Soul-Saving via Video

by Jeffrey K. Hadden

Mr. Hadden teaches in the department of sociology, University of Virginia. He is co-author with Charles E. Swann of Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism (Addison-Wesley, 1981).

This article is adapted from a paper delivered at the Consultation on the Electronic Church at New York University February 7. This article was in the May 28, 1980, pp. 609-613 edition of the Christian Century. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The phenomenal success of the electronic church is in part a result of intelligent application of revolutionary technology, but a more important factor is America’s cultural drift toward conservatism.

It has been estimated that Jesus Christ preached to no more than 20 to 30 thousand persons during his lifetime. Even if this total is underestimated, the number is trifling in contrast to the audiences reached today by his disciples who utilize the airwaves. Many ministers, perhaps scores, speak to significantly more people every time they preach than did Christ in his lifetime.

Considered in historical context, the vast numbers tuning in every week -- and in a few instances, every day -- to the so-called electronic preachers with national audiences constitute truly a phenomenal development. Moreover, the technology is now in place so that, theoretically at least, a billion persons could be reached simultaneously with the gospel message.

For many evangelicals this is indeed good news. But if those Christians are elated with the potential for electronics to beam the gospel across the globe, some are uncertain whether the airwaves constitute the best -- or even a proper -- way to spread the Goad News. Still others see the phenomenon we call the "electronic church" as a threat to developing and sustaining local Christian communities.

To a sociologist, two concerns about the electronic church are of particular interest. The first is to account for the growth and development of the phenomenon. The second is to attempt to understand the rather considerable consternation that has arisen over it.

Electronic Communication

The growth and development of the electronic church parallel the development of all electronic communication. Historically there have been three major communications revolutions: the invention of writing, the invention of movable type, and the advent of electronic communication, which is barely 100 years old, dating from the invention of the telephone.

The development of the electronic church,: has been affected by three distinct generational phases of electronic communication. The first began with the inauguration of professional radio broadcasting in late 1920 in Pittsburgh -- and the church was there almost from the beginning. Radio exploded in America in the 1920s; within five years there were over 600 stations, and most engaged in some form of religious broadcasting.

The second generation of electronic communication emerged with television during the 1950s. By the end of that decade nine of every ten households possessed at least one set. Religious telecasting was available almost from the beginning of this marvelous new medium; its first star was Fulton Sheen, the Catholic bishop with a twinkle in his eye, an impeccable delivery -- and an angel to clean his chalkboard.

The third phase is not so easily dated. In some respects it can be considered an integral part of electronic ministries from the outset. In another sense, the sophistication of the communication techniques, based on computer technology which permits rapid storage and retrieval of information, is so vastly improved as to represent a qualitative rather than a quantitative advance.

From fairly early in radio broadcasting, many religious programs were financially dependent for survival on listening audiences. The most common and probably most successful technique to encourage listener support was to offer free printed materials (at times these were available for sale or for a "love offering"), and to compile a mailing list of names of those who responded. For the most part, early electronic preachers knew little about the audiences they were dependent upon for contributions. This remained essentially true well into the 1960s.

Development Through Technology

In its development, the electronic church is first of all a manifestation of a rapidly expanding technology which has revolutionized all communication. At the core of the revolution is the computer, with its continually accelerating speed of operation and a sharply declining per-unit cost. This technology is applied widely in voluntary associations, business, government and politics. Unlike the original undifferentiated mailing lists, the new systems are such that a substantial amount of information about the people behind the names and addresses can now be compiled. This information can be stored, sorted and retrieved with lightning speed at nominal cost.

When the electronic church sends out mailings and appeals for funds, they can be targeted to fit the characteristics of the recipients. Through phone banks with toll-free numbers and/or regional centers, hundreds of calls can be processed during a telecast. Each phone call, whether making a financial contribution, requesting free materials, or asking for counsel and prayers, represents another name to be readied for a variety of subsequent appeals and solicitations.

People in the electronic church encourage their listeners and viewers to write or call and share their problems and needs. The more personal information available, the easier it is to target responses directly to individuals. If the caller is faced with family or marital problems, difficulties with children or with managing money, etc., most likely there are enough other people with the same type of problem so that materials have already been prepared.

The mailrooms of the more successful electronic church practitioners are paragons of modern communication technology. Mail is sorted first by the presence or absence of money. Then letters are sorted by topics, and appropriate paragraphs are retrieved by computer and woven into some appropriate prepared response that can thus be "personalized." On-line printers dash off these individualized answers. Several organizations reportedly have a mailroom capability for processing 20,000 or more letters a day.

