Written By: Emmalin Buajitti Edited By: Pratishtha Kohli Images and Media: Pratishtha Kohli (all images from google)
The most common form of televangelism today is broadcast over the airwaves — for the most part, on satellite and cable networks owned and operated by religious groups (Gray, 20 Dec 2012). These networks are able to broadcast live and pre-taped sermons freely, often 24/7, due to what Pradip Ninan Thomas (2010) refers to as the “deregulation and liberalization of the media along with its commercialization on a global scale.” Neoliberal free-market ideals have allowed televangelism to spread beyond its American origins to developed and developing countries around the world, reaching new populations with the simultaneous goals of conversion and profit (Thomas, 2010). This spread is not limited to television footage, either — successful televangelist preachers like Joel Osteen have ventured beyond sermons to earn massive revenues through religious self-help books (Sinitiere, 2010). As institutional religion has struggled to gain traction in an increasing non-religious world, televangelism has managed to remain profitable — and it has done so by adapting to shifting trends in popular culture.
Televangelism, as television evangelism, has existed since the popularization of the household television (Hadden, 1993). But broadcast evangelism has existed since well before then, since the arrival of the household radio in 1920 (Hadden). Religious broadcasters were able to capitalize on the limited intervening power of the government at the time (who had failed to predict the radio being used this way) to project extremely partisan, occasionally anti-government messaging (Hadden). They did so to spread the Christian religion and its teachings, and in doing so gained massive followings (Hadden). By the time the television became popular after World War II, broadcast evangelism was well-established as a religious aspect of popular culture.
With the shift to television came the opportunity for increased profitability. First, televangelists began to turn to their audience seeking donations to fund the purchasing of air time (Hadden). Hadden (1993) describes this as a natural consequence of commerce: “If viewers feel spiritually enriched or committed to helping this particular program in its quest to win others to Christ, they are asked to help pay for the broadcast” (p. 117). It is important to note that in the early stages of televangelism, the financial support was a necessity driven by the desire to convert others to Christianity — donations were accepted on the basis of “doing the Lord’s work” (Hadden, p. 117). Shortly thereafter, televangelists began to accept donations for other reasons. This coincided with the rise of charismatic Christianity in the 1960s, a movement in which John Osteen was a dominant figure (Sinitiere, 2010). Charismatic Christians pioneered the development of glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues,” which Robert Tilton would later use to great financial effect (Sinitiere, 2010 p.90). More importantly, charismatic Christians began to associate financial donations (from viewers to themselves) with healing experiences, praising the spiritual power with which they were allegedly able to bring about physical healing (Sinitiere).
Watch Below: Benny Hinn, Anointing and Healing with his Magic Coat.
The money raised through these donations could then be used to fund missionary travels around the world, encountering local populations and hopefully influencing them to accept Christ into their lives (Sinitiere). The globalization of televangelism that occurred from this time on has had a lasting impact on televangelist movements elsewhere in the world — as Asamoah-Gyadu (quoted in Thomas, 2010) describes, “Ghana’s charismatic churches reflect modern African ingenuity in the appropriation of neo-Pentecostal Christianity enamoured by … American neo-Pentecostal techniques.” The push to globalize televangelism was driven by a search for new and open markets, both religious and commercial. Televangelism spread to developing countries such as Ghana as well as developed countries such as England, where televangelism didn’t arrive until the 1980s but has since blossomed into a “Christian media empire” (Gray, 20 Dec 2012).
The desire to globalize the Christian religion, through missions, forced conversion, and other tactics, has been an important religious phenomenon since long before the advent of televangelism. But in the specific case of televangelism, the push to globalize was driven at least in part by a saturation of local markets (Hadden, 1993). By the end of the 1980s, this saturation also led to the end of mainstream televangelism (Hadden). This decline was exacerbated by a series of scandalous revelations about prominent televangelists, such as Jim Bakker — who was found guilty of defrauding his ministry to keep a young woman quiet about their sexual history (Johnson, Oct 28 2014). People lost faith in the prosperity gospel of charismatic Christianity being preached at the time. Televangelism was forced to adapt to changing tides once again.
Since the 1990s, televangelism no longer primarily refers to sermons of the prosperity gospel broadcast regularly on cable television (though those still exist). Today’s successful televangelists must appeal to more recent trends in popular culture while rejecting certain aspects of 1980s televangelism — which many, such as Joel Osteen, have done with great success. Joel Osteen has distanced himself from the claims of the prosperity gospel to preach personal agency (Sinitiere, 2010). He does not ask for donations in his sermons, and services are free to attend in person or online (LakewoodChurch.com). While donations to Lakewood Church are accepted, a significant amount of Joel Osteen’s earnings are from sales of his many self-help books (Sinitiere). While Joel Osteen is by no means the first televangelist to sell self-help books (and in fact, his father John did so as well), the fervor with which he promotes his books, on YouTube clips of his sermons, on his website and in press appearances, is unlike most televangelists before him. A significant amount of his success is driven by his ability to capitalize on opportunities made available to him by trends in popular culture.
Broadcast evangelism has existed for as long as we have had the ability to broadcast. It is remarkable that in a period of many substantial changes in popular culture, televangelists have managed to retain a sizeable following. Their ability to do so is closely linked to their ability to adapt to changes in popular culture and take advantage of the opportunities that new popular culture mediums provided them. The history of televangelism has been marked by significant shifts in the religious doctrines being preached, as well as many successful projects of religious globalization. Televangelism, religion, and popular culture are closely linked, and televangelism holds an important place in the histories of both religion and popular culture in the 20th century.
Gray, J. (20 December 2012). “New faces of televangelism” New Humanist Online. New Humanist Magazine. Accessed at https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/2923/new-faces-of-televangelism
Hadden, J.K. (1993) The Rise and Fall of American Televangelism. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 527(1), 113–130.
Johnson, E. (28 October 2014). “A Theme Park, A Scandal, and the Faded Ruins of a Televangelism Empire.” Religion and Politics. Online Journal. Accessed at http://religionandpolitics.org/2014/10/28/a-theme-park-a-scandal-and-the-faded-ruins-of-a-televangelism-empire/
Sinitiere, P. L. (2010) “Preaching the Good News Glad: Joel Osteen’s Tel-e-vangelism.” In Global and Local Televangelism, ed. Pradip Ninan Thomas and Philip Lee, 87–107. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Thomas, P.N. (2010) “Whither Televangelism: Opportunities, Trends, Challenges.” In Global and Local Televangelism, ed. Pradip Ninan T