tammy faye

Televangelism [tel-i-van-juh-liz-uhm] is the use of television to communicate Christianity. The word is a portmanteau of television and evangelism and was coined by ‘Time’ magazine. Televangelists are Christian ministers who devote a large portion of their ministry to television broadcasting. The term is also used derisively by critics as an insinuation of aggrandizement by such ministers.

Televangelism began as a peculiarly American phenomenon, resulting from a largely deregulated media where access to television networks and cable TV is open to virtually anyone who can afford it, combined with a large Christian population that is able to provide the necessary funding. However, the increasing globalization of broadcasting has enabled some American televangelists to reach a wider audience through international broadcast networks, including some that are specifically Christian in nature, such as Trinity Broadcasting Network and The God Channel.

Domestically produced televangelism is increasingly present in some other nations such as Brazil. Some countries have a more regulated media with either general restrictions on access or specific rules regarding religious broadcasting. In such countries, religious programming is typically produced by TV companies (sometimes as a regulatory or public service requirement) rather than private interest groups. Some televangelists are also regular pastors or ministers in their own places of worship (often a megachurch), but the majority of their followers come from their TV and radio audiences. Others do not have a conventional congregation as such and solely work through television.

Christianity has always emphasized preaching the gospel to the whole world, taking as inspiration the Great Commission (the instruction of the resurrected Jesus Christ to his disciples that they spread his teachings to all the nations of the world). Historically, this was achieved by sending missionaries, beginning with the Dispersion of the Apostles, and later, after the invention of the printing press, included the distribution of Bibles and religious tracts.

Some Christians realized that the rapid uptake of radio beginning in the 1920s provided a powerful new tool for this task, and they were among the first producers of radio programming. Radio broadcasts were seen as a complementary activity to traditional missionaries, enabling vast numbers to be reached at relatively low cost, but also enabling Christianity to be preached in countries where this was illegal and missionaries were banned. The aim of Christian radio was to both convert people to Christianity and to provide teaching and support to believers. These activities continue today, particularly in the developing world. Shortwave radio stations with a Christian format broadcast worldwide, such as HCJB in Quito, Ecuador, Family Radio’s WYFR, and the Bible Broadcasting Network (BBN), among others.

In the U.S., the Great Depression of the 1930s saw a resurgence of revival-tent preaching in the Midwest and South, as itinerant traveling preachers drove from town to town, living off donations. Several preachers began radio shows as a result of their popularity. One of the first ministers to use radio extensively was S. Parkes Cadman, beginning in 1923. By 1928, Cadman had a weekly Sunday afternoon radio broadcast on the NBC radio network, his powerful oratory reaching a nationwide audience of five million listeners. Aimee Semple McPherson was another pioneering tent-revivalist who soon turned to radio to reach a larger audience. Radio eventually gave her nationwide notoriety in the 1920s and 1930s and she even built one of the earliest megachurches.

In the 1930s, a famous radio evangelist of the period was Roman Catholic priest Father Charles Coughlin, whose strongly anti-Communist and anti-Semitic radio programs reached millions of listeners. Other early Christian radio programs broadcast nationwide in the U.S. beginning in the 1920s–1930s include: Bob Jones, Sr. (1927–1962), Ralph W. Sockman (1928–1962), G. E. Lowman (1930–1965), The Lutheran Hour (1930–present), and Charles E. Fuller (1937–1968). ‘Time’ magazine reported in 1946 that Rev. Ralph Sockman’s ‘National Radio Pulpit’ on NBC received 4,000 letters weekly and Roman Catholic archbishop Fulton J. Sheen received between 3,000–6,000. The total radio audience for radio ministers in the U.S. that year was estimated to be 10 million listeners.

Although television also began in the 1930s, it did not become widespread until after World War II. Jack Wyrtzen and Percy Crawford switched to TV broadcasting in the Spring of 1949. Another television preacher of note was Fulton J. Sheen, who successfully switched to television in 1951 after two decades of popular radio broadcasts and whom ‘Time’ called ‘the first ‘televangelist.” Sheen would win numerous Emmy Awards for his program, which ran from the early 1950s, until the late 1960s.

After years of radio broadcasting, in 1952 Rex Humbard became the first to have a weekly church service broadcast on television. By 1980 the Rex Humbard programs spanned the globe across 695 stations in 91 languages and is to date, still the largest coverage of any evangelistic program. Oral Roberts’s broadcast by 1957 reached 80% of the possible television audience through 135 of the possible 500 stations. The 1960s and early 1970s saw television replace radio as the primary home entertainment medium, but also corresponded with a further rise in evangelical Protestant Christianity, particularly through the international television and radio ministry of Billy Graham. Many well-known televangelists began during this period, most notably Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, Jerry Fallwell, and Pat Robertson. Most developed their own media networks, news exposure, and political influence. In the 21st century, the televised church services of Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, and Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, California, continue to attract large audiences.

Televangelists frequently draw criticism from other Christian ministers. For example, preacher John MacArthur published a number of articles in 2009 that were highly critical of televangelists: ‘Someone needs to say this plainly: The faith healers and health-and-wealth preachers who dominate religious television are shameless frauds. Their message is not the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is nothing spiritual or miraculous about their on-stage chicanery. It is all a devious ruse designed to take advantage of desperate people. They are not Godly ministers but greedy impostors who corrupt the Word of God for money’s sake. They are not real pastors who shepherd the flock of God but hirelings whose only design is to fleece the sheep. Their love of money is glaringly obvious in what they say as well as how they live. They claim to possess great spiritual power, but in reality they are rank materialists and enemies of everything holy.’

A proportion of their methods and theology are held by some to be conflicting with Christian doctrine taught in long existing traditionalist congregations. Many televangelists are featured by ‘discernment ministries’ (members of the Christian countercult movement) run by other Christians that are concerned about what they perceive as departures from sound Christian doctrine.

Several televangelists are very active in the national or international political arena (e.g., Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, John Hagee), and often espouse conservative politics on their programs. Such televangelists may occasionally arouse controversy by making remarks deemed offensive on their programs or elsewhere, or by endorsing partisan political candidates on donor-paid airtime, at which point some have been threatened that they may have their tax-exempt status taken away if they reside in the United States.

Televangelists often strongly dispute these criticisms and say they are doing God’s work. They cite declining attendance at traditional church services and the growth of global mass media as factors necessitating the use of television to ‘fulfill the ‘Great Commission’ of the Gospel of Jesus to the generation of the 21st Century.’

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