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TV evangelists call signals from the same playbook

Reprinted from The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Tuesday, Nov. 18 2003
by Bill Smith and Carolyn Tuft

The end of the 1980s was a bad time for TV preachers.

One moment, men like the PTL Club's Jim Bakker and television's Jimmy Swaggart seemed bigger than life, supermen who had been blessed with an uncanny ability to attract followers and money. The next, they were only men - fragile, flawed, and the butt of barroom jokes and newspaper cartoons.

In many ways, it seemed like the beginning of the end for big-time TV religion. Look, the critics said, the emperors really have no clothes.

But Americans, at least many of them, seem to have forgotten and forgiven. TV's salvation shows are still here, bigger and flashier than ever, thanks to the proliferation of the Internet and the continued spread of satellite and cable TV.

The names may have changed - Juanita Bynum, Kenneth and Gloria
Copeland, Creflo Dollar, Benny Hinn, T.D. Jakes and St. Louis' Joyce Meyer have replaced Bakker, Swaggart and Oral Roberts at the top of the evangelical mountain - but the message remains virtually identical.

Believe with all your heart and soul, they tell the faithful. And give, give, give until you can't give any more.

God, they say, loves a cheerful giver.

In the late 1980s, when the sex and fraud scandals boiled over into America's living rooms, Joyce Meyer's little radio ministry was scarcely a blip on the evangelical radar screen.

Today, Meyer heads a ministry with an annual income fast approaching $100 million a year, and she is among a dozen or so evangelical superstars headlining a revived, and very healthy, industry.

"Wild and wacky theology"

The word-faith, or prosperity, gospel has been dubbed by some critics the "name it and claim it" religion. God wants His people to prosper, evangelists like Meyer maintain. The proof, they say, is in the Bible.

Give and you shall receive; sow and you shall reap.

But critics, from Bible-quoting theologians to groups devoted to preserving the separation of church and state, argue that the theology is simply wrong. At best, they argue, it is an excuse to take advantage of their followers to accrue power and wealth.

Michael Scott Horton, who teaches historical theology at the Westminister Theological Seminary in Escondido, Calif., calls the word-faith, or "seed-faith," message a twisted interpretation of the Bible - a "wild and wacky theology."

"Some of these people are charlatans," Horton said. "Others are honestly dedicated to one of the most abhorrent errors in religious theology.

"I often think of these folks as the religious equivalent to a combination of a National Enquirer ad and professional wrestling. It's part entertainment and very large part scam."

Sociologist William Martin of Rice University said that most people who follow TV religious leaders put so much trust in them that they want them to thrive. Martin is a professor of sociology at the university, specializing in theology.

The preachers' wealth is "confirmation of what they are preaching," Martin said.

Ole Anthony's Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, best-known for working with the national media to uncover questionable activities involving TV evangelists, often resorts to digging through preachers' trash to find incriminating evidence. Anthony said that most of the preachers begin with a "sincere desire to spread the faith. But the pressure of fund raising slowly moves all of them in the direction of a greed-based theology."

Even J. Lee Grady, editor of Charisma & Christian Life magazine, has become alarmed at what he sees as the excesses of some TV preachers in their constant trolling for money. He is most concerned about preachers who guarantee that God will reward followers with new homes, cars or better jobs in exchange for their donations.

Grady's concern is remarkable because his magazine gets most of its advertising from TV preachers.

In the magazine's August issue, Grady wrote a column headlined "Fair Warning," in which he said: "Some charismatic churches in this country are headed for serious trouble."

Grady said he still believes in the principle that Christians who are generous with their money will be blessed, while those who are stingy will want.

"But that doesn't mean you can treat God like a slot machine," Grady said in an interview. "It's not fair for a minister to get up and say, 'If you give tonight, you'll be rich.' ... What if you are living immorally and give an offering? That's not a guarantee that you will be blessed.

"Let's cut out the craziness and manipulation and the shenanigans and the pressure that is rampant right now."

Even Bakker, who spent five years in prison for defrauding Heritage USA investors, says he has had a change of heart about the prosperity gospel.

The same man who once told his PTL co-workers that "God wants you to be rich" now says he made a tragic mistake.

"For years, I helped propagate an impostor, not a true gospel, but another gospel," Bakker said in his 1996 book, "I Was Wrong."

