Televagelicalism (originally published August 2009)
None Now Live That Remember (Part 8)

The Rise of Televangelism and It’s Influence on the Local churches
Robert Wurtz II

For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish… So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:28-30, Luke 14:33)

Mass communication over the years has greatly challenged the historical means of presenting the Gospel of Jesus Christ and in turn, dealing with those that have heard the Gospel once a message has been given. Dwight L. Moody greatly took advantage of the press in the promotion of his meetings as well as Billy Sunday. A simple search of Google’s Newspaper Archives demonstrates how churches have utilized the press to some degree or another for a very long time. But things were about to change. The turn of the century marked a new day in evangelism practice.

Dwight L. Moody preached his last message in person on Nov. 16, 1899 at the old Convention Hall in downtown Kansas City, MO. He was a tremendous man of God that did his best to see sinners come to Christ. But we must know that this dear man exerted tremendous influence upon the churches and their evangelistic methods. As is common today, ministers that came to see him or read about him employed techniques or something similar. His influence was limited because technology was limited. But the influence of those that would come after through radio and television would far exceed what this man was capable of. Today the churches are alarmingly influenced by individuals that minister in the name of Christ. The weight of the influence is usually based upon the minister’s primarily. The results? What is said on radio and TV is soon communicated in the local churches.

Moody returned home with what is believed to have been heart failure and died on December 22, 1899. He was only 66 years old and did a great work for God, but his influence on evangelism was tremendous. We were headed in the wrong direction. We are seeing the beginnings of “mass evangelism.” 

 Then came Billy Sunday, who ministered primarily in large tent gatherings. As a young minister I was thrilled to actually preach behind a pulpit that Billy Sunday once used. But Billy was no theologian. He had a view of getting converted that was a radical departure from years past. We will not review that here, as we discussed the topic earlier in our series Part 1Part 2, Part 3.

Kansas Citians built this canvas and wood tabernacle at Admiral and Lydia, in the northeast section of Kansas City. Fifteen boxcar loads of lumber were used. The 215-by-302 foot structure (65,000 square feet) was larger than old Convention Hall. Seating capacity, 12,000 and standing room for 4,000 more. During the seven weeks of the Kansas City revival, 92 sermons were preached. A front-page story in The Star reported on the final tearful farewell, after Sunday’s last sermon, June 18, 1916 that a total of 1,356,000 persons had attended and 20,646 of them “hit the sawdust trail.” This phrase was used to express Billy Sunday’s method of having a person simply come down a sawdust covered floor between the seats and shake his hand in order to signify your conversion. Ministers of Kansas City said several thousands were “converted” in the meetings, who did not come forward. ( In passing I will note that the language of being “hopefully converted” as opposed to what would later come “got saved” was still being employed. This is a radical difference of wording and meaning. Mass tent meetings reached as many as 1.3 million people in seven weeks, but this method was about to give way to a whole new means of reaching the masses. 

Christian radio

If “video killed the radio star”, then “the radio star killed the newspaper touting tent meetings”. It did not happen all at once; it was slow, but sure. Up to this time thousands could be reached in a tent meeting, but in the 1920’s things were going to change. Edgar De Witt Jones in his book American Preachers of Today (intimate appraisals of 32 leaders 1971 p. 305-306) tells us that S. Parkes Cadman was the first person ever to give a religious address on radio. Surely this marked a new era for evangelicalism.

Beginning with S. Parkes Cadmon we would begin to experience a widespread influence of a hand-full of individuals upon the churches of God, rather than the Word of His grace in the midst of a local assembly. That is to say, rather than hearing what the Spirit is saying to the local church, ministers were now preaching sermons, etc. that would be regurgitated into local assemblies. If the enemy can control or influence radio and television preachers and singers he can control and influence the local assembly. Although God has placed individuals within the local assembly to be the source of feeding the flock of God, great new challenges were on the horizon starting with Christian radio. Soon they would be quoted and imitated in almost every way. We will watch slowly as the radio evangelists and the televangelists begin to dictate trends and fads within the local churches. This is very sobering.

