That Prime Time Religion

By Mike Willis

Some denominationalists are beginning to become alarmed at the manner in which radio and television evangelists are developing a following. Literally thousands of people are choosing to stay away from worship services, opting to listen to a television evangelist instead. Frankly, I have little sympathy for the denominationalists who are just now becoming alarmed at what prime time religion is doing to the local church. For years they have been teaching that a person can be saved without being a member of the local church. Those who are choosing to listen to a radio or television program instead of going to a local church are only doing what denominational preachers have been preaching for many years.

Many denominations are losing membership. Consequently, they are looking around to find out what is happening. One of the things which they are finding is that many Americans are getting their religion via radio and television without ever becoming affiliated with a local church.

One should only expect that material is going to be printed regarding these prime time radio and television evangelists. One of the more recent books published is Give Me That Prime-Time Religion by Jerry Sholes. Sholes is the son of an ordained Presbyterian clergyman. He joined the staff of Oral Roberts in January 1975 to assist in the television productions put out by Oral Roberts. His book is an exposure of some of the methods and finances of the Oral Roberts ministry. The book is not carefully documented; it is good or bad in direct proportion to the reliability of Jerry Sholes’ testimony. However, as an insider, he deserves to be heard.

Oral Roberts As Seen By Jerry Sholes

As one who worked with Oral Roberts and saw the inside of his ministry, Jerry Sholes reached several conclusions. Here are some of them:

1. The finances of Oral Roberts’ ministry. Sholes related that Oral Roberts’ mail room is equipped to handle 20,000 letter per day. He related that 90% of those letters contain a contribution and the average contribution is $5.00. The daily income of the Oral Roberts’ ministry from the mail room alone would tally $90,000 per day or $450,000 per week. This comes to $23,400,000 per year from mail room contributions alone (p. 8).

In addition to the mail contributions, Oral Roberts would conduct six to nine seminars per year at Oral Roberts University. These seminars are not extended periods of concentrated study; they are fund raising seminars. Usually people who have previously supported Oral Roberts are invited to the seminar. The group meets together for a time during which Roberts presents his principle of seed-faith (give away from your need, give God your best and expect back). If a person expects a miracle from God, he must give big. During the seminar, a project on which Roberts is working is presented with pledge categories ranging from $100,000 to $250. Generally the take from one of these seminars ranges from $1.5 to $3 million (pp. 30-33). Hence, another $15 to $25 million are generated through the seminars.

The total annual flow of money for the Oral Roberts ministries is approximated at $60,000,000. The prime time religion is certainly a financially profitable religion.

2. The giver. Sholes described the average giver to the Oral Roberts’ ministry as follows:

. . . the typical profile of an Oral Roberts supporter is a person who has terrible personal problems. Those problems are usually bad health, a bad marriage, a bad financial situation, or a bad relationship with someone or something. A person who has those kinds of problems is obviously going to be looking for solutions. Chances are that person is going to experience some kind of emotional catharsis in either solving his problems or being taken under by them. That person is looking for a way out! And, now, from what this man, Oral Roberts, is saying, it looks like he might have some answers! That viewer is going to sit there in front of his set at home and watch what comes next, once he is in that frame of mind (p. 24).

That is about the conclusion I would have expected. The desperate person is grasping for straws for help; Roberts offers a chance for help and he grabs.

3. The affluence of Oral Roberts. The affluence of Roberts and his tendency to flaunt his wealth attracted a good bit of attention by Sholes. He wrote,

. . . Oral’s wardrobe is obtained from Brioni and most of the suits he wears each and every day have a price tag of at least $500. He wears $100 shoes and drives $25,000 cars which are replaced approximately every six months. He is a member of Southern Hills Country Club, the most prestigious and elite country club in Tulsa. The membership fee alone at Southern Hills Country Club is $18,000 (which includes a share of stock valued at $9,000) and, in addition to that, members are charged monthly dues of $130. Oral and his son also belong to the ultra-posh Thunderbird Country Club in Rancho Mirage, California. They joined with a membership cost $20,000 each.

