I began my career in broadcasting during the years when full-time Christian television stations were still dreams. In fact, the manager at the Christian radio station where I worked told me there would never be Christian television stations. "Christians will never afford to build a television station," he said. How short sighted that was.
In 1961 FCC chairman Newton Minnow gave a speech in which he referred to television as a "vast wasteland." It took almost twenty years before Christians were given the opportunity to turn this around. The task seemed insurmountable but the possibilities were endless. It cost over a million dollars to build a television station, but the charismatic movement was growing and was teaching that "with God all things are possible." Early pioneers like Rex Humbard, Jim Bakker and Pat Robinson were producing Christian TV programs that were paving the way for 24 hour Christian television. Broadcast Satellites were on the horizon, opening up a door to the world that had never been possible in the history of Christianity.
As Christian television began penetrating places that could never be reached before, Christians opened up their hearts and wallets. The charismatic community captured the lead, and Christian broadcasting spawned mega-churches across the country. Christian television introduced new music groups that changed song leaders into worship leaders, and brought glaring lights, expensive sound systems, fuzz guitars and drums into almost every church. Everyone had visions of Bible-based exciting and entertaining programming that would be a true alternative to the direction that the vast wasteland of secular television was heading.
A memory transports me back to Kansas city in the early 1980's when pioneer producers from Christian television stations around the nation gathered in one mind to develop a plan for using this new opportunity that God had placed in their care. One man spoke up, "we have a burden to produce children's programming," another said, "we want to do game shows," then another, "our vision is documenting God's work around the world," one wanted to do news, and Christian soap operas . . . and on and on we all dreamed. No one seemed interested in building their own kingdom.
A few years later those same men gathered in Dallas to organize a prayer rally in Washington D.C. based on 2 Chronicles 7:14. Each station donated staff and equipment, and "Washington for Jesus" became a reality. Thousands gathered on the mall that day to pray for the nation, and all of the Christian stations aired the live event across the nation in a show of unity. Sadly, the dreams of those producers did not come to pass and most of those men no longer work in Christian television. What happened?
I believe that the love of money is what happened.
As telethons became the acceptable way of raising funds, the stations brought in independent evangelists as hosts with dynamic personalities and a talent for moving an audience to "give sacrificially." One station calculated the "cost per soul." The phones lit up with callers wanting to give a dollar and save a soul. They called to get cheap trinkets for their large contributions as the hosts developed all sorts of tricks to cause the phones to stay busy. One station offered jars of dirt from the Holy Land and every telethon host had a prosperity or healing book to give away. Name it and claim it became a new doctrine on Christian television, and in many churches.
While the visiting evangelists were bringing in huge sums of money at the telethons, they were also learning an effective and easy method of raising their own cash. Christian television was grooming a new breed of preacher that would be called "televangelist."
Stations saw a windfall as the new televangelists started buying up all of their available airtime. Christian stations stopped producing their own costly local programs, realizing they could make more money by selling their prime time to televangelists. Production was costly, and the viewers would rather see these big flashy preachers than poorly produced local programs.
Telethons continued to do well for a while masking the reality that their local ministry was shrinking and the televangelists empires were growing. People were giving to the televangelist thinking that they were also giving to the station.
The visions of news programs, interesting documentaries or exciting game shows faded and the Christian television broadcast day became one preacher after another. The kingdoms of the televangelists exploded, while the income from the local viewers barely kept the lights on. Stations became dependent on the televangelists for a cash flow.
Today's telethons have devolved from the most exciting time of the year, to the same old people, same old music and the same old pitch for money. The viewers that are left have gone from 30 and 40 year old's, to 70's and 80's and many are dying off.
Televangelists have become so wealthy they are out of touch with the original vision for Christian television. They are out of touch with the very people who made them rich. One well-known prosperity preacher recently spent a large portion of his television program bragging about being a billionaire.
The sad truth is television ministries are no longer taken serious by the younger generation. Christian television with bizarre talk show hosts and outrageous doctrines, has become the laughing stock of the Internet. You Tube is rife with televangelists making fools of themselves.
Anyone with a smart phone can do a live broadcast on the Internet for free. Hundreds of churches and ministries have their own full-time streaming channels to broadcast their live church services or play their old programs on demand. Every teen-age boy or girl can shoot a two minute video of their cat, and have an audience of millions. That's more viewers than any Christian station has ever been able to reach with a single program. Christian television stations do not have an audience large enough to even show in the ratings books.
Ask your children the questions that haunt us. Is Christian television dead? Who will step up to revive the dream? What will the future look like?
**If you know someone associated with Christian television or televangelism, tell them about this blog and ask them to contribute. We'd like to know what viewers think as well.**
***Read Paul Garber's book, Saved By Default: Confessions of a Televangelist. Available at Amazon and Barnes and Nobel and everywhere Christian books are sold.***