
Many of the differences between the paid-time broadcasters and the sustaining-time broadcasters have come about because of their different understandings of the relationship among the church, the Christian message, and American culture. In the two decades of rapid change in religious broadcasting, it has been the evangelicals who have become most affirmative of American culture.
Evangelical and fundamentalist theology has continually stressed the individual as the foundational unit of society. Morality is understood as the behavior of the individual and limited in its definition largely to personal morality in such issues as sexual attitudes and conduct, honesty and integrity of intentions, and fidelity in relation to one's marital commitments. Social morality is to a large extent viewed as this personal morality writ large: there is little understanding in evangelical ethics of group morality, corporate ethics or social behavior, Christian discipleship has tended therefore to be interpreted mainly in terms of individual morality and witness rather than in action for change in other dimensions such as social structures or political systems.
Evangelical social philosophy, therefore, became attractive to many during the 1960s, when it helped masses of people conceptualize and handle the traumatic social changes which were taking place in American society. By personalizing all issues, evangelical theology provided the means by which people could integrate these major social changes. In the process, however, it has tended to be strong in its affirmation of the social and political status quo. With its special emphasis on individual conversion, it reassured people that whatever social change was necessary could be achieved by changing individuals within the system. This attitude was strongly coupled with biblical warrant for the Christian's obedient acceptance of appropriate political authorities.
This attitude was well expressed by Billy Graham, one of the major spokespersons of the evangelical tradition. In the midst of the social turmoil of the 1960s, he wrote,
We have been trying to solve every ill of society as though society were made up of regenerate men to whom we had an obligation to speak with Christian advice . . . Thus the government may try to legislate Christian behavior, but it soon finds that men remain unchanged. The changing of men is the primary mission of the church. The only way to change men is to get them converted to Jesus Christ. Then they will have the capacity to live up to the Christian command to "Love thy neighbor." (31)
Coming out of the 1960s, therefore, conservative Protestant theology including that of the evangelical broadcasters was strong in its affirmation of traditional American culture, including the values of free-enterprise capitalism and the validity of capitalism's monetary rewards. For many this included a renewed emphasis on the divine destiny of American democracy. Any shortcomings in the American system tended to be understood in the context of individuals' failures within the system rather than faults in the system itself.
Vernon Grounds, former President of Conservative Baptist Theological Seminary, noted at the time that the dominant social attitudes that had come to characterize evangelical churches (and these same attitudes can be detected in the major evangelical television programs) are (1) an overriding social and political conservatism; (2) a distinct otherworldliness that nevertheless allows for material success; (3) a strong individualism and bourgeois mentality; and (4) an unprophetic acquiescence to prevailing social norms. (32)
This combination of social attitudes made blending into the general television milieu relatively friction-free for the paid-time broadcasters. In moving into this milieu, however, they also adopted other characteristics of it with little question: glamour, pageantry, style, sensationalism, and exaggeration. Yet by identifying morality in personal terms, they could do so with little challenge to their basic message.
Mainline theology and social philosophy, on the other hand, allow for a concept of corporate or social morality as well as individual or personal morality. Mainline ethicists stress that structures and societies themselves are moral agents which in their adoption must be evaluated for their coherence with one's basic message and stance. Their ethicists' criticism of paid- time broadcasters has been that in their unquestioning acquiescence to the exploitative images and structures of television and their uncritical endorsement of television's functioning within American society, paid-time broadcasters have caught themselves in a moral contradiction: the identification of the Christian message of justice, love, and community with television's structural characteristics of injustice, inhumanity, and exploitation.
Not only these characteristics of television have been of concern to religious writers. They point to other destructive aspects of television that have been stressed by television researchers and theorists; the privatization of experience at the expense of family and social interaction and rela- tionships;(33) the promotion of fear as the appropriate attitude to life:(34) television's cultural levelling effects which blur local, regional, and national differences and impose a distorted and primarily free-enterprise, competitive and capitalistic picture of events and their significance; (35) television's suppression of social dialogue; (36) its distorted and exploitative presentation of certain social groups: (37) the increasing alienation felt by most viewers in relation to this central means of social communication;(38) and its negative effects on the development of the full range of human potential. (39)
This medium, mainline critics suggest, should not be one of the primary means of achieving the church's mission, as it is for the paid-time broadcasters: it should be one of the primary targets of the church's mission.
