Remember all those reasons people used to criticize TV evangelists? Particularly in the 1980’s and 1990’s, using television for evangelism generated massive audiences, but many were considered unconventional at best, and crooked at worst. But now in the age of lockdown, when everyone is live streaming worship services, pastors everywhere have become virtual TV evangelists – and plenty have been surprised at what they’ve learned from the experience.
As a result (and with the help of our executive producer Dan Wathen), I’ve created a list of actions that TV ministries were criticized for in the past, that pastors today have discovered are good lessons to learn:
1. The importance of adapting your service to the online experience. The early TV evangelists understood how to get out from behind a pulpit and move to a studio or other location. They realized that the experience in a sanctuary during a church service isn’t the same experience on television. And now that 100% of church members are watching on TV, pastors are waking up to the knowledge that they can take their live stream service to other locations – even private homes. (Ironically, like the Early Church.) What works with a physical congregation in a sanctuary isn’t always the best approach with a live stream audience.
2. The power of the close-up. Whether it’s on a television program or live stream worship service, communicating the experience happens through facial expressions – especially the eyes – and every great storyteller knows this. Watching wide shots of your stage and scenery aren’t nearly as compelling as a close up of a preacher, worship leader, or storyteller.
3. The importance of a media team. Television ministries knew to hire a great crew because they had the skills to help a single preacher reach a vast audience. Today, pastors around the world have suddenly discovered that their communication and media teams are absolutely essential to creating a life-changing online experience.
4. The power of “show not tell.” A long time ago, TV ministries learned to stop just talking about their outreach work, and start showing it. As early as 1980 I was being dispatched to film missionary outreaches, orphanages, medical missions, and much more around the world. That kind of footage was vital to inspire ministry partners and donors to fund amazing evangelistic and humanitarian projects. Today, pastors are learning that during this crisis, it’s awkward to ask for financial donations without showing how their church is in the fight, ministering to those in need. Even in the worst of times, people want to partner with churches and ministries that are making a difference.
5. TV evangelists were willing to try risky ideas. I can remember when TV ministries were criticized for accepting donations from credit cards, then they were criticized for accepting online donations, and then were criticized for using financial apps like the Cash App or Venmo. But giving methods were changing, and today, all those methods and more are financial lifelines for churches during this lockdown. In fact, in my experience, the churches who had the highest rates of online giving before this crisis are many of the most financially healthy churches right now.
6. The vital need to follow-up. The early TV evangelists discovered the importance of connecting with their audiences in-between programs. In the early days it was direct mail, then it became email, and eventually social media. Today pastors and church leaders recognize that staying connected during the week through live video on Facebook or Instagram, email blasts, Zoom calls, and more are vital to keep the ministry connection with church members. They realize – like the TV ministries – that the broadcast or live stream is only the beginning,
7. It’s OK to pray with your eyes open on camera. OK – that sounds weird, but think about it: In a church service, closing your eyes is fine, but in a close-up on camera, it looks like you’re ignoring the viewers. Today, pastors are quickly figuring out that looking at the viewer while praying creates a far more effective prayer connection.
8. The amazing power of testimonies. Decades ago, TV ministries learned the impact of showing video testimonies of people who had been changed because of the ministry. They noticed they could preach until they were exhausted, but when they showed a 2-4 minute video testimony that confirmed their message, viewers at home made a powerful connection. The viewers thought, “Wow, if it works for that guy, maybe it will work for me.” And that’s the moment they accepted Christ, bought the book, supported the ministry, or whatever decision they needed to make. Now, pastors are regularly showing testimony videos of marriages restored, salvation stories, people being healed and more because during this lockdown, they’re such an encouragement.
I could go on, but you get the point. Now that tens of thousands of pastors and ministry leaders are forced to live stream their worship services and other events, they’re seeing that so many things TV evangelists and their ministries were criticized for years ago, now make a lot of sense.
It doesn’t absolve the handful of wacky ones or the crooks from the past. And I discussed much of that in my book “The Last TV Evangelist.” But it is a good reminder that pioneers often feel the heat, but that same heat sometimes warms the way for those who follow in the future.
Phil Cooke, Ph.D. is a producer and media consultant to churches and ministries across the country. His latest book is “The Way Back: How Christians Blew Their Credibility and How We Get It Back.” Find out more at www.philcooke.com.