By Daniel M. King
The above title was the heading for an article that appeared in the July 27, 1980 issue of the Chicago Tribune Magazine and featured a discussion of “The Big Business of TV Evangelism.” I was not so amazed at some of the figures as I suppose some people may have been. Most of us who know anything of the scriptural teaching regarding the raising of funds for the church’s work are naturally skeptical about the big promotions and fund-raising drives and begging campaigns that constantly go on, masterminded by these big-time promoters who always sound as though they are bitten by the bug of poverty. Too, they identify their schemes and antics as the “work of God” and those who help them by sending in gifts and offerings as their “partners in the work of the Lord.” The real truth is that these men are only enriching themselves and their great religious empires and enlarging and filling up their own personal “barns” in order to build greater. The humble efforts of the apostles look pretty puny in the light of their work: the twelve never attempted to beg from the community or to take up “love offerings” from the people of the neighborhood who just happened to be listening when they preached. They lived “of the gospel” (1 Cor. 9:14), but in some cases refused even to do that (1 Cor. 9:18). At all events, they did not live lavishly or attempt to build great worldly monuments to themselves – but to enshrine in the hearts of others their risen Lord Jesus Christ. They were betimes supported by the churches they had started in different locales as they preached the word elsewhere (2 Cor. 11:8; Phil. 4:16), but it was the churches that provided their support. They were not leeches upon the ones who heard them and they never gave the slightest impression by their acts or words that they had intention of ever being so.
Yet it is easy to see that these modern promoters and TV evangelists of the flamboyant stripe are quite different. As an instance, I submit for your consideration the person of the “Reverend” Robert H. Schuller. The article in the Tribune pictured him standing in his recently completed $18 million “Crystal Cathedral,” a 12-story glass skyscraper-church building, “a structure that rivals Disneyland’s snow capped concrete Matterhorn for dominance of California’s otherwise undistinguished Orange County Landscape” (Ronald Yates). Schuller began building a following back in 1955 when he “pioneered drive-in religion from atop the snack-bar roof of an Orange County outdoor theater.” The cathedral was the result of what Schuller called “possibility thinking”: “Nothing is impossible if you believe in yourself’ (Emphasis mind, DHK). The 55 year old Schuller is pictured standing atop his opulent red Spanish marble altar in his marble pulpit, with a caption beneath that reads: “I don’t jam the Bible down people’s throats. I believe in the Bible, but if people want Bible preaching, they can get it elsewhere.” Whereupon, Ronald Yates comments, “And what you hear is no ordinary Bible-thumping sermon. There are no references to Satan, sin, or damnation. Nor is there any mention of such social ills as racism, sexism, crime, or corruption. It’s all strictly noncontroversial. And references to the Bible itself are rare.”
Not all of these big-time Billy Sunday types fit this description of Schuller. Some use more Bible than others; some condemn some present-day sins more than others; some are less open in their talk about money than others. But the name of the game is money and prestige nonetheless. As Richard P. McBrien, professor of theology at Boston College, is quoted as saying: “These TV preachers can’t tell me they’re serious about Christianity when they’re driving around town in limousines. The money is their Achilles’ heel.” Pat Robertson of the “700 Club” reigns over a $58 million-a-year electronic ministry; Rex Humbard has his Cathedral ‘of Tomorrow with its boasted “indoor cross,” the largest indoor cross in the world; Jerry Falwell and his ministry earn $50 million a year; Billy Graham’s Crusades realize about $30 million a year; Oral Roberts, with his prime-time specials, etc., generates about $60 million a year. No doubt about it, this is big business, and makes for its biggest stars some of the biggest money around. It is a sure key into the lap of luxury for the man with the business-sense and the willingness to embrace people of many different views without making any waves or rocking any boats or stirring up any criticism that would ruin the ratings or hurt the revenues.
