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 televised preaching of Charles Stanley, D. James Kennedy, Lloyd Ogilvie, and others are extensions of church-based ministries. What stand most squarely in harm’s way are the made-for-TV ministries that find their raison d’être in the airwaves. Unfortunately, they are the most visible, and the most vulnerable.

The problem, says Calvin College’s Quentin Schultze, author of Televangelism and American Culture, is that such ministries too easily become “marketplace driven.” Buying air time places a tremendous burden on a ministry, forcing it into a constant need for funds. Elaborately produced ministry “shows” can require tens of millions of dollars per year just to stay on the air. Can ministries stay true to their calling when the pressure to raise money is so great?

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That is not the only question faced by such media ministries. Another is even more basic: What purpose are they accomplishing? Surveys of viewers show that virtually all are believers; studies of recent converts reveal only a fraction of a percent became Christians through televised ministry. Says Elmer Towns, dean of Liberty Baptist Seminary, televangelism is no longer the “anointed method” it was in the 1970s and early 1980s. People on both sides of the camera have lost confidence in it. Its prime time has passed.

There is still a place for television in the work of the church. Towns advises that Christian leaders use it to increase the visibility of already-established ministries. Local cable stations, for example, provide opportunities for churches to reach out to their communities. And experience shows that television is best handled by churches, groups, or denominations that will oversee its use and provide accountability.

Only with wise and well-planned effort can the medium build up the church. Otherwise, it may pose a temptation too great to handle.

By Ken Sidey.

Bigots In Patriots’ Clothing

Western civilization is once more being threatened by a rising tide of ethnic hatred and phobic isolationism. In some parts of France, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s racist National Front has garnered 30 percent of popular support. In Germany, neo-Nazis run foreigners out of town. In Antwerp, the Flemish nationalist party, Our People First, has the most support of any faction. In Spain, Italy, Austria, England—and here in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty—racism and anti-immigrant sentiments are shaping politics. “Rising tide” is an appropriate metaphor, for swelling nativism is both global and cyclical. Like a tide, me-and-mine-firstism swamps the shores of our history.

Some believe xenophobia’s cyclical character is tied to economics. Arthur Schlesinger recently observed that while “nothing short of moral conversion can overcome racism in the human heart; … jobs can do a lot to relieve ethnic hostilities … and to encourage people of diverse origins to live together in harmony.”

It is when the stomach is growling that our true tempers—nasty, brutish, and short—are shown. Thus, as the communist garden has born bitter fruit, Eastern-bloc ethnics have begun scrabbling for their own turfs. As Western European socialism groans under the weight of entrenched price supports, social entitlements, and burgeoning immigrant populations, racist politics re-emerges. And as American market capitalism reaps where it has not sown, we try to shift the blame to the industrious workers of the Pacific Rim.

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Protectionism is the stock in trade of former Nixon and Reagan speechwriter Patrick Buchanan, who has entered the Republican presidential primaries. Buchanan, an ideological conservative and self-proclaimed “wiseacre,” wants to give more than a wrist slap to a President who practices government by compromise. But rather than carefully articulating his proposals, Buchanan has challenged the President with an arsenal of wisecracks. His wisecracks, unfortunately, too easily serve hate politics. Whatever his motivations, when Buchanan criticizes nonwhite immigration, saying “we are a European country,” he is stoking racial unrest. When he talks of “phasing out troops in NATO” to “make them border guards in the Southwest,” he is fostering prejudice toward Hispanics. When he labels conservatives who supported the Gulf War “the amen corner” of the Israeli Defense Ministry (as if Israel were somehow responsible for Saddam’s madness), he is fostering distrust of world Jewry.

Buchanan seems bent on using his rhetorical talent to recruit disgruntled Republicans. Increased tariffs may aid an economic recovery, and Buchanan has the right to propose them. But Christian citizens will worry that it is a small step from protecting American industry to fomenting bigotry. When 74,000 General Motors workers lose their jobs, it is tempting to blame foreign auto makers for doing their job too well. And from there it is yet only another small step to disliking and mistreating Japanese, Jews, Hispanics, and Southeast Asians simply because they are different.

Christians, while loyal to government wherever they live, have a higher loyalty to the kingdom of God and its citizens. In Ephesians 3, Paul reveals God’s long-kept “secret”—that by bringing together in his church persons of all races he will show his wisdom to the principalities and powers in heavenly places. Those of us who live under that wisdom cannot mistrust anyone because of national origin, skin color, or language.

Buchanan’s conservatism has much that will appeal to CT readers. He has invoked “Judeo-Christian values,” for example, and he is a staunch opponent of abortion on demand. But in politics, as in advertising, rhetoric often masks manipulation. Anyone who is tempted by such phrases should take a very close look. As Doug LeBlanc recently noted in World about Buchanan, “Being an entertaining gadfly is inadequate training for being the president.” Perhaps. But for demagoguery, it’s a great warm-up.

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By David Neff.

Yes To Dry Dorms

As freshmen in college, one colleague reports, he and his friends found regular entertainment in holding “Harry Buffalo” parties. They would fill a new garbage can with a gallon of grain alcohol, a couple cannisters of Kool-Aid, and water. Then they would chug, gulp, and down the contents until most of the partygoers were either unconscious, sick, or too bloated to drink another drop. For weeks afterward, they would recount who got sick, what got broken, and how long it took to recover. Overall, they deemed them highly successfully parties.

Why do otherwise bright students, who earn decent grades and who can think rationally about microeconomics or adolescent psychology, think that being out-of-control drunk is such a pleasant experience?

Fortunately, some of today’s students are proving they are at least quicker, if not smarter, than our colleague was. As reported in Newsweek, several universities have set up residential “substance-free” zones where students voluntarily forgo alcohol and illicit drugs. According to Newsweek, these students go dry either for religious reasons or because their parents were alcoholics, or because they are just plain scared about the consequences of substance abuse.

And well they should be. Alcohol abuse is the leading cause of death among teenagers. Surgeon General Antonia Novello, quoted in Time, says that the problem of alcohol use among minors is “out of control.” Despite a decline in drug abuse among youth, and a decrease in overall per capita rates of alcohol consumption, young adults continue to binge on alcohol.

Why? Not all the blame can be laid on the hormonal wildness of adolescence. Our consumer culture preaches indulgence. Should we be surprised when young people heed the message? Substance-free dorms are a good way to start challenging that message. Next brewers could stop targeting youth with their sports-related advertising and spring-break special events. And then parents could set a less hedonistic example. Is that too much to ask?

By the editors.

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