The Electric Church Turns On
THE preacher wears no black robes. Instead, he glistens in a three-piece white polyester suit. He presides over no altar, but roams over the multilevel stage of his television “cathedral,” bathed in klieg lights. Polished to a mirror finish, with every step outlined in flashing lights, and numerous backdrops constantly changing the scene, the stage itself seems to be the star of the show.
It is time for prayer, but this is no ordinary prayer. The preacher pauses before a table full of letters from his “prayer-key family” and settles down on one knee before the table, hands reverently clasped together. His freshly scrubbed choir takes its place, forming a semicircle behind him. As the preacher prays, the choir hums along, the lips of each member just caressing a microphone, nightclub-style.
At the close of the prayer the scene dissolves to a videotaped commercial plugging the preacher’s “prayer-key family.” It is very professionally done. An elderly woman, obviously devout and lonely, is shown writing the preacher a letter. In the voice-over she tells how her loneliness, and most of her other problems, have vanished since joining the “prayer-key family.”
Now we return to the preacher, just in time for his sermon. There is no Bible-waving. The sermon is “cool,” in TV jargon, which means the preacher is talking to you as he would if he were in your living room. Again and again he makes the same point. If you want your prayers to be answered you must join his “prayer-key family.” Where does the key fit in? “Prayer is the key,” he earnestly intones, “that unlocks the bank of heaven.”
This is one example of the attention-grabbing phenomenon in American religion—the Electric Church. Its newly attained sophistication and popularity are sending religious and political shocks through the United States. Its brightest stars are taking in more money than most large American denominations. Who are they? Where did they come from? What do they stand for?
The Electric Church consists of TV preachers who buy their own air time and use it to get contributions with which they buy more air time, and so on. Of course, most TV stations are leery of selling time to a preacher who is only going to dun their viewers, so the preachers have elaborate ways of avoiding the appearance of asking for funds over the air.
What are some of these? They encourage their viewers to write in for a free pin or “prayer key,” at which point the viewers are put on a computerized mailing list, and then the hard sell begins. Or they offer a televised “counseling service,” and those who call for help are later contacted by mail. Computerized mailing has made the Electric Church a very profitable business. How profitable? Here are some typical figures:
Oral Roberts, former Pentecostal faith-healer, now somewhat toned down as a Methodist, $60,000,000 a year.
Jerry Falwell, Lynchburg, Virginia, Baptist with a strong political message, over $50,000,000 a year.
Pat Robertson started the first popular religious guest interview show and now has his own network broadcasting from his new $20,000,000 headquarters. His Christian Broadcasting Network took in $70,000,000 last year.
Jim Bakker, formerly associated with Robertson, has started his own guest show, and his network grosses $53,000,000 a year.
Rex Humbard, with his “Cathedral of Tomorrow” and its spectacular stage, takes in $25,000,000 or so.
The list goes on and on. All told, the top start of the Electric Church are able to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to buy air time every year. Where do they get it?
Most of the people who watch the Electric Church are not rich. Benjamin L. Armstrong, who coined the term “Electric Church,” explains: “As part of the Electric Church concept, the listener is conditioned to give.” Most of those millions of dollars come to the Electric Preachers $25 or $50 at a time. Jerry Falwell, for example, may get 10,000 letters in a typical day’s mail, over half of which contain contributions.
A prisoner in Pontiac, Michigan, was surprised to receive a computer-written request for $35. Why? He says: “The machine-printed note explained that a friend of mine, who wished to remain nameless, had . . . requested that a special prayer be said in my behalf on the air . . . The prayer had been said, but my friend had not responded to the subsequent required ‘donation card’ that had been mailed. Would I be kind enough to send a check?”
Sometimes the pitch for money is more subtle. “I saw a television show the other day that epitomized my fears about paid religious broadcasts,” said one observer. “The preacher put two phone numbers on the screen during the program. One was a toll-free number for those viewers who wanted to make contributions, and the number for people who wanted counseling was not toll-free.”
