A while back, I read about an interesting experiment on PhilCooke.com.
Worried about the real motivation of TV evangelists, Mary Hutchinson, a veteran in direct mail and fundraising, tested several TV ministries by sending them $20 and a letter asking how to accept Christ.
“After 45 days, I had heard from more than 95% of them,” she wrote to Cooke. “But sadly, less than 25% addressed my question about salvation in a direct, easy to understand manner. If we are really about evangelism, how could this be?”
Reading about Hutchinson’s experiment reminded me of my own exercise this fall: watching 3 hours of primetime programming a night on Trinity Broadcasting Network for a full week. I wanted to get a first-person understanding of what TBN’s all about. Like Hutchinson, I certainly witnessed that money is indeed important to the several TV evangelists who’d supplement their televised sermons with hard sales pitches for their books, CDs, or DVDs. Hey, I understand needing to raise funds and wanting to get your message out, but these sales pitches were often just the tip of the iceberg when it came to mixing money and ministry.
While I’ve long heard claims of prosperity gospel teaching on TBN, I saw it confirmed in my week of watching. Many pastors paying to air their programs on TBN taught that God provides blessings—in the form of material and money—to those he favors.
One pastor on Benny Hinn’s program suggested I’d get a special “financial anointing” if I bought a specific Bible he’d printed. Joel Osteen disputed claims that he’s a prosperity minister—but declared he also isn’t a “poverty minister.” (I think Paul was one of those. And Jesus, too.) Other shows, like Creating Your World with Dr. Mark Chironna, weren’t clearly about seeking riches, but instead focused on using faith to be successful—sort of a Bible-based motivational self-help speech.
What I found most troubling was the message that God would look more favorably on me—and maybe love me more?—if I did certain things. On an episode of Behind the Scenes, TBN co-founder Paul Crouch led a study of John 15:1-10. He said that unanswered prayers are a result of not bearing fruit for the Lord. “I have an easy way for you to be a fruit bearer,” he said. “Pick up your phone” and give to TBN. His wife, Jan, added that God “will meet every need you have.” In other words: God is not answering your prayers because you need to do something. And that something is donating to TBN.
I heard this message at the wrong time. During my week of TBN watching, I was coincidentally going through a tough time of personal loss—a time where it was clear that weeks of desperate prayers had not been answered the way I wanted. And so, hearing it suggested that my prayers would be answered if I’d only given money to TBN, or done anything, burnt deep. My prayers go unanswered because I haven’t done enough for God? God will not bless me if I don’t pray enough, give enough or do enough?
That’s not the God I know. In fact, doesn’t this sound a lot like the argument that suffering and blessing fall differently on the righteous and unrighteous made by Job’s misguided friends?
One of the tough parts of my TBN watching was knowing what to believe out of the mouths of these fellow Christians. I was getting a lot of information and interpretation, but could I trust the source? After all, when a host equates her excitement for the second coming with her excitement for DVD she was selling, I can’t help but question authenticity and sincerity. And so, I forced myself to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21) as I watched. I worry some TBN viewers are not as discerning.
I am happy to report, though, that my fifteen hour TBN experiment ended on a good note. On an episode of Praise the Lord, Paul Jr. started the show by saying, self-knowingly, “Tonight, I’m not offering any CDs or DVDs, but just talking about a man, Christ Jesus.”