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