Chapter 3: The Electronic Evangelists

Religious Television: The American Experience
by Peter Horsfield

Chapter 3: The Electronic Evangelists

All of the electronic evangelists can boast of humble beginnings, a strong element in their testimonies that their present status is a sure indication of God's direct blessing on them. Oral Roberts began life as a stuttering child of destitute parents. He later overcame his stuttering and took to the "sawdust trail," holding revival and healing services in the Southern states before making his first television program in a studio in 1954. Today he has also overcome his destitution, presiding over a multimillion-dollar organization which includes Oral Roberts University and the City of Faith complex in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His television organization still produces one of the highest-rating television programs in America, a variety show with Oral Roberts as the main speaker.

Jerry Falwell was just out of Bible College when he began his church in 1956 with 35 adults and their children meeting in a former Donald Duck bottling company building in Lynchburg, Virginia. Today he is the senior pastor of the church, the large Thomas Road Baptist Church, which in 1978 had a membership of 15,000. His television program, "The Old Time Gospel Hour," is an edited version of one of the morning services from the church. Through the program, Falwell has been able to develop a number of Liberty Baptist Schools and the "Liberty Mountain" project -- a college and proposed future projects on a hill in Lynchburg. In 1980 his program also gave him national attention as the head of Moral Majority, a national citizens' movement.

The host of the "700 Club," Pat Robertson, was trained initially as a lawyer but failed to pass the bar exams for New York State and found his law career frustrated. Following this, after residing in the slums of Brooklyn, he purchased a defunct television station in Virginia Beach in 1960 with a view to establishing the first religious television station. His first broadcast in 1961 was a program that lasted one-and-a-half hours. Today, just 20 short years later, he oversees the Christian Broadcasting Network which, from its $50-million headquarters in Virginia Beach, incorporates four television stations, six radio stations, a missionary radio station, a recording company, a programming service which makes 24-hour-a-day programming available to the more than 3,000 cable systems in the U.S.A. and Canada, a news network, a university, and a satellite earth station. (1) His network has also been responsible for the development of the first Christian soap opera.

Robert Schuller began his ministry in 1955 when the Reformed Church in America sent him to Orange County, California, to begin a new congregation. His first service was held in a drive-in theater with Schuller investing the last of his savings to buy an organ for the occasion and preaching from the roof of the theater snack bar. Today he preaches from the "Crystal Cathedral," the $15-million glass sanctuary of the Garden Grove Community Church. His television program, "Hour of Power," is also an edited broadcast of one of the morning worship services at the church.

The list could go on to include other television evangelists: Rex Humbard, Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart, James Robison, Kenneth Copeland, and others. Though a few of them are ordained ministers of churches and most consider themselves primarily preachers, their daily schedules are more comparable to those of executives of major corporations than of regular clergy. Much of their day is spent in planning meetings, executive conferences, program review and taping sessions, and press and public relations interviews. (Katherine Kuhlman, who died in 1975, has been the only woman to make it to the religious television big-time.)

There is a strong charisma in these men which separates them from the thousands of other faithful preachers and aspirants who also have spent long hours in the preparation and planning of material and programs and long hours trying to convince stubborn church bodies of the desirability of purchasing television equipment. But their charisma alone has not produced these success stories. Their success is also a result of a careful and determined marketing: the product of a unique blending of charisma with personal drive and audacity, accurate social intuition, hard-nosed business advice and judgment, and adoption of modern marketing principles and techniques. It is important to realize that the present major religious broadcasters are just the tip of the iceberg. For those who have succeeded in making it into major national syndication there are many other aspiring broadcasters whose programs have never gone beyond more than local or regional syndication. One account suggests that there are 180 syndicated religious programs produced in America. (2)

The principle of momentum is of great importance in the development of religious television on this level. Once your program begins to move, it is essential to maintain this momentum and expand it as soon and as continuously as possible. This momentum creates an aura of success ("God's blessing") which encourages further audience loyalty and enthusiasm. It also enables the expansion of one's program to other markets which in turn broadens one's potential financial base. The broadcasters who have succeeded in this process have been those who have been willing and competent to ride this roller coaster.

