Chapter 7: How the Church Uses Television

Mythmakers: Gospel, Culture and the Media
by William F. Fore

Chapter 7: How the Church Uses Television

Again, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain, and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to him, "All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me." Then Jesus said to him, "Begone, Satan! for it is written, 'You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve.'"

Matthew 4:8-10


H. L. Menken, a political commentator during the 1930s, said that for every difficult and complicated question, there is an answer that is simple, easily understood ... and wrong.

It is not easy for churches to deal with the task of communicating their message in today's culture. Never before in history have the audiences been so vast, the religious differences so great, the technology so powerful. Yet many Christians insist on responses that are simple, easily understood, and often quite wrong in terms of good theology, good communication, and plain common sense.

One highly visible attempt to communicate the gospel today is the Electronic Church. Actually, religious broadcasting in the United States and Canada is far more extensive than the Electronic Church. In the U.S. some two dozen "mainline" national denominations -- the United Methodist Church, the Episcopal Church as well as the Roman Catholic Church -- provide programs ranging from 30-second spots to half-hour programs 52 weeks a year. Protestant, Catholic and Jewish national organizations produce programs aired regularly on the three commercial TV networks. More than 30 "evangelical" or conservative religious groups, definitely not a part of the Electronic Church -- Seventh-Day Adventists, Southern Baptists, Missouri Synod Lutherans and others -- provide programs on hundreds of TV stations. Hundreds of local religious programs, produced by local churches, are carried without charge by local stations, and Councils of Churches in some cities have paid staff who place religious discussion and news programs on local TV and radio stations. In 1989 several Christian denominations cooperated in developing VISN, a religious cable service fed by satellite. By the end of 1989 VISN was available to approximately six million cable homes in the U.S., with programming, and the programming provided by the member groups was supplied for eight hours daily.

In Canada the Protestant and Roman Catholic Churches have cooperated for many years with the CBC in producing programs seen nationwide on its network. Also, hundreds of local churches have services aired on local radio and TV stations. In addition, several Christian evangelists have purchased time for both local and national programming. On September 1, 1988, VISION-TV, a multi-faith national television services became available on the basic cable system to almost 5 million Canadian homes. VISION-TV broadcasts a variety of drama, documentary, music and public affairs programming in addition to religious programs. The service is supported almost entirely by the faith groups in Canada thus far, but it is negotiating for a per-subscriber fee from cable companies. The major faith groups involved are identified as Baha'i, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, Native Spirituality, Sikh, Unitarian and Zoroastrian.

So the Electronic Church is only one part of a large religious broadcasting effort going on in the United States and Canada. By "Electronic Church," I mean specifically those programs: that are nationally distributed through purchased time; that depend on a single highly visible charismatic leader (Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Robert Schuller); that exhibit high-budget "slick" production qualities; that consistently solicit money over the air; and that make extensive use of telephone campaigns and computerized "personal" letters to contact viewers.

Surprisingly, when one thinks of the mass audiences attracted to TV, the audience for the Electronic Church is not large. It has not been growing in the last decade. In the U.S., the A.C. Nielsen reports that the number of viewers for Electronic Church programs probably peaked around 1978 and have been holding steady or even decreasing ever since. In 1984, an Annenberg-Gallup study revealed that the total number of viewers who watch one hour or more of religious programs per week is about 4.84 million persons, or 2.17 percent of the total population. Most of the Electronic Church programming aired in Canada is imported from the U.S., and while the aggregate audience for their programs is proportionately small, Canadian donations in response to appeals from these U.S.-based groups is sufficiently large to justify many of them having specific Canadian post office addresses.

Nevertheless, the Electronic Church has made a significant impact on American society. It has changed the perception of what many consider to be "religion." It has had significant social and political impact, particularly in the early 1980's, bringing into visibility a religious sub-group not previously taken seriously either by the mainline churches or the society at large. And it has challenged the mainline churches to rethink their own relationship with the mass media.

