The death of Oral Roberts, a pioneer of television evangelism, takes me back to the days when he, Rex Humbard, Bob Harrington, “Reverend Ike” and an assortment of local and regional preachers took to the airwaves of my youth. And then there was Ernest Angley, of course, who healed multitudes but never removed that awful toupee and touched the top of his own head.
While some may argue for the positive impact of television preachers, my opinion in general is quite low.
Roberts is widely credited — or, more correctly, rightly blamed — for creating the “prosperity gospel.” His “seed faith” concept called for people to send money to him in order to receive special “blessings” for themselves.
This give-to-get perspective turned the message of Jesus — about serving others sacrificially and unselfishly — on its head. But this manipulative approach has become a good fund-raising technique replicated over the years by many televangelists (e.g., Paula White).
The merits-versus-misbehavior of television preachers can be an ongoing debate. And lumping them into one slick bunch is surely unfair to those few who avoid some of the familiar traps that have snared others.
Yet the negative aspects of their presence on the airwaves are plentiful. Some proprietors of the electronic church are proven swindlers — like Jim Bakker and Robert Tilton — while the financial practices of many others have led to much-deserved suspicion.
And, sadly, the financial support that has permitted most televangelists to not only stay on the air, but to live like royalty, has come from the shallow pockets of poor, gullible, undereducated people. It’s the religiously inclined version of the primary lottery audience.
One of the worst results is that often church members will unfairly compare their local pastors — who carry out multiple ministry tasks with often-difficult people outside the spotlight of fame — to these silver-tongued showmen.
Back in the ’70s, there was a little book on the electronic church with a chapter titled something like, “If Rex won’t do your funeral, call what’s his name.”
It made the good point that the famous TV preachers are glad to receive your money, send mail to you requesting more money, and even offer a religious souvenir now and then. But it is the local pastor who shows up at the hospital when you’re sick and will even cut a family vacation short to meet a family in grief.
That is a good thought to have in mind before writing a “seed faith” check or criticizing your pastor for lacking the flash of the one you tune in on TV.