This debate between different religious broadcasters and church leaders reflects differing attitudes towards technology, involving again the differences that have been noted between emphasis on personal morality and corporate morality. For most evangelicals, television is a tool to be used and if the end is justified, then so also are the means required by the tool in achieving those ends. The effect of the demands of television on the paid-time broadcasters is apparent: similar images, formats, and production techniques as those used by successful secular programs; attention-grabbing devices such as constant references to miracles; dramatic incidents and spec- tacle; and the use of celebrities are all justified by the broadcasters as essential to using television effectively. "What are they asking us to do?" asks Mike Nason, executive producer of Robert Schuller's "Hour of Power" program. "Get black and white, adjust our glasses before we read a scripture, shuffle up to the camera? By that time we've lost our viewer. He's gone to watch Bugs Bunny. "(39) Similarly, Pat Robertson has noted,.
To maintain professional standards in our industry and to be effective in the marketplace, a degree of entertainment and showmanship is sometimes necessary. Communication by mass media is not the same as the direct personal contact between pulpit and pew.(40)
That is the dilemma and there are many thinkers, including evangelicals, who feel that the broadcasters have identified themselves too closely with this television culture and in the process have cheapened the message of the Christian faith and reduced it to an unacceptable form of spiritual entertainment or "super-bowl Christianity." This reservation is expressed by one evangelical writer as follows:
Of course there is nothing wrong with a person giving his Christian witness. Even Paul told his story on two or three occasions. But according to the record he didn't send out a direct-mail piece urging Christians to see him in person at the sports arena flanked by the recently born-again coach and halfback of the Super Bowl champions. Nor did he go coast to coast on color television where his testimony was scheduled to follow right behind a country music star singing her latest country gospel hit. It's hard to picture Paul promoting tapes of his latest crusade in Athens ..(41)
What is interesting is that evangelicals have been the religious figures to make such full adaptations to the demands of television. In the past, the fundamentalist and evangelical traditions within Christianity have tended to stand in a counterculture relationship with American society while the mainline churches have been more identified as a culture-affirming religious tradition. As television is coming to dictate the mainstream of American culture, the evangelical and fundamentalist traditions have become the affirmers and mainline churches have become the mavericks, resisting the imposition of this culture through such means as media advocacy on behalf of powerless social groups, media criticism, and media-awareness programs.
A review of the revivalist tradition in America, however, reveals the similarities of modern television preachers and the earlier manifestations of revivalist preaching during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As William McLoughlin competently points out in his book Revivals, Awakenings and Reform, the American revivalist tradition came into existence in the early nineteenth century at the same time as the mass market and popular media such as the penny newspaper. Revivalist preachers used every trick of the popular media of the time; advertisements, billboards, posters, and news stories to draw attention to themselves and to promote their cause. The program formats and styles now seen on paid-time television programs to a large extent can be seen in the meetings of earlier revivalists such as Moody and Sunday: the charismatic preacher, the emphasis on quick, dramatic conversions, popular gospel singing, and the witnessing of prominent personalities.
Similarly, the reaction of the established churches to those theological mavericks and the conflicts the evangelicals caused within the churches then are not unlike the reaction and conflicts they have caused today. The difference, however, is that now they have been able to gain exposure on a more universal and nationally apprehended medium.
