Charisma magazine reports on the tremendous evangelistic success of Trinity Broadcasting Network:
TBN is reporting 36 million conversions to Christ in the past 40 years. The network says those reports have come through TBN’s prayer ministry, which has been hard at work alongside founders Paul and Jan Crouch from day one.
… In February of this year alone, TBN says its prayer partners received nearly 80,000 individual prayer requests and led more than 850 people in prayer for salvation or to renew their commitments to Christ.
Let’s do the arithmetic here: 36 million conversions in 40 years comes out to 75,000 per month. So either February was a horrifically slow month for TBN — with 74,150 fewer conversions than usual. Or else February was pretty typical, and the truth is that it will take TBN more than 3,000 years* to reach 36 million conversions at its current pace.
Something seems like it doesn’t add up.
The major fudge factor in TBN’s numbers is the customary weasel wording used by almost every “evangelistic ministry” that tallies and touts its soterian statistics. TBN’s claim wasn’t actually 850 “conversions” in February, but rather 850 people who came to “salvation or to renew their commitments to Christ.” In theory, then, this could all be one guy, calling in to TBN 850 times in February to constantly “renew his commitment to Christ.”
That phrase can be employed to refer to something meaningful, but in this context that’s unlikely. Anyone who has spent more than a year in the white evangelical subculture knows what “renewing their commitments to Christ” means here. It’s what happens when nobody comes forward at the altar call.
The preacher or evangelist standing up there in the pulpit realizes he’s talking to a room filled with life-long church-going Christians and not a single soul who hasn’t already been saved. So he starts to expand the scope of his invitation. First he challenges anyone who’s been “backsliding” to come forward and rededicate their life to Christ. And then he begins to widen the definition of “backsliding” to include those who have lost their “fire” for Christ. It keeps widening like that until he includes even those whose zealous devotion has never wavered, who are invited to come forward as a chance to reconfirm that faith publicly.
If that church seats 200 people, that goes down on the scorecard as “200 decisions for Christ.” Come back and do that at the same church with the same people in the Sunday evening service and now you’ve racked up “400 decision for Christ.” Do that 50 weeks a year and you can report “20,000 decisions for Christ” in your next fundraising letter — even if you’ve never spoken to, much less converted, a single non-Christian.
I’m not kidding. The population of the United States is around 313 million, but if you tally up all the “decisions for Christ” reported over the years by the thousands of evangelistic ministries in this country, you’ll get a number a lot higher than that.
This salvation inflation is pretty sleazy when its cited in those ministries’ fundraising newsletters. And it’s even sleazier when its cited as the trump card white evangelicals use to shield themselves from all criticism and to excuse any wrongdoing: We’re saving souls from Hell — that’s proof we’re in the right!
And that is, in fact, exactly why TBN is announcing these “36 million conversions to Christ in the past 40 years.” And it is exactly why that announcement is being reported, at face value, by Charisma magazine.
The puff-piece on TBN was published on April 23 as part of the process of patching up things and making nice after a column by Charisma mogul Steve Strang earlier this year obliquely referred to some of the more sordid details of the slow-motion implosion now occurring at the thoroughly corrupt broadcasting empire.“They now are one of the most controversial Christian ministries out there,” Strang wrote — employing “controversial” in its disciplinary, tribal sense (meaning, roughly, “keep back lest ye be tainted by the contagion of controversy — unclean! unclean!”). Discussing a potential interview with the Crouches, Strang wrote:
I didn’t know how we’d ask the questions the Christian community wants to know: about why their oldest son, Paul Jr., left the network, or the lawsuit and allegations from their granddaughter.** Readers wanted to know why they allow ministers who have had nasty divorces — and in one case is accused of fathering a child by a teen in his church — on their telethons and stations. They wanted to know about how the more than $400 million-a-year budget is spent.
I know the Crouches well enough to know they feel the last part isn’t anyone’s business, as long as they follow the law. They rebuff inquiries about their finances.
TBN — a company with an ad budget, by the way — fired off an angry, testily defensive letter in response that it demanded Strang publish. Charisma published that letter on April 4. Here’s just a short excerpt from it:
An objective Mr. Strang might have told the relatively little-known story of TBN’s miraculous growth from one small station in California to over two dozen international networks and affiliates broadcasting the good news of Jesus Christ to every inhabited continent 24 hours a day — billions of souls.
Mr. Strang might have focused in particular on TBN’s six affiliate networks in Russia, its two full-time networks broadcasting the gospel to Muslims around the world, or the 24-hour network established a couple of years ago in Jerusalem that broadcasts the good news to the millions of Russian Jews who have made Israel their home.
Mr. Strang might also have pointed out the state-of-the-art studios TBN is now building in London and Jerusalem for the production of life-changing programming in all of TBN’s international networks and affiliates.
Most importantly, Mr. Strang would have had the opportunity to highlight the more than 36 million decisions for Christ logged by TBN’s prayer partners over the past 40 years, the multiplied millions of prayers answered and lives changes, and the commitment Matt Crouch and the next generation of TBN leadership has for continuing to pursue Paul and Jan Crouch’s undeterred vision of using television to reach the world for Christ.
That’s how this trump card is played. Salvation inflation lets you pump up the numbers into some impressive-sounding huge figure that can be cited — “most importantly” — as evidence of God’s blessing of your righteous work.
TBN, you see, is “using television to reach the world for Christ … billions of souls … 36 millions decisions for Christ …” And unless you’ve reached more billions of souls than they have, and unless you’ve produced more than the “more than 36 millions of decisions for Christ” that TBN has produced, then you’ve got no right to criticize them for their occasional nasty divorce, their coddling of sexual predators or their shameless fleecing of vulnerable poor people year after year after year.
But it doesn’t actually work like that.
Those incredible statistics of evangelistic success don’t outweigh, excuse or erase the loathesome evils of which the Crouches have been accused. Not even if those statistics could be believed.
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* We could calculate this at least two ways. Based on 850 conversions a month, it would take 3,529 years to reach 36 million. Or, since February is the shortest month, we could calculate it based on 30.36 conversions per day, which would take only 3,249 years to get to 36 million.
** Those allegations are very disturbing (trigger warning for that link).