Monday, November 20, 2006

A Pox on God's People

Yesterday my mother-in-law relayed to me a comment her pastor made recently. He told his congregation, “I am amazed at how I can teach you something from the Scripture and you pay little attention to it. But if you hear the same thing said from some television preacher, you act as though it’s the first time they’ve heard it and you’ll send them all your money for it.”

This pastor is a faithful man. He has pastored this church for over 35 years. Every Sunday following the morning service, he gathers his deacons and they visit the many elderly members of the church in their homes. Hardly a person has ever been hospitalized for any length of time that he has not visited to pray and console. He is the model of the faithful country pastor.

So, it’s all the more amazing to me that his people would rather trust the words and teachings of television preachers over his teaching and lived out example. My mother-in-laws comments solidified for me something I’ve been thinking for a while: most television ministries are a pox on God’s people.

Now, that’s no new, groundbreaking comment. Many have lamented the scandals of famous televangelists and the abhorrent theology of many popular TV ministries. But, I think I’m realizing that their effect on the people of God is deeper than I once thought. Just a few things come to mind….

  • Many television ministries foster an unhealthy individualism in today’s Christian culture. The ability to sit at home and listen to the entertaining comments of some charismatic figure actually cultivates a spiritual isolation of sorts. While believing that they’re being spiritually fed, individual Christians are actually learning that their spiritual lives are a personal matter, that Christianity is a solo sport, that what matters most is what they are able to consume for themselves.

  • What follows from this individualism is a low commitment to the local church. Church becomes an optional consumer good that may or may not play any substantial role in a Christian’s life. That individualism tears away at the body of Christ, as each joint, rather than supply to the other, rests comfortably on the sofa gazing at some far off personality promising who knows what.

  • Then there are the personality and celebrity cults that grow up around high-wattage personalities. Television preachers don all the trappings of celebrity entertainers, attracting the star-gazed attention of people immersed in a hyper-entertained culture. Allegiances are made to favorite TV personalities—allegiances that eclipse loyalty to the local pastor that pours himself out caring for the congregation, living among them, consoling them in grief, counseling in difficulty. TV preachers become celebrities who are very nearly worshipped.

  • Which leads sometimes to a crisis of authority in the lives of many Christians. As is the case with some of the people at my mother-in-law’s church, many Christians come to believe that the test of orthodoxy is whether or not their favorite TV preacher teaches or believes a certain idea. If “Pastor Mega-Watts” says it, then it must be so. Never mind what the Bible actually teaches, what its inspired authors actually meant, or how the rules of sound interpretation apply. “Bishop Boob Tube” believes this and that’s all the authority I need seems to be their view of authority. Thousands and thousands watch these entertainers—with their Bibles wide open—and yet are starved of faithful biblical instruction while at the same time infecting the church with their favorite personality’s opinions. Tuning a congregation’s ears to the voice of the Lord (“My sheep hear my voice and they follow me”) can be extraordinarily difficult work when any substantial part of their spiritual diet comes from TV preaching personalities.

  • And because these personalities are seen as biblical authorities and men worthy of a followership, untold amounts of local resources vanish into the coffers of churches and ministries that will never serve the needs of a local body or community. The fundraising machinery of televangelism is quite impressive, if also deadly to the material needs of local churches. How much stronger would many of our churches be if God’s people channeled the resources dedicated to televangelists to the work of their local church? How many pastors would be better cared for? How many more missionaries would be sent to the white fields needing laborers? How many seminarians could be supported? How many benevolence needs met? Just the money spent on attending some of these conferences would be enough to fund a small church for years. But these “ministries” are draining and diverting great stores of energy and resources to events and products with a shelf-life of maybe a couple weeks.

  • And motivating a lot of this is the perverse “success syndrome” that affects so many ministries and men of God. Our people listen to many of these folks because they look successful, they talk about success, and they promise success. And all this success talk and striving after success affects their view of what the church is to be, and their view of the churches they’re willing to attend. The chickens that come home to roost are speckled birds that settle for the appearance of worldly gain but are not content with godliness and faithfulness. Many of our people would rather look “successful” than be faithful and holy. And that does great damage to them personally and to the body as a whole. The mask is on and it’s difficult to get a good look at their spiritual faces… because “mature Christians are prospering.”

  • Television ministries are simply platforms—huge platforms—for false teaching without accountability. Now, of course, I don’t mean all such ministries are teaching false doctrines. But, I think it’s defensible to suggest that a good number of the biggest are and that we live in a church culture that not only disdains accountability and authority in many ways, but also has no equally-scaled apparatus for correcting these massive errors and distortions. When the TV preacher is viewed as the expert theologian, despite no training to that end, and he or she is the CEO of a wholly owned corporation independent to the local church or denomination, it’s tremendously difficult to correct, rebuke or admonish. And the longer they’re not corrected, the more confidence many people are likely to place in them.

Most television preachers and their programs are a pox on the church. The subtle effects they have in eroding biblical authority, a biblical view of the church and of the Christian life amount to untold damage to countless millions.


Lane Keister said...

This is an amazingly helpful post, Thabiti. Thank you so much.

terry said...

