Every month or so two of them appear on my doorstep, pamphlets in hand, asking for my time and suggesting I read articles with titles like “The Truth about Halloween.” Because the walk to my front door passes right by the dining room window, and because I spend much of my workday on the comfy red chair in front of that window, it’s easy for them to spot me inside. To avoid talking to them I’ve taken to scurrying into the kitchen as soon as I see the first pair of white shirts and black pants. (Once I accidentally hid from a florist.)
I’m curious about their conversion rates—does anyone make a major faith decision while standing on their front porch with a stranger? Conventional wisdom says organizations won’t invest in an activity unless there’s a payoff. If you follow this reasoning, it means telemarketing companies wouldn’t interrupt my dinner, email spammers wouldn’t message me about miracle diets, and the Witnesses wouldn’t send their people to my door unless some percentage of the population responded.
This fascinates me. Who are these people? I pondered the question again after spending two days singing backup for Larnelle Harris at Trinity Broadcasting Network’s Nashville studios. Who gave all this money that paid for mirrored rooms, bronze fixtures and velvet-covered chairs? Who is shopping at the “Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh” gift shop? Who’s saying to themselves, “Wonder what’s on TV? Ooh! Paul Crouch!!”
The donors are a mystery, but the recipients are known around the world. Joel Osteen, of course, is one of the most popular. Looking like a Ken doll’s brunette brother, Osteen gave up his $200,000 a year salary after his book “Your Best Life Now” took off in 2004. According to an article in the Miami Herald, “Two years later, he landed a reported $10 million deal for ‘FaithWords’ and went on to write ‘Become a Better You,’ ‘It’s Your Time’ and ‘Every Day A Friday.’”
Or there’s Mark Barclay, leader of Mark Barclay Ministries, who asked followers for $79,000 to repaint his luxury jet. He implies gifts to his cause are an investment in the donors’ own future blessings, and like many of his peers Barclay also uses Pentecostal clichés to share the message (“We are still believing God to finish the project and we thank you for agreeing with us in prayer,” said a representative asked about the fundraising efforts).
Joyce Meyer is another fun one; in recent years both the St. Louis Post Dispatch and the United States Senate have looked into her income and her property, which includes several homes, a corporate plane, and a “marble-topped antique commode.” I’ll refrain—insert your own joke here.
Show me the ministry
All of which would be fine if these guys and gals were doing exceptional ministry. I’m sure some of the big guns in our own movement are also making at least a couple hundred grand each year, plus book royalties. But most of them are also living relatively modestly, preparing thoughtful sermons, and working more hours than we realize to serve their churches.
Pat Robertson, on the other hand, recently encouraged a wife to forgive her cheating husband and to “make the home so wonderful he doesn’t want to wander.” Benny Hinn has (falsely) predicted the end of the world twice, says that God is nine persons instead of a Trinity and regularly solicits donations for his $36 million dollar jet. (Can’t these folks get one plane and share it?) Oral Roberts claimed to see visions from a 900-foot-tall Jesus and later said God would “call him home” unless viewers donated at least $8 million. Eddie Long was accused by several men of coercing them into sexual relationships, Creflo Dollar was accused of assaulting his daughter, and Jan Crouch spent $100,000 on a mobile home for her dogs.
And our friend Osteen, whose name really should be verbed, continues to bring his life-coach message of empowerment and inspiration to the masses. God seems peripheral to the conversation; during Osteen’s appearance in Miami, the Herald reports, a woman gushed, “I’m not a Christian but I follow your message and it changed my life.”
What’s that doing for you?
I once worked with a therapist who often asked, when I complained about my inability to stop worrying or let go of the past, “What’s that doing for you?” We don’t do or think anything, she said, even things that seem unpleasant or self-destructive, unless they’re meeting some need. I discovered that my reluctance to move away from obsessive thinking about a problem or relationship reflected a deeply-held conviction that if I worried it long enough, thought about it from every angle and rehashed it again and again, I could find some new solution that had eluded me. I didn’t want to be anxious, but I wanted to find real peace less than I wanted to keep some illusion of control.
This is the true problem with televangelists in our culture—not that they exist, but that their existence is doing something for us. A substantial group of people is meeting some need—for hope, for belonging, for an emotional high—by tuning in and paying up. Like the telemarketers and the spammers, televangelists succeed because people want what they’re selling.
Of course, people like to Osteen the gospel (See? It works!) because it’s easier to believe every day can be a Friday than to accept that some days are difficult Mondays. Or, as one of my friends puts it, it’s easier to think of Christianity as a cruise ship instead of realizing it’s a disciple-ship and going onboard means grabbing a mop. The Gospel message, like so much of our faith, is paradoxical, promising both great joy and great suffering. Joy is infinitely more marketable.
But that doesn’t mean we dumb it down. My teenage stepdaughter Nina loves mindless TV like Two and a Half Men. I cannot talk her out of this, partly because even the stupidest sitcoms have moments of funny and mostly because I am a parental figure and therefore wrong. Instead, Matt and I introduce her to better stuff: Arrested Development, The Twilight Zone, The Godfather. Instead of persuading Nina that her preferences are immature, we intentionally expose her to more complex ideas and higher-quality experiences. Same TV, same snacks, but very different conversations.
The analogy isn’t perfect, but you see where I’m going. Instead of trying to rid the world of these TV preachers, instead of railing against their inadequacy or immorality, perhaps we should work harder at sharing the far-superior truth of the entire Story. Whatever need the televangelists are meeting, Christ can always fulfill it more completely.
Some people will always choose the prosperity sound bite, just as some will believe unsolicited emails from strangers can cure their arthritis and make them millions. But if nothing else, the televangelist phenomenon reminds us we still live in a culture eager to experience faith. Now it’s time to connect these people with the eternal King on a heavenly throne so they’re no longer paying for Joyce Meyer’s marble one.
Sorry, I couldn’t resist.