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News Watch

by Perucci Ferraiuolo and Paul Carden

from the News Watch column of the Christian Research Journal, Fall 1994, page 7. The Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Research Journal is Elliot Miller.

Where Are They Now?: A Televangelist Update

Slick. Hypocritical. Greedy. Power-hungry. Flamboyant. Sleazy. Materialistic. To millions of skeptical viewers, such words define the video preachers known collectively as televangelists. And while many responsible, credible evangelical ministers use the airwaves with the best of motives, in the minds of scandal-weary, cynical audiences they're the ringmasters of electronic religion, predators -- possibly perverts -- in three-piece suits.

Has scandal crippled the estimated $2.5 billion-a-year televangelism industry? According to the July 10 Los Angeles Times Magazine, David Clark, former chairman of the National Religious Broadcasters, says that 1994 "marks the end of the televangelist scandals, and the impact from them is basically over." The Times adds that "a recent study of religious programming found that on-air fund-raising and promotional activities have fallen to the same levels as before the [Jimmy] Swaggart scandal."

Still, painful memories of the televangelist catastrophes of the 1980s and early 1990s persist. And while many of the discredited religious broadcasters of the recent past may be down, they're not out. Some of the best known are pressing ahead -- some denying wrongdoing, some skirting accountability, and all of them attempting to rebuild.

Jim Bakker, accused of bilking his followers out of $158 million and originally sentenced to 45 years imprisonment in 1989 for his role in the calamitous PTL scandal, was released to a Salvation Army halfway house in Asheville, North Carolina in July after serving only four-and-one-half years in prison. (He is expected to remain under federal supervision through April of 1997.)

Although upon his release Bakker asked for forgiveness from "those I have offended or hurt in any way by my sin and arrogant lifestyle," he has repeatedly declared his innocence of the charges that sent him to prison. In a July fundraising letter Bakker's daughter Tammy Sue writes that while "Dad has told me he is no longer interested in vindicating himself," for a $100 gift she offers ministry friends a limited-edition, three-volume set of pictures, text, and "revealing exhibits" that have convinced many key Christian leaders that "my Dad was innocent."

While Bakker was in prison, his flamboyant wife Tammy Faye divorced him, married his friend Roe Messner, started a "900" number help line for the "spiritually depressed," and had her much-ridiculed makeup tattooed on ("The most wonderful thing is waking up and not having your eyebrows rubbed out on the pillow"). Bakker's South Carolina theme park, renamed New Heritage USA, became a subsidiary of United Malaysian Industries, and as of 1993 was still far from profitable.

In November of 1991, ABC-TV first aired its award-winning Prime Time Live investigation into the ethics and finances of three prominent televangelists -- the biggest of whom was Robert Tilton, "Pastor to America."

When ABC profiled Tilton his Success-N-Life broadcast was in all 235 U.S. markets, buying 5,000 hours per month of airtime, and pulling in at least $84 million per year. Tilton's distinctive pitch was the $1,000 "vow of faith," for which he promised innumerable miracles and blessings from God. He also sent mountains of sanctified trinkets to his mailing list, promising to personally touch and pray over such items if they were returned with a donation.

Then Prime Time revealed that thousands of Tilton-bound prayer requests had been dumped in the trash behind his Tulsa bank -- with the money gone and no sign that he had ever laid a finger on them. His ministry collapsed.

Now, nearly three years later, Tilton is completely off the air. He divorced his wife, Marte, and sold both his waterfront mansion in Florida and his 12,000 square-foot Dallas "parsonage." Sunday attendance at his once-thriving Word of Faith Family Church has dropped from some 5,000 members to an average of 320. Tilton laid off 70 percent of his Dallas staff, leaving 32 at a ministry that once employed over 800.

Prime Time unleashed a legal storm, and Tilton has been on the receiving end of more than 10 lawsuits and assorted government investigations. On March 16 a judge dismissed Tilton's civil-rights suit against ABC-TV, Diane Sawyer, and other perceived Tilton enemies (he later refiled, repositioning it as a federal racketeering suit). On April 21 a Dallas jury ordered Tilton to pay $1.5 million to former supporters Vivian and Mike Elliott of Tampa, Florida for fraud, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and conspiracy. Tilton is desperately attempting a comeback from the bottom up as an itinerant evangelist, visiting small, obscure churches that still support him.

Another subject of the Prime Time expose was W. V. Grant, Jr., a second-generation revival preacher. Grant gained fame and fortune in the 1970s and 1980s as one of America's leading faith healers, commanding packed auditoriums and a ministry worth millions. His standard miracles included the lengthening of "short" legs and calling out the names, addresses, and ailments of those attending his old-time revival meetings -- often with "word of knowledge" revelations of how much the individual was to give to his ministry.

