Fallen televangelists find afterlife on the Internet

Vancouver Sun/July 30, 2011

In their heyday of the 1970s and 80s, televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker drew in hundreds of thousands of worshippers and millions of dollars before scandal and corruption gutted individual ministries and then the entire genre.

Now, however, the Internet has made it easy and inexpensive to distribute video sermons around the world, breathing new life into virtual ministries and even providing a second act for a few infamous televangelists, a Canadian researcher says.

"They see the technology as a God-given opportunity to spread the message," says Denis Bekkering, a PhD candidate in the joint program in religious studies at Wilfrid Laurier University of Waterloo, Ont. "So when new technology such as radio or television - or in this case, Internet video - arises, these groups are often eager to employ them as tools for that purpose."

He coined the term "intervangelism" for this new breed of tech-enabled ministry, and his research is published in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.

Like their televangelist predecessors, online preachers have huge global reach, he says, but now they can integrate video sermons with podcasts, Google map directions to their brick-and-mortar churches and interactive components that allow worshippers to talk back and to each other. Bekkering is even studying a handful of ministries that consist of nothing but a lone preacher in his living room with a video camera and basic editing software.

"Televangelists, to become international in the '70s and '80s, had to put very heavy investments into cable and satellite technology," he says. "And now, anybody who has a cheap digital camera and an Internet-ready computer can broadcast around the globe."

Aside from intervangelists, proselytizing faiths are often on the cutting-edge of using new media to connect with their flocks and reach out to potential followers.

Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Georgia has created a filmmaking "ministry" called Sherwood Pictures that's produced four full-length films, including Courageous, which will open in limited theatres across Canada on Sept. 30.

The budgets are tiny and the cast and crew are volunteers drawn from its congregation, with the exception of Christian actor and former Growing Pains heartthrob Kirk Cameron, who starred in the third film, Fireproof. The most financially successful of Sherwood's productions so far, the movie pulled in $33.5 million U.S. at the box office, though it was skewered by critics for being maudlin, facile or even misogynistic.

Even Sherwood's production process is imbued with Christian values, with Cameron's real-life wife standing in for his onscreen wife in a kissing scene because of his personal commitment to kiss no one else.

"With hope-filled, heartfelt storytelling, the moviemaking ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church continues to touch the world from Albany, Georgia," the church says of its mission.

The most prominent online faces of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are a retinue of "mommy-bloggers" with impeccable hipster fashion sense, impossibly adorable children and devoted, model-handsome husbands.

The addictive ebullience of Mormon blogs such as Underage and Engaged (http://underagedandengaged.blogspot.com/"), Nat the Fat Rat (http://www.natthefatrat.com) and Rockstar Diaries (http://taza-and-husband.blogspot.com/) was spotlighted in a Salon article earlier this year. But the professional-grade photography and flawless writing and design of the sites - to say nothing of their sparkling vision of domestic bliss - prompted some readers to suggest they are in fact very elaborate marketing tools.

Not so, says Ron Wilson, senior manager of Internet and advertising for the church, which also maintains a social network on Mormon.org that lets curious outsiders chat with church members in their age group, gender or region. The blogs are a digital extension of the faith's focus on journalling, maintained by real people, he says, and the Internet is a natural place for Mormons to continue the public missionary work they've undertaken since their founding in 1830.

"We look at Internet and social media as a new town square," Wilson says. "We've been doing it as long as it's been there and it just makes perfect sense for us that we participate in the conversation."

Bekkering says that just like the rest of the world, some intervangelists have learned painful lessons about how personal reputations can spin out of control online.

Robert Tilton was a Dallas-based televangelist who led a massive airwave flock in the 1980s and early 90s, until his empire collapsed under financial scandal. In his heyday, Tilton had a habit of pausing in his sermons, squeezing his eyes shut and then rearranging his face into a look of wide-eyed cartoon joy when divine inspiration arrived.

Online pranksters strategically dubbed extravagant flatulence sound effects into his video sermons, turning Tilton - who's now trying to make a comeback - into a punchline.

"Most people know him best as The Farting Preacher," says Bekkering, adding that it appears Tilton may be trying to stuff the online genie back in its bottle by claiming copyright infringement. "Now he has to compete with somebody who's hijacked his image."

In another case, detractors made a savage parody video about Eddie Long, a Georgia megachurch preacher who was accused of grooming young men for sexual abuse. The cases were settled out of court in May.

Some former televangelists, like Tilton and Jim Bakker, are trying to use the Internet to stage a comeback after the collapse of their televised ministries, but there's also a new generation of digital-native preachers, Bekkering says.

Rick Warren - whose Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California lays claim to a weekly attendance of 20,000 - skipped the TV distribution channel entirely in favour of online broadcasts. And Joel Osteen, who presides over a 42,000-member Lakewood Church flock that worships in the former Compaq Centre where the Houston Rockets used to play, posts social media messages at a furious pace.

"Everyday, he's posting some sort of small message on Facebook, be it a biblical verse with a little bit of explanation or just a motivational message, and he's getting hundreds and hundreds of responses from people," says Bekkering. "And often, people address Joel as though he would read through all of these comments."

One of the major clearing houses for intervangelism videos, StreamingFaith.com - a sort of Christian YouTube, without the objectionable content or piano-playing cats - originally didn't allow for much interaction by users, Bekkering says. Now, however, the site and others like it (yes, there's a GodTube) are moving into a more sophisticated "Internet campus" model, in which forums pop up right next to a video, allowing virtual worshippers to chat as a service is being delivered.

"You see people commenting that they're watching from Hong Kong or any location around the world," he says. "There's often a statement of regret that they can't be there in person."

But research during the high point of televangelism found that viewers might faithfully watch and donate to their favourite TV pastor, but that was a supplement and not a replacement for the churches they attended in real life, and Bekkering suspects the same thing will happen with intervangelism.

He predicts that, like much of the Internet, these virtual ministries will continue to diversify and find specialized niches. But there's still one common thread that links all these intervangelists with their televised predecessors: money.

"It's hard to find a site that doesn't have a PayPal donation button," Bekkering says.

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