More Tuning In, Catching On to TV Ministry

With nearly half of all Americans tuning in monthly to a televised religious program, more churches and ministries are investing efforts and money into TV ministry.

Evangelicals are currently the dominant religious presence on television, according to a report by PBS' Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. TV evangelist Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston, draws more than 7 million viewers a week and is looking at other international markets to air his program. "The Hour of Power," a TV program produced by Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., estimates it has a worldwide audience of 20 million a week.

Church leaders are investing big money to get their show on air to a national or international audience.

The annual cost for airtime for "The Hour of Power" is $13 million.

"It's an expensive proposition to be on television on Sunday morning and obviously requires a lot of fundraising ... to support that and make that happen," James Penner, producer of "The Hour of Power," told the PBS news program.

While critics say TV preachers spend the bulk of their airtime asking for money, a 2004 study by Professor Stephen Winzenburg of Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, found TV preachers spend an average of 17 percent of their airtime in fundraising and promotion compared to the 28 percent of airtime commercial TV uses in ads and promos.

Four ministries that stood out in the study used at least 95 percent of their program time for ministry. They include "Day of Discovery," "Every Increasing Faith" with Frederick Price, Billy Graham, and "EWTN Live." Charles Stanley's "In Touch" and Paul Crouch's "Praise the Lord" program also spend at least 90 percent of their time in ministry.

Today, fundraising and promotion "remain at their lowest level" since Winzenburg began his research in 1981.

Still, a ministry watchdog group has raised red flags or "donor alerts" on some ministries, including Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network – the world's largest religious broadcaster. this year rated TBN's Transparency Grade with an "F." The watchdog says TBN withholds critical information donors need to make wise stewardship decisions about their support for TBN and criticized the network's recent statement that blasted ABC's 20/20 report questioning the trustworthiness of as a source.

Nevertheless, the vast majority of the 500 ministries the watchdog monitors are honest, founder Rusty Leonard told Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.

And the success of the televised ministry is leading more churches to embrace the latest tips and technology in video production. The National Association of Broadcasters drew over 108,000 attendees to its April conference in Las Vegas. The world's largest electronic media show is now reaching out to churches with "Technologies for Worship" workshops which hundreds attend.

Alongside the largest and wide-reaching TV programs are smaller, local ones with some estimating there to be 10,000 TV ministries.

Rod Payne, media director at First Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas, told the PBS news program, "If you turn on basic cable and a public access channel in communities all over not only the United States ... you're going to find churches with a camcorder, a single camera shot, with an on-the-camera microphone, and a pastor who's sincere, who believes the Word of God and has a desire to teach that Word and share that Word with other people."