The influence of mass communication

Let me say here that the use of means such as tents, newspapers, radio, and television is not all evil. It has been the abuse of these tools that has been evil. The solution for abuse is not non-use, but right use. However, as it has gone, I believe it is impossible to fully estimate the influence that radio and television has made upon doctrine and practice in the last 75 years. Why? Because preachers and teachers of local churches are often listening to these radio and TV ministers, and re-preaching their teachings to their congregations yielding an exponential influence over the original broadcasts. Why? Because teachers and preachers are often repeating the radio and TV teachings in local assemblies because they find it useful. But what about when popularity and coolness begins to take the place of rightly dividing the word of God? This is a staggering question. People rationalize that it must be God that is providing them the platform to speak or they would not have it. This is not necessarily true. The devil will provide a false teacher a platform as if it were a light thing. But what has happened? The local teacher and preacher suddenly has to compete for influence with what is being said on the TV or radio. The TV and radio guy or gal suddenly becomes the authority. This totally misses God’s plan for a local church in which Christ is walking in the midst and tending the lamp-stand. Christ wants to speak to the local assembly through the local people. This makes for a church modeled after the Spirit of God and not after the latest and most popular thing on Christian TV.  

The Negative Influence

This phenomena has given rise to the wholesale spread of much of the pop-Christianity and “fad” doctrines that leave in their wake everything from rife heresy at worst to a trail of outdated books that end up on bargain tables at the local used Christian book stores at best. And though we could spend time at length considering this fact, I wish to point to our passage again and consider an event that took place in the late 1950’s that I believe was a warning about the direction of modern Televangelism.

The Tower to NoWhere

 For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him…

Our passage asks us to consider what would happen if a man went to build a tower and then afterwards was not able to complete it because he did not count the cost. This passage existed for over 1900 years as a valuable lesson that in itself was fully able to reveal the mind of God on the subject. And yet I believe, that in the mind of God, He knew that the day would come when just such an event would truly come to pass. God is not taken by surprise. Consider that in Akron, Ohio, the very town where A.W. Tozer was converted (just a few miles to the north of Canton) sits today a tower that is the mocking-stock of a highly popular and respected minister named Rex Humbard. It is the source of countless crude jokes and at over 400 feet tall, it is a mass concrete eye-sore scaring the skyline. He wanted a television studio in the sky, but did not count the cost and was unable to complete the job. Selah.

(Rex Humbard’s unfinished tower as it looks today)

Counting the Cost

Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish… So likewise, whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple…

Can you believe it is said that this massive tower sold in the 1980’s for only $30,000? It is essentially a giant cell phone tower last I checked. Some years ago I sat down with a couple from Akron that attended Rex Humbard’s church. The husband’s father worked on the project. I was told that the concrete and steel in this structure is such that to bring it down would destroy everything around it. This to me is a picture of much of modern day televangelism. Financial problems plagued the ministry in the early 70’s and they were not able to complete the tower. Attention turned elsewhere and the tower was left standing. I believe this event signaled the beginning of the “televangelical Gospel” that stripped, for the most part, an essential element of the Gospel: counting the cost. Dependent on supporters, the televangelical message became a slave to ratings and offerings.This is how “name it and claim it” came into many churches as well as the prosperity heresy.

Your ‘Television Pastor.’

Although I believe that God use Rex Humbard in many powerful ways, understand that as early as 1966 Rex Humbard was being referred to as your “television pastor”. Again, as with Finney, Moody and Billy Sunday there can be no doubt that God used Rex Humbard. But there is something terribly amiss when folk begin to look to the radio and television for a word from God. G.H. Lang in his work, The Churches of God reminds us that God designed the churches so that their influence upon one another was very limited. This would prevent one church from bringing down the rest if some disaster happened. God deals with churches on a local level and individually. Heresy and false teaching can become like the flu in this environment. How? Everyone gathers together and receives and takes the thing back and infects their own congregations with it. Sometimes, good comes from Television ministry, but it can also be a very dangerous thing. Why? Because the TV star has an exalted position in peoples minds allowing them to get by with all kinds of questionable and false teachings. If he/she is likable, people will just keep listening and even defend the person. They become like idols. I can say in my own life that as a young Christian I followed a certain healing minister to 5 U.S. cities and would defend him before man in public and before God in prayer. I recall actually trying to pray God’s judgment upon a Christian apologist for exposing some of my “idol” TV preacher’s teachings. God have mercy on me. It was the wrong spirit. 