Why the constant demand for money?
One reason is that the Electric Church has been made possible by a great deal of very expensive technology. Most religious broadcasters could never compete with regular network programming for the America mass audience. When a religious program comes on TV, most people, bluntly put, turn it off. The problem for the Electric Church is: How can they reach the dedicated minority of viewers who want to watch religious programs?
The answer? “Revolutions in satellite technology, breakthroughs in computer applications, and the advent of cable TV systems and new over-the-air stations are turning the U.S. into a global village and making it economical to ‘narrowcast’ to a relative handful of supporters,” as Forbes magazine points out. “So what if not everyone wants to watch a religious program? . . . TV, like magazines, can now cater to specialized audiences.”
The result is a different economics for the Electric Church. The viewers do not support these programs indirectly by purchasing soap flakes that have been advertised on the show. Instead, they must support the programs directly with their contributions. Soliciting and maintaining those contributions has become a massive computerized operation for most of the stars of the Electric Church. The computer is as vital to the Electric Church as the television tube.
The need constantly to raise money traps Electric Preachers in a boom-or-bust cycle. Big projects, like “cathedrals” or universities or hospitals, are started, followed by desperate pleas to the faithful for more money to “finish God’s work.” As a local banker said of one Electric Church superstar: “There’s only one problem with a ministry like Jerry’s. He can’t stop raising money; if he does, it all falls apart.”
This aspect of the Electric Church may remind thinking Christians of Jesus’ words found in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus pointedly said, “No one can slave for two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will stick to the one and despise the other. You cannot slave for God and for Riches.”—Matt. 6:24.
With the preachers of the Electric Church constantly in need of vast contributions from their viewers, is it likely that they will risk offending those viewers? Hardly. The theology of the Electric Church, not surprisingly, is simplistic and self-gratifying. “Ask not what you can do for your religion; ask rather what your religion can do for you,” as Forbes put it.
Even some sympathetic to the Electric Church admit that it has little content. As evangelical theologian Carl F. Henry observes: “Much television religion is too experience-centered, too doctrinally thin, to provide an adequate alternative to modern religious and moral confusion.” In other words, TV religion cannot really help you to solve life’s problems.
Instead, as Harvard divinity professor Harvey Cox notes, the preachers of the Electric Church “are merely perpetuating and deepening the values of a materialistic consumer culture. They are helping people to accept some very shallow values, while promising easy salvation in the most commercial setting.”
How does that message square with Jesus’ warning that the road to life is not easy, but difficult—“narrow is the gate and cramped the road leading off into life, and few are the ones finding it”? (Matt. 7:14) Does that sound as though eternal life can be yours merely by dialing Channel 21?
Consider this further admonition from Jesus Christ: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross [torture stake, New World Translation] daily, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23, Authorized Version) Does a person deny himself and take up his “cross” daily propped in front of the TV? Could Jesus Christ really approve of a religion that promises people easy salvation—no torture stake, no self-denial—for just a monthly check to somebody’s “worldwide TV ministry”?
Rather, it looks as if the Electric Church is a 20th-century example of what the apostle Paul warned Timothy about when he said: “For there will be a period of time when they will not put up with the healthful teaching, but, in accord with their own desires, they will accumulate teachers for themselves to have their ears tickled; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, whereas they will be turned aside to false stories.”—2 Tim. 4:3, 4.
Why are people willing to give millions of dollars to support the Electric Church? Because they are being told what they want to hear. They are assured that God will answer their prayers. They do not have to deny themselves or ‘bear a cross’ or do the work Christ did, but they are “saved” and God loves them—just as long as they keep those checks coming in.
However, even if the theology of the Electric Church is vague and imprecise, its politics are clear and specific. That is the subject of the following article.
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The theology of the electric church is simplistic and self-gratifying
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Even some sympathetic to the electric church admit that it has little content
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“They are helping people accept some very shallow values, while promising easy salvation in the most commercial setting”