Their stance, though, has caught the paid-time broadcasters in an interesting theological paradox. For, while their message contains a strong element of social doom, calling people to flee from confidence in society to a belief in the imminent coming of Jesus, their actions are very affirmative of the durability and worth of this society. In denouncing American society, the broadcasters use figures who are distinguished by their success in this society; Pat Boone, Efrem Zimbalist, Jr., Charles Colson, plus the endless parade of successful authors, recording stars, actors, and so on. The message of imminent doom is conveyed through a program which features pleasant faces, happy sound, and upbeat music. The continual reminder that Jesus is coming soon is interspersed with appeals and documentaries reminding viewers to contribute to the building of new centers, colleges, holiday villages, churches, and hospitals. Calls to flee from the imminent destruction are accompanied by demonstrations of how viewers may find happiness in this life and material wealth which is God's blessing to those who trust him. Edward Berckman suggests that the success of the evangelical and fundamentalist broadcasters lies in their ability to hold to and present this paradox: "The appeal lies in (their) ability to maintain a precarious balance: to communicate a sense of a threatened world while, at the same time, vigorously presenting an image of "(42)
The Religious Use of Mass Media
Each time a new mass medium has emerged, the church has been there and adapted the medium's use to the church's purpose. The first mass printing of a text was of the bible in 1456; a regularly scheduled religious service appeared on radio only two months after regular radio programming began in 1920; and religious programs were among the first year's offerings on television in 1940. Within the church, there have always been the enthusiastic communicators who have tried to raise the church's sights to see the potential of mass communication.
But also within the church there have always been the critics who have cautioned against the hazards of greeting any new advance with unquestioning praise. These critics have not always been conservatives seeking to preserve an established domain nor the jealous attacking a successful project. In relation to the mass media, some of the strongest criticisms within the church have come from people actively involved not only in the mission of the church but in seeking the vision to encompass new developments in society. It is not accurate to seek to pass off such criticisms simply on the basis that other religious leaders "feel threatened" or that they express "resentment for another's success."(43)
Criticisms of the use of mass media for religious communication center on two main arguments, the first based on philosophical and theological grounds, and the second based on the structural implications of the television industry itself.
There has been a persistent body of people who question the use of mass media in religious communication as an inherent contradiction in terms. The essence of Christian communication according to many is its responsiveness, its service of human need, and its affirmation of the indi- vidual. To speak of "mass" communication is an impossibility. Theologian Harvey Cox has made the point that "you cannot communicate a message about love and reciprocity when you are telling someone with no opportunity of him/her talking back."(44) What results in this case is a reduction of the gospel message to information and often carefully hidden coercive information. Such one-way communication of a religious message eventually strips the message of its interactive, existential dimensions. Writer Virginia Stem Owens challenges this basic presumption underlying current religious mass media:
Theologically (a Radio Church) is a contradiction in terms. In our rush to support modern man's spirituality in the style to which he had become accustomed, we had forgotten the one thing necessary for worship -- total presence.. . . There are very few experiences where one must still be physically present to participate in them, so far has technology extended our nerve-endings. Birth and death, sex and liturgy, remain the holdouts. None of these can be performed satisfactorily by proxy or long distance. (45)
These criticisms suggest that the problem facing religious communicators is not just a matter of content but a questioning of the nature of the whole medium itself. The particular contents of television, however, aggravate the problem and make it an especially pernicious antagonist to the Christian message. Television's highly centralized, capital-intensive, hard-edged conceptualizations make it virtually impossible even for Christian content to remain intact. One of the most ascerbic critics in this regard has been the experienced mass-media practitioner, Malcolm Muggeridge. In his challenge of the use of mass media for religious communication, Muggeridge focuses on the question of the illusion created and presented by the mass media, particularly that of television: "Not only can the camera lie, it always lies. . . . The ostensibly serious offerings of the media, on the other hand, represent a different menace precisely because they are liable to pass for being objective and authentic, whereas actually they, too, belong to the realm of fantasy."(46) Muggeridge who, late in life, became an active Christian, considers that the fantasy image of the television screen stands in direct contrast to the reality of Christ and therefore is totally unadaptable to the proclamation of the Christian message.
