Sunday, December 1, 2013

FBC and TBN: What Paul Crouch's Life Tells Us about Southern Baptists in the Twenty-First Century

Yesterday Paul Crouch, founder of Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), died at the age of 79 (New York Times). Begun as a single Christian TV station in California, TBN is now a family of more than 20 television networks the span the globe. By the way, the Barber family has neither cable nor satellite television, but even our plain over-the-air TV antenna picks up at least five TBN-related channels. It is only barely an overstatement to claim that Paul Crouch founded an empire.

The pervasiveness of his influence, the opulence of his lifestyle, and the particulars of his theology necessarily mean that Christian blogs will heap upon him in equal measures both plaudits and opprobrium in the coming days. To speak specifically of Southern Baptist pastors, although a few have evidenced toward Crouch what might be termed approval or envy, a larger number (in my experience) have chosen their attitudes from among indifference, distaste, or anathema.

And so, confident that others will praise his accomplishments and criticize his failures, I choose to write today, to the best of my abilities, as church historian rather than as pastor-theologian. Furthermore, I write as someone who loves the Southern Baptist Convention, lives within the Southern Baptist Convention, and observes the Southern Baptist Convention. What does Paul Crouch's life tell us about Southern Baptists in the this century?

Paul Crouch, Southern Baptists, and Broadcast Media

In the story of Southern Baptist blogging since 2006, TBN has played a small, uncredited role. In 2008 the network broadcast a panel discussion consisting of Richard Hogue, Scott Camp, Dwight McKissic, and Dwaine Miller. The episode featured a characterization of non-Pentecostalism as "silly" (especially the views of Dr. Paige Patterson on the subject) and concluded with panel participants looking into the camera and imploring with Southern Baptist pastors to be converted to the gospel of Pentecostalism.

Also, a number of prominent Southern Baptists—influential pastors and denominational employees alike—have appeared on TBN programs in recent years. Perhaps the most recent is Ed Stetzer, who (if I understood his tweets correctly) has landed something of a repeating gig on the network. Paul Crouch and the network that he founded exerts some influence upon even the Southern Baptist Convention.

Whenever something like this happens, I hear about it from some of my friends. "Why are our SBC leaders appearing on TBN? Don't they realize what damage the Name-It-Claim-It Prosperity Gospel has done to American Christianity? Aren't they dragging the reputation of our entire convention down into the theological gutter when they do that?"

The question "Why are our SBC leadership appearing on TBN?" may be an interesting question, but here's what I think is a far more interesting one: Why isn't there anywhere else for them to appear? Southern Baptists leaders do not choose TBN from among some larger universe of successful Christian broadcast media empires because they prefer Paul Crouch's theology; if they want to appear on widely viewed Christian television, there simply are not many other options available to them. Paul Crouch monopolized the market.

Sometimes it seems to me that Southern Baptists aren't self-aware enough to mourn the loss of the Radio and Television Commission (RTVC). Of course, the RTVC was lost (in terms of hope that it would have any significant impact) long before it was dissolved. Whether the failure of the RTVC was a result of insufficient funding or insufficient dreaming I am not able to say. Perhaps it was a doomed venture from the start—Paul Crouch succeeded by way of entrepreneurial chutzpah rather than by means of a committee. But Southern Baptists never produced a media mogul—nobody but Pentecostals ever did. Whatever broadcast media hopes we had, we pinned them all to the RTVC and buried them with it in 1995's "Covenant for a New Century."

Dream with me for a moment: How would the story be different if Southern Baptists had somehow succeeded in Christian television? From the New York Times article linked above, "In 2010, donations to TBN totaled $93 million. The Crouches had his-and-her mansions in Newport Beach, Calif., and used corporate jets valued at $8 million and $49 million each." Certainly Southern Baptists would have exercised better stewardship than this. How might Southern Baptist missionary enterprises have been fueled by a successful SBC media venture? Southern Baptists would be in a position to harness the airwaves to promote responsible, sound doctrine rather than the epidemic of error for which TBN has too often served as a vector.

Why have we Southern Baptists failed so miserably in our feeble attempts to harness radio and television for our ministries? One can argue that Pentecostal worship is far more entertaining to watch than is the average Southern Baptist worship service. And yet even the Pentecostalest (I just made up that word) of Pentecostal worship services isn't all that entertaining either. TBN's stock in trade has been the studio program rather than the broadcast of worship services. Southern Baptists, who more than most ought not to have depended upon their worship services to drive ratings, could hardly think of anything to do with a TV camera other than to point it at themselves while they were preaching (I'm speaking here not so much about the folks who worked at RTVC as about SBC pastors).

Also, I think that TBN has understood and has (MIS-?)applied a truth that David understood and employed in the composition of the Psalms. The Hebrews sang Psalms prior to the life of David. David didn't invent the psalm. But during the prolific life of David the Hebrews began to sing psalms about every facet of life. Aaron and Miriam sang in times of celebration, but David sang in times of despair, or even in times of personal humiliation and contrition. David changed worship forever when he taught God's people how to sing honestly but hopefully to God even on the darkest of days. TBN, likewise, has spoken a word of hope to the poor, lonely, and downtrodden. Even if it has predominantly been a word of false hope motivated by an avaricious plot for self-enrichment, it has proven to be more than a match for "Seven Steps to a Superhero Faith" when it comes to what the world would rather watch on television.