And with the turn that many churches of Christ have been taking lately we may confidently expect to see some of these characters and their chicanery beginning to crop up among us soon. As a matter of fact, anybody who knows anything about “what is” is already aware that brother Ira North, flamboyant minister of the Madison Church of Christ and editor of the Gospel Advocate, fits the description of the only kind of promoter that could survive in the “mainstream” of the “mainline” churches at the present moment. His willingness to compromise is well known from the instance connected with the ecumenical memorial that he had to do with, in which he and a Catholic priest along with a Jewish Rabbi were given the main responsibilities for its planning and development for the city of Nashville. The thing drew so much criticism that he finally resigned from it, without apology or repentance, with the excuse that he was simply “too busy” with other things to take care of it. His desire for attention was almost a regular feature of the Nashville landscape; he was seen riding a motorcycle to the church meeting-place in bright red suits often enough that it was the talk of the town; he sported diamond rings on his hands, and was always in the middle of a new promotion of some sort or another: “We’re going to have the biggest Sunday school here at Madison in the history of the churches of Christ next Sunday.” “Our goal is 6000 here at Madison next Sunday” (or some such astronomical figure, DHK). His newest device is the “Amazing Grace Bible Class,” which features his smiling face and assorted pleasantries, and the weekly giving away of Bibles as rewards to those who answer tricky Bible questions. The show airs on TV stations all around the country and has a host of enthusiastic watchers. The center of focus, as well might be expected, is Ira North the promoter.
Now we all know that Ira has taken a lot of criticism in the past and likely will yet in the future – and most of it for good reasons. But I should think that we will all probably look back someday and remember how extremely mild were the antics of Ira North when we view them from the perspective of the new generation that is now “the seed yet in the husk” and will take his place someday. I am sure that he will be seen as one who prepared the way for men and methods still undreamt-of in the churches. It will be said that he missed some of the best techniques and that his days were the days of moderation, the moderation of expediency. There were lines that he could not cross, that even he – dared not cross. And though I am neither a prophet nor a prophet’s son, with the attitudes currently being what they are in the many of the churches and among many of the preachers, I would venture to say that we are not far from the day when men will arise from our ranks who will not even stop where he stopped. And some of our brethren will see the success of their methods and the numbers that they draw and will rethink their attitudes about such matters. Then the Ethic of Utility will have the final say.
Already Pat Boone, under the influence of his neopentecostal heresy, has made appearances on several programs as the celebrity-guest of different big-name TV evangelists, thus endorsing their doctrines and their methods. In addition, Don Finto of the avant-garde Belmont Church of Christ has made at least one appearance on such a show, showing his endorsement. “When will we get a show of our own?” (I can almost hear some brethren asking). “Herald of Truth is not flashy or dazzling enough, it has never drawn enough attention (except for opposition from the “antis”); and it has relied for support upon thousands of congregations, support that has ebbed and flowed because of the controversies that have troubled it in the past. What we need is a man with the flash and dazzle of an Oral Roberts or a Rex Humbard! Someone who can generate the cash-flow and put the church on the map!”
I am fully aware that some of what we have had to say above lies entirely in the realm of speculation about what may happen. All the same, conditions are certainly ripe for some of them to take place. In closing, I would like to make a few suggestions of some lessons that we can draw from this foolishness and from Bible principles which pertain directly to attitudes that could characterize a few among us: (1) We might rethink many of the ideas that we have come to cherish about what an “ideal preacher” is. Some of us expect him to be flashily and flamboyant, smiling and debonaire, tall, dark and handsome, with winsome personality; he must have a touch of eloquence and a flair for the dramatic. He must offend no one. His style must be always gracious and never militant. He must be a promoter and a builder, a virtual “spark-plug” for the congregation with which he labors. His clothing must always be stylish and fashionable, a pace-setter for the community. What we are describing here, I think you can see, is a preacher after the order of the TV evangelists that are coming into multitudes of homes and with which we think our men should compete. But they cannot and should not make the attempt. The Hollywood-inspired preachers generally have little or no concern for Bible authority, but have a plentiful supply of concern for what will help to “rake in the cash.” If men who labor among us ever reach the low point at which they can give money a thought when it comes to what they preach and how they preach – then it will be a sad day for the church of the Lord.
Most everyone who ever met David Lipscomb said that he was about the ugliest man they ever saw. He wore home-spun clothes at a time and in a place when and where such was clearly outmoded. This is not an endorsement for being either ugly or unfashionable. But it does say that this man who touched the lives of untold thousands and who “being dead yet speaketh” could touch men’s hearts and change men’s lives by the sheer power of the word of God faithfully preached. Paul instructed Timothy (2 Tim. 2:2); “The things which thou hast heard from me among many witnesses, the same commit thou the faithful men, who will be able to teach others also.” Over and above these God-given qualifications we have not the right to venture others.
