By Lewis Willis
Folks, it is evident that much of our society has lost or willfully abandoned the ability to be ashamed. It appears that people will do almost anything these days and never perceive that such is a shame to themselves. Who among us has not been repulsed at the flaunting by gays and lesbians of their shameful godlessness? We cringe in horror when some terrorist organization “takes credit” for a car bomb that kills several people and injures dozens more. We find it incomprehensible that a movie or television star will perform in some of the filth that is offered to the public as entertainment. Thirty years ago these things were a disgrace to all who were involved and we wonder how public attitudes could change so quickly. Instead of being ashamed, these people seem to rejoice in these deeds.
It should not surprise us that religion has been affected by this same shamelessness. Nor should it surprise us that such is not new in religious life. When Paul wrote to the Philippians he said, “For many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things” (Phil. 3:18-19). In Paul’s day there were those who found delight as they did things of which they should have been ashamed. They did not know when to blush because of sins they had committed! Well, folks, time has not changed this situation. Religionists still do shameful things but they rejoice over them instead of being ashamed.
There is no better illustration of this than the brazen, shameless, unabashed fund raising techniques of the modern-day television preachers. The purpose of this article is to chronicle some of the schemes these men are using to raise money in hopes that the information might be useful to the reader.
Due to the crunch of these economic times, almost all owners and managers of business have become familiar with the expression “Crisis Management.” Basically, this signifies managing a business in the midst of a crisis due to declining sales, while production and labor costs remain high. It is the business of surviving until times get better. The modern television preacher has learned “Crisis Management” but in reverse. It seems they always “Manage To Have A Crisis!” They have learned that contributions come in better if they are beating the airwaves with emotional appeals about how the Devil is trying to destroy them and the “Work of God.” This just cannot be allowed to happen and the money must flow in or the listeners will be letting God down. For instance, according to a report in the Akron Beacon Journal (2-8-83), Rex Humbard, told his audience that his ministry was $3.2 million in debt. He said, “I’m facing a financial lion – bills that are trying to devour this ministry. Like Daniel, I need a miracle of deliverance. I don’t have the money to pay these bills.” His ploy worked because his listeners responded with $4 million! And, the whole country has heard about Oral Roberts’ recent “crisis.” God was going to “take him home” if he failed to raise $8 million by March, 1987 to prepare medical missionaries to be sent to needy nations. The money flowed in. According to reports in the media Roberts stooped to an all-time low with his emtional appeal that people send in money and help him live a little longer! Some stations, like WFAA-TV in Dallas, became so incensed that they cancelled his program. However, Oral used the cancellation for further appeals for help, charging that this was just the work of the Devil and his listeners had to fight back – by sending in their money, of course! Oral was not the least bit ashamed of his financial promotion.
Apparently, there is no shame left in the hearts of these men. They will use any means they can get by with to promote their enterprises. One of their favorites is to tell their audiences I that God told me” to proceed in this way to fund the work “that He told me to do.” The preacher who is flying high these days is Jimmy Swaggart. Newsweek magazine has dubbed him the “King of Honky-Tonk Heaven” (5-30-83). Newsweek (4&87) reported that he raised $142 million in 1986 – almost $3 million per week. But I remember him before he became “King.” when his ministry was just “catching on,” he needed more space for the operation, so he made an appeal for funds. In a pathetic appeal he told his audience how God was blessing his ministry and how it was growing and souls were being saved by the thousands. He needed more room but his accountants told him he did not have the money to expand. Not knowing how much the expansion would cost, he got an architect to draw up a plan and tell him how much it would cost. It happened that it would cost $50 per square foot to build the new facility and he didn’t have the money. So, he told his audience, he took the matter up with God and God told him to ask his audience to buy I square foot and send in a gift of $50. His audience responded and the building was built. It is nothing short of amazing how God instructs these men on their fund raising schemes! God always has the answer and the listener is to obey God or blaspheme against Him!
Merchandising The Audience
In an attempt to “help the listener” so that he does not disobey God, these men tell exactly how the audience can do what God wants them to do. It is not uncommon for 25-50 percent of their air time to be used in raising funds. Some might use the entire broadcast for fund raising. Also, when they have manufactured some special crisis, they frequently have telethons which are fashioned after the Jerry Lewis telethons. These often go on for- days. They form “clubs” of their contributors (such as the 700 Club, PTL Club, Ninety and Nine Club) and these are usually for their top contributors. Frequently the names of these club members are prominently inscribed at some special place in their headquarters. There is “pressure” imposed on the audience to be a part of this elite group.