"The prosperity message did not line up with the tenor of the Scripture. My heart was crushed to think that I led so many people astray."

"I am here. It worked"

While Bakker may have changed his beliefs - he now uses the same Bible passages to criticize the prosperity theology that he once used to defend it - many more TV preachers are adamant that the more a Christian gives, the more he will receive.

Meyer spends much of her three-day conferences emphasizing the importance of giving. Her critics, she says, are simply wrong.

"Why would He (God) want all of his people poverty stricken while all of the people that aren't living for God have everything?" Meyer said. "I think it's old religious thinking, and I believe the devil uses it to keep people from wanting to serve God."

In Tampa, TV preacher Rodney Howard-Browne went so far as to tell his flock that if they gave to the building fund for his River at Tampa Bay church, they could expect God to give them a house in return.

"For whatever he sows, it is what he will reap," Howard-Browne said. "People stop reaping because they quit sowing."

Randy White, a TV preacher from the other end of Tampa at the Without Walls International church, told his congregation in September that if they were broke, they should still give to his church.

"If you don't have anything to give, ask the person beside you to borrow $100," White said. "If they don't have it, ask them to give you a blank check. I'm asking everyone to give."

Those who support the ministries say they have seen first-hand the miracles of seed-faith giving.

Rallies and church services are filled with people who say they are living proof of the seed-faith message.

At a recent Sunday morning service in Meyer's Dream Center, Luchae Manning of St. Louis said she was jobless and homeless when she began volunteering at the center. Almost from the moment she began donating 10 percent of her state aid check to the ministry, her life began to change.

She says she now has a GED and her own apartment.

"I have a car," she told those who had crowded into the sanctuary. "And it's not an old, raggedy car.

"I am here. It worked."

Preachers teach each other

Fifteen years have passed since Bakker's Praise the Lord empire turned to dust, the victim of a motel tryst with Jessica Hahn and a criminal conviction of defrauding thousands of investors in his Heritage USA theme park.

Swaggart, too, fell fast and hard, after a rival minister caught him meeting with a prostitute. His guilt-ridden, tear-streaked face still graces mocking Internet Web sites.

Even Roberts, dubbed the father of television evangelism, took fire for claiming that God would "call me home" unless his viewers sent him $8 million, a statement seen by some as a form of evangelical blackmail.

Since then, cooperation among televangelists seems to be growing. They regularly contribute money to each other's ministries and often come together for rallies and conferences.

When one comes up with a new idea for making more money, the others seem to follow.

In September, Meyer stood on stage before 3,000 worshippers at Randy and Paula White's church in Tampa.

Meyer, clearly the biggest name of the three, told the flock that they had to start copying each others' successes. She told them how Paula White, an up-and-coming preacher with a TV show of her own, wanted to pick Meyer's brain to find out how Meyer had become one of the most successful women evangelists.

She said White wanted to ask her: " 'How did you do this? How did you do that? What about this? What about that?' ... She wants to know how I got where I am, because she has a dream and a vision."

Paula White, sitting in a chair on the side of the stage, smiled and nodded.

Days later, the Whites hosted a five-day "Fall Campmeeting" session, a kind of classroom for new preachers. Creflo Dollar, Jesse Duplantis and Robert Kayanja appeared to share their knowledge.

Start-up ministers begin by organizing with the IRS as a tax-exempt religious organization. That allows them to accept tax-free donations, buy and sell products like books and videotapes - mostly free of sales taxes - and keep their financial books closed to the public and the government.

Most set up boards made up of themselves, friends and family members. Some board members are also employees of the ministries.

Next, an upwardly mobile TV evangelist needs to find a way to get on cable television. The cost can be relatively inexpensive, depending on the station. The more and bigger the stations, the bigger the audience. The bigger the audience, the bigger the gifts to support the ministry and the ministers.

Paul and Jan Crouch's Trinity Broadcast Network, home to some of the biggest names in TV evangelism, is considered the top of the Christian TV ladder's rung and a kingmaker, or queenmaker, for television preachers.

The ministers now have added another medium: the Internet.

An Internet check turns up a seemingly endless number of preachers asking for prayers and money. Many of the sites point to their ministry's support of a variety of outreach programs, such as programs for hungry or abandoned children. The sites often show the preacher's TV program 24 hours a day.

