Quentin J. Schultze, Televangelism and American Culture: The Business of Popular Religion (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991), 265 pp., cloth, $16.99.
Television is the central metaphor of American culture at the end of the twentieth century. Americans — never endowed with much historical perspective — intuitively divide human history into two great epochs; that ancient and quaint period before the new world order of the media age. Americans born after 1955 cannot imagine life without television. The electronic media shape every dimension of private and public life. If political rhetoric I has been transformed by the television culture, so has family discourse. Americans now talk, listen, see, understand, and even relate in an electronic media mode.
Quentin Schultze takes this one step further: Americans, he suggests, now worship in an electronic mode. Through the televangelists — and even more, through the influence of televangelism on the local church — worship and ministry have been transformed.
Schultze teaches communication arts and sciences at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan and is recognized as one of the nation’s foremost experts on the televangelists. Televangelism and American Culture is his analysis of contemporary televangelism and its impact on American churches and American culture. The book is not a tabloid expose of fallen or falling televangelists. It is a thoughtful and fascinating consideration of the role of televangelism in the church and the central shaping role the televangelists now exercise.
Schultze sets his charge forth clearly: The televangelists “are helping to transform American Christianity from a church into a business, from an historic faith into a popular religion based at least in part on superstition.” The televangelists are, he asserts, “probably the most characteristic and remunerative expression of American religion.”
Who are the televangelists? Schultze does not offer a tabloid-style roster of fallen or falling evangelists, but he does deal with the televangelists by name as they arise in connection with specific issues. Furthermore, he distinguishes between televangelism and the much broader context of religious broadcasting.
The televangelists, he stipulates, include those major TV ministries which are audience-supported, personality-led, experientially validated, technologically sophisticated, entertainment-oriented, and expansionary-minded. Television ministries are the central concern of these organizations, though some prominent televangelists are congregationally-based pastors such as Charles Stanley, D. James Kennedy, and Lloyd John Ogilvie.
Televangelism is the unique result of the combination of American ingenuity, revivalist innovation, and technological opportunity. While the mainline churches were willing to settle for the public service access offered by the major networks and their local affiliates, the televangelists were determined to become the Masters of the Medium, buying air time and building vast media empires. By the 1980s, they were known by almost every television viewer. The mainliners could scoff — but they were forced to take notice.
More importantly, insists Schultze, the televangelists have become one of the most influential factors in the life of the local church. The televangelists have changed the way American Christians understand worship, preaching, ministry, and faith.
The secular media have taken notice, but their interest has concentrated on the torrid tales surrounding the exposure of corrupt, greedy, and lecherous figures in the televangelism scandals of the 1980s. But the story is much larger — and more important — than the lusts and legacy of Jimmy Swaggart or Jim and Tammy Bakker.
Televangelism, Schultze suggests, “reflects the American preoccupation with stardom and celebrity status.” The TV ministries are built around the carefully crafted personae of the media preachers. “Without the coloration of specific personalities, televangelism would soon collapse under the weight of the marketplace.” This monocular focus on the central personality of the preacher — raised to the level of a cultural celebrity — is a distortion of the church and the role of the minister.
Furthermore, it puts an unhealthy, if not deadly, focus on one individual who combines media savvy, entertainment quality, authoritative gravity, and popular appeal. The average church member has been influenced by the model of the televangelists he or she has observed on the screen, and assumes that the minister at First Church should look, sound, act, dress, and present himself as the televangelists. Whether they do so consciously, many local church pastors attempt to meet these expectations.
“Television,” Schultze indicates, “is a distinct medium that communicates very differently from both the printed and the spoken word. It is clearly the most powerful mass medium for establishing personality cults.”
But the televangelist faith is also experientially validated. The faith presented on the screen is devoid of tradition, creed, and confession. It is centered on individual experience as the only meaningful realm of existence. As Schultze comments, “televangelism is a modern manifestation of America’s self-help tradition.”
The central role of entertainment also marks televangelist religion. The evangelists are accompanied by gigantic choirs with orchestras or skilled ensembles which emulate the latest musical styles. The televangelists themselves are skilled entertainers with the ability to be “a talk-show host, a variety-show emcee and, above all, a performer.” Local church preachers who are unaware of the influence of the televangelist preachers-as-performers lack one of the central ingredients of modern congregational reality.
