The Orange County-based network has grown in 25 years from one station to 750, largely thanks to gifts from viewers.
The Rev. R.W. Schambach, 72 years old and fired up, has been exhorting viewers of the world’s largest Christian TV network to give $2,000 each during a spring “Praise-A-Thon.”
Don’t have it? Just send in $200, and God will get you the rest within 90 days, he says, squinting into the camera at Trinity Broadcasting Network studios in Tustin.
“You say you got no money? You’re the one I’m after,” he says. “They can’t accuse me of being after your money. You ain’t got none! But if I can help you get it, then I want some of it. You hear me?”
The Orange County-based network has grown in 25 years from one station to 750, largely thanks to gifts from viewers.
The Costa Mesa-based ministry stands apart, even from its often-dramatic Pentecostal cousins.
They are among the most influential of modern-day evangelists, photographed with presidents and queens, traveling the world by private jet, a channel to God for 8 million saved souls.
Supporters say the heavenly make- over is a tribute to a higher power. But it carries a lofty price.
But the public won’t see it. A TBN official describes it as ‘standard executive offices.’
He crushes a Bible against his mustard-colored sport jacket.
“It works!” yells the Texas preacher and Praise-A-Thon mainstay. “IT WORKS!”
It has worked well for the hands-on architects of TBN, Paul and Jan Crouch, who control all aspects of their broadcast dynasty. The Newport Beach couple launched TBN in rented studios in Santa Ana 25 years ago and have shaped it into a $100 million-a-year enterprise.
Among the most powerful voices in modern evangelism, the Crouches share their prosperity gospel with viewers of more than 750 television stations. Programming ranges from their own Pentecostal-style “Praise the Lord” show to the faith-healing services of Benny Hinn to the “power thinking” theology of the Rev. Robert H. Schuller.
As it celebrates its silver anniversary with the dedication of a new world headquarters in Costa Mesa, TBN has achieved a near-global reach despite going all but unnoticed by much of America’s mainstream television audience.
Many viewers, like Ken Opp of Albuquerque, N.M., are regular contributors, drawn by the Crouches’ Pentecostal message of salvation.
“Everything they do, they are totally doing the Lord’s work,” Opp says.
Others are attracted by the hope of financial reward and heavenly merit. A key tenet of the prosperity gospel is: Blessed are those who give, for God will free them from debt so they can finance the saving of souls and hasten the Second Coming of Christ.
Whatever the motivations of viewers, their pledges have helped make TBN an unqualified success. The network takes in tens of millions a year in public support and adds new TV stations at a rate of up to one a week all debt-free.
Measured by public contributions, the Crouches are on par with the Rev. Billy Graham, who has been called America’s spiritual leader. Like Graham, TBN raises about $80 million a year in contributions.
“It’s God’s work,” TBN Vice President Terry Hickey says. “And we are six months behind in what he wants.”
TBN’s tax records and financial statements show the ministry has accrued assets of $227 million, vs. liabilities of $6.8 million. Crouch says he has rejected offers of up to $2 billion for the network.
“Crouch is an entrepreneur on the magnitude of Ross Perot,” says David Clark, head of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Family Network, one of a handful of TBN competitors.
“The Crouches have personalities bigger than life,” he says. “They have captured the charismatic niche, where emotion is the way to God. They are an enormous force in broadcasting.”
To Paul Crouch, new stations mean more saved souls.
TBN owns 12 full-power television stations in the United States, including major broadcast facilities in Orange County, Texas and Tennessee, and hundreds of other TV and radio outlets from the Caribbean to Russia.
TBN says it reaches more than half of the estimated 98 million U.S viewing households, and it is carried by 4,500 cable operators and three satellite systems.
The Crouches who declined to be interviewed are hands-on executives, occupying two of three seats on the TBN board of directors and earning six-figure incomes. He is paid $159,500 a year as president, while she gets $165,100 as vice president, IRS records show.
