Are the costs and temptations involved in televised ministry simply too great?

When British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge wrote Christ and the Media nearly 15 years ago, he viewed television as nothing less potent than the “Fourth Temptation.” He imagined the offer of a worldwide TV appearance as Satan’s final attempt to bring about Jesus’ fall. Though Muggeridge’s vision of an inherently corrupt medium may be extreme, his pessimism about television’s relationship with faith seems ever more justified.

In recent months, just when Christians could hope the televangelist debacles of five years ago were fading in the national memory, irresponsible preachers again made headlines. Jimmy Swaggart’s latest failings and a recent exposé of three televangelists on ABC’s “PrimeTime Live” have called the integrity of religious broadcasters into question once more.

The consequences reach far beyond those few personalities involved. Last year a survey of CHRISTIANITY TODAY readers found that their greatest obstacle when it came to evangelism was the image that many so-called evangelists are “religious hucksters.” When prominent representatives of the faith are discredited, the witness of all Christians suffers.

Television, like any tool of communication, is in itself neither good nor bad. But recent history makes it clear that it is a tool to be handled carefully indeed, for it holds more than its share of temptations. It is filled with characteristics and practices that at best limit its value as a ministry tool, and at worst pose a threat to the spiritual health of those who use it.

Clearly, some uses of television avoid the pitfalls better than others. Billy Graham’s televised crusades are notable in their lack of appeals for money. The ...

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