ABC's hidden cameras, however, caught Grant and his staff informally circulating among audience members before services, virtually hand-picking those who were to be called forth that night and asking them questions about their personal lives, their finances, their illnesses, and their hopes -- all along making careful note of what Grant would later claim was revealed to him by the anointing of God's Holy Spirit.

After Prime Time, attendance at both Grant's revival rallies and his Eagle's Nest Family Church in southwest Dallas plummeted. The Dawn of a New Day TV ministry, which had brought in at least enough money to buy him such trappings of wealth as a fleet of expensive autos and a million-dollar mansion in southwest Dallas, disappeared for several months as his support evaporated.

Thanks to direct mail, Grant's fortunes are improving. His appeal letters now include "disaster-grams" featuring simulated certified mail stickers. A recent letter offers recipients "one of my neckties that I have worn while the anointing of the Holy Ghost was on me" for a $91 donation. Grant claims that one such tie healed a Dallas man who was in intensive care, and that another man landed the greatest job of his life after wearing a Grant tie.

While many charismatics may have seen Tilton and Grant as hovering on the fringes of respectability, when Prime Time trained its lenses on former Oral Roberts University dean of students and militant prayer minister Larry Lea, many mainstream evangelicals were horrified.

Lea's most embarrassing moment may have been when ABC ran videotape of the televangelist persuading viewers that when his house burned to the ground he was left virtually homeless, losing everything he and his family had but the clothes on their backs. When Prime Time cut to Lea's other, unmentioned home -- a mansion filled with furniture and other valuables -- his fate was sealed. Donations dropped off, churches canceled his appearances, and for many Lea became persona non grata.

His ministry crippled and floundering in up to $800,000 in debt, Lea left Tulsa and in February assumed the pastorate of friend Jerry Barnard's Christian Faith Centre in La Mesa, California. According to staffers at Barnard's office, Lea's organization -- now called "The Prayer Ministry" -- is on the rebound and looking like "the old Larry Lea."

In an April appeal letter, the unrepentant evangelist reminds his followers of "the horror of the 'Prime Time' television program that ABC-TV aired nationwide" and "the lies and distortions about me and about our ministry that they spoon-fed to an unsuspecting American public." Lea describes a prophecy in which Pentecostal leader Jack Hayford compared him to the biblical Joseph, condemned to languish in "a prison of disbelief" in North America for two years.

For Lea, the predicted release came in February at the "National Conference on Prayer & Spiritual Warfare" in Anaheim, California. At the conclusion of Lea's message, Fuller Seminary church growth specialist C. Peter Wagner unexpectedly approached Lea on the platform and, "as a representative of the Body of Christ," asked the stunned televangelist to forgive the church for believing Satan and his "false reports."

In the words of the appeal letter, "IT'S A NEW DAY....the headline over our ministry is now the same as the headline over Joseph's life: FALSELY ACCUSED, FULLY EXONERATED....We've been set free from the chains of disbelief and confusion that have sought to bind our ministry here in North America!" Lea then summons his "worldwide Prayer Army" to give to "Operation Goliath," his debt-reduction campaign, urging them to "obey the Lord" even if He impresses them to give "an amount that seems impossible."

Jimmy Swaggart, who once assailed the Bakkers and their gospel resort with gusto, continues to pay dearly for his sexual scandals of 1988 and 1991. At its peak, his Baton Rouge, Louisiana-based ministry reportedly brought in $150 million per year and reached eight million viewers a week in the U.S. alone, its programs translated into 13 languages and aired in 145 countries. But by 1991 his ministry was already $4.5 million in the red, and in April of this year Swaggart's insurance companies paid $1.85 million to settle his six-year lawsuit with rival minister Marvin Gorman, who originally released the photos of Swaggart with a prostitute.

Also in April, a state court ordered Swaggart's ministry to pay more than $1.4 million to Heritage Worldwide, Inc. of Dallas for Bibles and other materials that were delivered and not paid for, along with court costs and other expenses. A computer firm has sued Swaggart for payment of more than $80,000 in software and services. Enrollment at the Bible college on Swaggart's $100 million complex has hit bottom, and last year the Washington Times described an unfinished dormitory there as "abandoned, its windows void of glass, weeds crowding its entryway."

While Swaggart maintains a comparatively tiny presence in the U.S., he is quietly expanding his influence in television markets as far away as Africa and the former Soviet Union. And, unlike Jim Bakker and Robert Tilton, Swaggart's marriage has survived his tragic fall.

