Commercials for psychic phone lines that sell people advice on managing their love lives and finances have become a staple on television, especially late-night television. Now there's an evangelical Christian alternative.
During breaks in "The Jerry Springer Show" or "Judge Judy," 30-second TV ads tout the Mechanicsburg, Pa.-based National Prayer Hot Line as a "better alternative to the psychic hot lines." As a stream flows through a serene landscape on the screen, a voice says, "The power of prayer: When you get down to it, nothing is stronger."
A woman talks about the time she called the hot line. "I got a very, very nice lady on the phone. I felt a sense of peace come over me," she says. "What this woman did was put my faith and trust in God."
Commercials for the two-year-old hot line run on cable or Fox network stations serving Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and, more recently, Washington. Ninety volunteers from 35 churches in those markets make sure the hot line is staffed round-the-clock. The prayer hot line is aimed at viewers who might take their troubles to a psychic on the phone.
"I cannot tell you your boyfriend is coming back," said Linda Morrison, co-founder, president and full-time volunteer for the toll-free hot line. "I can tell you who won't leave you."
The hot line (888-937-7294) has been offering an evangelical Christian brand of comfort and guidance for about 300 callers a month--who typically are worried about money, poor health or ailing relationships.
"People don't know where to turn today," said Morrison, who attends Harvest Church in Silver Spring Township, Pa. "People aren't thinking about God for their hope."
The hot-line volunteers, who are recommended by their pastors, are trained to recognize a crisis and to refer any caller who sounds suicidal to another hot line staffed by counselors, Morrison said. Volunteers pray, using language based on Bible passages and selected to fit the caller's problem.
"Many of the people that we would like to reach see our churches as barriers," said the Rev. Paul Veney, of Abundant Life Community Church in Harrisburg, a co-founder and vice president of the hot line. "The telephone reduces the barrier."
Veney, who occasionally fills in as a volunteer, said "just listening" is a crucial part of his role. Often, the callers "start out talking surface talk" and only slowly reveal the painful reason for the calls.
A booklet mailed free to callers contains topical prayers Morrison says are typical of ones the volunteers use in praying over the phone. There's a dose of evangelizing, too. "We talk to them about salvation and a relationship with Jesus Christ," Morrison said. "We tell them they need to get to a church where people can put their arms around them and love them."
Lynn, a volunteer who asked to be identified by only her first name, said she makes a point of finding out whether her callers are born-again and whether they are going to a "good Bible-preaching, salvation-teaching church." She said many of them are lonely or worried about their marriages or their own or a loved one's illness.
Many people who call her are living in "sexual immorality," Lynn said. She has learned to keep passages about that issue marked in her Bible so she can turn to them quickly. People don't get miffed when she addresses that issue, she said, because she is "giving them truth."