Predictions that the scandals in the late 1980s involving Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart would be the death knell for television ministries have proven wrong. Though the number of viewers and contributions have dropped by almost three-fourths compared to televangelism's peak in the early '80s, dozens of TV ministries from that decade remain on the air today. Even Bakker, during his frequent appearances on Larry King Live and Dallas preacher James Robison's program, shares his plans to return to religious television.
Twenty years ago, under the direction of my graduate professors at the University of Minnesota, I began monitoring how televangelists used their airtime. Seven studies later, I remain fascinated by the virtues and perils of merging ministry and television.
To get a handle on the current state of televangelism, I monitored 150 broadcasts of 22 different television ministries from September to November of 2000. Ministries were selected based on ratings, reputation, and availability via national cable outlets. Whites hosted about 90 percent of the ministries I monitored, and males about 80 percent.
Program segments were categorized and timed by theme in four ways: fundraising (which involves requests for money), promotion (the marketing of free ministry-related items such as gospel tracts or telephone help lines), politics (commentary specifically on the two hot topics of the month, the presidential election, and the peace process in the Middle East), and ministry (including music, prayer, preaching, and testimonies).
Two common criticisms of televangelists are that "they're always asking for money," or "they're always talking about conservative politics." Here is what I discovered about how the televangelists actually use their time.
Whether it's NBC, PBS, or the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), television broadcasting requires huge amounts of money. What I found, though, was that ministries actually do better than commercial TV in direct commercial appeals—using only 7 minutes an hour for fundraising while the broadcast networks use over 15 minutes an hour for ads.
The programs from my 2000 study used an average 11 percent of their airtime to ask for money, 8 percent in promotions, 4 percent to talk politics, and 77 percent in ministry. The "commercial" portions of religious broadcasts (combining fundraising and promotion) averaged 19 percent, compared to network television using 28 percent of its prime-time programming for advertising and promotional announcements (according to a 2000 study by the American Association of Advertising Agencies).
Fundraising appeals covered a wide range of styles. Some ministries, like Paul Crouch's Praise the Lord and Charles Stanley's In Touch, had separate segments offering an item in exchange for a contribution. Others, such as James Robison's Life Today, used larger segments of airtime to raise money for the poor by showing the hosts traveling to a needy part of the world. Some hosts made direct financial appeals to the camera, such as Jerry Falwell (plugging his correspondence school), Robert Tilton (asking followers to "make a vow" for $1,000 so they will be blessed), or Swaggart ("We've given you something. … and now I need your help").
The amount of time used to ask for money also varies dramatically. Some, such as Billy Graham or Catholic TV personality Mother Angelica, barely mentioned the subject. Others, like Falwell, spent more time asking for contributions than ministering to viewers. Oral and Richard Roberts used one-fourth of their telecasts to raise money, while Mart De Haan never asked for a penny on Radio Bible Class's TV show, Day of Discovery.
Most ministries claim to be financially accountable, offering viewers audited financial statements to prove it, but few actually provided the printed material. Updating a mail study I conducted in 1992, I wrote each ministry with a request for the financial information it sends to a typical viewer who would like to investigate the organization's finances before making a donation. The previous study showed that only 20 percent of the TV ministries provided an audited financial statement in response to my mailed request. For this project, I requested the information through each ministry's Web site. Most of the ministries immediately sent a computer-generated e-mail thanking me and letting me know that someone would be back to me soon to respond to my request.
Half of the organizations never responded with any financial information (including Robert Schuller, Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, Falwell, Swaggart, Robison, Benny Hinn, and Jack Van Impe). About one-fourth replied by sending inadequate pie-chart information that gave no specific details about how much money was spent on salaries and who made up the board of directors. Charles Stanley's In Touch ministry first put me on the fundraising mailing list before sending the requested information two months later, and it took a second request to get Graham's organization to finally send a basic financial statement.
Two of the ministries, Radio Bible Class and Mother Angelica's Eternal Word Television Network, mailed detailed audited financial statements within a week of my request. Radio Bible Class is the industry leader in providing more than enough information for a viewer to make an informed decision to support the ministry financially. A current copy of the organization's IRS form 990 included the addresses for the board of directors and the specific salary of president Mart De Haan—all this from a television program that did not ask for money on air.
In summary: few television ministries are as accountable to contributors as they could be. Few are willing to give detailed information on how your donations are spent, and most will not even give potential contributors specifics regarding who is on the board.