The first hurdle over which one must pass is simply to get the money. Television is a capital-intensive industry and regardless of how much charisma or vocal support one may have, if one does not have the money to produce a program and pay for its syndication one does not succeed in television. While a broadcaster can generally attract some income and support on the basis of the relevance of his message and his personality, if he is to generate the large amount of money which is needed for a national television ministry he needs a precise, effective, and almost exhaustive money-generating organization. What has separated the sheep from the goats in religious broadcasting in America is the effectiveness with which individual evangelists have been able to put together a "message package" and an organization capable of generating and processing mass support.

This distinction is well illustrated by the example of two different producers of television programs within one denomination of Independent Christian Churches. Christian Television Mission produced programs which were aired primarily on sustaining-time provided free by stations around the country. It derived its income mainly from members of the denomination across the country. From 1969 to 1971 its budget was progressively $99,076, $111,382 and $125,081. Its counterpart within the same denomination was Christian Evangelizers Association, which produced the syndicated program, "Revival Fires"; the program received financial support from church members across the country but cultivated audience support in addition. In 1971 Christian Evangelizers Association employed a professional fund-raising organization to develop the solicitation of audience members, that year spending $252,000 or 22.5 percent of its budget on fund-raising activities. The effect, however, was dramatic. While its counterpart in 1970-71 experienced only nominal increases in budget income, the Christian Evangelizers Association budget increased from $571,000 in 1970 to $1,117,000 in 1971, the increase due almost solely to the intensive audience solicitation campaign. The adoption of this intensive audience solicitation within the organization enabled the program to expand to such an extent that in 1971 it was the third most widely syndicated religious program in the country. (3)

The difference in the growth rate of these two programs at this time illustrates also the differences in growth not only between evangelical and mainline programming, but also between different types of evangelical programming, those which purchase their air-time and solicit their audience for support and those which air their programs on sustaining-time and undertake no audience solicitation. These differences are important in understanding the shaping effect that television has on religious programming. What appears to be true is that the greater discrimination is to be found not on the basis of the theological or ecclesiastical tradition from which the program comes, but from the nature of the financial relationship between the broadcaster and the television station. There are more similarities between a mainline sustaining-time program and an evangelical sustaining-time program than there are between an evangelical sustaining-time program and an evangelical paid-time program.

A major part of each religious broadcast organization therefore is its fund-raising section. Fund raising consumes a large part of each organization's regular budget. In 1979, 35 percent of the Rex Humbard organization's budget, or $10.5 million, was spent on the building of audience loyalty and the solicitation of its financial support. (4) For the program "The Old Time Gospel Hour," the figure was $10.99 million or 23.7 percent of the organization's budget. (5)

Such large amounts of money are needed for several reasons. One is simply to meet the costs of processing the large number of individual donations which comprise the backbone of the broadcastes' support. Jerry Falwell's organization in 1976-77, for example, received nearly 80 percent of its $22.2-million income from 762,000 individual contributions. (6) Any organization that does not develop the capability to handle such volume is effectively cutting off the source of its own lifeblood. Thomas Road Baptist Church in 1976-77 used about 60 people daily to sort through the day's mail of around 10,000 envelopes. The Oral Roberts organization is reported to have a similar mailroom, capable of handling 20,000 pieces of mail each day. (7) Each contribution and letter must be accurately recorded and classified for subsequent computerization and recall when the financial planners are calling out lists of names for future mail appeals.

This bulk mail is not only the lifeblood of the broadcasters but it also becomes a type of barometer of the broadcaster's performance in relation to his audience. When faced with the reality of meeting expenses of $1 million each week or else beginning the downward spiral of reducing the syndication of one's program, a broadcaster becomes very sensitive to the audience feedback provided by one's mailroom. The daily report on both income and issues from the mailroom becomes an important item in each broadcaster's daily briefing. Evangelical broadcaster, Tom Bisset, describes some of the pressures under which a broadcaster works:

If a broadcaster touches a "hot" subject even accidentally, he will know about it in a week or even days. Mail, the broadcasters' lifeline, is a built-in polling device that records audience preferences with Gallup-like accuracy. So, unless broadcasters have iron-clad formats, their programs begin to focus on those issues and emphases that bring in the mail -- and the money. The necessity of paying for air-time also prompts broadcasters to follow the money. (8)

It is one way in which the economic structures of television shape the nature of the message broadcast by it. While in other ecclesiastical organizations one has greater freedom to reject the desires of one's constituency or at least to evaluate the integrity of their requests on the basis of one's own theological stance, the broadcaster's dependence on his audience income for his very survival removes that theological freedom to a large extent.

