ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – The caller is a 42-year-old woman named Christine from Seminole who cries a little as she talks about being addicted to crack cocaine for the past seven years.
“I don’t want to do it anymore,” she tells Bill Keller – and everyone else tuned into the televangelist’s late night program in the Tampa Bay area. “I just want to be free of it, and I don’t know how to do it anymore.”
Keller, who’s heard it all during almost four years of taking unscreened phone calls from the lost and forlorn on live TV, doesn’t flinch. He bows his head and urges her to pray along with him. She repeats the words after him as if she’s taking her wedding vows.
“Christine, let me tell you something, honey,” he says before passing her off to another minister for further counseling. “You’ve got the power of God in you, and you can be free from this once and for all.”
A few hours later, Keller drives to his cluttered office at a used car lot to share God’s word with his flock in cyberspace. He writes a daily devotional for his Web site that he says is e-mailed directly to more than 2 million people who signed up. About 40,000 of them hit the “reply” button every day to send back prayer requests.
Keller, 48, is God’s man for the multimedia age, salvaging souls one mouse-click at a time while thriving on the personal contact with callers to his unorthodox TV show, “Live Prayer With Bill Keller.” It airs now on the local CW network affiliate but is slated to go national and move to the afternoons in March. He’s convinced he can take viewers from “false hope merchants” like Oprah, Dr. Phil and Montel by touting strict Christian values.
On any given show Keller might discuss politics and current events, deliver pep talks, rail on popular culture, trash Scientologists and Mormons, and tussle with callers offended by his pull-no-punches interpretation of the Bible.
“My mind-set is to reach the lost,” says the salesman-turned-preacher, who doesn’t shy away from his past as an all-star sinner. “The lost aren’t sitting in church, the lost aren’t watching Christian TV. I’m not here to preach to the choir.”
Judging from the solid ratings – it’s the second-most watched show in the Tampa market that’s on between midnight and 6 a.m. – and the jammed phone lines, plenty of the lost are awake at 1 a.m. when he comes on, right after the “South Park” reruns. He’s counting on a larger audience when the show goes national on the i Network, formerly PAX TV.
Keller is tall and trim and surprisingly likable for a TV preacher whose stark message and volatile style bring regular death threats.
Homosexuals are sinners. Living together and having sex before marriage are wrong. Abortion amounts to “slaughtering babies.” If you don’t believe the Bible, the fires of hell await.
“You’re never going to hear a guy on a secular TV station say the things I say, which the world today views as outrageous,” Keller says. “Fifty years ago, people commonly held those same beliefs. That’s how far we’ve gotten from Biblical truth.”
Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, a nonprofit religious watchdog group that monitors televangelists, says Keller has his work cut out for him. It’s difficult for religious broadcasters to get a foothold in the secular TV market, he says, especially on a fledgling network that relatively few people watch.
“I wish him well, but I think he’s a little naive,” Anthony says.
Reared in Columbus, Ohio, Keller took a meandering route to the ministry. Intending to go into it after graduating from Ohio State University, he ran out of money, quit school after his junior year and made a bundle selling personal computers in the late 1970s.
Later he sold fax machines and traded commodities, lost a bundle when the stock market crashed in 1987, then got caught up in an insider trading scheme that landed him in federal prison for 2 1/2 years in the early 1990s. Behind bars, he earned a Biblical Studies degree from Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.
Preaching and working in development for Christian TV eventually brought him from his Chicago base to Florida. But he says he grew disillusioned with the philosophy of marketing religious programming to other Christians willing to open their pocketbooks, rather than to nonbelievers who really need to hear the message.
Looking for new ways to reach people, Keller founded LivePrayer.com in 1999, taking prayer requests and answering each e-mail personally. These days, the 40,000 daily requests are parceled out to 700 volunteers who reply to every one.
Keller sometimes includes a request for donations in his daily devotional. He’s been told he could sell his mailing list and make millions. But that would hurt his credibility. So would pleading for money on the TV show.
The cost of the Internet and TV enterprises – about $80,000 a month – is covered by about 4,000 donors now. He hopes the syndication deal will mean he never has to ask them for money again.
Keller’s 2005 tax return – which he gladly shares with anybody who asks about his finances – reported an income of $57,000. He and his wife of 24 years, Nan, live in Largo, near St. Petersburg, and prefer to spend their Sundays doing something other than going to church.
Clyde Walters believes in him. He’s the retired police officer who gave Keller office space at his used car lot when he was trying to get the ministry off the ground and where Keller has remained, despite the rats and roaches. He says Keller’s outreach is changing lives.
“This is where the rubber meets the road,” Walters says.
John Jurek believes in him, too. The 43-year-old art dealer and writer who lives in Bradenton started reading Keller’s daily devotionals years ago and credits him with bringing a lapsed Catholic back to God.
“He’s opinionated and abrasive,” Jurek acknowledges. “He kind of tells you sometimes things you don’t want to hear, but he makes you think. I really haven’t figured it out, but it seems to work.”