There was a time when much of the Christian "buzz" in the OC centered around the nightly doings of Paul and Jan Crouch and their must-see "Praise The Lord" program. "Praise the Lord" is still broadcast live each evening (Monday through Friday) and the world-wide and gigantic TBN empire remains a force. But the local buzz TBN once generated is now long gone.
In my circle, the "Praise the Lord" program was known as the "Pentecostal follies." Of course, most Pentecostals I know felt about TBN the way in which I feel about former CRC elder Harold Camping--the guy is a crackpot. We felt bad laughing at Paul and Jan at first, but then you realized that these people were broadcasting this stuff into my home because they wanted me to watch them. And frankly, much of what they did was funny--even if it shouldn't have been. If some of us were taken aback by Paul and Jan, many more just lapped this stuff up.
TBN hit the airwaves in 1973 and before long, people were fascinated with the nightly doings on "Praise the Lord." No one had seen anything like it. Jan Crouch was not quite as flamboyant as her east coast rival Tammy Faye Bakker, but every bit her equal as a TV personality. "Praise the Lord's" panel format with musical interludes was modeled on the old Mike Douglas and Phil Donahue programs, unlike the Jimmy and Tammy show, which was more a variety show format.
You could find all sort of Christian celebrities and entertainers on "Praise the Lord." Many of these folks were Hollywood "has beens" who, by going on TBN, could still get before a live TV camera and find adoring fans if only they had an interesting "testimony" (or, as we called it, "test of money"). TBN could even boast of having their own rock star (Jeff Fenholt), who was billed as the former front man for Black Sabbath. Upon closer inspection it turned out that he actually knew a guy who once went to high school with someone whose cousin lived next door to some guy who was once in Black Sabbath. Or something like that. He had a set of pipes, but his actual Heavy Metal "front man" resume was pretty thin.
TBN's regulars included Oral Roberts (a nationally known faith-healer) and "Praise the Lord" probably established backwater Word-Faith types like Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, and Fred Price as household names.
Then there was the "young buck"--a Lebanese faith-healer and evangelist with a pronounced Middle-Eastern accent and the wildest comb-over anyone had ever seen--Tofik Benedictus (AKA Benny Hinn). This was the same Benny Hinn who announced live on TBN that there were nine members of the Holy Trinity because each of the three persons of the Godhead were body, soul, and spirit.
I had never seen people speak in tongues until I saw it occur live on the TBN stage. I had never seen people flippantly claim that God had spoken to them (sometimes audibly) and then glibly recount what God supposedly had told them like advice given by Dear Abby. I saw all kinds of things on TBN I had never seen before, and Lord willing, will never see again. It got to the point, if there was nothing good on TV, we'd turn on TBN, just to see what they were up to now--and we were rarely disappointed. It was "Reality TV" before anyone identified the genre as such.
The TBN set was also graced by the presence of those televangelists, pastors, and "ministry" leaders (more like CEOs) whose programming was broadcast by Paul and Jan. Robert Schuller was a semi-regular, as were Chuck Smith, Jack Hayford, E. V. Hill., Hal Lindsey, Bill Bright, and even D. James Kennedy, of all people. I can only wonder if the latter felt sufficiently embarrassed by appearing on the same set with Paul and Jan while trying to engage them in conversation.
But people in the OC talked about "Praise the Lord"--virtually non-stop. How could you be a Christian and not talk about it? Everything we saw on TBN was either controversial, just plain weird, or worse, heretical. I saw people "slain in the Spirit." I saw people "laugh in the Spirit." I heard Jan Crouch describe how, when she was a small girl, the Lord resurrected her dead pet chicken after anointing it with Crisco Oil (because she had no "anointing oil") while Benny Hinn and the participants in the annual telethon cracked-up in the background. Even Benny Hinn couldn't believe what he was hearing. I saw all kinds of things which I cannot forget, and which take up permanent space in my long term memory.
Eventually TBN moved from their headquarters in a Tustin industrial complex (near the famous "blimp hangers" if you know the OC) to the former Full-Gospel Businessmen's headquarters in Costa Mesa (right off the 405 Fwy and across from the OC's most famous shopping complex, South Coast Plaza). It is easily the ugliest building in the entire county. I am told TBN's influence now is primarily in the third world, but after numerous scandals, ill-health, and the unglamorous effects of old age, the OC, it seems, has largely forgotten Paul and Jan. They rarely appear in "Praise the Lord" anymore, and the live program is often broadcast from many places other than the OC.
A couple of other things of interest. . . Mike Horton was on TBN with one of their daytime hosts, Jim McClellen. Mike was all of twenty at the time, still at Biola, and living with the Riddlebargers. They discussed Mike's new book, Mission Accomplished (which later became Putting Amazing back Into Grace). This has to be the only time the five "solas" of the Reformation were ever mentioned on TBN. Incidentally, Paul and Jan actually gave away a gazillion copies of the Heidelberg Catechism as a "love offering" (that even sounds wrong) but stopped immediately when someone told them it taught infant baptism.
R. C. Sproul was once on "Praise the Lord" to promote his newest book, Reasons to Believe (1982). I still have the VHS tape of this somewhere in a box in my attic, but I wasn't going to dig it out and hook up the VHS player just to confirm. R.C. had no idea about Paul and Jan, and so when live on the air, Jan asked Dr. "Sprowal" if he believed that miracles still occurred today, R. C. gave the standard Reformed answer, that miracles were tied to the office of apostle and served to confirm the truth of Scripture. Paul Crouch was a bit miffed and said to R. C., "what if I told you that when my father was preaching a man's funeral sermon (in Egypt), the dead man came back to life?" You could just see R. C. waiting for the punch-line from Crouch which never came. After a long and pregnant pause, R. C. sheepishly quipped, "well, it only takes one of those to prove me wrong."
All of this should be a reminder to us that the medium profoundly changes the message. Noted apologist E. J. Carnell raised this Postman-like point back in the 1950s, but no one listened. Evangelicals jumped at the chance to use television to preach the gospel to the masses. That is what Paul and Jan thought they were doing, without realizing that their theology, personal antics, and the very nature of the medium they were championing, turned whatever meager Christian content there was in their programming into pure entertainment.
Some thought TBN offered a good alternative to secular TV. But those of us who live in the OC are still sweeping up after the horses now that the TBN parade looks to be over.
Next time, we'll turn to Chuck Smith and Calvary Chapel--another distinctly OC phenomenon Part Three--Calvary Chapel).
Here's the introduction to this series: Introduction
Here's part one, "the buzz": The "Buzz"