Reading the Electronic Church as Sign and Symbol

In Chapter Seven we described three techniques that we can use to "read" television. Of course, these techniques apply to all kinds of TV -- news, sitcoms, commercials and every other format. But in order to test them in a real-life situation, let us apply the techniques to the Electronic Church. In so doing we will have a "test run" of ways to analyze all TV programs, and at the same time we will gain a better understanding of the Electronic Church.

Reading the Electronic Church as Sign and Symbol

First we ask: what various signs and symbols mean? For several years I have been leading discussion groups who look at clips of several of the top televangelists, then list the signs and symbols. Some images most often mentioned, with suggestions about their meanings, are:

Sign, symbol: Meaning

Robe, preacher center of attention -- Authority: in the person

Pulpit, reference to Bible -- Authority: in the book

Reference to charts, diagrams -- Authority: in the "answers"

Speaking to huge rallies -- Authority: in large numbers

Interviews with celebrities -- Importance of worldly success

Interviews with businessmen -- Importance of wealth (sexism)

Banks of phone-answers -- "Personalizes" call-ins

Wearing expensive clothes -- Person is a success, role model

Country-western music -- Religion can be fun

Dramatic "pulpit-thumping" -- Appeal to emotions, entertainment

Give-aways (books, objects) -- Attempt to tie viewer to program

Sale of books, objects -- Similarity to commercial TV

One has only to view a program or two to discover that many visual messages hide behind the verbal messages on TV. It can be enlightening to analyze the televangelists from the perspective of their program's signs and symbols -- as it can be for all TV programs.

Reading the Electronic Church as Economics

Second, we ask: who benefits? Who profits from the particular program, appeal, or message? Is the program designed to meet the needs and interests of various viewers, of those who seek for religious inspiration, or new insights into the Bible, or strength to meet the problems of their lives?

An economic analysis reveals some of the most often-expressed criticisms of the Electronic Church. The scandals surrounding a number of the televangelists have revealed that some are taking a great deal of money from people and using it for their own benefit. For example, in 1987 a class action suit was filed against Jim and Tammy Bakker on behalf of some 161,000 donors to the Bakker's PTL programs who had paid $1,000 each to become "lifetime partners," a status which included free accommodations at the PTL theme park. 1 Only one of the promised motel-like units was built, and there never was enough room for participants. The suit charged that the Bakkers and their top aides had diverted millions of dollars to their personal use. Bakker was convicted and sentenced to forty-five years in prison.

Another criticism is that televangelists have used too much of donor income merely to raise more money. For example, in 1982 Jimmy Swaggart spent $38 million -- more than 80 percent of his total income -- just keeping his program on the air. 2 And in 1982 Jerry Falwell spent $5 in fund-raising for every $7 he raised. 3

An interesting comparison of "who benefits" was made by the Norman Dewire, of the United Methodist Church General Council on Ministries, who pointed out that "the national United Methodist Church runs on five cents of each $1, and with the rest supports 750 missionaries, 900 short-term missionaries, curriculum and worship materials, the largest network of private colleges in the United States, one hundred retirement homes, and the recruitment and training of ministers plus all communication materials." 4

Even more serious is the aspect that appears when we ask the corollary question: "who is injured?" An article in Harpers described one of the CBN 700 Club on-air fund raising events, during which Ben Kinchlow, Pat Robertson's aide, rushes up to the microphone and said to Pat:

"We have a report just in from Charlottesville, Virginia," Ben said. "A lady with an ingrown toenail sent in $100 along with her Seven Lifetime Prayer Requests. Within a week -- get this -three of those lifetime prayer requests have been answered!"

"Praise God!" Pat said. "And that`s not all," said Ben. "The toenail was miraculously healed the very next day!"

"Praise God! Robertson said. "You know, you can`t outgive God."