It is this reality that contradicts the claim by the paid-time broadcasters that by cultivating audience support they have been able to free themselves from network and local station control over their programs and thus act independently in proclaiming the gospel. It can be seen that audience- supported programs have not achieved economic (and therefore theological) freedom as they claim, but have simply transferred their economic dependence from one source to another: from the television industry management to the television audience. It may be argued that the second master is as constricting as the first.

To be dependent on one's audience for support, particularly in a fickle selective medium such as television, means that the gospel must not only be proclaimed, but it must be proclaimed in such a way that it meets with the approval of a large share of one's audience. If it doesn't, one loses one's base for essential financial support. Further, it is not sufficient simply to offer a message which meets with one's dominant audience support but it must be presented in such a way that it triggers the audience's desire to give.

The dangers in this situation are several. First, it makes popular appreciation and response to the Christian message one of the main criteria for the selection of what is proclaimed, a situation that has been rejected from the earliest beginnings of the Christian faith. (9) In fact, in practice, the paid-time religious broadcasters have subtly reversed these early principles of the Christian faith: whatever evokes a popular response is seen as an indication of the truth of the message and of God's blessing. It becomes a small step to take for the broadcasters to lose any critical distinction between the validity of their intentions, the finance needed to achieve those intentions, and the methods necessary to maintain those finances.

As has been noted, what makes this subtle elision relatively easy and discomfort-free for the paid-time broadcasters is their particular theology of technology. Evangelicals traditionally have rejected organic approaches to the understanding of society and technology in favor of more individualistic approaches. Once one has provided a moral purpose for the use of any particular technology, one is justified in adapting to the requirements inherent in that particular technology.

This approach reflects a strong teleological ethical stance, one where the validity of a particular motivation to a large extent justifies the measures subsequently adopted to achieve the goal. This attitude was strongly reflected in an encounter between one of the broadcasters and a critic at the Consultation on the Electronic Church held in New York in 1980. Broadcaster Pat Robertson of CBN was one of the speakers at the Consultation with theologian Colin Williams as respondent. Robertson's address comprised primarily a statement of his perception of the need for the church to become involved in television and his sincerity in tackling this need. While recognizing the validity of this concern, Williams' criticism in response was directed at the problems inherent in the methods being used by the evangelicals in addressing the problems television posed. Robertson's response totally avoided dialogue on the criticisms which had been made. His handling of subsequent questions by participants reflected the same unwillingness to engage in conceptual debate on the nature of television and the demands it imposes on its users; rather, he placed a strong emphasis on his own personal integrity and good intentions in what he was doing. Such an avoidance of conceptual debate may reflect a definite public-relations strategy by Robertson in relation to the particular situation, but a similar avoidance by other broadcasters in the wider debate on the issue reflects a lack of conceptual grappling with the issue. (10)  

Their approach to the use of television has made the paid-time broadcasters very vulnerable to the demands of their financial advisers. This vulnerability is seen not only in their susceptibility to the demands of their audience but also in the more aggressive aspects of their money-raising activities. While their personal sincerity may remain intact, (11) organizationally this sincerity becomes very tenuous because of the overt money-making apparent in all of it.

The first step in the raising of money on such a grand scale is the development of a list of potential contributors. There are several standard strategies used by broadcasters to obtain the names of audience members which can then be used by their fund-raising sections.

