Some Preachers, Long Gone, Keep Preaching from Beyond the Grave
On the Sunday after Easter, famed Southern Baptist preacher Adrian Rogers appeared on Trinity Broadcasting Network, asking his congregation in suburban Memphis to turn to a passage of the Gospel of John.
"A Christian with a witness in his heart is never at the mercy of a man with an argument in his mouth," he said in the trademark deep voice that has been heard on TV and radio for 22 years. "Learn that, my friend."
Within hours, the Rev. D. James Kennedy was on Ion Television, comparing Americans who have drifted away from God to secular humanism to the New Testament's prodigal son.
Both evangelical preachers, along with radio broadcaster J. Vernon McGee, all have something in common. They all died years — and in McGee's case, decades — ago.
Yet their messages continue via TV, radio, and the Internet, even as some listeners probably don't even know they're long gone.
"McGee, of course, is king of the hill," said Frank Wright, president and CEO of the Virginia-based National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). "He is today the most widely listened-to Christian broadcaster anywhere in the world."
The three broadcasters, Wright said, remain on the airwaves because of their knack for telling "timeless stories" and their focus on the unchanging texts of the Bible.
When Wright worked at Kennedy's Center for Christian Statesmanship in Washington 14 years ago, he would listen to McGee on the radio as he drove to the commuter-train station.
"I listened to the guy for 3 1/2 years before I knew he was dead," Wright recalled. "I was captivated by his kind of homey preaching style and had no idea that he had gone on to be with the Lord."
Leo Karlyn, president of McGee's Thru the Bible Radio Network in Pasadena, Calif., said the ministry, which began in 1967, has expanded to the Internet and added a Facebook page a few months ago. He expects McGee would be surprised that the ministry continues.
"He said, 'I want you to play these tapes until the money runs out,' and the money has never run out," Karlyn said of McGee, who died at the age of 84 in 1988. "We have great donors and people who are interested in what does the Bible really say."
One donor recently gave $800,000 and others have bequeathed jewelry, an old Oldsmobile and even a $20,000 stamp collection to the ministry.
Both Kennedy, who died in 2007, and Rogers, who died in 2005, set up separate broadcast ministries that have continued even as their pulpits have been filled by successors.
The Rev. Tullian Tchividjian, grandson of evangelist Billy Graham, has been in Kennedy's pulpit at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., since Easter, but Kennedy is the one seen on the television program, "The Coral Ridge Hour."
"Nothing has changed," said John Aman, spokesman for Kennedy's Coral Ridge Ministries. "We'll continue to air Dr. Kennedy's sermons and provide occasional specials."
Although the ministry made significant cuts in the number of stations that carried Kennedy's sermons after he died, it now reaches the same percentage of U.S. households it reached before his death—90 percent. Kennedy's "Truths that Transform" radio program airs on 544 radio outlets today, compared to 700 in 2006.
"His messages remain very timely," said Aman, citing an example of a sermon that Kennedy preached more than a decade ago on the federal deficit. It was resurrected in March to air during the current economic crisis.
"We're just trying to … bring audiences the best of what he preached that's most appropriate to the time and, surprisingly enough, we can offer some very relevant messages even though he's no longer with us."