Now we, the legatees of Christendom, are in our turn succumbing to fantasy, of which the media are an outward and visible manifestation. Thus the effect of the media at all levels is to draw people away from reality, which means away from Christ, and into fantasy. (47)
One defense against such criticisms offered by the paid-time broadcasters is that these critics have failed to realize the significant difference between print media and electronic media. The critics, in McLuhan's terms, are bound by the linear logic of the written page. It is the electronic communicators who have perceived the gestaltic logic of the electronic media and have applied that logic to the explication of the Christian message. It is significant in this regard that most discussion about religious uses of television takes place in print, while the actual practice continues in electronics. Editor James Taylor of the United Church of Canada suggests that today the church is in a new Reformation, the significance of which for the life of the church may be as dramatic as the Reformation in the sixteenth century, which derived much of its monentum from the development of print. This new Reformation will bring ways of thinking as foreign to religious thinkers today as did the Reformation then. Taylor acquiesces to what he views as the inevitable: "We might as well face the fact that more and more people who would otherwise have belonged to our churches are going to be born again out of television's experiential womb."(48) Whether Taylor is right or not may be proven only by the historical perspective to be gained by the passage of time. It is possible that, as audience figures suggest, this new Reformation may already have reached a plateau. In the meantime, however, religious communicators must address the problem as clearly and logically as possible, weighing the issues involved even if they are forced, again in McLuhan's terms, to use a logic gained from a rear-vision view.
The second objection to the religious use of mass media from within the church arises out of concern for the implications of the organization of the mass media themselves. Harvey Cox has highlighted this problem;
The problem with the mass media is not their content -- though God knows that is bad enough. The trouble is their structure and the pattern of their control. They are massive one way signalling systems that allow for virtually no response. They are controlled by the rich and the powerful. . . . They are run for profit, for controlling people and selling them things.
This context, according to Cox, cuts right across the message of the gospel, rendering it totally ineffective --"A gospel presented in a context which contradicts the gospel is no longer the gospel at all"(49) This is a problem particularly with those who receive the messages of American broadcasting outside the American system. Jesuit communicator Stefan Bamberger notes,
Latin American Christians have very realistically brought to our attention the fact that the mass media in many countries are commercially and politically dominated. . . . How can one identify with a set-up which, in most parts of its program, flatly promotes the consumer society and often obeys political dictatorship! (50)
This apparent conflict has never been a problem for the paid-time broadcasters, who consider it beyond the scope of Christian concern to effect social change except through the conversion of individuals, a process which can take place regardless of contexts and suggested identifications. Their task, as they see it, is not to change social structures but to use what tools are available for the purpose of spreading the gospel. This limited evangelical understanding of "spreading the gospel," understood largely as verbal content, lies at the base of much of the debate over religious uses of mass media. Other religious communicators feel that spreading the gospel also involves action on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and those suffering because of powerlessness to resist exploitation. The alternatives suggested by the critics of current religious broadcasting reflect this broader concern to embody the gospel in action not only through television but also against
television. Harvey Cox suggests that the proper function of the American religious communicator should not be a personally beneficial one but a surrogate one: "to be the voice of the powerless and poor of the world . . . to use the media to allow people to give expression to their fear, to let people cry out, and to make media accessible."(51) Many mainline broadcasters assert that one of the major objects of their broadcasting is producing programs which raise issues of social concern and which give expression to minority groups and causes.
Theologian Robert McAfee Brown suggests that the most appropriate stance for the church to take in regard to the mass media is to use its facilities to counter the depersonalizing and privatizing effect of the media in society. In this case the church's mission to television may represent a massive clash of institutions, with the church becoming a paradigm of a counterculture or antienvironment organization in which human values are preserved and restored to their foremost position in society.
If depersonalization turns out to be the greatest single threat in the future, it can be strongly argued that the church has the special role of warning about this and safe-guarding the personal dimension against encroachment in the name of efficiency, progress, or technological necessity.(52)
Various churches and church leaders have been following this approach. The media awareness program, Television Awareness Training, was developed by a group of churches to develop social awareness of the influence of television on social attitudes and values. The program is now being used internationally, with adaptations made for particular national contexts. The United Church of Christ has continually played an active part in media advocacy, devoting much of the time of their Office of Communication to media criticism, lobbying, and organizing community and legal-action groups against the television industry on behalf of disenfranchised groups.