Besides airing their “Praise the Lord” show, TBN produces programming for other evangelists and provides valuable TV access to big-name ministers with a variety of evangelical messages. Among them are Oral Roberts’ faith healing services, Schuller’s message of “unlimited possibilities,” and former Western movie star Dale Evans’ inspirational talks.
The TBN formula for success is simple: acquire more stations to attract a larger audience to get more contributions to acquire more stations.
TBN’s phone number is on the screen during all broadcasts, and the Crouches are never hesitant to remind viewers it’s time to make that call.
“Grandma, get out of that rocker and get to the telephone,” Paul Crouch urges during the Praise-A-Thon.
The Crouches make no apology for their aggressive techniques, nor for their the-more-you-give-the-more-you-get theology.
“TBN has taken criticism from our Christian brothers that we would dare tell God’s little people that it is the key to them receiving everything,” Jan Crouch tells viewers. “But God said: ‘Never stand before me without a gift.’ ”
The Crouches used to announce how much money was pledged during fund drives. Now they keep on-screen only a tally of viewers who say their souls were saved by TBN programming more than 8 million by their latest count.
Despite thousands of conversion testimonies that come in by phone and mail to TBN, some observers doubt the effectiveness of the “electronic church” in bringing people to Jesus, or together in Christian fellowship.
“In a church you lay down your life for each other and know each other, and there is accountability,” says Ole Anthony, head of Texas-based Trinity Foundation, a Christian watchdog group not affiliated with TBN. “You can’t do that with a cathode-ray tube.”
To many Americans, the Crouches and other TV ministers are merely fleeting images glimpsed while channel-surfing.
But Quentin Schultze, a televangelism expert and communications professor at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., puts their roles in broader perspective, calling televangelism America’s home-grown religion.
“It reflects our cultural currents from marketing concepts to pop cult personality-led ministries, and from emotion-packed validated beliefs to technological sophistication,” he says.
Although the Crouches generally keep a low political profile, TBN and its viewers helped make Christian conservatives a political force.
Crouch supported Pat Robertson’s unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1988. His guests often speak up for school prayer and against abortion and gay rights.
On the recent Praise-A-Thon, evangelist Schambach repeatedly offered a “ninefold blessing” to those who contributed, asking God to build for them “a wall of protection” against sin, sickness, addictions, plague and perversion.
“I’ll tell you up-front I’m not politically correct,” he says. “What I’m saying is, every one of your baby boys will never grow up to be homosexuals, and every one of your girl babies will never grow up to be lesbians.”
While some prominent televangelists were tainted by sins of flesh and pocketbook that sent their ministries into decline a decade ago, TBN has prospered.
Although untouched by scandal, Crouch has relinquished his membership in the Assemblies of God and eschewed groups that demand fiscal accountability, most notably the 1,000-member National Religious Broadcasters association and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.
He quit the NRB in 1990, after an ethics panel investigated financial complaints about TBN made by competitors and a former employee. The charges were never proved, but an angry Crouch said he would not belong to “man-made organizations” that would try to ruin TBN.
The former small-town minister from Missouri also has waged a years-long battle with the Federal Communications Commission and some competitors who have challenged TBN licenses for its minority-controlled affiliate in Florida.
Crouch describes the litigation as his “seven-year nightmare,” but says God told him he will “take care of it.”
Crouch says that despite the billion-dollar offers for TBN, he will never sell.
“I’d rather wake up with leprosy,” he says. “This is God’s network.”
‘DEVIL BUSTIN’ SATELLITES’
Paul Crouch is standing atop Mount Nebo in Jordan, just as the Bible says Moses did some 3,000 years ago. It was here that God told the prophet to look to the Promised Land. It is here that Crouch has vowed to build a television tower.
“I think Moses would approve of a mighty voice where he spent his last days,” he tells viewers.
Never does Crouch catch fire as he does when preaching the gospel of technology, bouncing up and down on his toes and praising his “mighty holy beamers and Devil Bustin’ Satellites.”
“God’s people are taking hold of every piece of technology on the planet and using it to teach the gospel,” he says.