According to the monthly newsletter Religion Watch (RW), "since 1991 a new generation of televangelist preachers has clearly come into the ascendancy, suggesting where electronic media ministry will be headed....The new generation of televangelists [is] achieving prominence largely through the highly aggressive leadership of Trinity Broadcasting Network." At the top of RW's list: Benny Hinn.

To his credit, Hinn has seemingly avoided the seamier temptations of stardom that have brought earlier televangelists to ruin. And despite his wild popularity, there is evidence that Hinn is on a quest for credibility -- one that he himself repeatedly frustrates by his inconsistencies.

Again and again, Hinn's speculative, sometimes baffling theology and flamboyant crusade performances have drawn sharp attacks from evangelical leaders; repeatedly, Hinn has recanted, attempted to clarify his views, or sought to justify his actions. At least three times in as many years, Hinn has abandoned some aspect of the Faith doctrine -- once calling it "cultic" and "wrong" -- only to wander back. (Though he sometimes ridicules positive confession with remarks like, "It's faith, faith, faith, and no Jesus anywhere!" Hinn now promotes an aspect of prosperity teaching known as "seed-faith giving" -- a give-to-get doctrine patented by faith-preaching patriarch Oral Roberts.)

Such flip-flops and seemingly short-lived attempts to seek the counsel and accountability of high-profile leaders like Campus Crusade's Bill Bright have left many observers of Hinn's ministry skeptical. Christian Research Institute president Hank Hanegraaff concludes that the only persuasive proof of Hinn's repentance would be his withdrawal of such doctrinally problematic books as Good Morning, Holy Spirit and Lord, I Need a Miracle. As of August, however, Hinn's ministry magazine still advertised the books -- including best-selling Spanish-language print and audio versions.

Now Hinn is seeking ordination by the Assemblies of God (AG), the largest Pentecostal body in the U.S. and formerly home to both Bakker and Swaggart. In June he was interviewed by the 20-man Peninsular Florida district presbytery, a step required for the application to proceed to AG headquarters.

The closed-door session was described in a public talk given on June 15 by Pastor Dan Betzer of Ft. Myers, Florida, a member of the district presbytery and the voice of the Revivaltime radio broadcast. Though apprehensive and skeptical at first, Betzer described being caught off guard when, "to my shock, I heard Benny Hinn say, 'My theology has been miserable.'" After grilling Hinn on his doctrinal views, Betzer concluded that the evangelist had answered the panel's theological queries "brilliantly -- and, I believe, sincerely."

Betzer told of Hinn's intention to bring his 7,000-member Orlando Christian Center into the AG, one reason being that "he felt it's the movement that God was going to use in the last days." Even more importantly, said Betzer, Hinn sought AG ordination "to be under godly authority, and to have someone who will love me enough to tell me when I'm off the track."

Hinn's application was approved by an overwhelming majority, its ultimate acceptance seeming all but certain. ("It would be a very unusual thing," said Betzer, "for a district presbytery to put their approval on a candidate and not have it approved on the national level.") But the application aroused the concern of a number of AG ministers. According to W.E. Nunnally, a professor at the denomination's Central Bible College in Springfield, Missouri, at least two AG college presidents strenuously objected to Hinn's potential ordination through direct correspondence with headquarters, as did district officials, missionaries, pastors, academics, and lay members.

The Assemblies' executive presbytery met on July 26--27. But on the 27th, the syndicated television program Inside Edition ran a follow-up to its March 1993 investigation of Hinn. The new report highlighted apparent contradictions -- including a reversal of Hinn's promises not to preach about money, pronounce crusade-goers healed without full medical verification, or blow on them to make them fall under the Holy Spirit's power. (According to Betzer, Hinn confessed that "God has convicted me of blowing on people, 'cause it's theatrical, and it has no biblical basis whatsoever.") The next day, a spokesman at AG headquarters stated tersely that "Benny Hinn's application for [ministry] credentials has been put on hold."

Hinn made headlines in June when, at his Philadelphia crusade, he declared former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield healed of the heart problems that cost him his title. Holyfield later told the Philadelphia Inquirer that he believed his heart was totally healed and that he would return to the ring to seek an unprecedented third title.

According to a volunteer helping Hinn with security on-stage, Hinn asked crusade-goers for $1,000 to help with costs. When Holyfield raised his hand, Hinn reportedly asked him for $100,000 -- and when the boxer agreed, Hinn pressed him further, asking him to underwrite the entire crusade, to the tune of $250,000. Holyfield acquiesced, and Hinn reportedly prayed that God would enable the pugilist to earn $200 million because of his donation.

End of document, CRJ0188A.TXT (original CRI file name),
"News Watch"
release A, December 1, 1994
R. Poll, CRI

A special note of thanks to Bob and Pat Hunter for their help in the preparation of this ASCII file for BBS circulation.

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