If there is a bright spot in all of this for Southern Baptists, it is the promising strength that Southern Baptists have shown in the realm of new media. Of course, the apparatus of the convention has generally alternated between belittlement and toleration of blogging and Twitter (after all, the SBC is Microsoft, not Apple). But I think all of that is slowly changing, and it needs to change. New media is more propositional and less visual than TV. Twitter does not lend itself well to sermonizing, simply because of length. The SBC is well-poised to contribute solid content in the world of new media, and it has shown in the success of SBCers online. Southern Baptists have some rockstars and some potential rockstars in the realm of Christian new media. If we will be deliberate and visionary about it, we may find ourselves doing better in the coming media age than we did in the last one.

Paul Crouch and SBC International Missions

Of course, there is a wide world for whom their 2013 is our 1993, where TBN rather than Twitter is the new media. A few years ago I taught Church History in Kenya. I encountered there a student who presumed that I was a prosperity gospel preacher (of which he did not approve) simply because I was an American. You see, all he had ever encountered of American Christianity was TBN, which is beamed by satellite around the world. Likewise, just a couple of weeks ago I found myself in Africa defending the Christian orthodoxy of the Assemblies of God and of other tongues-speaking Christians against the attacks of a black Christian pastor (my friends will appreciate the delicious irony in this). For this man, his predominant exposure to American Christianity (and charismatic Christianity in general) had been TBN-related networks.

And so, I think we must acknowledge about Paul Crouch that he has affected the way that the entire world sees not only him but also us. The average member of a Southern Baptist FBC Somewhere may see a mighty chasm between his church and TBN, but to a tribal animist in the DRC, we're all the same thing. My experience with international missions is limited, but from what I've seen so far, Crouch's influence harms the broader Christian missionary effort. Missionaries face the challenge of getting themselves out from under the shadow of broadcast charlatans without inaugurating an internecine shooting war among evangelical denominations in areas where the Christian movement is young and fragile.

The Media Empire and the Local Church

Paul Crouch equated the growth of his business enterprise with the growth of the Kingdom. While reflecting upon the expansion of his network into more cities, Crouch said "All over the country, [people are] coming to know Jesus.…Church, I think we ought to rejoice ’cause the whole world is getting saved.”

And yet, Crouch's ascendancy has not resulted in any measurable growth of Christianity "all over the country." Worldwide, the statistics for Crouch's brand of Pentecostalism are rosier than in the USA, depending upon who is doing the counting and whom they are willing to count. But setting aside the question of statistics for a moment, there's no doubt that whatever the details of Crouch's ecclesiology, Crouch figured prominently in it. There are those who erroneously think that all of their countrymen are Christians because of their citizenship. It is an equally grievous error to think that all of one's customers are Christians because of their contributions.

Southern Baptists did indeed miss an opportunity by failing to take better advantage of radio and television. I'm more comfortable with making that mistake, however, than with the idea that we might have diluted our focus upon the local church in order to pursue broadcast media domination. Jesus Christ did not found a television network. We have no promise that TBN (or any network we might have started) will prevail over the gates of Hell.

It is therefore most accurate, if we will evaluate the contributions of Paul Crouch to the Kingdom of God (or of anyone else), to ask ourselves not how many nations his satellites reach nor how much money he made nor how many Christian celebrities have occupied a couch on his studio stage, but instead, we must ask ourselves whether churches are healthier and more numerous because of TBN. Because Crouch's doctrinal errors are of sufficient gravity to call his contributions into question, I would struggle to conclude that Crouch has made churches healthier through his endeavors, although the aftermath of the man's death is perhaps not an appropriate time to indulge in excessive criticism of his life's work.

Indeed, I only mention what I consider to be this critical failure on Crouch's part to make this appeal to Southern Baptists: Whatever we will do with new media—be it Twitter or YouTube—we must be careful to focus our efforts upon the strengthening and planting of local churches rather than upon the accumulation of personal wealth or the vicissitudes of fame. To the degree that we can harness media to the benefit of local churches we will have done something lasting and worthwhile.


Alan Stoddard said...

Very well written as always Bart.

There is a funny feeling one gets when exposed to TBN too long. It's the feeling of "something is not quite right." And that is the turn off to many believers, but forget them for a moment. How about the unbelievers? They think TBN is a joke because it's all about money.

Never did I see TBN say, "give to your local church first." Maybe I missed it, but that message is not prominent in the TBN message and brand. They would take tithes from local churches and not think anything about it.

I do not watch TBN at all. There are too many good media alternatives these days.

Walter Martin did not see them as a cult but as heretical in key areas. His last appearance on TBN is worth your time. It's on YouTube.

David Wilkerson was highly cautious of the health and wealth style. He is my kind of pentecostal.

I hope this is read by many people. We don't "need" TBN.

Bart Barber said...

Thanks, Alan!

Walter Martin was heroic in that TBN appearance. Thanks for mentioning that.

David Rogers said...

I think you have an astute observation here:

"Missionaries face the challenge of getting themselves out from under the shadow of broadcast charlatans without inaugurating an internecine shooting war among evangelical denominations in areas where the Christian movement is young and fragile."

Though there are a few television ministries that are making a positive impact (I count my father's among them), I agree that God's "channel of choice" for getting out the gospel and making disciples is the local church.

That is also one of the main problems, in my opinion, of judging the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement by its most well-known media personalities. If MacArthur and co. were to examine faithful Charismatic/Pentecostal pastors of local churches rather than focus on the media personalities, I believe the evaluation would be very different than that of Strange Fire.

For that matter, I think many of the most unbalanced non-Charismatics are those primarily involved in media ministry, and not so much in the local church.

Bart Barber said...


I agree.

Keith Sanders said...

My fear is that if the SBC jumped feet first into the television business, it would look much like our bookstore business...lots of potpourri and bookmarks to fight through to get to the few good books on the back shelf. Also, a commentary on the life of Paul Crouch leads to a criticism of John Macarthur by Southern Baptists.. really?