Some time later in the program, Ben once again comes on screen:

"Pat, here is a report from a woman in California," Kinchlow said, dashing up with a message just taken by one of the phone counselors. "She`s on a limited income, and with all sorts of health problems, too. She decided to trust in God and to step out in faith on the Kingdom Principles. She was already giving half her disability money to the 700 Club to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ. But just last week, she decided to go all the way, and to give God the money she spends for cancer medicine -- $120 a month. And three days later -- get this! -- from an entirely unexpected source, she got a check for three thousand dollars!"

"Praise God! Robertson said. "Let`s give God a hand!"

Clearly the woman who gave all her cancer-treatment to this ministry was injuring herself. But what about the other woman, the one who had three of her "Lifetime Prayer Requests" answered in one week -- plus her ingrown toenail healed? Was she sustaining any injury by being encouraged to partake in a trivialization of prayer and the meaning of religion? If people can truly have half of their "lifetime" prayer requests answered in one week, then perhaps all our churches can go out of business.

When we look at the Electronic Church programs and ask who benefits and who is injured, the answers are not encouraging.

Reading the Electronic Church as Psychology

And third, we ask: what uses and gratifications are med by the Electronic Church?

In Chapter Six we listed more than a score of uses and gratifications that people seem to seek from TV. This list names needs that people bring not only to TV but to all of life. Psychologists say that people have genuine needs to be amused, to experience the beautiful, to experience extreme emotions, to satisfy their curiosity, and so on. Which of these are met by the Electronic Church?

In one way or another, just about all of them. Not only do televangelists appeal to people's need to identify with the deity and the divine plan, but they skillfully identify and appeal to almost every need on the list. Let us take a more or less random half of these needs and suggest the appeal a televangelist might make in meeting them.

Need Appeal

To be amused -- Jimmy Swaggart's music and humor

To see authority exalted -- Jerry Falwell's TV skills;Pat Robertson's bid for the U.S. Presidency

To see authority deflated -- Bakker and Swaggart scandals

To experience beauty -- "Hour of Power" music

To share experience with -- Joining the "700 Club" or "PTL Club," others becoming a "Prayer Partner"

To identify with the divine plan -- Robertson's charts, Falwell's and Oral Robert's proof-texts

To experience empathy -- Robertson's and Bakker's talks with guests -- "just plain folks"

To experience extreme emotions: love/hate --  Swaggart's attacks on liberals, Catholics

To find models to imitate -- Falwell's certainty; Robertson's suavity.

To gain information -- Robertson's explanations of world events.

To believe in magic -- Healing claims tied to donations.

Although needs are abbreviated and the "appeals" mere suggestions, the chart shows that we can learn a great deal about television -- any television -- by analyzing the uses people put it to, and the gratifications they get from it.

Pros and Cons

Granted that the needs people bring to the televangelists are genuine, the question then becomes: how do the televangelists meet them? Are their responses helpful and positive, with the viewers' good uppermost, or do they manipulate people for other purposes?

A simple yes or no is not possible. Televangelists differ greatly in their motivations, their techniques, their messages and approaches. And an audience of several million, is bound to produce many different levels of response to the same program, because what people bring to the programs differs, and consequently, the programs' affect on them will differ.

Stewart M. Hoover, a professor of communication, wrote a book on the effects of the Electronic Church. As a graduate student, Hoover participated in the Annenberg-Gallup study of the Electronic Church. Later he focused on one program, the 700 Club, conducting extensive interviews with twenty individuals or couples that the study identified as heavy viewers. 5 He lists a number of ways in which viewing the 700 Club appears to satisfy the needs of these viewers. His list recalls many of the "uses and gratifications" mentioned above:

For most viewers, the 700 Club serves many of the classic "functions" of mass media. It provides news and information. It orients them to the wider range of activities and involvements of the evangelical parachurch. It introduces them to other evangelicals, fundamentalists, or charismatics with whom they can identify, and from whom they can learn. It provides entertainment in the form of music and "good preaching."

