Televangelism Research Paper

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Televangelism refers to what used to be called the ‘electric’ or ‘electronic church,’ which is the religious programming sponsored by evangelical Christians using commercial television time with the purpose of bringing individuals to salvation. Televangelism as a term was first developed in Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism (1981), which explores the rise of the phenomenon in the USA. The term is also fairly interchangeably used with ‘electric’ or ‘electronic church’ as defined by Ben Armstrong (1979) to define the use of broadcast media, first radio, then television, to deliver church messages. Schultze presents the ‘electronic church’ as a construct defined by its ‘business values, experiential theologies, media-derived formats, faith in technology, charismatic leaders, and spin-off ministries’ (1990, p. 42). Either term refers to both the broadcast itself and the institution and norms that are created within it to demonstrate its values (Frankl 1987).

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1. The Development Of Televangelism

The technological development, adoption and regulatory environment surrounding the advent of radio and television in a given society is critical to the development of televangelism and for that reason televangelism varies across nations, depending largely on the degree and type of control over media programming. The creation and tone of televangelism in the USA is very closely tied to the rules governing programming in the early days of radio and the ways in which evangelical Protestants took advantage of shifts in media regulation.

1.1 Televangelism In The USA

In the early days of radio regulation in the 1920s, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) required broadcasters to provide free access to the airwaves in the form of public service broadcasting (Finke and Stark 1992). The networks then turned to the Federal Council of Churches as a way of streamlining the work of picking groups that would be allowed access to the airwaves. The Council of Churches, however, represented 25 mainstream denominations (Bruce 1990) and created guidelines to promote mainline denominations, shut out fundamentalists and encourage local churches to share time in ecumenical broadcasts. Because the churches that made up the council quickly monopolized the available free time, only a couple of the largest evangelical churches were able to obtain time through the public service broadcasting avenue. In addition, little opening existed for purchasing time (Bruce 1990).

Protesting evangelical organizations formed their own pressure group for lobbying the networks; this group eventually became the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) in 1944 (Bruce 1990), after the Mutual Broadcasting Company announced new policies that made it even more difficult for evangelicals to reach the airwaves (Hadden 1993).

The NRB was successful in obtaining access to paid time for its members. For over a decade following its founding, the NRB made significant strides in increasing the visibility of evangelicals on the air and by the late 1960s ‘dominated the religious airwaves’ (Hadden 1993, p. 116). The theological emphasis on salvation dovetailed neatly with the necessity of evangelical broadcasters to ask for money to support these programs. Hadden asserts that televangelists offered viewers the ‘product’ of salvation and then asked them to contribute in order to help the broadcasts to continue to reach new (and unsaved) viewers (Hadden 1993, p. 117). Through being forced to pay for air time and thus offer programming that viewers were willing to support financially, evangelicals were well positioned for the changes to come in FCC policy. In 1960, the FCC ruled that broadcasters did not have to give away time for it to count as public service time; time previously given to the mainline churches could now be sold, not given, to them under this policy (Hadden 1993, p. 118). While the mainline denominations protested this change, they were unable to maintain their access to free airwaves and evangelicals moved in to purchase time from local stations. In addition, videotape made it possible to for broadcasters to distribute their programming inexpensively for simultaneous airing in multiple markets (Roof 1997). These two developments in policy and technology, coupled with the programming savvy of the evangelical broadcaster positioned them for the airwave dominance that they maintained until the scandals and political activism of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

While televangelist scandals are well known for landing one broadcaster in jail and ending several television ministries, the effect of the political activism embraced by the broadcasters is less frequently mentioned. The political stances and eventual presidential bid of Pat Robertson and the activism of Jerry Falwell are correlated with the stagnation of their audience share (Hadden 1993). Since the dramatic expansion of cable wiring in the 1980s many televangelist broad- casters have embraced cable and broadened their programming to include not just services, but also other ‘family friendly’ programming such as reruns of early network sitcoms.

1.2 Televangelism In Sweden And African Countries

While the experience of televangelism in the USA has been rather high profile and well documented by journalists and scholars alike, it is worth considering the development of televangelism in other cultures to understand more fully the influence of the intersection between religion, technology, and policy, and the development of media programming. Comparative work on religious broadcasting in the USA and Sweden by Linderman (1996) notes the differences in the religious environments in the two countries. Where the USA has a tradition of pluralism that in the case of religious broadcasting was for a time dominated by mainline churches, the Church of Sweden is the Lutheran national state church within a nation of religious freedom. Other religious bodies are the Pentecostal movement and the Mission Covenant Church, which vie with the national church for airtime. The Swedish Broadcasting Corporation allocated 75 percent of time for morning services and all major holidays to the national church and the rest of the time was allocated to the council representing the free churches. However, the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation eventually came to believe that it should regulate not only the time for religious broadcasting, but also the format and content. Their view was that ‘religious radio should be more open, and able to communicate the general Christian message to people outside the churches—thus in a way being more ‘‘evangelistic’’ compared to the view of the churches’ (Linderman 1996, p. 102). In addition to the broadcasts from Swedish religious organizations, the expansion in the number of channels received by viewers in Sweden also brought televangelists from the USA to Swedish airwaves, including the ‘Hour of Power’ with Robert Shuller (Linderman 1996).