Direct on-air solicitation is one of the major strategies used. In one study of people who had become CBN "partners," 67 percent of them indicated that their first action in becoming a partner was to call or send in a contribution. (12) Special programs such as telethons are often a valuable way of highlighting the opportunity for audience members to contribute. The same study of CBN partners indicated that 70 percent of the partners who had seen a CBN telethon had contributed to CBN in response to it. (13) CBN is reported to have raised $10 million in one such telethon. (14)

A second method employed for encouraging audience contributions and the acquisition of names is the offering of "incentives," such as free gifts -- records or books. The method works on the basis that if a person makes the effort to send away for a free gift he or she is also more prone to be responsive to a request for a contribution to the organization. This marketing device also taps into the residual guilt felt by a person receiving something for nothing. Rarely a week passes on most paid-time religious programs without the viewer's being offered the opportunity to receive one of these gifts. In addition to the two million "Jesus First" pins offered by "The Old Time Gospel Hour" program, building bricks that are laser-engraved with the donor's name for each $500 given toward a particular building fund have been offered. (15) Popular offerings include records (often the broadcaster's own or one from his family), books (often the broadcaster's own), jewelry, badges, tie-pins, magazines, bibles, and pens. That the method is a profitable one is testified to by its universal usage, and by research. In a study of the congregation of the lrvington Presbyterian Church in Indiana, Clifford Hilton found that one of the reasons given by members for making contributions to a Christian broadcaster was "as a contribution for a gift received. (16)

A third method for obtaining names is the opportunity for viewers to write or call for counseling, prayer, or simply for conversation. While this opportunity ostensibly provides a service to viewers, it also provides a rich source of names for the broadcaster whose audience members have indicated a responsiveness to his program. Telephone conversationalists at the broadcasting center are instructed to obtain the name of each caller, which is then passed on for later fund solicitation. Because of the large response gained in this way, broadcasters have developed a strong emphasis on this contact in their programs. Oral Roberts frequently mentions on his program that he personally answers every letter he receives; other broadcasters have established and developed telephone-call facilities. Eight percent of the regular financial supporters of CBN indicated in one study that their initial contact with the program was by calling a telephone counseling center of CBN. (17)

Though on-air solicitation is often restrained, once a person's name is obtained through one of these methods, intensive direct-mail solicitation of the person is undertaken. These mail solicitations also reveal several common features.

Letters to audience members generally assume a very "personalized" approach. The audience member's name is scattered throughout the text of the letter by specialized computer selection and on-line printer to give the impression that a unique relationship exists between broadcaster and individual, even though the particular letter is one of perhaps millions printed. An intimacy is also frequently suggested in the letter's text. One direct mailing received by the author from Oral Roberts read:

Dear Brother Horsfield, I must tell you an almost overwhelming feeling has come over me about you. I don't know if there's something I don't know about. It may be something that is happening or is about to happen. But something inside me says you are hurting in some way spiritually

. . . or physically . . . or emotionally . . . or financially, I tell you I feel this, there's a problem. I guess you have a right to say, "Well, Oral, if you don't know what it is you feel I'm hurting with, why write me?" I can't answer that except I'm very sensitive to God and to you as my partner. You see, you have a different relationship with me: I feel closer to you and I believe you feel closer to me.

Such a presumed relationship and intimate understanding of what must be more than tens of thousands of persons on this particular mailing list not only contradicts the sincerity implied in the Christian faith but verges on personal fraud and manipulation.

A second common feature in the mass mailings of paid-time religious broadcasters is the opportunity to participate in supporting the programs as a member of a select group of some sort. Oral Roberts has his "prayer partners"; CBN their "700 Club members"; Rex Humbard his "Prayer Key Family." Membership in these "select" fraternities generally carries with it exclusive privileges in exchange for an ongoing financial commitment. In April 1981 Jim Bakker of the PTL Network offered this opportunity through one of his direct-mail letters:

This month, I want you to do something special. I want you to make a commitment to support God's work at PTL every month. . . . I have a special new gift for you when you mail in your pledge. It's an exciting, full-color book featuring all of your favorite guests on PTL. . . . It's a PTL program in print! Also, as a monthly member of the PTL Club you will receive your PTL partner card, PTL lapel pin and a special edition of "Action Magazine." Every month, you will receive my letter and either "Action Magazine" or "Action Update" detailing what God is doing through your support.

The only criterion for becoming a member of one of these select clubs is financial: you become a regular supporter for a set amount of money.

