Thursday, December 31, 2009
Oral Roberts and the End of an Era, Part II
Oral Roberts Crusade Poster from 1957
Oral Roberts, among others, pioneered a "new" media (TV) of their day as a vehicle for spreading a message of miracles that proceed from a good God along with Oral's popular notions of Seed Faith. By this means, the former tent revivalist had extended his reach far beyond the canvas of a tent or even the concrete of a large auditorium to an audience that never had to leave their homes to hear and see him in action. Of course, other preachers and religious personalities were also experimenting with TV's promise and pitfalls. Each of them brought their own twist and carved out their own audiences. Meanwhile, the next generation of TV preachers such as Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes watched and learned.
But TV ministry is expensive. Getting viewers to underwrite the broadcasts requires a constant flow of giving which, in turn, demands a message that will constantly delight an audience rather than confront it. Television ministries, therefore, perfected their "product": inspiration.
All of this was not lost upon churches that wanted to grow large. Even if they were not broadcasting their services, they found their own ways to keep the inspiration flowing and the confrontation at a minimum. "Old school" sermons turned into inspirational sermonettes with testimonials and contemporary MOR music filling out the mix. It was Oral Roberts and others whoe pioneered this shift from the televised "crusade" to the religious variety or talk show format. Compared to a televised Billy Graham crusade -- or even the old days of Oral Robert's televised miracle services -- these programs were far more in keeping with the broader sensibilities of the culture. While it is true that Dr. Graham was still getting away with preaching a longer message with a confrontational "make a decision for Christ" challenge at the end, it must be remembered that he didn't have to keep a weekly TV show on the air!
But, once again, the revolution in the delivery of information is changing things and will, no doubt, continue to powerfully redefine the communication of Christian messages and values. The monopoly of old-fashioned broadcast TV with its several channels -- the medium that supported Oral Roberts and other TV preachers of his time -- has been replaced by cable, satellite, internet and the other Tweets and Tubes of our times. If you are reading blogs like this one, then I don't need to tell you about the power and variety of today's communication technology. Oral Roberts lived to see this revolution begin, but neither he or any of us now living can truly imagine where things will go from here. A long time ago, the printing press changed the world, and we are still living out the implications of that fact. But now we are living in a day when everyone's last name can be Guttenberg. What will that mean 200 years from now (should the Lord delay His return!)?
I recently learned of the 25 year old San Francisco Bay Area resident, Austin Heap, who figured that the world out to know what was going on in Iran in the days following their last (rigged?) election. When he found out that the authorities were blocking the abilities of the people to Twitter out footage and reports, he cobbled together something called "Haystack" which allowed the people in the streets to get around the government chokehold. What kind of a communications environment are we in when a young man in his mid-twenties can get the drop on both the government of a pretty large country and CNN? What will this mean to the propogation of the gospel and the spread of the church? I'm not sure. But it might just represent the same kind of leap that Oral Roberts made when he traded his tents for a TV studio and, in his own way, changed the world.