At the moment, however, it is unlikely that such action will become a universal strategy of the churches. Not only are there major theological differences between the groups which lead them to conceive the problem of media differently, but there is now major capital investment to be protected and justified, not only in television but in the large, related fields of religious music, publishing, entertainment, and alternate education. These gain their distinctiveness not from their rejection of the marketing approach in the name of religious faith but from their almost total integration of modern consumer marketing with religion, producing what Virginia Stem Owens identifies as a range of prepackaged, certified Christian life-styles to meet one's particular demands and aspirations, with appropriate seminars available to show a person how to fit into that life-style.
The answer, according to one group, is to be the mouthpiece for the poor and disenfranchised, to resist the imposition of the media, to be the counterculture in which human values are preserved. The answer, according to the other group, is for religious faith to ride the technological roller coaster wherever it goes, with a strong confidence in the capabilities of technology to contribute to the furthering of the Christian cause. The only potential limitation would be the money to enable the church to do it. "The church won't be able to do much if (the world) can keep it poor and underfinanced. The billion dollar category is what is needed to be truly effective," says paid-time religious broadcaster Pat Robertson.(53)
It is apparent that the conflict within the church caused by the growth of evangelical broadcasting in recent years is more than just a case of "sour grapes" or "ego-defensiveness." It represents a marked difference in approaches to religious faith and practice arising out of theological, philosophical, social, and practical differences.
These differences within the church have made it as a whole vulnerable to manipulation by the powerful television industry which in the past two decades has permitted and encouraged the growth of paid-time broadcasting because that approach is most in harmony with its own economic goals and methods. The paid-time religious broadcasters in general have not yet been able to perceive or acknowledge the use that has been made of them, or the power of the television industry to shape their message and their organizations. Nor have they acknowledged their vulnerability to possible future changes in broadcast policy according to the inclinations of the television industry. By undercutting the moral basis of representativeness in religious programming on television, the paid-time religious broadcasters have removed one of the major contributions that religious groups could have made in influencing television in America: that of acting as agents in challenging the television industry to act within its moral responsibility as a utility for genuine social communication.
1. Robert M. Liebert, "The Electronic Church: A Psychological Perspective," paper presented at the Electronic Church Consultation, New York University, February 6-7, 1980, p. 1.
2. Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 8. 3. Ibid., pp. 8-9, 149.
4. Ibid., pp. 9-10.
5. See Richard McBrien, "The Electronic Church: A Catholic Theologian's Perspective," paper presented at the Electronic Church Consultation, New York University, February 6-7, 1980, p. 3. Also Lesslie Newbigin, The House-hold of God: Lectures on the Nature of the Church, London:
SCM Press, 1953, p. 21; and Emit Brunner, The Divine Imperative, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1947, pp. 300-301.
6, Philip Yancey, "The Ironies and Impact of PTL," Christianity Today, September 21, 1979, p. 33. See also other conservative criticisms such as D. G. Kehl, "Peddling the Power and the Promises," Christianity Today, March 1980, pp. 16-19; and Russ Williams, "Heavenly Message,
Earthly Designs," Sojourners, September 1979, pp. 12-28.
7. George Cornstock, "The Impact of Television on American Institutions," Journal of Communication, Spring 1978, pp. 12-28.
8. The Gallup Organization, The Unchurched American, p.1.
9. Carl S. Dudley, Where Have All Our People Gone: New Choices for Old Churches, New York: Pilgrim Press, 1979, p. II.
10. Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 84.
11. In Bisset, "Religious Broadcasting," p. 31.
12. Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 7.
13. "PTL Counseling," a leaflet of the PTL Network. No date.
14. James F. Engel, "Pilot Research Study," pp. 23-33.
15. Win Am, "Mass Evangelism -- The Bottom Line," Church Growth: America, January/February, 1978, pp. 6-9.
16. Win Arn, "A Church Growth Look at 'Here's Life, America,'" Church Growth: America, January/February, 1977, pp. 8-9.
17. Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 135.