The expectations of the congregation concerning the nature of the preaching event and the content of Christian worship have been shaped by the observation of the televangelists’ “shows” and “programs.” Americans consider their television viewing time as leisure time, so “televangelists who try to use the tube to evangelize find that their audiences expect to be playfully entertained.” So do a frightening number of congregations.
Schultze roots part of the problem in the televangelist’s naive faith in technology. That faith even finds its way into the televangelists’ rhetoric. Americans are prone to overestimate the power of television to accomplish certain purposes and to communicate certain types of knowledge with effectiveness. Schultze demonstrates that television is generally a poor medium for evangelization.
Relatively few persons come to faith in Jesus Christ through watching the broadcasts of the televangelists. The research is undeniable; the televangelists “preach to the faithful, not the faithless.” Schultze does not deny that television can reach some persons with the gospel, but he insists that “television religion has been a dismal failure at evangelizing non-believers.”
Schultze also considers the communication distinctives which have made the televangelists so effective. The “magic of televised personality” is combined with television’s uniquely false sense of intimacy and a powerful form of rhetoric.
Schultze contrasts “northern” modes of discourse which favor rationality and unemotional sermons with “southern” styles based in oral culture, story-telling, and an emotional connection between the speaker and the audience. This, Schultze explains, is the reason that so many of the prominent televangelists are based in the sun-belt.
Some televangelists, he suggests, combine elements from both traditions. Chief among these is Charles Stanley, pastor of Atlanta’s First Baptist Church as well as the founder and preacher of “In Touch Ministries.”
Stanley, according to Schultze, “is practical but propositional, emotional but level-headed, persuasive but biblical, discursive but narrational.” His “meteoric rise” among the televangelists in the late 1980s was, the author argues, due to his effective blending of these traditions, enabling him to appeal to “viewers nearly across the spectrum of American society.”
Clearly, Schultze is not a radical critic who suggests the abolition of televangelism in America (as if such was a possibility). Instead, he is interested in the reciprocal relationship between televangelism and American culture. He understands the limits of the medium.
Televangelism is hostile to serious theology. It often trivializes and contorts genuine faith. As Schultze argues, “Much of contemporary televangelism is little more than a potpourri of powerful images and emotional words designed to attract and hold viewers. It usually does not teach very effectively.”
Beyond this, the medium is particularly susceptible to the most virulent forms of the health-and-wealth gospel. This Schultze terms “the new sorcery,” and it is this which prompted his warning that televangelist faith is often little more than superstition. Studies have shown that health-related concerns dominate many televangelism broadcasts. “Generally speaking, then, televangelists serve the same social function as nonreligious television programs by confirming Americans’ fundamental belief about themselves and their culture.”
Schultze also considers the role money plays in televangelism. As he suggests, televangelism is the most remunerative form of organized religion. Given the titantic expense of broadcast air time and the overhead required for expensive production, the televangelists are forced to become direct mail hucksters. Televangelism, Schultze asserts, “is increasingly based on the techniques of modern marketing. As a result, televangelism ‘greens’ the gospel by associating it with pecuniary values and financial objectives.”
Some of the TV preachers come close to charlatanism. Others have structures which require accountability. There is a stark contrast between the lack of accountability in many independent ministries and the structures which require financial integrity in true congregationally-based ministries.
The distinction between, for example, Jimmy Swaggart and Charles Stanley is a difference of kind, not merely of degree. Stanley, joined by Kennedy, Ogilvie, Adrian Rogers, and Richard Jackson, is accountable to a local congregation. His ministry is supported by, as Schultze indicates, “unsolicited small contributions from grateful viewers.”
What has all this to do with the preacher and the local church? Schultze is at his best when he demonstrates the extent to which the televangelists have shaped the expectations modern Americans bring to church. This is clearly seen in matters of worship style, pulpit presentation, and “entertainment value.” But televangelism has also influenced the content of the gospel preached in many non-televised churches. The growing influence of the health and wealth gospel in evangelical churches, the aggressive growth of self-fulfillment programs and concerns, and the reduction of doctrinal content in favor of privativistic concerns — all this has been fostered and fed by the televangelists.
Preachers will find Televangelism and American Culture a fascinating investigation of the interaction between the TV ministries, American culture, and American churches. The preaching task has been redefined in many contexts of televangelist influence. Where (happily) it has not been redefined, it has been altered by congregational expectations. Preachers will find encouragement to develop optimal communication skills for reaching hearers whose listening modes have been transformed by television. But they will also find renewed determination to make the medium serve the message — and not vice versa.

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