The dark side of influence 

So what are we to think about ministries coming along that wield tremendous influence upon local churches? Soon the measure (standard) for authority was based on how many stations and listeners a particular ministry had. This all but stripped the local ministers influence. The people in the seats were often much more ready to receive what was said by the TV and radio preacher simply because they were on TV or radio. This is a horrendous way of establishing authority, but it is fully in step with the enemies constant plot to place the authority in the local churches in someone’s hands other than the Holy Spirit. What makes matters worse is that a sort of “peer pressure” often develops in which local pastors begin to emulate these men and women in both doctrine and style.

Televangelists Become ‘The’ Authority

Think of all the times you have heard a TV or radio preacher/teacher quoted? Think about how a special authority is assumed when quoting these men almost as if their very words trump anything anyone else says. In this way the TV minister begins to function with an authoritative influence like the priest or Pope in Roman Catholicism. It is not formal or stated, but the influence is no less real. Modern Christian TV and radio has wielded tremendous influence upon our whole concept of “church”. Soon the guy on TV running 5,000 on Sunday is a best seller at the local book store and may have virtually no theological training or understanding. 

All too often, lost in the process, is that precious need to come together before God as a local assembly and hear from God on that level. Much of the modern evangelical church has unwittingly exchanged a host of questionable and false teaching for that precious word of His grace that they needed for edification; that Word that is given from Christ specific to that moment and time in that churches history. What is the result?

Genuine Evangelism

As a general question, how do you suppose a person feels that wants to witness to some friends or hold and open air meeting when they just turned on the TV and hear that 2000 people were “saved” at the most recent evangelistic crusade and another 10,000 were reached by radio and television? I tell you a despair comes on many people and whether they say it or not their actions exclaim, “What’s the use?” Why am I out here trying to win souls when these guys are seeing people come to Christ by the thousands? They can handle it! I believe this unintended consequence has crippled to a large degree “one on one” evangelism and street evangelism. 

True evangelism is like childbirth, it takes time. Nobody has a baby by reciting 5 points of doctrine. The easy-believism/sinners prayer method of winning folk to Christ has worked to strip the willingness to really stay with a person in the scriptures and in prayer until they are truly converted and come into a relationship with Christ. There is also a massive confusion that has come about because of Televangelism- because most people have no idea what God is really asking of them when they come to Christ. Why? Because preaching on counting the cost can destroy your ratings if it is pressed to it’s right measure.

An Unlikely Invitation

An old theology teacher once said that God sometimes blesses a questionable reading, of an obscure text, in the minor prophets; but that is not His standard mode of operation. He expects us to rightly divide the word of truth. Although God has chosen to use men in spite of their ideologies, there is still a day of accounting for all of these ideas that are lodged in the minds of multitudes in our times. Finney’s concepts, doctrine and “new measures”, God rest his soul, have come home to roost in our times. It was not his intention at the time; but he refused to listen to good counsel and now a Pandora’s box has been opened up. For example, although Finney was a tremendous soul winner, in his time, it is shocking to realize how the new measures evolved into the sinner’s prayer and the resultant shallow idea that folks have of genuine salvation. Why does it matter? Souls are at risk. Also, a “spurious conversion” is a high maintenance and low impact addition to any assembly. It seems in our times though that often the only thing that matters is “attendance” to the meetings. Many are considered “saved” sheerly on the basis that they repeated a prayer and now attend services. Imagine what will happen when these folks learn how to play the part and then move into leadership in the churches or places of influence on radio and TV. Can you see the snowball effect?  

What is the solution. We have to begin once again to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ with all that entails. This means possibly praying with a person until they come through to God. To come alongside and help lead them to Christ. It means discipling folks and allowing our churches to be a place where we pray and hear from God, resisting the temptation to conform to TV and radio pop-Christianity. We have to resist all of the trappings associated with TV and the popularity it brings.  

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