Dr. Robert Schuller, minister-host of "The Hour of Power," a weekly religious television broadcast over 140 stations, quoted from the newest Good Book. "I want to give you," said Schuller, "The fact from Arbitron. . . ."
The rise of video evangelism Schuller exemplifies, with its successful blend of old-time religion and mass media techniques, has sparked both interest and concern from mainstream churches. But they are not yet certain whether to embrace television as a new medium for the Gospel or reject it as a corrupting influence.
Clergymen and church leaders attending a two-day conference on "The Electronic Church" were sharply divided over the role television should play in religious propagation. The conference, sponsored jointly by the National Council of Churches, the U.S. Catholic Conference and New York University, was held at New York University's Catholic Center. It ended today.
The polls say "there is a perception that churches has no relevancy to people's lives but television does," said Pat Robertson, a founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of the 700 Club -- a nationally syndicated religious talk show seen daily on more than 130 commericial stations and 3,500 cable systems. "To say that the church shouldn't be involved with this is utter folly. The [human] needs are the same, the message is the same, but the delivery system can change."
But Dean Colin Williams, on leave from the Yale Divinity School, said he fears the format of video evangelism inherently oversimplifies the message of the Scriptures.
"The breadth [of the Gospels] are not reflected in the narrow compass of the electronic church of T.V. Electronic evangelism allows itself to be come constricted by the medium and it becomes a consumer religion and instant gratificaton. . . . It doesn't help people think. . . .It draws upon people's feelings of disappointment and alienation."
"The way television has developed," Williams said "it had the innate tendency to corrupt."
And just as television has altered the way people perceive their work or their school lives, video evangelism has affected the way people see their church.
"The production values of the electronic church are so slick," said George Conklin, professor of communications and media studies at the Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, Calif., (that) "with good editing, careful blocking and all the elements of entertainment variety the average congregation, the average pastor, the average volunteer choir may suffer by comparison."
Maryanne Murphy of the Princeton Research Center, and affiliate of the Gallup organization, said churches should "research ways to mix entertainment and information at Bishop [Fulton] Sheen did."
Murphy cited a Gallup survey showing that the established mainstream congregations were losing members because people felt the church no longer took a "personal interest" in them.
"The mainline denominations are running scared," said Schuller. "They're losing ground because they fail to meet the deepest emotional needs of people."
Schuller and Robertson argue that their programs help meet those needs and provide their viewers with spiritual nourishment.
While many at the conference disagree with that assessement, they felt the mainstream churches would soon be following the evangelicals onto TV.