Hoover found that the most religiously useful function of the 700 Club was that it was available, in viewers' homes, on a day-to day basis, so that when crisis or difficulty occurred, it could "be there for them." 7 Hoover also found that viewers felt that through watching the 700 Club they were recovering "the authentic religious faith of their individual and cultural roots," because for them the program expressed conservative or fundamentalist Christianity. Interestingly, for them it represented a "higher stage of evangelicalism," because it was able to give expression to their views in a national, public way (through television) which had not been possible with older forms of conservatism and fundamentalism. 8

The very fact that "their" program was "on TV" gave it great prestige and indicated its success. Says Hoover, "By appearing on and being part of television (secular modernism at its most profane), the 700 Club transcends the lower-class origins of the evangelicalism and fundamentalism out of which it springs." 9

This appeal, however, has a drawback, for Hoover found that the program itself merely reinforced what viewers already believed, and that they supported it not so much because it helped them but because they thought it would be good for others:

The program is seen simply as consistent with their religious consciousness, but it is valuable to them for its divergence from the traditional evangelical or fundamentalist worldview. For all of them, the program's appeal to a broader, outside world in terms of class and theology is its major attraction. It deserves support not so much because they themselves are the objects of its ministries, but because of what it does for, and represents to, the rest of the world. With few exceptions, these viewers see the 700 Club as there for "someone else." 10

This rationale, of course, strikes at the heart of all televangelists' appeal for funds: to reach the unreached. Hoover's analysis concludes:

...the electronic church holds out promise mainly for those who are most easily convinced, not for a broader society in need of some sort of help.

The Electronic Church surely meets the needs of some people. An aggregate of several millions will include some people whose needs are being met in adequate and genuine ways. On balance, however, the Electronic Church has tended to mislead people and to provide them with a message that has very little relationship to the gospel of Jesus Christ which they claim to serve.

The fundamental problem is that in order to reach the audiences necessary in order to raise large sums of money, the televangelists compromised the gospel until it had very little resemblance to the gospel. James Brieg expressed it this way:

The programs are a distortion of the gospel. There is no cross. In a half-hour, they have to convert you (which trivializes what conversion means), heal you (which is hokey), promise success (people on the shows have overcome alcoholism, are Miss America, or play in the NFL), and entertain (so they find ever more expensive sets with more fountains and glamour (which detract from the world of the suffering.) 11

In summary, the Electronic Church aspect of religious television today is driven primarily by considerations of economics and power. Expecting to use the enormous power of television for their own purposes, the televangelists have instead been used by it. They have had to conform their messages to meet the demands of TV -- demands to get larger audiences to get more money to get more stations to get even larger audiences. In order to get larger audiences, their messages had to please the audience, and never offend them, a requirement that becomes fatal to any authentic proclamation of the Christian faith.

It is an open question whether some televangelists were corrupted by the power of the media, or simply found in the media a comfortable fit for their kind of religious evangelism. Undoubtedly both factors have been at work. Most evangelists have bought into the world of commercial television, in order to reap its rewards of vast audience reach; in many cases they stayed to benefit from its rewards of money, power and prestige. They used one of the most powerful institutions in our culture, and, inevitably, that power began to corrupt them. The scandals of Oral Roberts, Jim and Tammy Bakker, and Jimmy Swaggart are only the surface manifestations of this corruption; far more serious are programs that denigrate authentic Christianity in the name of Christianity and make use of God in the name of God, misleading millions of persons about the nature of genuine religious experience.

How TV Should Be Used by the Churches

How should the churches respond to the challenge presented by the Electronic Church, and to the even more fundamental challenge of how to communicate the Christian faith in a media culture? What should the churches be doing to "use" television in ways faithful to the gospel?

The churches must continue to work in the area of programming. The existence of dangers should not deter the churches from the enormous potential for good that television represents. But the solution does not lie in the directions taken by the Electronic Church.