In high school I was a big fan of Robert Schuller's "Hour of Power".
I've tended to listen to Christian radio often through the years and God has used it greatly to encourage and strengthen my heart.
I'd never thought that Christian tv and radio encouraged individualism...but I think that is correct.
The problem is that the church isn't always the ideal place for teaching, etc. and that is why I tend to be use resources like sermons online like at, etc. to gain wisdom and insight into God's word.

FellowElder said...

I don't mean to suggest that ALL television or radio teaching is bad. And, in fact, I would be a big proponent of listening to a John MacArthur, Mark Dever, John Piper, and a long list of other faithful expositors. But I wouldn't encourage a member of a local church to exalt these men above their own local church or to think that because they can download them on an ipod that their spiritual lives are sufficiently taken care of. Neither do I think these men would encourage that.

But continue to listen to good, faithful expositors of Scripture AND/WHILE involving yourself meaningfully in the life and under the authority of your local church.

May the Lord grant you great joy, peace, and righteousness as you feed upon His Word!

Sam-I-Am said...

Sharp, insightful analysis. The Christian mind is not dead. Thanks for such a clear, Biblical analysis.


Byron said...

Yes, yes, yes. Great post; will be linking!!! Thanks!

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine wrote a paper last spring for a college class about the televangelism culture. He made the comparison between the hip-hop culture and the televangelists (I bet no one saw that coming). He remarked how in the hip-hop industry image is everything, and people buy CDs almost as much because they want the life of the artist (cars, money, girls, etc.) as they enjoy the music.

In the same way, televangelists play the part of their message. They look and act the part so well of someone who is receiving "blessing" from God because of their "faith" that people believe it must be true. The flashy studios, nice suits, big audiences, and bold claims certify that their teaching works and therefore must be true.

How can a minister who is faithful to God's Word in the context of the local church compete when TV hides the flaws that you see in real life?

I'm reminded of Colossians 1:24 though (Piper has an excellent discussion of this in "Brothers, We are not Professionals"). It is the local pastor's living out the truth of his message that cannot be duplicated through television, the shepherd loving his sheep and embodying the message of Christ. It is sad when this happens and people still look to the flashy instead.

wwdunc said...

Amen! Amen! and Amen! I've seen the spiritually deleterious effects of TV preachers on the untaught and undertaught in the local church. Keeping telling the truth! I look forward to meeting you and hearing you in person, the Lord willing, at New Life Church in Illinois next June.

Wyeth Duncan (

Alan Davey said...

Amen, Thabiti. Amen.

Johnny P. said...

Broad sweeping generalization.

"Television ministries are simply platforms—huge platforms—for false teaching without accountability."

"Most television preachers and their programs are a pox on the church."

Sam-I-Am wrote, "Thanks for such a clear, Biblical analysis."

This article doesn't quote a single specific person(on TV) or situation or a single scripture for that matter. Other than mother's "faithful country preacher" who feels like his flock aren't listening, who has specifically been effected by this problem? A poll or statistics would be nice. Intelligent dialogue deals with specifics and fact.

How am I supposed to know which expositors are approved of and which ones aren't? It appears that all reformed teachers are approved. The article mentions a few, but are others ok as well? What if they aren't reformed? Could you supply a list? What is proposed as a solution to this problem? If it is truly this "pox on God's people", don't you think it is worth putting some effort into solving or fixing? I mean seriously, isn't a "pox on God's people" worthy of more than armchair speculation? More than just a blog? Shouldn't we be doing something to save the body from this deadly virus???

Secondly, almost all of these problems are issues in the hearts of the people watching. Idolization, materialism, selfishness and laziness. Don't all of these problems exist in the local church? False teaching is one thing, but the problems listed previously have occurred to people sitting under some of the best teaching from godly men. These problems exist in our midst, and if we're honest, in our own lives. How much are we dealing with them in our own hearts?

Lastly, I could write an equally scathing blog about blogs. The internet provides worldwide exposure for unchecked people to write articles that have absolutely no accountability. People read these articles, have their opinions on spiritual matters effected and formed, and then spread that information to others. Truth is a casualty of technology. Fact is in no way guarded or monitored. That is a seriously dangerous situation. Perhaps we should do away with blogs.

Answer this question. After reading this blog, what solution or point of action is suggested as the next step? And what scripture is used to come to that conclusion.

All of that said, I agree that much of what passes for ministry on tv is misguided and, if nothing else, and embarrasement to most of us who call ourselves Christians. From my dicussions with people outside the church, most "Christian Television" appears to push them further away from Christ. All I am suggesting is that conflict and correction be done in a productive and biblical way, which requires love, confrontation and accuracy. It is much easier to espouse ideas than it is to put them in to action.

The bride of Christ is far from perfect, but she is still His wife, and talking about another man's wife is a dangerous thing. Even the parts that we disagree with are precious people to Him. Let's all be a part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

TulsaDavid said...

An outstanding article. Thank you for sharing it.

To Johnny P, who says, "let's all be a part of the solution, and not part of the problem,' there is a vast difference between growing and swelling, and I want no part of the egocentric church that uses "evangelism" as a catch-all for "anything goes." That is nothing like the sacrificial one-on-one Christianity of the New Testament. And that is everything like the vicarious disconnect from reality that most TV watchers suffer from.