Yesterday my mother-in-law relayed to me a comment her pastor made recently. He told his congregation, “I am amazed at how I can teach you something from the Scripture and you pay little attention to it. But if you hear the same thing said from some television preacher, you act as though it’s the first time they’ve heard it and you’ll send them all your money for it.”
This pastor is a faithful man. He has pastored this church for over 35 years. Every Sunday following the morning service, he gathers his deacons and they visit the many elderly members of the church in their homes. Hardly a person has ever been hospitalized for any length of time that he has not visited to pray and console. He is the model of the faithful country pastor.
So, it’s all the more amazing to me that his people would rather trust the words and teachings of television preachers over his teaching and lived out example. My mother-in-laws comments solidified for me something I’ve been thinking for a while: most television ministries are a pox on God’s people.
Now, that’s no new, groundbreaking comment. Many have lamented the scandals of famous televangelists and the abhorrent theology of many popular TV ministries. But, I think I’m realizing that their effect on the people of God is deeper than I once thought. Just a few things come to mind….
- Many television ministries foster an unhealthy individualism in today’s Christian culture. The ability to sit at home and listen to the entertaining comments of some charismatic figure actually cultivates a spiritual isolation of sorts. While believing that they’re being spiritually fed, individual Christians are actually learning that their spiritual lives are a personal matter, that Christianity is a solo sport, that what matters most is what they are able to consume for themselves.
- What follows from this individualism is a low commitment to the local church. Church becomes an optional consumer good that may or may not play any substantial role in a Christian’s life. That individualism tears away at the body of Christ, as each joint, rather than supply to the other, rests comfortably on the sofa gazing at some far off personality promising who knows what.
- Then there are the personality and celebrity cults that grow up around high-wattage personalities. Television preachers don all the trappings of celebrity entertainers, attracting the star-gazed attention of people immersed in a hyper-entertained culture. Allegiances are made to favorite TV personalities—allegiances that eclipse loyalty to the local pastor that pours himself out caring for the congregation, living among them, consoling them in grief, counseling in difficulty. TV preachers become celebrities who are very nearly worshipped.
- Which leads sometimes to a crisis of authority in the lives of many Christians. As is the case with some of the people at my mother-in-law’s church, many Christians come to believe that the test of orthodoxy is whether or not their favorite TV preacher teaches or believes a certain idea. If “Pastor Mega-Watts” says it, then it must be so. Never mind what the Bible actually teaches, what its inspired authors actually meant, or how the rules of sound interpretation apply. “Bishop Boob Tube” believes this and that’s all the authority I need seems to be their view of authority. Thousands and thousands watch these entertainers—with their Bibles wide open—and yet are starved of faithful biblical instruction while at the same time infecting the church with their favorite personality’s opinions. Tuning a congregation’s ears to the voice of the Lord (“My sheep hear my voice and they follow me”) can be extraordinarily difficult work when any substantial part of their spiritual diet comes from TV preaching personalities.
- And because these personalities are seen as biblical authorities and men worthy of a followership, untold amounts of local resources vanish into the coffers of churches and ministries that will never serve the needs of a local body or community. The fundraising machinery of televangelism is quite impressive, if also deadly to the material needs of local churches. How much stronger would many of our churches be if God’s people channeled the resources dedicated to televangelists to the work of their local church? How many pastors would be better cared for? How many more missionaries would be sent to the white fields needing laborers? How many seminarians could be supported? How many benevolence needs met? Just the money spent on attending some of these conferences would be enough to fund a small church for years. But these “ministries” are draining and diverting great stores of energy and resources to events and products with a shelf-life of maybe a couple weeks.
- And motivating a lot of this is the perverse “success syndrome” that affects so many ministries and men of God. Our people listen to many of these folks because they look successful, they talk about success, and they promise success. And all this success talk and striving after success affects their view of what the church is to be, and their view of the churches they’re willing to attend. The chickens that come home to roost are speckled birds that settle for the appearance of worldly gain but are not content with godliness and faithfulness. Many of our people would rather look “successful” than be faithful and holy. And that does great damage to them personally and to the body as a whole. The mask is on and it’s difficult to get a good look at their spiritual faces… because “mature Christians are prospering.”
- Television ministries are simply platforms—huge platforms—for false teaching without accountability. Now, of course, I don’t mean all such ministries are teaching false doctrines. But, I think it’s defensible to suggest that a good number of the biggest are and that we live in a church culture that not only disdains accountability and authority in many ways, but also has no equally-scaled apparatus for correcting these massive errors and distortions. When the TV preacher is viewed as the expert theologian, despite no training to that end, and he or she is the CEO of a wholly owned corporation independent to the local church or denomination, it’s tremendously difficult to correct, rebuke or admonish. And the longer they’re not corrected, the more confidence many people are likely to place in them.
Most television preachers and their programs are a pox on the church. The subtle effects they have in eroding biblical authority, a biblical view of the church and of the Christian life amount to untold damage to countless millions.