These ministries are almost always selling something (Bibles, tapes of special lectures, albums, books by the evangelist, etc.) Robert I. Ableman and Kimberly A. Neuendorf, Professors at Cleveland State University, conducted a study a few years ago and a part of their work examined the fund raising techniques of TV preachers. They discovered that the average faithful viewer of religious broadcasting watches for two hours per day. During that two hours, counting the promotions to buy some item or join some prayer partners group or the like, these viewers are asked to send in “more than $138,000 in a year” (Cleveland Plain Dealer, 7/18/84). These are through appeals with a dollar amount stated – not just “send us all the money you can.”
All the while, they remind people of how terrible it is to refuse to obey God by not giving as God wants them to. They also promise great and wonderful blessings, spiritual and financial, will come to those who do God’s Will and give. Usually, they have some guest tell how he reluctantly gave on some occasion and God doubled or tripled the amount of his contribution in a direct, miraculous and wonderful way. I heard Kenneth Copeland on an Oral Roberts broadcast tell how he had surprised his wife by announcing he had committed to make a “seed offering” to Oral’s ministry at a time when they were unable to live with comfort. Copeland pointed out that shortly after making the commitment, to his surprise, someone gave him twice the amount that he had offered to give. It was something like $10.00 a month and he received $20.00. His faith must not have been very strong at that time or he might have offered to give $1 million to Oral and God would have given him $2 million! That is the implication of this tactic these men use.
Almost all have had some Bible publishing company produce some special memorial or ministry edition which they “give” to their contributors “free of charge.” Jimmy Swaggart is currently promoting “the genuine Jimmy Swaggart Study Bible” (The Evangelist, The Voice Of The Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, Vol. 19, No. 2). The Bible is sent after 46 your fifth monthly pledge of $20.00 or any payments made towards your World Outreach Partner Pledge totaling $100.00.” The Professors mentioned above discovered that “the average cost of a Bible sold by television evangelists is $192.00.” They sell albums of the songs they’ve recorded for $25.00 or so each. These can be bought at a record store for $5.00 or $6.00 and a profit is made on them at that price by all who are involved in the enterprise.
Outlandish Promotions And Claims Sometime ago Jim Bakker built a “world-class” hotel at Heritage U.S.A. It is a monstrous thing. He has 11 acres under roof. And, it is a multi-story facility! For a gift of $1,000 you get a life-time membership which entitles you to stay 4 days and 3 nights free each year. Through such promotions, Bakker has developed the Heritage U.S.A. complex that Oral Roberts called a “Christian Disneyland” (The Richard Roberts Show, 3-24-87), “valued at about $160 million” (Detroit Free Press, 3-21-87).
Probably the most dramatic fund raiser is Oral Roberts. If the audience is to believe him, God is constantly talking to him. He has seen visions of all kinds of things which have been revealed to him, “by the Lord” of course. One of his better known visions was a 900 foot Jesus standing over his City of Faith Medical Center back in 1980. In 1983 he had a 7-hour talk with Jesus in which the Lord assured him that he was the one selected to find the cure for cancer,. and his followers were to send in money to pay for this undertaking. In 1986 he was told by God to raise $8 million dollars to send medical missionaries from his hospital into needy nations. If he failed to raise the money by March, 1987, he said God would “call him home.” Well, he played this successfully and raised the money. After the $8 million was raised, with several days left in March, he ascended his “Prayer Tower” to work on the “overflow.” He then made the startling announcement that he needed that much more every year!
He had said he confidently expected “a miracle from God” which would enable him to live longer. I am certain you have heard that he was able to go over his target amount when Jerry Collins, who owns two greyhound racing tracks, gave him a check for $1.3 million. I must have missed something somewhere. If this was a miracle from God, I guess God has gone into the gambling business I Interestingly, while Oral was under his death threat from God, his son, Richard, moved into “a new 7,091-square-foot house” (Akron Beacon Journal, 3-14-87). This was done before the money had been raised! If I am ever under such a death threat from God, I hope my son will hold off buying his new house until at least I have my hands on the money! With these types of fund raising techniques Oral has amassed a religious empire in Tulsa, Oklahoma which is said to be worth $500 million (Ibid.).
Getting Rich At Audience Expense
The shameless part of all of this unending clamor for money by the TV preachers is the way in which they have become rich at the expense of their audiences. Keep in mind that most of their contributors send in gifts of $5, $10 or $15. During the time that Rex Humbard’s ministry was in such desperate circumstances, he and his sons were amassing a fortune in real estate. County tax records indicate that Rex owned a house worth $450,000 and his son owned one that cost $350,000. An Akron Beacon Journal article (2-8-83) stated, “While Humbard’s Worldwide Outreach Ministry has solicited money from the public to solve financial problems, Humbard and his two sons, Rex, Jr., 39, and Donald, 35, have purchased $1. 4 million in property in the exclusive Quail Ridge Country Club community, Palm Beach County property records show” (my emp., LW).
