Are All Pastors Televangelists Now?

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What Billy Graham, Fred Rogers, Mother Angelica, and others can teach us about delivering sermons to a camera.

Is every preacher a televangelist now? The coronavirus has dispersed congregations and sent churches scrambling to air services online. Preachers—regardless of how they previously felt about their co-laborers on the small screen—have found themselves delivering sermons to cameras.

As today’s pastors adapt and experiment, there might be some things to learn from the experience of the first TV preachers. The history of televised sermons, after all, encompasses more than the scandals of the 1980s and more than the latest lineup on TBN.

While we may not think of them all as “televangelists,” a wide range of Christians have found ways to use the medium. Here are seven things today’s pandemic-era pastor can learn from early experiments with preaching through screens.

1. Adapt.

When Percy Crawford started filming the first nationally broadcast religious television show in 1949, he would frequently walk out of frame. “You’d see the cameraman trying to chase him down,” one staffer recalled. “You couldn’t keep him behind a pulpit.” New mediums come with new restraints, and new restraints require adjustments.

2. Know your audience.

The leaders of the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod did not own a single TV set among them when Walter Maier approached them about funding a television ministry. Maier said he wouldn’t use TV if he was just trying to reach Missouri Synod Lutheran leaders; his aim was to reach a broader audience. Maier knew that new technology would reach new people. He received $750,000. Seize the opportunity to do something different.

3. Try something.

Mother Angelica, the Catholic nun who founded Eternal Word Television Network, started her TV station …

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