If all of this seems crass, commercial and even cynical, perhaps some awareness is needed about the many ways in which this same electronic communications technology is routinely a part of everyone’s life. Each membership or subscription we hold is a clue to our interests, values, socioeconomic level and life style. When we travel, our credit cards leave a trail of information about us and our interests. Our contributions to charitable organizations and political parties offer insights about our values.

Many organizations are prepared to sell and/or exchange the information they have about us. Then others in the marketplace in turn will use it to try to sell us something or entice us to contribute to a cause. There are scores of organizations that "have our number," and, in many cases, we have been coconspirators in assisting them to track us down.

So we see the importance of the communications technology revolution in accounting for the electronic church. It has merely adapted to, rather than invented, technologies to reach its audience.

Control by Evangelicals

This technology is compatible with evangelical Christians’ theological stance toward proselytizing. Even the most casual observer can note that the airwaves are dominated by evangelicals, and this is not accidental. For better or worse, air time in our society is seldom available for free. And, generally, the larger the audience one wishes to reach, the more it Costs. Because utilization of the airwave means participation in the free-enterprise market, those who do so are overwhelmingly the ones who have something to sell.

Evangelicals fit this criterion rather well, for they take literally Christ’s command to "Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature" (Mark 16: 15). The airwaves have opened up, as never before, the possibility of spreading the Good News from sea to sea and around the globe. The only question is: How are they to pay? And the answer is not difficult to find. While spreading the gospel, they encourage those who are already saved, or who have benefited from this electronic ministry, to contribute to the continuation of the good work.

The mainline traditions, with a rather different concept of evangelism, witness and Christ’s command to spread the Good News, do utilize the airwaves, but not nearly so successfully. Most of their programming is local and tends to be less professionally packaged than broadcasts reaching national audiences. Another factor working against mainline Christians is that what suits their tastes in worship does not appeal to the masses, who think that Bach is a beer and Haydn is the quarterback of the Rams. Further, the absence of strong emotional appeals in the solicitation of funds results in placing the burden of fund-raising on the local congregations or the denominations.

By contrast, the evangelicals go directly to the heartstrings. Get right with God. Get right with your loved ones. Get right with yourself. However the appeal is made, it is almost always emotionally charged. The evidence is not very clear or detailed regarding who is attracted to the evangelical message of the electronic church, but recent research on the growth of conservative churches would suggest that the viewers are primarily those who have drifted away from church participation, rather than new converts. The large number of unaffiliated but at least nominally believing Christians -- the unchurched, as shown by a 1978 Gallup study -- constitutes an enormous audience potential for the electronic church.

Evangelicals have a good understanding of this audience potential. When audiences are large, modest contributions from even a very small proportion of the viewers or listeners pay for the air time and then some. Recent breakthroughs in satellite broadcasting and cable TV have expanded the options for reaching even larger audiences through a broader range of programs broadcast on an extended schedule with continually declining per-unit cost.

What we are seeing is a confluence of theological orientation toward proselytization and an organization of broadcast media which works to the benefit of evangelicals but against other religious groups.

Success and Cultural Factors

The phenomenal success of the electronic church in recent years is, I think, best understood by coming to grips with the reality that evangelical faith has indeed been a persistent and significant component of American culture. For many years -- perhaps since the Scopes trial in 1925 -- the eastern secular and liberal Protestant establishments treated evangelical religion as though it were an archaic religious form, peculiarly persistent in some regions of the country, but not a significant factor in American culture.

George Gallup declared 1976 "the year of the evangelical." but what that date really symbolized was the nonevangelicals’ discovery that this sector of American society, previously presumed to be an insignificant fringe, was in fact very large. Perhaps it was also a turning point for evangelicals when they found that their world view was shared by a far larger proportion of American society than they had previously imagined.

The social contextual factor contributing to the success of the electronic church is rooted in the malaise this society has experienced, dating roughly from the assassination of John F. Kennedy. We lost our leaders. We lost a war which tore us apart at home. We lost confidence in business and government. A president once admired by millions left office in disgrace. Inflation soars. Energy is scarce. International tensions mount one upon another. And for many who were over 30 during the ‘60s, the radical changes in young people’s values and life styles underscored the loss of a taken-for-granted morality that was once as integral to American culture as baseball, popcorn and Chevrolet.

