Televangelism and American Culture

If you’re anything like me, when you became a Christian you didn’t immediately have the gift of discernment. You were so excited about your faith in Christ, you did everything you could to learn more about God and the Bible. You couldn’t get enough. The Sunday morning sermon you heard from your pastor wasn’t enough for you. You wanted more preaching. So you turned the TV on and searched for the channel with the preacher on it. And you listened. And you took in everything the preacher said, taking notes and writing down the verses that were quoted.

Truth be told, we probably should have been more like the Bereans, “examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11). Truth be told, we probably shouldn’t have been listening to the preacher on the TV screen in the first place. You live and you learn, I suppose. The fact of the matter is that most preachers on TV are not feeding their listeners good spiritual food. Many are propagating the “health and wealth gospel,” which is riddled with errors and filled with false promises.

In Quentin Schultze’s book Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion, he shows how the message of most televangelists has far more in common with American culture than it does with the Bible. Rather than provide a synopsis of the book, I simply want to share my three takeaways from the book.

Televangelism has shaped our concept of Sunday morning worship. This can be seen in three ways. First, for the most part, televangelism emphasizes the dramatic and downplays the ordinary. Televangelists usually talk about healing, miracles, and speaking in tongues. They impress upon their listeners the need to have a personal, unmediated encounter with God. Rarely (if ever at all) does one hear sermons on baptism, the Lord’s Supper, and the importance of the local church.

Second, televangelism is personality-driven. In one sense, TV ministries are about the televangelist. People tune in to hear their favorite preacher. In turn, this produces personality cults. This is what evangelicalism does: it manufactures personalities, which leads to books being published, and conferences and seminars being held.

Third, televangelism is entertainment-oriented. Schultze notes how early televangelists patterned their TV shows after Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin. They adopted the “talk-pray-sing formula.” Early on, people thought that televangelism would cause the local church to disappear. As it turns out, “. . . televangelism does not compete as much as it subverts the local church.” Televangelism has shaped the way people think about their faith, what they expect when they come to church on Sunday, and what worship actually is. People may criticize televangelism, but we shouldn’t fail to miss how American it is. Which leads to the next point.

The health and wealth gospel is distinctively American. Some historical background is in order here. Schultze points readers’ attention to the fact that America’s first settlers “wanted the kind of religious faith that mirrored their own hopes in the new world and their belief in the ability of individuals to be successful.” Simply put, Americans wanted their religion like they wanted their government: by the people and for the people.[1] Couple this with the fact that New Thought metaphysics influenced some early American preachers and one can see where the idea of God as a personal genie began to garner favor with people.[2]

For many in America, then, faith is a force to get you what you want. Further, God is seen as your life coach who exists to help you achieve your dreams. To use Michael Horton’s image, God is seen as the supporting actor in our own life movie.[3] Likewise, within televangelism faith is envisioned as a means to personal gain. TV preacher Kenneth Copeland goes so far as to say that Christians have a right to live free from sickness and disease. For these reasons, Schultze declares that the prosperity gospel has been most successful in the U. S. by far. How could it not? It confirms what we already want.

Televangelism has not produced many conversions. Schultze deals with this in his chapter entitled “The Evangelistic Myth.” He begins by noting that televangelists exaggerate everything, whether it be how many people attend their conferences, how much money they’ve raised, and even how many people have prayed to receive Christ through their ministry efforts. Televangelists are not reaching the masses. In truth, they only reach people in America who already agree with them. As Schultze puts it, they don’t reach people with the gospel; they reach potential donors.

Schultze writes, “Of 40,000 church related Christians, .01% attend church because of mass evangelism.” He continues, “Not one major study has found statistical support for the power of televangelism . . . Dozens of studies have shown that televangelists preach to the faithful, not the faithless.”

This should lead Christians to consider how much financial support they give to TV ministries. Neither Schultze nor I am saying that every preacher on TV is bad. It’s simply to say that we must be discerning. Let’s be aware of how popular Christianity has shaped our understanding of Sunday morning worship; and let’s be aware of how our cultural context influences our interpretation of Scripture.

 

[1] For more on this point, see Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989), 69. Richard Lints helpfully notes, “Theological democracy was conceptually linked with political democracy, and they both became entrenched cultural assumptions.” See his The Fabric of Theology: A Prolegomenon to Evangelical Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 36.

[2] For more on the historical antecedents of the prosperity gospel see David W. Jones and Russell S. Woodbridge, Health, Wealth & Happiness: Has the Prosperity Gospel Overshadowed the Gospel of Christ? (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2011), 25-49.

[3] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 18.

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