In the area of politics, two events were of high interest to the television ministries last year: the 2000 presidential race and the escalating crisis in the Middle East. More than half of the broadcasters addressed one of these issues from their video pulpits, with an average 4 percent of airtime being devoted to these subjects. But a few used a relatively large portion of their airtime to discuss political events.
Robertson, in particular, used a substantial portion of his 700 Club to discuss both issues, spending 15 to 20 minutes a day discussing the presidential race with a cohort he called a "CBN political analyst." He repeatedly expressed concern that George W. Bush was not doing enough to win the support of Robertson's Christian Coalition. Political discussions occupied one-third of his program time, which is an increase from 1996 (18 percent) and 1992 (24 percent). In fact, politics takes up as much programming time as it did in the 1980s.
Other ministry leaders encouraged viewers to vote and implied that there was a correct or godly way to cast a ballot. "I'm going to vote for God," said Mike Hayes, a guest host on Paul Crouch's Praise the Lord on TBN. "Don't vote for any other reason except for life," Mother Angelica told her audience. D. James Kennedy said that his followers "should elect Christians to rule over them." And Robison said, "If you're just going to vote for big government, don't vote, because big government is not God."
Some religious broadcasters came close to endorsing George W. Bush for the presidency. "I know I'll probably get in trouble saying it," Mother Angelica admitted, then told viewers to vote prolife. After one of the presidential debates, Robertson concluded, "Bush came through. He passed the test." And Falwell pointed out that though black urban pastors were allowed to endorse Al Gore from the pulpit, "What would happen if Jerry Falwell. … told the pastors to tell the people to vote for George Bush?"
Others used a more subtle approach. Just two weeks before Election Day, Robert Schuller let former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev praise former President George H. Bush from the Crystal Cathedral pulpit (just as Republican Jack Kemp and Persian Gulf War General Norman Schwarzkopf had made appearances at the Crystal Cathedral shortly before the other presidential elections in the 1990s). In October 2000, Hinn said he wrote two letters to the presidential candidate "who believes what I believe," telling the candidate that he would win the election. "Anybody with brains," Hinn added, "knows who I'm talking about."
Despite the half-dozen ministries that used their TV platforms to discuss the presidential election, most religious broadcasters devoted almost no airtime to politics and continued to use only a small amount for fundraising and promotion.
During the past 20 years of conducting these studies, I observed that the commercial portions of the broadcasts were at their lowest average in 2000 and the political aspects were close to the 1996 low. The long-term response by televangelists to the scandals of the 1980s has been an overall reduction in discussing politics and money, while the amount of airtime devoted to ministry has increased.
Though pleas for money and thinly veiled political agendas have become synonymous with televangelism, we should remember that many souls have been touched for the good by TV ministries. Rather than tune them out, we should pray that God uses them, keeps them honest theologically and fiscally, and inspires them with a fresh vision to stay relevant in a media-saturated culture that, like or not, is more inclined to sit in front of a television than a pulpit.
Stephen Winzenburg is associate professor of communication at Grand View College in Des Moines. He hosts a weekly talk show on WHO-AM (www.whoradio.com).
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Author Stephen Winzenburg was featured in a 1997 Christianity Today article on research of fundraising practices of television evangelists.
Winzenburg also wrote a 2000 article for Christianity Today: "Whatever Happened to Hospitality? | Even in churches, many believers feel safer ignoring those they don't know." (5/16/00)
Official Web sites for televangelists analyzed in the survey include:
- Kenneth Copeland
- Mart De Haan, Day of Discovery
- Creflo Dollar
- Jerry Falwell
- Billy Graham
- Marilyn Hickey
- Benny Hinn
- D. James Kennedy
- Joyce Meyer
- Mother Angelica
- Fred Price
- Oral and Richard Roberts
- Robert Schuller
- The 700 Club
- Charles Stanley
- James Robison
- Jack Van Impe
Previous Christianity Today articles on televangelists:
Smut Magazine Publishers Convert | Pornography producers convert after watching televangelist James Robison. (April 26, 1999)
The Re-education of Jim Bakker | Back on the streets, this fallen televangelist is preaching good news to the poor and predicting an asteroid-studded Second Coming. (Dec. 7, 1998)
Still Wrestling with the Devil | A visit with Jimmy Swaggart ten years after his fall. (March 2, 1998)
Bakker Bios | Jim, Tammy Faye describe their downfall. (Nov. 11, 1996)
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.