And the malaise being felt is all the more traumatic because that marvelous little box that brought us the joy of Milton Berle and Red Buttons during the ‘50s now pours into our homes all the blood and guts and gore and hate of war and civil strife. Through the tube, we are losing our innocence.

But the tube now brings as well the electronic church, and its message is comforting to many and challenging to others. It offers hope, meaning and certainty while the other TV channels continue to present us with more bad news, series about crime, and dramas that, seem to condone life styles and language which affront the old values. Though little is known about the audiences of the more successful electronic church programmers, it doesn’t take much data to realize that a lot of people out there prefer the religious shows on the airwaves today to what the networks are offering.

The electronic church’s success reflects the cultural drift -- some would say stampede -- toward conservatism. Financially, since there is such a large population of evangelical Christians in our society, even modest contributions from a small proportion of them can sustain fairly extensive broadcasting. Culturally, large segments of our population are ready for change. Conservative political and economic views have much greater credibility than at anytime since before the Great Depression. The electronic evangelists offer something that works, something to believe in.

Investigating the Criticisms

Ben Armstrong, executive director of National Religious Broadcasters, is very upbeat about the "exciting" and "miraculous" possibilities for religious broadcasting. In his recent book The Electronic Church (Nelson, 1979), he writes:" I believe that God has raised up this powerful technology of radio and television expressly to reach every man, woman, boy, and girl on earth with the even more powerful message of the gospel."

Not everyone, of course, shares this wholly positive view. The major criticisms of the electronic church fall into four groupings. First, it is charged that the electronic church succeeds at the expense of the local congregation. This is by far the oldest and most frequently recurring criticism. Those who first used radio for religious broadcasting saw it as a way of extending worship to the sick and elderly. But even this altruistic use of the airwaves met with criticism. Would the people come back to the pews after they had enjoyed worship in the comfort of their living rooms?

The controversy heated up when some preachers actually used the airwaves to invite people to come to their churches. Generally, concern about the effects of religious broadcasting has been in direct proportion to the threat perceived by the critic. Mainline Protestantism has never been very alarmed about the "Night Riders" on the high-voltage radio stations because these preachers are seen as appealing to a different clientele. But there is very deep concern today that highly successful nationwide television programming is cutting into both the attendance and the revenues of mainline churches.

Those associated with the electronic church deny the alleged effects, To the contrary. they argue, their broadcasting schedules are set up to complement and augment the activities of the churches. Most can honestly point to repeated appeals to their audiences to get involved in a local congregation.

The most amazing thing about this debate is that it has been allowed to thrive for so long when, in fact, the issue is an empirical one. The research methods of the social sciences are quite capable of providing very substantial insight, if not definitive answers, to this question. All those who have an interest in the electronic church, whatever their ideological predispositions toward it might be, would be well advised to give a high priority to the gathering of systematic data about the phenomenon. The stakes are too high to permit ignorance to keep the flames of prejudice alight, spawn counterproductive efforts to solve real problems, and send gallant knights into the darkness to attack imaginary problems.

Concern over Political Efforts

The second concern is that the electronic church is part of a broader effort to reshape American culture. It is time we recognize this criticism to be absolutely true. Formerly, the broader society believed that, although the conservative electronic evangelicals wanted to change society, they did not have enough clout to be taken seriously. Today, many are hoping that the politically minded evangelicals are not really serious.

They are. At the moment, most of them are political novices, but that situation is not likely to last for long. The important questions: (1) How are the evangelical leaders going to get politically involved? (2) What will be their goals? (3) With whom will they form alliances? (4) Will their constituents follow them? Or, like the liberal Protestant clergy of the 1960s, will they get too far out in front of their flocks? (5) And what will be their level of success?

The apprehension felt by mainline Protestants and eastern secular journalists when they contemplate this prospect is considerable. Such apprehension is understandable, for they perceive genuine life-style interests to be at stake. To some degree this perception is true, but a more precise analysis is needed. The fears being expressed by many liberals today bear a striking resemblance to the conservative utterances during the ‘60s about religiously motivated liberals.

What we need now is quiet discussion among leaders of both camps, not escalating rhetoric. No useful purpose will be served by labeling everyone with whom we disagree as a "right-winger." There are many shades of evangelical conservatism. Liberal Protestants would be wise to understand the differences among evangelicals and to treat them with the same cognitive respect they would hope to accord those in their own tradition with whom they disagree.