The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer (5-29-83) printed a long article about the excesses of Jim Bakker. Since 198 1, he and Heritage Village Church and Missionary Fellowship, Inc. have purchased Bakker a condominium in Florida, a new residence, a neighbor’s house and a duplex in the neighborhood at a cost of $1,009,000. There is a wide difference in reports about his real estate holdings. One of the networks said he has five homes. Others say two. They have been variously valued from $600,000 to over $1 million. Whatever the exact amount, he has done quite well. They lived so lavishly that “the Bakkers drove matching RollsRoyces” (Detroit Free Press, 3-21-87). Bakker has been able to do these things with salaries paid from funds raised on PTL. In 1986 he raised $129 million!
It seems that Oral Roberts has had more success in shielding his extravagance from the press than have some of his counterparts. Even so, the Akron Beacon Journal (3-14-87) reported, “Roberts and his wife have homes in Tulsa and Palm Springs, travel in private jets, wear expensive clothes and jewelry.” His Palm Springs home was reported by ABC News Nightline (3-26-87) to be valued at $2.4 million. Most in his audience could not afford the real estate taxes on’such a mansion. This is wealth accumulated from his television ministry. His TV broadcast of 5-27-84 discussed the probldms they were having in operating their medical center. His solution at that time was to ask his audience to come to Tulsa for a physical examination. Apparently the ‘insurance companies would defray some of his costs. This is the same fellow who gained his fame as a faith healed His operation costs $1 million per day, so raising funds is essential.
Jerry Falwell has recently agreed to take over Jim Bakker’s operation. In 1986, Falwell brought in $73.5 million for his religious empire (Newsweek, 4-&87, p. 19). 1 have not seen anything on Ins personal extravagance, but he ought to do quite well if he succeeds in combining these two organizations.
One of the most,highly regarded of the TV preachers is Jimmy Swaggart. A Baton Rouge, LA television station, WBRZ, reported on the family corporation which Swaggart has formed for his ministry. He has 14 members of his family drawing a salary totaling $350,000 a year (Akron Beacon Journal, 10-23-83). He is able to do this because he brought in $142 million last year. His ministry was scandalized when it was reported that his wife had an $11,000 desk in her office (Newsweek, 5-30-83). He has subsequently built a school in Baton Rouge which he is supporting from revenues raised through his ministry, so pressure will be on him to keep the money coming in. These men seem unable to resist the temptation to live lives of splendor at the expense, and on the money, of other people. Presently his wife is trying to raise $3 million for his 52nd birthday gift (The Evangelist, 2-87). This money is to be used for new editing suites for their world-wide television outreach. This is the fellow who will “sell”‘ you a tie bar, lapel pin or pendant for only $125.001 His magazine also tells you that they are prepared to help you in drawing up your Will so that his ministry will benefit from it.
If space permitted, more and more information could be presented about these preachers and their shameless escapades. Especially is this true as the media mess is unfolding daily before us. I suspect you are like me – sick and tired of hearing about the whole business. Swaggart was right when he identified this scandal as “soap opera” material.
The Apostle Peter warned of false prophets “by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of. And through covetousness shall they with feigned words make merchandise of you” (2 Pet. 2:2-3). Paul spoke of those 44 who subvert whole houses, teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake” (Tit. 1:11). Through the years there have been many examples of men like those the apostles described, but no one can deny that the modem TV preachers fall under the condemnations found in these Scriptures.
And What About Us?
All of this is in vivid contrast to the simple way that the Lord intends money to be raised for the support and proclamation of the truth. The church is taught, “Upon the first day of the week let every one of you lay by him in store, as God hath prospered him” (1 Cor. 16:2). Paul also wrote, “Every man according as he purposeth in his heart, so let him give; not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver” (2 Cor. 9:7). Following these directives, the church can and must provide the money necessary to discharge the mission God assigned to the church.
Let me say a few words about the passive way in which most congregations deal with this matter. We act as though we are ashamed to tell God’s people to give as God has taught. Frequently we seem apologetic when it is necessary to remind them about giving. Perhaps we are afraid some will think we are applying “pressure” like that which is applied by television preachers. I doubt that any of us comes close to applying pressure like they do. But, it appears to me that we are a bit nonchalant regarding giving. Few faithful churches, made up of middle-class members, have contributions that begin to compare with those of the denominations about us. They are endlessly in pursuit of money, while we, with seeming indifference, just get along with whatever the contribution happens to be.
We need to apply more “pressure” to the matter of our giving and get our contributions up to where they ought to be. If we will apply the same pressure to giving that we apply to getting people to be baptized, or to attend the worship, we will not be exceeding the use of a prudent amount of pressure. Let us never be guilty of excess in this matter. Let us never be weak about the God-appointed duty to give as we have been prospered. There are many lost souls who could be reached with more effort and more money. Brethren, we will not be guiltless if we do not use our best abilities to reach them with the Gospel. This can be done without sinking to the shameless tactics of television evangelists.
Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, pp. 383-386
June 18, 1987