Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

From 'Televangelist' to 'Intervangelist': The Emergence of the Streaming Video Preacher

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

From 'Televangelist' to 'Intervangelist': The Emergence of the Streaming Video Preacher

Article excerpt

Introduction

Credit for coining the terms "televangelism" and "televangelist" is most often given to Jeffrey K. Hadden and Charles E. Swann, (1) the authors of the 1981 book Prime Time Preachers: The Rising Power of Televangelism, or to Hadden alone. (2) However, as J. Harold Ellens points out in 1974's Models of Religious Broadcasting, the word "televangelism" was first used to describe a media-based outreach project initiated by the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) in 1958. In this pioneering evangelistic effort, dramatic films with a Christian message were distributed by the SBC to local American television stations for broadcast. In coordination with these broadcasts, meetings were organized in SBC churches and the homes of church members, to which the unchurched and unbelievers were invited for viewing and discussion. (3) It was hoped that these personal contacts could help overcome the impersonal nature of television as a communications medium, leading to greater success in gaining converts and the growth of the SBC denominational community.

The title "televangelist" also predates Hadden and Swann's book, first appearing in an article from the February 24, 1975 issue of Time magazine, "Retailing Optimism." In the article, an uncredited staff writer outlines the television ministry of Robert Schuller, a pastor from the Reformed Church of America. The writer focuses on the opulence of Schuller's 7,000-member Garden Grove Community Church in California: the glass paneling, the fountains, and the ever-present television cameras reaching more than 2 million viewers. As the article's title suggests, the author also focuses on the money, describing the church as "one of the fastest-growing stores in the country." At the core of the operation was Schuller and his "ever-smiling televangelist image," which encouraged his flock to stay focused on spiritual and material success through his proprietary technique of "possibility thinking." (4) Subsequently, "televangelism" would be defined in relation to ministries that were "personalityled" by televangelists, (5) the most successful of whom built "electronic parachurch empires." (6) Despite concerns raised by many Christian groups, televangelists did not siphon attendance and donations from local American churches. Most viewers of televangelist programs were dedicated churchgoers who supported the televangelists as a spiritual supplement to participation in their local churches. (7)

Televangelists attracted considerable media and scholarly interest, particularly following the financial and sexual scandals of Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart in 1987 and 1988. Although these scandals led to a considerable public backlash against televangelist ministries, including a drop in viewers and donations, many organizations carried on and new preachers emerged. (8) Yet by the mid-1990s, both the academy and the media had generally lost interest in the phenomenon, and by 2006, televangelism was described by Stewart Hoover as a "sleeper in the media landscape, having settled into a comfortable, even significant place at the margins." (9) This relative dormancy was disrupted the following year, when Senator Charles E. Grassley, the ranking Republican member of the United States Senate Committee on Finance, requested financial information from the leaders of six high-profile television ministries. The Washington Post reported that the "televangelists under investigation" were Creflo and Taffi Dollar, Paula and Randy White, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Bishop Eddie Long, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. (10) At issue were suspicions that ministry funds were being used to bankroll the opulent lifestyles of these ministers, a potential violation of the tax-exempt status granted to these religious organizations.

The Grassley probe prompted the widespread reappearance of the term "televangelist" in the popular press; however, electronic media had changed significantly since the scandals of Bakker and Swaggart. …

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