I fully expect evangelicals to make a significant impact on the political scene in America during this decade, and they will utilize the electronic church to gain a power base. Some of their achievements will run counter to the values and beliefs of many liberals -- Protestants, Catholics and secularists. But the evangelicals will neither run roughshod over the First Amendment nor dominate the political scene. And contrary to the fears of many, they just may exert a positive influence on politics and American culture.

Moral Issues: Methods and Motives

Third, it is alleged that the electronic church is immoral. This critical reaction is usually encountered in the form of innuendo rather than direct accusation. Jerry Sholes’s recent indictment of the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association, Gave Me That Prime Time Religion, is easily the most sweeping critique of this genre. Other organizations in the electronic church establishment have faced legal indictment -- or the threat of it -- for financial mismanagement or misconduct, but the outcomes of these investigations have usually worked to the advantage of the accused.

Now, with Sholes, we have a detailed description of the activities and alleged motives of individuals in one of the electronic church’s giants. Though the Roberts organization challenges Sholes’s motives and credibility, his critique is too far-reaching to be easily swept aside.

For analysis of Sholes’s charges, two dimensions need to be separated. He finds fault with both the methods and the motives of the Oral Roberts Evangelistic Association. He believes it is fundamentally dishonest to tell an audience that every letter will be answered personally when, in fact, the answers are prepared by a vast organization utilizing technology to make the responses appear personal -- even the signature. He considers it is dishonest to claim to pray over letters when, in fact, it is a computer printout of the names of people who have written to Oral Roberts, not the letters themselves, that is carried to the Prayer Tower. He believes it is dishonest to invite people to "seminars" which are designed not for study but for employment of peer-group pressure and mass psychology techniques to raise money. And, having become disillusioned with the methods, Sholes came increasingly to find fault with those who employed them.

It is unfortunate that Sholes’s critique so inextricably laces method and motive, for the two need to be considered separately. There is a real danger that readers who, like Sholes, mix method and motive will hastily conclude that the methods are corrupt, and/or only corrupt people would employ such methods. I would neither condemn nor condone the methods per se. Perhaps a code of ethics is needed regarding the application of electronic communication technology, but if so, it should apply to all organizations that use the technology and not just to religious organizations.

Similarly, any ethical discussions should consider the broad use of the technology, not simply its application by those in the electronic church. Whatever, if anything, may be necessary to regulate electronic communication, I hope we won’t reach the point of enacting a law requiring all "personalized" messages to begin with the disclaimer: "Caution. Contrary to possible appearance, this is not a personal message. Those who construe it as such do so at their own risk."

TV’s Harmful Effects

Fourth, television itself is accused of being harmful to our health. This criticism, like the third, is directed not so much at the electronic church as at TV itself. The criticism contends that television, along with its many technological and social byproducts, is altering consciousness to the detriment of individuals and society as well.

One of the most recent and persuasive presentations of this theme is Jerry Mander’s book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (Morrow, 1978). Mander argues that the intrinsic logic of the technology leads inevitably to abuse and misuse. Form replaces content; the mind is muddied. Those with power, whether achieved by economic or political process, will use the technology to control the rest of us. The only way to prevent this development, he maintains, is literally to abolish television.

The issues Mander raises are not easy to address. Much of the research on the effects of television on viewers and on culture more generally has been initiated by people with highly partisan motives. After a quarter-century of mass television, we know very little about its effects. Given its pervasiveness in our lives -- most studies indicate that the average citizen watches over 20 hours a week -- it is important that research on a national and impartial level be undertaken, so that we can understand TV’s effects.

Some of the critique of the electronic church pivots on this more general proposition about the alleged ill effects of television, although the critics are not always explicit in this regard. As with the differentiation between methods and motives, we need to avoid confusing the effects of television generally and those of the electronic church specifically.

Lagging Behind

The development of the electronic church, its dominance by evangelicals, and the reasons for its recent phenomenal success are to be seen as part of the electronic communications revolution. Neither the technology nor its application is unique to the electronic church but rather is in fairly extensive use in many sectors of our society. Because evangelicals have access to the electronic technology, we can anticipate an increasing measure of success for them.

Whether it is proper to utilize such powerful technology, with its "personalized" feedback loops, for the purpose of saving souls in this nation is an ethical question. However, consideration of the question should not take place in a vacuum, independent of awareness of the technology’s wide use in many sectors. Similarly, a generalized critique of the electronic church should not be divorced from an empirical assessment of television in our modern world. Knowledge of the effects of television on our lives lags far behind the current philosophical-ideological critique.