Decades after the downfall of the television ministry of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, with their heavy mascara, tearful confessions, and money-raising gimmicks, all of us in mainline Protestantism are now televangelists ourselves these days. And yet we don’t have many models within our tradition of how to do “virtual church” well. We are all figuring it out as we go along. We remember in Matthew’s gospel where Jesus says, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Yet now he adds a caveat: “But if there’s more than 10 people, the CDC and local police will show up too.”
So I feel the need to apologize. Having grown up in my family’s charismatic evangelicalism of the late 1980s and 1990s, I was well-versed in the thriving television ministries of the likes of Jimmy Swaggart, John Hagee, John Osteen (and later his son, Joel), Joyce Meyer, and of course, Jim and Tammy Faye.
Leaving that particular Christian subculture in college, and embracing the Reformed tradition, I naturally became quite averse to how the church of my youth operated, not only the theological underpinnings, but by extension, the mode of presentation. Far removed from a simple televised Billy Graham crusade, the most common style of on-air ministry programming felt canned, hackneyed, simplistic, and a false attempt at authenticity. Televangelism was just plain weird.
Time passed of course, and now we find ourselves in a global pandemic from COVID-19 that has forced followers of Jesus Christ to become the church in diaspora. Since we cannot be together in any corporate sense, we have had to turn to visual presentations of worship and education that do not play to most of our strengths as Presbyterian clergy. This was underscored by an opinion piece in 2018 in The New York Times titled, “Internet Church isn’t Really Church.”
While highlighting the honest need for online worship for those who are sick and homebound, the writer also notes, “In an era when everything from dates to grocery delivery can be scheduled and near instant, church attendance shouldn’t be one more thing to get from an app. We can be members of a body best when we are all together — we can mourn when we observe and wipe away tears, just as we can rejoice when we can share smiles and have face-to-face conversations. Studies show that regular attendance at religious services correlates with better sleep, lower blood pressure in older adults, and a reduced risk of suicide. I doubt these same phenomena occur when online church is substituted for the real thing, because the truth is that community is good for us. We need one another.”
We are an embodied people. We possess an embodied theology. One theologian writes, “As the eternal triune love makes room for others, so human beings in the image of God are called to discover true personhood in relationship with others.”
We need other people to help us find out who God has called us to be. Yet in this cultural moment we are being challenged to forgo our dependence on physical bodies being present while continuing to bear witness to the Good News.
And it’s not easy. The folks who are doing it best are the same folks who have been doing it for many years now: the TV preachers. So I am terribly sorry to all the televangelists that I mocked. We’ve raced to follow your lead. We mainline pastors have had to learn quickly about ring lights and gimbals, Facebook Live and Zoom meetings, HDR settings and iMovie tutorials. We’ve had to pay attention to backdrops and shadows and artificial lights that refract back.
To be sure, our Reformed theology has remained what it has always been: deep and generous, probing and inquisitive, gracious and faithful. But our presentation style sure has changed. We have done our best to convey meaning, hope, compassion and authenticity to a camera lens.
So Tammy Faye, I’m as surprised as anyone to say this, but thanks for paving the way. I’ve been humbled by your vision.
Postscript: Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner entered God’s presence after a long battle with cancer on July 20, 2007. Upon being released from prison, her ex-husband, Jim, continues a television ministry. He was recently sued by the state of Missouri for falsely promoting a “secret serum” that would cure people of coronavirus. So he’s a fool, and I’m not apologizing to him.