Most televangelists release dozens of self-help and religious books and tapes that are available to their followers who send them a set donation.

The newest tool to assure a continuous pipeline of funding allows supporters to make direct monthly deductions from their bank accounts. Ministries tout it as a "more convenient" method of monthly giving.

Many also make use of marketing companies to saturate a certain demographic group with requests for money. Using target lists, the preachers send out mailers and catalogs.

Some send out "free gifts" - small booklets with inspirational messages, blessed cornflower and bottles of holy water - through the mail to woo the recipients to send money to them.

Last month, Meyer began using her Web site to ask followers to send the ministry money for $7 million worth of new TV equipment to help her improve the quality of her show, saying she needs to compete with sports shows and movies on television.

In return, she promised to send out free crystal globes - small, medium and large - depending on whether the follower's gift was $100, $500 or $1,000.

As a result, many of the ministries have enjoyed astonishing success. Of the 17 ministries researched by the Post-Dispatch, six surpass the $100 million-a-year mark.

Attempts to police the industry

Even before the televangelist scandals of the 1980s, many in the business had begun quietly looking for ways to recover their credibility.

A watchdog group called the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was set up in 1979. In 1989, after the scandals, the group began random on-site checks to verify that cooperating ministries were following their standards. The group's goal: to help "Christ-centered organizations earn the public's trust through developing and maintaining standards of accountability that convey God-honoring ethical practices."

The council monitors how much money a preacher raises and how the money is used. The group then provides the financial information free on the Internet.

The problem: Most TV preachers don't participate. Of the 17, including Meyer, surveyed by the Post-Dispatch, only the Rev. Billy Graham's ministry is a member of the group.

The council has said they have received no financial information from any of the rest.

Because internal policing has fallen short, an external watchdog group is trying to fill in. The group - Wall Watchers Ministries - sends out questionnaires to 400 of the largest Christian ministries in the United States. Wall Watchers asks for full financial disclosure of revenue and expenses for each group.

Wall Watchers then grades the religious group for its willingness to share its financial information with the world. Wall Watchers gave Meyer an F, or failing, grade. That's because Meyer's ministry refused to disclose how she raises or spends the $95 million a year her ministry is taking in.

Of the rest of the ministers researched by the Post-Dispatch, five more - Dollar, Hinn, the Copelands, TBN Christian network owners Paul and Jan Crouch, and Kenneth Hagin - got an F grade from Wall Watchers. The 11 others were not listed as ministries researched by Wall Watchers.

Last month, Wall Watchers called on the IRS and Congress to investigate the finances of Meyer and other TV preachers, specifically mentioning the ones who got failing grades.

"Such a high level of profitability is appalling for a ministry," said Wall Watchers founder Rusty Leonard. "However you slice it, what they're doing is wrong.

"If a ministry or person is going to solicit money by invoking the name of Jesus Christ, they should certainly be completely open with their finances."

Tom Winters, Meyer's lawyer from Tulsa, Okla., said that everything Meyer's ministry has done is legal. Meyer herself says only that the ministry has no obligation to release specific financial information.

Graham is the only TV evangelists to get an A grade from Wall Watchers. Graham's ministry, in fact, helped form the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. His records, available on the groups' Web sites, show that Graham took in $117.8 million in 2001, the latest year for which the information is available.

In 2000, Graham got $197,911 in salary, benefits and an expense account for his work as chairman of the ministry, according to the latest figures available from the organization.

Nearly every TV preacher talks about aspiring to be like Graham. Yet, most evangelists operate differently.

The most obvious difference: Graham has an independent board that votes on what his ministry can do.

To theologian Horton, the difference is that most TV preachers today have only one goal in mind: to personally prosper.

"With the exception of Billy Graham, it is hard to see any of the televangelists who are not personally flourishing today," Horton said.

Sociologist William Martin at Rice University sees little changing in the way that television evangelists do business, at least in the near future.

TV preachers will continue to prosper, he said, and journalists will continue to report their excesses. And their supporters, Martin said, will continue to "chalk it up to a liberal media controlled by Satan."

Reporter Carolyn Tuft
Phone: 314-340-8105

Reporter Bill Smith
Phone: 314-340-8125

More information is available at St. Louis Post Dispatch's index of Joyce Meyer articles.

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