His 2 1/2- to three-hour program laden with pledge pitches, preaching, guest interviews and praise music has been telecast live five days a week, on sets decorated with a gold-trimmed grand piano, stained-glass windows, a carved wood fireplace, bush-size floral displays, red carpeting and oil paintings of Jesus.
The show last week was broadcast from TBN’s new world headquarters in Costa Mesa, which includes a more subdued set fashioned after the interior of a Gothic cathedral.
It’s a far cry from the early days, when the Crouches used their own bedroom end table as a stage prop, and a shower curtain as a backdrop, and when one of the guests was a chicken that pecked out “Amazing Grace” on a piano.
In the years since, many top evangelists and celebrities have graced the TBN set Schuller, Pat Boone, Evans, Meadowlark Lemon, Rosey Grier, Jane Russell, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., millennialist Hal Lindsey, Franklin Graham and assorted others presenting their theology and new books.
Religious programming for decades dominated the early Sunday slot on national commercial networks, but was replaced by news shows. Televangelists found it difficult to gain access to cable systems.
Then along came Crouch, who tapped into the demand for airtime. TBN also got a boost in the 1980s from the emerging popularity of home satellite dishes, by filling the void left by fallen televangelists such as Jim Bakker and from the sale of Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network to secular interests.
TBN’s $80 million in annual viewer support, while about the same as Graham’s, is less than the $125 million garnered by James Dobson’s Colorado-based Focus on the Family ministry, but more than the $62 million raised by Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral ministry.
Crouch, like more than half of the televangelists in America, follows the Pentecostal tradition, the fastest-growing wing of American Christianity.
To Pentecostals, academic theology is secondary to a personal encounter with the Holy Spirit, and worship emphasizes biblical “signs and wonders” such as faith healing, speaking in tongues, prophecy and casting out demons.
Crouch adds the prosperity gospel, which teaches that if you give enough to God’s servants, you’ll get health and wealth in return.
John Avanzini, TBN’s Louis Rukeyser, tells viewers on his “Biblical Economics” show that if they give more, they will get more with God’s blessing. After all, he says, “Jesus had a house and nice clothes.”
This emphasis on wealth is considered a fringe belief by many Pentecostals and other Christians, and heretical by some. But Crouch throws the barbs right back, calling his critics “heretic hunters.”
TBN theology is also steeped in “technical optimism,” which views satellite technology as God’s handiwork, put on Earth to help the faithful save as many souls as possible, Schultze says.
Technological advances still bring forth awe-inspiring moments for the Crouches. On a recent broadcast, Jan drops to her knees before a prop of a power switch to thank the Lord for a new satellite link covering one-third of Asia. Paul grabs the lever and, quoting a version of Acts 1:8 “ye shall receive power and after that the Holy Ghost shall come upon you” flips the switch.
“Hellooooo Woorld!” yells Paul, who has seen much of it in the past 25 years. He gets around nowadays in a Canadair Challenger 600 executive jet worth about $13 million.
Paul Crouch has come to Jordan to explore starting a Christian station and has brought along part of a 5,000-pound batch of clothes for orphans. A TBN video shows him walking with Queen Noor amid piles of donated items, all new.
“We don’t ask (TBN viewers) for money to get this,” he says. “We ask people to buy and send in a toy, clothes, a doll.”
The queen tells Paul that she and the king live in a modest house and have turned the palace into a home for abandoned children.
At the orphanage, Crouch leans over a crib and carefully pulls back a blanket. The camera zooms in, to the song of an unseen vocalist: “Let’s be the hands that reach out to every boy and girl … the arms that reach around the world.”
While TBN has reached around the world with its broadcast signal, it gives sparingly to charity. IRS documents show that of revenues of about $400 million from 1993 through 1996, TBN gave $6 million to charitable causes through its His Hand Extended ministry.
“That comes to you from Jesus, from Jesus!” Jan Crouch cries, as she hands out Hot Wheels cars and Barbie dolls at a Jerusalem hospital.
She freely displays her emotions during such visits, often dabbing at tears.
The Crouches also are frequently seized on camera by the gift of speaking in tongues, a phenomenon Pentecostals believe is a physical manifestation of God, a garble of sounds only he can interpret. On the spring Praise-A-Thon, Jan tells of a recent nighttime episode.