18. Ronald L. Johnstone, "Who Listens to Religious Radio Broadcasts Anymore?" Journal of Broadcasting, Winter 1971-72, p. 92.
19. Bisset, "Religious Broadcasting," p. 29.
20. Engel, Contemporary Christian Communications, p. 258.
21. "PTL Counseling."
22. CBN Boston, "Monthly Statistical and Activity Reports," October 1977 to September 1979. 23. See Berkeley Rice, "Call-In Therapy: Reach Out and Shrink Someone," Psychology Today, December 1981, p. 88.
24. Bisset, "Religious Broadcasting," p. 33.
25. Yancey, "Ironies and Impact," p. 33.
26. CBN Boston, "Monthly Statistical and Activity Report."
27. Harvey Cox, "Bad News for the Good News," The American Baptist, January 1979, pp. 2-3.
28. James A. Taylor, "No Miracles from the Media," Christian Century, May 30, 1979, p. 614.
29. Quoted in Bisset, "Religious Broadcasting," p. 31.
30. See for example, James Mann with Sarah Petersen, "Preachers in Politics: Decisive Force in '80?" U.S. News and World Report, September 15, 1980, pp. 24-26; and Allan J. Mayer, "A Tide of Born Again Politics?" Newsweek, September 15, 1980, pp. 28-36.
31. Billy Graham, World Aflame, Garden City: Doubleday, 1965, p. 181.
32. Vernon Grounds, Revolution and the Christian Faith, Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1971.
33. Comstock, "The Impact of Television," p. 14.
34. Gerbner, "Television as New Religion," pp. 54-55. It is interesting to note how Christian broadcasters use this same fear-creation by highlighting threats to common values, by stressing crises in society or in the program, and by interpreting criticism or investigation of their programs as personal persecution by adversaries.
35. See for example Emile G. McAnany, "Television: Mass Communication and Elite Controls," Society, September/October 1975, pp. 41-46; and lthiel de Sola Pool, "Direct-Broadcast Satellites and Cultural Integrity," Society, September/ October 1975, pp. 47-56.
36. Everett C. Parker, "Christian Communication and Secular Man," New York, 1966.
37. Gerbner et al., "The Demonstration of Power," pp. 177-96.
38. Comstock et al., Television and Human Behavior, pp. 128-35.
39. See particularly Mander, "Four Arguments," p. 40; and Children and Television: Senate Standing Committee on Education and the Arts Inquiry into the Impact of Television on the
Development and Learning Behaviour of Children, Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1978, pp. 28-51.
40. Quoted in Hadden and Swann, Prime-Time Preachers, pp. 108-9.
41. In Bisset, "Religious Broadcasting," p. 31.
42. B. Russel Holt, "Superbowl Christianity," Ministry, May 1980, p. 19.
43. Edward M. Berckman, "The Old-Time Gospel Hour and Fundamentalist Paradox," Christian
Century, March 29, 1978, p. 337.
44. Armstrong, Electric Church, pp. 144-45.
45. Cox, "Bad News for the Good News."
46. Owens, The Total Image, pp. 63-64.
47. Malcolm Muggeridge, Christ and the Media, Grand Rapids: Wm B. Erdmans, 1977, pp.
48. Ibid., p. 60.
49. James Taylor, "Progeny of Programmers: Evangelical Religion and the Television Age," Christian Century, April 20, 1977, p. 382.
50. Cox, "Bad News for the Good News."
51. Stefan Bamberger, "Reflections on the Ecclesiological Aspect of Group Media," in Multimedia International Yearbook, 1978, Rome: Multimedia International. 1978, pp. 5-18.
52. Sharon Mieike, "Press Told to Aid Powerless," United Methodist Reporter. May 23, 1980, p. 3.
53. Robert McAfee Brown, Frontiers for the Church Today, New York: Oxford University Press, 1973, p. 78.
54. Phyllis Mather Rice, "Interview with Pat Robertson," Your Church, May/June 1979, pp. 5-15.