(2) At a time when the apostolic example of the collection being taken up on the first day of the week for the ongoing work of the church is taking a real beating in the minds of some people, it evinces that this is really the only way that the preaching of the gospel can be carried out without its lying under a constant cloud of suspicion. The ethic of utility notwithstanding, those who preach the gospel cannot be truly effective if the public considers them mercenary in their motives. Yet that is precisely what comes across when the hat or basket is being perpetually passed or when the speaker on a broadcast is perennially asking for donations. The freewill offering of the saints on the first day of the week should be sufficient to accomplish the inauspicious purposes that God has for His people, and certainly was so in the days when the gospel was sent into all the world without the aid of modern contrivances (1 Cor. 16:1-2; Phil.4:16; Col. 1:23). And when it was done no one could ever voice the objection that it was accomplished at public expense and to enrich those who did the preaching. Their humble ways and open honesty was absolutely above reproach, “taking thought for things honorable not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men” (2 Cor. 8:21).
(3) We must learn the lesson that the opulence and finery of these starry-eyed dreamers is only another aspect of a this-world-oriented-religion. The building of great shrines and monuments and the establishing of TV networks and worldly businesses is all a part of what is to perish when this world is consumed by fire (2 Pet. 3:10). Yet we have some among our brethren who are set on erecting such cathedrals “up to the heavens,” costing millions of dollars and forcing them into all sorts of escapades to raise the monies necessary to pay off loans for such edifices. Then they must lower the standards of morality and Christianity in order to fill up these huge houses with the ungodly and reprobates of every kind – all to make a big impression upon the world. If they were making saints out of these sinners it would be an entirely different thing, but as a matter of fact that is not what is happening. Rather, the church of Christ is being turned into no more than a glorified social club and its meeting-house into no more than a recreation and entertainment center. Brethren who meet in humble houses to worship their master can take consolation in the promise of God that there are mansions that await His people if they have the patience to endure and not to be side-tracked by things of only temporal import: “Our citizenship is in heaven . . .” (Phil. 3:20). We are not to “mind earthly things” (Phil. 3:19) or “desire to make a fair show in the flesh” (Gal. 6:12).
(4) In the struggle to compete with these Hollywood style preachers that some among us have essayed to make, we must not forget that the power of the gospel is both to draw and to repel. “The word or the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us who are saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). I cannot help but recall the words of the worldly-wise Robert Schuller: “I admit I don’t hold up a Bible. I don’t deliver biblical expositions. I don’t jam the Bible down people’s throats. I believe in the Bible, but if people want Bible preaching, they can get it elsewhere.” Schuller knows what it takes to get and keep a large following and to “rake in the greenbacks.” Schuller and those of his stripe want only to draw people. But the power of the gospel is in its very ability to both draw and repel, to draw those who would have a pure and contrite heart and to repulse those whose interests are only this worldly. Remember that Jesus allowed – yea more, said the precise words that were calculated to turn away the rich young ruler – if his heart and motivations were not pure and absolute (which they turned out not to be, Lk. 18:18-25). Schuller and those like him would never be so straightforward, so strong, so judgmental, but would draw him to them and encourage him to make large gifts and love offerings to help finance their grand schemes.
The heart-breaking and soul-rending truth of this thing is that in the churches of Christ at the present day there are many who preach who would be little able to denounce mercenary and utterly spineless preaching of that type because they fit the job description just about as completely as do some of those who are far more successful at it than they are! Said Ezekiel the prophet of those with whom he contended in his days, namely the false prophets: “When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die, and thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way; that wicked man shall die in his iniquity, but his blood will I require at thy hand” (Ezek. 33:8). We will all make mistakes in our preaching, but whatever we do we had better not make the tragic and irreparable error of failing in the most basic duty of the preacher – failing to preach: to “reprove, rebuke and exhort” (2 Tim. 4:2ff). For saying that we have failed at that is the same as saying that a policeman has failed to police or a runner to run or a teacher to teach. But really nothing is comparable, for no other illustration could possibly embrace the aweful consequences of failing to be the kind of preacher the Lord would have one to be. Only the fierceness-of the fires of eternity could ever bring that reality into its true light; and if the Bible is a true Book and God the author thereof, then the hideousness of that moment will be the greatest and the most unendurable to the one who carried the burden of responsibility for preaching the truth, but dropped the load to dance to the tune of coins jingling in his pockets. “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow Christians, because you know we who teach will be judged more severely” (Jas. 3:1; Williams’ Translation).
Truth Magazine XXIV: 39, pp. 629-632
October 2, 1980