The third common characteristic of these direct mailings is a frequent and recurring "emergency" being faced by the broadcaster for which the audience member's support is urgently required. The appeal to the viewer is never presented within the reasonable context of calculated stewardship or responsible use of one's possessions: rather, the approach is designed to catch the viewer's attention with a more desperate and urgent religious horror story. One letter from Rex Humbard in April 1980 began,

Dear Peter, I've got some very bad news. My heart is broken and I have not been able to eat or sleep. For today I had to do something that wars against every fiber in my being. . . . I had to take the first step to remove our program from the TV stations in your area. . . . Eternal souls are at stake. For if our program goes off the air -- there are men, women, boys and girls who will spend eternity in hell. People will miss heaven because I lost God's call to your city.

This recurring image of urgency and impending disaster has had the effect of habituating even responsive supporters. The CBN's research agency, in a study of partners and their giving, reported that as a result of their support of CBN and other religious organizations, partners found that "the volume of Christian mail coming into their homes is at times overwhelming . . . including what is described as a 'redundant theme of financial crisis."’ As a result of this finding, the research group suggested to the management of CBN that "radically new direct mail strategies seem to be in order, both in terms of delivery and content, if CBN is to stand out and be read. (18)

No contact made by a broadcaster is spared the follow-up solicitation. In response to a $1 donation sent to the Rex Humbard ministry in January 1980, the author received in a four-month period 10 letters, including one thanking him for the contribution, one seeking a special prayer request he may have along with a further contribution, three inviting him to become a member of the Humbard "Prayer Key Family," one advising him that he had been enrolled as a member of the Prayer Key Family (though no indication of willingness had been given), and four seeking urgent financial contributions to prevent cancellation of the program in the area. Altogether 32 mailings were received before I finally asked for my name to be removed from their lists in October 1981 -- all in response to a $1 donation.

A person making a genuine enquiry about the nature of the Christian faith is bounded in the same way. In January 1981, the author wrote to five broadcasters seeking clarification from them of what it meant to become and live as a Christian. In response to this enquiry, he received a total of 54 mailings in a nine-month period. Of these only six mailings were directed specifically at the original enquiry. The remaining 39 were various forms of fund solicitation. The one exception to this was the Billy Graham organization. In response to the enquiry, the counseling department of the organization sent one mailing of various materials directed at answering the questions asked. In contrast to the other broadcasters, no "personal" letter was received from "Billy Graham himself," and no subsequent financial appeals were forthcoming as a result of his enquiry.

The shaping influence of the economic demands of television can also be seen in the strong consumer approach to religious faith taken on the paid-time programs. While the concept of receiving "God's blessing" as a reward for something well done has always been an element in fundamentalist and evangelical theology, in the practice of the paid-time broadcasters it has been developed to its extreme as a device to motivate viewers to give.

Common to most paid-time religious broadcasters, therefore, is some concept of "seed faith," a principle by which if you give something to God (i.e., to his servant, the broadcaster) you in effect plant a financial seed for which God will reward you with a subsequent harvest of increased financial return. It is promised that everything given by a person will be repaid by God, generally in a multiplied way. The idea appears to have first been popularized by Oral Roberts, but it has now become a theological concept in the public domain, with most broadcasters using it or variations of it.

The problem is, of course, that the concept hovers on the fringe of becoming a simple buying of miracles. While the broadcaster may not have this in mind initially, by promoting the benefits to be gained by a contribution to his organization, he causes the viewer, who perhaps may not perceive all the theological subtleties of the concept, to end up giving simply to get.

This superstitious understanding of consumer religion becomes even more noticeable in other devices used by broadcasters to obtain contributions. The Christian Broadcasting Network, for example, when building their new broadcasting complex in Virginia Beach, made available to viewers something called the "Seven Lifetime Prayer Requests." For a contribution of at least $100, a viewer was able to forward his seven lifetime wishes to CBN; the wishes were then to be microfilmed and interred in a pillar inside the prayer chapel where they would be surrounded by prayer "twenty-four hours a day until Jesus came back."(19) The PTL Network similarly in one letter promised.

As an extra little "thank you" when you send your $120 gift, we are going to put your name or the name of someone you love, inside the altar of the Prayer Chapel (first level of the Upper Room, which we are building a replica of), where thousands will pray each week. (20)

Such methods represent a modern return to the purchasing of indulgences, with the only proviso being one's willingness to pay the required amount in order to set the mechanisms of miracle-working in motion.