Work on televangelism in Africa includes discussion of the early entry of international televangelists from the USA and European countries into the African media and debate over the appropriateness of the format. Hackett finds that early televangelism in Africa consisted of broadcasts of American televangelists with broadcasts in Ghana of Oral Roberts from the late 1970s to 1982, and Nigerian broadcasts of Pat Robertson’s CBN news in the 1980s (1998, pp. 262–3). Hackett also notes that the development of televangelism and the dissemination of mediated religious messages is tied with the development of the megachurch through the charismatic leadership of evangelical churches in the region. In addition to the radio and television broadcasts, tapes are marketed and shared among family and friends, and thus further disseminated throughout the community. However, the development of televangelism is criticized by some clergy as inappropriate in a region with so much poverty (Asuzu 1987).

2. Approaches To The Study Of Televangelism

Televangelism involves media, religion, sociology, history, political science, and economics, thus, is under examination from a variety of disciplines. Frequently cited for their work in documenting the development of televangelism both as a form of mediated religion and as cultural construct are Hadden and Swann (1981), who coined the term televangelism and extended interest in televangelism beyond religious circles to involve sociology and economics. In addition, Bruce’s Pray TV: Televangelism in America (1990) revisits the history and the current issues in televangelism and asserts that the audience figures for televangelism are overestimated; this debate will be explored more fully later. Some analysis of televangelism has focused on the confluence of the economic and religious marketplace (Finke and Stark 1992). Historians have chronicled the role of religious broadcasters in political debates (particularly Father Coughlin in the l930s) as well as the struggles between religious factions for control of the airwaves.

2.1 Televangelism As Ritual

Other researchers have considered televangelism as a ritual informing the lives of viewers, connecting them with a broader community of believers. These scholars claim that the ritual transforms the everyday world into the symbolic and through reflection provides a base for guiding one’s everyday life (Alexander 1997). Televangelism may serve to legitimize the messages performed in the course of the program. This concept of the ritual within televangelism connects it to the interest in the audience for such programming. Study of the televangelism audience takes many forms, from the interest in how believers approach the form as a ritual to analyses of a market share and ratings. Hoover’s Mass Media Religion (1988, p. 112) examines The 700 Club audience in terms of how viewers’ histories intersect with their experience as viewers both as individuals and as a community formed as an audience. Comparative research on the reception of religious television in Sweden found that US evangelicals differed greatly from Swedish evangelicals in terms of how they perceived the program’s believability, pointing out the possibility for future exploration of how media and religion in differing cultures produce these outcomes (Linderman 1996).

2.2 Debates Over The Size Of The Audience For Televangelism

As previously alluded to, questions over the size and scope of the audience for televangelism has fostered a debate that includes not only scholars from a variety of disciplines, but also religious broadcasters. Early studies of this audience, most notably one supervised by the Yale Divinity School in 1955, attempted to delineate attributes of the audience correlated with religious programming and addressed the potential influence of level of religiosity, socioeconomic status and denominational affiliation (Parker et al. 1955). Hadden and Swann (1981) sought to balance the proclamations of the televangelists themselves and ratings by Arbitron by comparing systems of measurement in order to explain why the televangelists’ numbers were so high and Arbitron’s so low. They concluded that while Arbitron’s figures may have been low because of the failure to include cable data, that the rating company’s numbers were probably the most accurate. Hadden and Swann also concluded that while the numbers of viewers were not insignificant, the audience for televangelism had declined from 1978–80 by approximately two million viewers (1981, p. 55). Bruce (1990) noted that a 1987 study using data from both Arbitron and Nielson produced radically different audience figures, 13.3 million and 70 million viewers, respectively. These discrepancies, of course, point out major problems in comparing audience measurements based on differing assumptions, but they also call to question the power of televangelism as a force for mobilization. Hoover’s discussion of the myths surrounding religious broadcasting labels the assumption that there is a large and ‘significant’ audience for televangelism as such a myth (1990). He notes that the funding formulas for televangelism differ considerably from that for standard commercial television and that audience size, donations to meet costs, and the ability of a program to stay on the air are not interdependent. Hoover also points out the importance of televangelism programming from within an evangelical group as opposed to the importance assessed by those from outside that community who may tend to overemphasize the significance of a program being on the air. Obviously, given the differing perceptions of those within and without the televangelism community and the differing means of audience measurement, this debate will not be easily settled and its continuation fuels other questions of secularization and the intersection of media, religion and culture.

3. Future Directions In The Study Of Televangelism

As the media landscape has changed considerably, not only in terms of forms of media, but also the economic structure of media, the concept of televangelism is probably going to change with its environment. While the dramatic growth of the Internet with its potential for religious communities, dissemination of information and the creation of decentralized networks of individuals is certainly one avenue, more closely tied to the original development of televangelism is the structure of the mass communication industry. It appears that two intertwined avenues are likely for future investigation. The first, the economic structure of mass communication, has produced powerful conglomerates for distributing programming across a variety of media and with these changes comes a synergy, as a conglomerate uses its many venues to promote a certain media product. The second, closely related, change in the media environment comes from the production of messages to be disseminated across formats, from film to video to television to radio and print. Just as Disney promotes films and characters that are then presented in Disney World, Bakker used his television platform to promote his dream for a Christian values theme park. Colorado-based ‘Focus on the Family’ started with a radio broadcast by Dr. James Dobson and built an organization that now markets tapes, videos, magazines, and books to disseminate the organization’s message not only in the USA but in multiple languages throughout the world. In addition, Big Idea Production’s ‘Veggie Tales’ video series for children provides a marketing hook for the merchandising of toys, stuffed animals, workbooks, and tapes in the USA, Latin America and Saudi Arabia. Future studies of televangelism may find it increasingly difficult to address one television program or one televangelist in isolation; instead, work may need to focus on Christian media companies that produce a variety of formats for multiple audiences.


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