The jewelry which Oral has come to enjoy wearing on his hands and wrists has become a source of concern for some of his own employees in his Editorial Department . . . the department which puts out his monthly magazine. Artists within that department have begun putting an airbrush to his fingers and wrists in order to hide the diamond rings and the solid gold bracelets he has begun wearing within the past five years (pp. 132-133).

In addition to these features, Sholes discusses the ownings of Oral Roberts, including his 258 acre ranch, his house which was valued at $60,000 in the mid-fifties, his airplane runway and 12-passenger executive plane, etc. God’s humble servant is surely doing pretty well out in Tulsa.

4. No miracles. I was particularly interested in noticing whether or not Jerry Sholes observed any miracles during the period that he worked with Roberts. Commenting on the fund raising tactics of the seminars conducted by Roberts, Sholes related that he frequently heard the staff coming in talking about how many dollars were raised at a given seminar but never heard anyone talking about how many were healed. He said,

. . . Usually, during a seminar, there were participants who were in wheelchairs. I never saw anyone healed of anything and that bothered me. I saw people who had come expecting a healing and I saw the raw hope and desire in their eyes. If faith could have brought them up out of those wheelchairs, they would have come out and been ready to run a 50-yard dash, on the spot! It never happened.

Oh, once in a while someone would get up out of a wheelchair and limp off the stage. But, I’d seen them a day or two before get out of their wheelchairs to get into cars or go into the restroom. They weren’t total and incurable wheelchair cases. They merely needed the wheelchairs for comfort because of the particular illness they had. They could, however, get up and walk short distances if they had to, or if they really wanted to. They really wanted to for Oral, so they’d do it and then return to their wheelchairs backstage. It was a dog and pony show!

I never, on a Monday morning after a seminar, ever heard one person in the organization talk about how many people were healed during a seminar. The only figures I ever heard relating to seminars were dollar figures! (p. 34).

Another distressing incident related by Sholes tells the story of a faculty member at Oral Roberts University who had a baby to die. He relates the story as follows:

. . . He and his wife had a young baby who became ill. This particular faculty member apparently decided to really put the power of prayer to the test and began praying for the child rather than taking it to a hospital. The baby’s illness became more and more severe until the infant actually died right in the home of the faculty member.

That, in itself, is sad enough. But, the story gets worse. The couple then decided to begin praying and fasting to bring the infant back to life. In addition, they requested that Oral come into their home and also pray for the child. The words used by a certain ORU Vice-President to describe Oral’s reaction to that request were, “He wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole. That dead baby was in their home (the faculty couple’s home) for three days before I could get a doctor in there and get the baby out of the house. A story like that would ruin Oral. The press would crucify him” (p. 38).

To say the least, Jerry Sholes saw nothing, according to the testimony of his book which would lead him to believe that God was working miracles through Oral Roberts.

Many other incidents of interest regarding Oral Roberts were cited in the book Give Me That Prime-Time Religion which I think many of our readers will want to purchase. It is available through Truth Magazine Bookstore at the price of $8.95.

Other Shenanigans By TV Evangelists

One does not have to look far to find that what is stated with reference to Oral Roberts is true of other faith healers. For example Leroy Jenkins, a faith healer who has traveled all over the country, is presently serving time in jail in connection with an arson charge. Yet, he continues to operate his ministry from prison, according to the last reports which I heard.

Frankly, I would not send a dime to any of these primetime evangelists even if I agreed with them doctrinally, which I do not. I would hope that our doctrinal teaching from the Scriptures has demonstrated that one should not support a false teacher (cf. 2 John 9-11); however, if it has not, maybe this expose by Jerry Sholes will cause some to take a closer look before writing a $5.00 check and mailing it to one of them.

The money can be used best by personally seeing to it that the poor are helped, some needy preacher is supported, or contributing to the needs of the local church. In these cases, the opportunity for abuse is greatly reduced. The individual can see the good that is being done with his money. Moreover, he will not be duped into thinking that he will get a bundle of money or a miracle of healing in return for his contribution.

Truth Magazine XXIV: 39, pp. 627-629
October 2, 1980