Future of Evangelicalism
The Revolution May Not be Televised... but 'Redemption' Just Might
By Marla Frederick
Unlike sermons of old, which circulated primarily on radio and television networks serving American audiences, the advancement of cable and satellite broadcasting has created a global culture in which contemporary televangelists' messages make their way instantly to locales beyond U.S. borders. As I sat and spoke with Valencia in Kingston, Jamaica, where I conducted months of ethnographic research, the impact of global religious broadcasting became immediately apparent (names of individuals and churches changed for privacy). My time there reveals much about the future of religious broadcasting and its ongoing global import.
When I met Valencia she had recently been elected the new president of the women's ministry at Calvary Pentecostal Church. Every second Friday, the women here gather for service, a mixture of Pentecostal praise and worship along with a word of encouragement from a guest minister. After the message, they share testimonies of deliverance and make petitions for healing and offerings of thanksgiving. Taken by the openness of the women to discuss some of their trials, I asked Valencia if we could talk about how the ministry developed. She obliged, explaining that she was compelled to help women because of the enormous amount of pain experienced in her own life. Valencia's short, stout frame, adorned in stylish summer colors and accented by a remarkably upbeat personality, belied the narrative that she would tell. Raped at gunpoint for the third time, her story bears all the weight of unimaginable pain and trauma.
The encouragement she received from American televangelists T. D. Jakes and Juanita Bynum was, she insists, central to her healing. Sequestered by a culture of silence, she had never heard anyone speak publicly about rape before the Oprah Winfrey Show, and then a television sermon by T. D. Jakes. Since then she has been an avid follower of his ministry. Jakes' Woman Thou Art Loosed series and Juanita Bynum's "No More Sheets" testimony of shame and redemption offered Valencia a lens through which she could "see herself" and recapture her own sense of dignity and worth.
These narratives reflect changes in the landscape of who is on religious broadcasting as well as the audiences they serve. As ethicist Jonathan Walton reminds us in Watch This! : The Ethics and Esthetics of Black Televangelism, contemporary televangelists are no longer simply white, grey-haired men belting out narratives of hellfire and brimstone. Nor are they solely the charismatic figures of the Word of Faith movement, like Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin, and Kenneth Copeland. Today, male and female African American televangelists, along with Latino, Asian, and African evangelists represent a growing presence on globally distributed religious broadcasting. While the broadcasters are changing, so too are network ownership patterns. Mercy and Truth Ministries in Jamaica and View Africa Network in South Africa represent the decentering of predominantly American-based religious broadcasting and decision-making powers. Added to that, the evolution of the internet has worked to democratize the processes of production, distribution, and reception. The increasing presence of women and minority evangelists is in many ways a continuum of religious broadcasting's conservative religious history, while at the same time it signals a glimpse into a slightly different future.