Living Word Church (a pseudonym) used to be on television.
A couple of years ago, Pastor Smith (another pseudonym) made a huge deal about how “God told him” to go on TV. Then he announced that soon, Living Word would begin to televise the church services, having negotiated prime broadcast times on two national Christian networks. For several weeks, he talked up Living Word’s premiere, saying again and again that although he was highly reluctant to go on TV (“I am not chasing fame, I do not have ‘red light fever'”), he nonetheless knew he had to be obedient to what the Lord was telling him.
God had told Pastor Smith that he needed to go on television and preach the Gospel. God told Pastor Smith that there was a huge group of backsliders who needed to be brought back into church, and Pastor Smith would reach these folks on TV with the good news of Jesus. He made special appeals for us to watch the broadcasts of Living Word. He also mentioned that if we wanted to give an amount above and beyond our usual tithes and offerings, we could mark it “Television Ministry,” and it would be much appreciated.
We can’t even begin to estimate how much money Smith forked over to buy prime twice-a-week national air time. But hey, it was worth it, right? Especially since God had told Pastor Smith to do so. We believed, right along with Pastor Smith, that this television ministry just might be the very vehicle that would finally usher in the great revival that had been prophesied time and again over Pastor Smith and Living Word.
So you can imagine how shocked we were when, as we dutifully tuned in, we discovered that these half-hour broadcasts were an odd combination of “artsy” grainy introductory footage, then about ten minutes of Pastor Smith giving opening remarks in a television studio about what a great church Living Word is, and how you need to visit Living Word, and then perhaps another 10 or 15 minutes of unrelated snippets of Pastor Smith going on yelling rants, plucked from various sermons.
Considering the fact that “God told him” to go on TV to preach the Gospel, we thought the Living Word broadcasts were especially bizarre, since you’d be hard-pressed to find any Gospel preaching in them at all. Rather, the shows served mainly as infomercials for Living Word Church and Pastor Smith, complete with his concluding reminders to come be part of this “great multi-racial, multi-ethnic congregation.”
In his remarks in front of the camera, Pastor Smith was impressively smooth and glib. He seemed both earnest and friendly as he touted all the fine characteristics of Living Word – the “world-class” children’s ministry, the great diversity of the people, the exciting youth events, and all the other wonderful programs the church offered, in addition to Smith’s own “uncompromised preaching” of the Word.
Sitting there in front of our TV, watching Smith’s dapper and articulate self on the screen, I looked over at my husband and said, “What happened to the Gospel of Jesus?”
After all, that was Smith’s entire stated purpose of this new television “ministry” – to preach the Gospel, particularly to backsliders.
But in actuality, Smith used this pricey airtime to urge folks to visit Living Word. The clips of Smith preaching, like I said, were disjointed segments pulled from different sermons. The televised portions of Smiths messages were very difficult to follow, even for us – and we’d been in the audience when these sermons were videotaped! If you weren’t a believer, you’d be no more enlightened about how to be saved or how to live a life more pleasing to God just from watching the Living Word TV show.
It was puzzling.
Meanwhile, after Living Word had been on television for some weeks, I think the Smiths were somewhat surprised that attendance in the church services hadn’t increased at all. They’d mentioned on more than one occasion how things were about to “explode” at the church once they went on TV. But instead, attendance remained the same.
After several months had passed, we noticed one day that the Living Word television program was not on at its usual time. We began to look for it (we’d quit being regular viewers some time before, after the novelty of seeing Pastor Smith on the small screen had worn off), but the show never did reappear.
Even stranger, nothing was EVER said about the disappearing TV broadcast. Nothing. The little blurb in the bulletin, listing times and stations, also quietly went away.
The television ministry – both its rise and then its unremarked demise – was yet another one of those things that caused us to start questioning what we were doing at Living Word Church. On so many levels, it illustrated many of our frustrations with the place.
First of all, it was a perfect example of how – despite the fact that Living Word was supposed to be a church body, made up of more than a thousand members – Pastor Smith ruled everything and made all crucial decisions without ever bothering to consult his people. The first that we, as a congregation, ever heard about the television ministry was when Pastor Smith announced the premiere. Obviously, the negotiations for air time, the decision to commit a significant amount of money to the broadcasts, and the taping and editing of the studio segments had already been in the works for quite some time before that.