When mainline churches seek to use broadcasting to examine biblical Christianity in relation to society today, they run up against great moral ambiguity. Transcendent religious values are so much at odds with society's values that it is difficult and often impossible to deal seriously with significant issues on radio and television. It is possible, of course, to find ways to use mass media to sensitize people to moral and spiritual values. But the dangers of being taken in by the media are so subtle and so powerful that religious communicators need to approach all programming in television and radio with the greatest caution and theological sensitivity.

I believe the church should use radio and TV for pre-evangelism. On one hand, the church cannot BE the church on radio and television. It cannot "broadcast" genuine community, or provide the baptisms, marriages, and funerals, the celebrations and confessions that a worshipping church provides. Broadcasting cannot be the place for personal confessions, because it does not establish direct contact between speaker and the listener-viewers. Technology changes the nature of communication, and a worship service "broadcast" is simply not the same thing as a worship service in which one participates personally. I doubt that serious religious questions can be answered satisfactorily and in depth on radio and television. But we can give information about the Christian faith, and the right questions can be raised. People can be helped to ask who they are and what they are here for and whether they have any worth and if so, why.

Unfortunately, the church has tended to fall into the trap of the technology mythmakers and ask what works and how to get results, rather than what is true and how to increase insights and perceptions that lead to the truth. The church can use the mass media, but it should use it as preparation for the gospel rather than as "mediation" of the gospel, for the gospel, to be true, requires the presence of person, not machines.

Using media to prepare people to receive the gospel involves three steps. First, it requires exploring with people what theologian Paul Tillich called the "boundary situations," those points at which modern men and women reach the limits of their human existence, where they sense a lack of personal meaning, or fear being useless and worthless. Second, it requires affirming through the media persons and events that have been able to deal with these "boundary situations" creatively and with faith: news stories from Manila and South Africa; biographies of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa, Archbishop Tutu -- and a host of other unfamous people of faith as well. And third, it requires pointing to the churches as the place where people can go to begin to work out their salvation, find community, and discover the power of confession and forgiveness.

Canadian VISION TV offers a good example. Rita Deverell, host of It's About Time which airs daily on the new network, says "My show is not really about religion in any direct way. My show is about people and about their attempts to find solutions in their small ways for the serious problems of the world. In doing that, it's important ... to interact with people who are on a spiritual quest." Similarly, "Catch the Spirit," a United Methodist Church series produced for the U.S. VISN cable service, documents ways Christians are meeting genuine needs in local communities and throughout the world.

Religious broadcasting can help lead people to understand what the gospel message is, and can encourage them to go where they can get more answers and possibly, to use a decidedly non-media term, become saved. That place is, simply, the church. Television should be a sign-post, a servant of the local church - and never the other way around.

TV, as well as all mass media, must be used as a tool, but used very critically, constantly striving not to succumb to the temptations of the power that the media tend to confer, not to allow church leaders to become media celebrities, or programs to become so caught up in the demands of media that the gospel ceases to be the gospel at all.



1. "Backers File $758 Million Racketeering Suit Against PTL," Religious News Service, November 23, 1987, p. 1.

2. Fore, William F., Television and Religion: the Shaping of Faith, Values and Culture. (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1987), p. 92.

3. Frances FitzGerald, "A Disciplined, Charging Army," The New Yorker, May 18, 1981, pp. 53-141.

4. Dayton Journal Herald, November 17, 1981, p. A6.

5. Hoover, Stewart M., "The 700 Club as Religion and Television: A Study of Reasons and Effects" (Ph. D. dissertation, the University of Pennsylvania, 1985).

6. Hoover, Stewart M., Mass Media Religion: The Social Sources of the Electronic Church. (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1988), p. 209.

7. Ibid., p. 175.

8. Ibid., p. 208.

9. Ibid., p. 204.

10. Ibid., p. 151.

11. James Breig, "TV Religion: The Price is Right," in U.S. Catholic 46 (1981): pp. 12-13.