Paul Crouch’s Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) is the largest Christian broadcaster in the world today. The TBN family of networks reaches over 100 million US households and much more internationally with truth from Scripture and the message of the gospel. Ultimately, the goal of every Christian television network, is to take the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world. In the history of Christian TV, when Christ followers have used this medium for a Christian purpose, the Great Commission has always been at least an implicit part of their mission statement. As early as the 1950’s, believers with a penchant for broadcasting have seen television’s unique ability to reach exponentially more people with the gospel message than you could ever fit in a cathedral. TBN has had the most success to date with sheer numbers, but it is not alone in trying to spread the gospel with a television camera.
The Earliest Years of Televangelism
The first televisions were produced in the 1930’s, but radio was still king until after World War II. It was around 1950 that many saw the usefulness of using the new visual technology. The Catholic http://www.catholic.org/ Bishop Fulton Sheen is usually credited as the first Christian televangelist. After twenty years on the radio, he started a weekly televised broadcast called Life is Worth Living. Frank Sinatra and Milton Berle dominated ratings at the time, Bishop Sheen’s show proved that there was a market for Christian broadcasting when he found commercial success with his biblical messages. Others, lesser well know but equally pioneering also made their own contributions at this time. Virginia Fagal began Faith for Today under the sponsorship of her Seventh Day Adventist denomination. Her ministry later incorporated Bible study materials by the same name that would arrive by mail to her viewers. Rex Humbard http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rex_Humbard also began his televised broadcast in the early 1950’s. He preached from his Cathedral of Tomorrow in Ohio into millions of homes until 1999.
The Next Wave
Beginning in the 1960’s, a new wave of televangelists caught on to the opportunity that TV broadcasting offered. The church had witnessed these pioneers for a decade and entrepreneurial church leaders started stations and networks that would last until today. In 1961, Pat Robertson started a small bandwidth UHF station named the Christian Broadcasting Network. Within a few years, Robertson developed an anchor show for the station called The 700 Club. Fifty years later, it is a daily news and devotional program that Pat Robertson still hosts every day on CBN http://www.cbn.com/ . TBN airs The 700 Club every weekday.
In Los Angeles in 1970 Paul Crouch and his wife Jan leased a single station and had one show, called Praise the Lord. By 1973 the Crouches had purchased a station and TBN was born. That one station brought a small audience, but the Crouches were undeterred in their dream to grow the network. Over the next thirty years, Paul Crouch has continuously looked for ways to expand, both in audience and new stations. This attitude has fostered the growth of TBN into the largest Christian network in the world. Praise the Lord is still the flagship program. It has hosted notable Christian leaders and musicians from Billy Graham http://www.billygraham.org/ to Michael W. Smith.
In the 1960’s, a catholic nun named Mother Angelica created Our Lady of Angels Monastery in Alabama. For years, Mother Angelica wrote what she called mini-books about faith and the Bible. These short booklets kept growing in popularity. After a time, the sisters bought a printing press so that they could meet the demand for readership. Soon after, Mother Angelica was regularly called to speaking engagements and these were turned into a video series. In 1981, the next step seemed forced upon the sisters and they launched the Eternal World Television Network (EWTN). It was thought that there would be little audience for a Catholic network, but twenty five years later it had a worldwide audience of more than 100 million households.
Marcus and Joni Lamb http://www.daystar.com/ were married in 1982 and immediately entered into public ministry. By 1984, they had started Channel 45 in Alabama. Like the others before them, the Lambs started small and reached a city wide audience, not even covering the whole state to begin with. In 1990, they moved to Dallas, Texas with the hope of building a larger network. They bought a new bandwidth and kept building. By 1997, the station was officially launched Daystar. In less than ten years its audience was in the hundreds of millions globally. Today it is second to TBN in numbers of households.
Technology and Christian TV Today
In the 21st century, several new phenomena have changed the face of Christian television. One interesting advancement that speaks volumes about the permanence of Christian television is providers like Sky Angel. Following the schema of cable providers like Time Warner or U-Verse, Sky Angel is a cable provider who offers more than 80 faith based and family friendly networks, like the stations produced by TBN. The resilience of Christian television is evident because of the great number of stations and the fact that Sky Angel has been in business for more than a decade and hasn’t shown signs of stopping.
Web based video viewing is so commonplace now, that it rivals television’s viewing audience. All of these stations mentioned in this essay have taken advantage of internet video as a way of spreading their message. TBN, for example, offers a 24 hour live stream of its entire network. In addition, online viewers can search for particular shows and episodes from the archives list and watch them on demand. TBN also offers what they call a “three-screen environment” by adding streaming video to smart phones as another option for viewing its faith based programs.
The lesson here, is that television is a powerful and far reaching tool that Christians have proven to be very capable of using. Throughout history, followers of Jesus have had to adapt the message of the gospel in order to clearly communicate the love of Christ to a lost and dying world. In our day and in this culture, one of the most viable ways to do this is through television screens and in to people’s homes. Paul Crouch, Pat Robertson, and Rex Humbard may have been some of the first to have this vision, but they certainly will not be the last.