“I waked up and heard someone speaking in tongues and it was me!” she says. God’s message: “Jan, the TBN Praise-A-Thon isn’t for TBN at all. It’s for all my people. It is their telethon. They are going to have every need met.”
Suddenly, she jerks forward at the waist.
“Eloto-moko krecherya undala lala,” she says, speaking in tongues.
Recovered, she relays God’s message: “Your wallet is going to be healed in Jesus’ name.”
Experts say most televangelists rely on small gifts from donors whose contributions average about $25. Schultze calls them the “55 and until you die” group.
Oklahoma resident Arlene Burghardt has been donating for 15 years.
Recently, she sent Jan Crouch a letter telling how she and her dairy farmer husband, Gerald, had a sudden windfall from oil lease litigation and were able to pay off a $63,000 note on some land God’s reward for their giving to TBN.
Burghardt, 52, had sent a $2,000 contribution to show her gratitude for the unexpected good fortune. Jan mentioned her contribution on “Praise the Lord.”
“I was just ready to pop,” Burghardt says.
Her local church never emphasized contributing a set amount of one’s income, but TBN’s “Bible Economics” program convinced her it was necessary.
For a long time she sent only $25 here and $35 there. Raising kids and cows is expensive. Then she was afflicted by allergies and “the Lord spoke to me that if we tithed I would be healed.” So she began sending $50 a month. Her allergies cleared up.
In one instance, she had worked some overtime and was able to answer the Crouches’ “Macedonian Call,” named for biblical soldiers. TBN used the money to fight FCC litigation.
However, while some legitimate ministries and teachers (those who adhere to the orthodox teachings and practices of historical Christianity) appear on TBN, the network promotes such an incredible amount of heretical material – including extremist Word-Faith teachings – that it is often referred to as “The Blasphemy Network.”
Another time, the Lord told her to support a new TBN station in St. Petersburg, Russia, homeland of her relatives. She sent in $1,000.
Like other viewers, she believes that if you give money to God, God will give money back.
Ken Opp says he sent in $1,000 during the 1996 Praise-A-Thon and two months later got an anonymous gift of 10,000 shares of stock worth $110,000.
“That’s basically how it happened,” says Opp, 54, a sales manager for an Albuquerque company that sells hot tubs and spas.
Opp says the stock certificate came in the mail, along with the phone bill and a few other things. He would not identify the company, but says he verified the certificate’s authenticity.
“We didn’t give $1,000 expecting that we would get $100,000 in return,” he says. “We don’t give to get a tax write-off. We give to do the Lord’s work.”
On a storm-swept night in April, the rain stops and the clouds part as 10 men gather at an altar of stones piled around what resembles a kettle-style barbecue grill. Flames shoot heavenward. A satellite dish behind them lends the eerie feel of a moon base to the scene.
“In the NAME of JEEE-sus, the debt burning has begun!” Schambach shouts on this last night of Praise-A-Thon. “The smoke is going up to choke the devil.”
Paul Crouch and faith healer Benny Hinn haul a large box toward the fire. Inside are thousands of pieces of paper with the names of those who have called in pledges and included a tally of their personal debts.
The men throw the paper in by handfuls. Schambach retreats from the flames.
“The wealth of the wicked has been stored, but this billions of dollars of debt is being released to the people so that they can give more! They are going to finance the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ. I BELIEVE this in my spirit!”
Through the rising smoke and ravenous flames can be seen the names of the hopeful and the amounts of their debts: Louise, $6,000. Juanita, $80,000. Constance, $30,000, Naomi, $95,000. Joe and Debbi, $120,000.
The pages curl, as ashes blow skyward and then fall like dirty snow.
“Oh, dear friends. Look! Look! Look!” Crouch yells into the camera lens.”As these debts go up in smoke, that big ol’ 10-meter satellite dish is beaming 3 million watts of power.
“The devil is really in trouble tonight!”
Register news researcher Penny Love contributed to this report.