The religious broadcaster who is dependent on his audience for financial support always walks on thin ice. His sole contact with his supporters is through his weekly (or in a few cases daily) program and the mail. There is no durability of commitment on the part of his supporter, no personal eye-to-eye contact by which the viewer may perceive the demands of normal interpersonal relationship and support. The whole relationship between broadcaster and his supporters is dependent on the broadcaster and his organization accurately perceiving the mood and desires of the audience, and creating a package to fulfill those moods and desires. In this, he is competing not only with the viewer's other personal relationships and perhaps his or her relationship to a local church, but also with the other broadcasters who are struggling to gain the loyalty of the same viewer and who are prepared to offer even better "faith products" in order to gain the viewer's support for themselves.

The total effect is the shaping of one's approach and message according to the dictates of one's business advisers rather than by the mandates of traditional theological sources. Most preachers, of course, are faced with the same pressure of their own perceptions of the meaning of faith, the perception of others, the situation of their hearers, and the demands of their church. Most preachers also make adjustments in their message over time in response to these demands. But no other preachers face the overwhelming pressures faced by television preachers, who have no leisure to reflect on the integrity of changes being called for by advisers, and for whom the continued existence of one's whole $l-million-a-week organization virtually hangs on each decision.

It is valid to ask, therefore, whether in their organizational practices and their message, paid-time religious broadcasters have become slaves to their environments and to the demands of their businesses. Does such a mass approach to Christian communication provide a valid option for Christian communication in a mass society, or does it reflect a capitulation of the essential aspects of the Christian faith to the demands of the economic environment, enabling, as Marshall Frady suggests, "one more advance of the front of totalitarian sensibility." (21)

Rather than providing a religious alternative to other television programs, paid-time religious programs appear to have become submerged in the television environment to the extent that they have become an indistinguishable part of it.



1. Armstrong, Electric Church, p. 101.

2. "Some True Beliefs about Religious Programming," P. D. Cue (Official Publication of the National Association of Television Program Executives) April 1977, p. 14.

3. David D. Stauffer, "Description and Analysis of the Historical Development and Management Practices of the Independent Christian Church Religious Television Program Syndicators," Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1972, pp. 65-70.

4. Budget estimate given by the Rex Humbard organization in personal correspondence to the

author, July 9, 1980.

5. Thomas Road Baptist Church and Related Ministries, "Consolidated Statement for the Year Ended June 30, 1979."

6. Jim Montgomery, "The Electric Church," The Wall Street Journal, May 19, 1978, p. 1.

7. Jerry Sholes, Give Me That Prime-Time Religion, New York: Hawthorn Books, 1979, p. 1.

8. J. Thomas Bisset, "Religious Broadcasting: Assessing the State of the Art," Christianity Today, December 12, 1980, p. 29.

9. Compare, for example, Matthew 7: 13-14. "The gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to hell, and there are many who travel it. The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and few people find it."

10. Tapes of Robertson's address and Williams' response are available from the National Council of Churches in New York,

11. There have been a number of articles and books that have called into question the personal

integrity and sincerity of broadcasters, e.g. Sholes, Prime-Time Religion, and Dick Dabney, "God's Own Network," Harpers, August 1980, pp. 33-52.

12. Market Research Group, "National CBN Partner Survey," Southfield, 1978, Table 89-A.

13. Ibid., Table 165.

14. "Stars of the Cathode Church," Time, February 4, 1980, pp. 64-65.

15. Montgomery, "Electric Church."

16. Clifford T. Hilton, "The Influence of Television Worship Services on the lrvington Presbyterian Church, Indianapolis, Indiana," D.Min. thesis, Drew University, 1980, p. 57.

17. Market Research Group, "National CBN Partner," Table 89-A.

18. Market Research Group, "Report on '700 Club' Finances and Direct Mail Focus Group Panel Discussions, Detroit, Michigan," Southfield, 1978, p. S-12.

19. Dabney, "God's Own Network," p. 46.

20. In a letter of June 1981. 21. Marshall Frady, Billy Graham: A Parable of American Righteousness, Boston: Little Brown & Co., 1979, p. 287.