If Pastor Smith were spending his own money on these broadcasts, it would be appropriate for him to make all the decisions without his congregation’s approval. But he was committing money that had been “given to God” by the people. Shouldn’t he have sought some input from the people? Shouldn’t the decision to go on TV have perhaps been a matter of a congregational vote or something?
We began to have serious questions about how the church handled its finances. Why weren’t more of these issues discussed openly?
Secondly, Living Word’s television ministry illustrated a phenomenon I’d been vaguely aware of for awhile, but now I was finally able to articulate it to myself.
I realized that Pastor Smith had confused sharing the Gospel of Jesus with telling people about his church. And promoting himself.
After all, Pastor Smith had said, over and over again, that “God had told him” to go on TV so that he could preach the Gospel to backsliders. According to the Bible, the Gospel is the “good news,” the news that although we are sinners and doomed to eternal separation from God and eternal damnation, God made a way for us to be reconciled to Himself. He sent His Son Jesus to this earth to live a perfect, sinless life and then die on a cross, shedding His blood to pay the price for our sin. After Jesus was dead for 3 days, He rose again, defeating death and hell. We can share in Jesus’ victory and be right with God, with the promise of living with Him in heaven for eternity, if we repent from our sins and have faith in what Jesus did on the cross.
That’s the Gospel, according to the Bible.
But the Gospel according to Pastor Smith was something quite different…especially on the Living Word television show. It seemed to center around experiencing “the anointing” at Living Word. Jesus was barely mentioned.
I still haven’t figured out if this was something Pastor Smith did deliberately, or if he had somehow just slid into it after years and years of promoting his own ministry, but either way, it was one of the worst peculiarities of Living Word Church, and it was very widespread. Smith was just the most obvious example of someone who honestly thought that standing in front of a TV camera and earnestly telling folks to “Come check us out at Living Word Church” was the same thing as “preaching the Gospel.”
I even found myself doing this – “sharing church,” when I meant to be “sharing Christ.” After my profound, life-changing experience at Living Word, I became absolutely gung-ho about what I thought was “witnessing.” I had a new boldness and confidence in my prayer life and in my witnessing that made me strike up conversations with random people.
But interestingly, I never actually shared much of the Gospel with people. Instead, I found my conversations veering toward inviting people to church. I did buy a lot of Bibles and give them out, but I also (I cringe to think of this now!) included a Living Word visitor’s packet in these gift bags! And I found myself saying things like, “You can find a lot of good churches that preach the truth, but our church really is special. WE also have victory and power and the Holy Spirit.”
In retrospect, it’s no big shock that my “witnessing” didn’t get me very far. Every time I “witnessed,” I could see the “witnessee’s” eyes glaze over when the conversation would veer toward my church and the power that supposedly existed there. Although a few people did go to church with me from time to time, I never actually led anyone to Jesus, didn’t actually “pray the sinner’s prayer” with anyone.
After I’d watched the Living Word television broadcasts a few times, I realized that this whole “sharing church instead of sharing Christ” thing was not just limited to my own confusion. Rather, it was something that – like the “anointing” that Pastor Smith was always talking about – “flowed from the head down.” The TV shows were hard evidence that Pastor Smith believed that promoting his church was the same as “preaching the Gospel.”
The rise and fall of the television ministry also highlighted another issue, and that was the thin ice Pastor Smith skated on whenever he uttered the words, “God told me.”
Sadly, it was pretty obvious – first from the lack of Gospel preaching, and then from the very disappearance of the broadcast – that if Pastor Smith had heard someone telling him to go on television, he WASN’T hearing from God. After all, if God tells someone to do something, wouldn’t God also make certain that the endeavor was a success? Moreover, wouldn’t God have helped Pastor Smith design a better broadcast, one that actually conveyed the truth of Jesus to those backsliders that Pastor Smith had said were God’s target audience?
Week after week, we harbored hope that Pastor Smith would address the vanishing TV show. But his unbroken silence just served to highlight both his fallibility in “hearing from God” and his low opinion of the people. In his refusal to talk about what happened to the television broadcast, Pastor Smith demonstrated that he thought his congregation was stupid and forgetful. He also demonstrated that he didn’t care one bit about giving an account of his stewardship of the church’s resources.
The Living Word television ministry was obviously not successful in the manner that Pastor Smith had hoped it would be. But it turned out to be a powerful illustration for us, helping us to see the truth about Living Word Church.