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THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL

Pastor's Empire Built on Acts of Faith, and Cash

The top Christian broadcaster's steady plea for money funds growth -- and a life of luxury for Paul Crouch and his wife.

September 19, 2004|William Lobdell | Times Staff Writer

Pastor Paul Crouch looked into the camera and told his flock that Trinity Broadcasting Network needed $8 million to spread the Gospel throughout India and save 1 billion souls from damnation.

Crouch, head of the world's largest Christian broadcasting network, said even viewers who couldn't afford a $1,000 pledge should take a "step of faith" and make one anyway. The Lord would repay them many times over, he said.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 23, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Trinity Broadcasting -- An article about Trinity Broadcasting Network in Sunday's Section A misspelled Phenix City, Ala., where one of the network's supporters lives, as Phoenix City.

"Do you think God would have any trouble getting $1,000 extra to you somehow?" he asked during a "Praise-a-thon" broadcast from Trinity's studios in Costa Mesa.

The network's "prayer partners" came through once again, phoning in enough pledges in one evening to put Christian programming on 8,700 television stations across India.

TBN was not short on cash. In fact, it could have paid for the India expansion out of the interest on its investment portfolio. But at TBN, the appeals for money never stop. Nor does the flow of contributions.

Over the last 31 years, Crouch and his wife, Jan, have parlayed their viewers' small expressions of faith into a worldwide broadcasting empire -- and a life of luxury.

The network, little known outside fundamentalist Christian circles, was buffeted by unwanted publicity last week, when The Times reported that Crouch had paid a former employee $425,000 to keep silent about an alleged homosexual tryst.

But millions of people needed no introduction to TBN. Its 24-hour-a-day menu of sermons, faith healing, inspirational movies and Christian talk shows reaches viewers around the globe via satellite, cable and broadcast stations. Its programs are dubbed in 11 different languages.

In the U.S. alone, TBN is watched by more than 5 million households each week, more than its three main competitors combined. Its signature offering, "Praise the Lord," has as many prime-time viewers as Chris Matthews' "Hardball" on MSNBC -- remarkable for a faith network. Televangelists who once dominated the field, such as Pat Robertson, now air their shows on TBN.

Much as Ted Turner did for TV news, the Crouches have created a global infrastructure for religious broadcasting. But that is just one element in their success. Another is a doctrine called the "prosperity gospel," which promises worshipers that God will shower them with material blessings if they sacrifice to spread His word.

This theme -- that viewers will be rewarded, even enriched, for donating -- pervades TBN programming.

"When you give to God," Crouch said during a typical appeal for funds, "you're simply loaning to the Lord and He gives it right on back."

Though it carries no advertising, the network generates more than $170 million a year in revenue, tax filings show. Viewer contributions account for two-thirds of that money.

Lower-income, rural Americans in the South are among TBN's most faithful donors. The network says that 70% of its contributions are in amounts less than $50.

Those small gifts underwrite a lifestyle that most of the ministry's supporters can only dream about.

Paul, 70, collects a $403,700 salary as TBN's chairman and president. Jan, 67, is paid $361,000 as vice president and director of programming. Those are the highest salaries paid by any of the 12 major religious nonprofits whose finances are tracked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

TBN's "prayer partners" pay for a variety of perquisites as well.

The Crouches travel the world in a $7.2-million, 19-seat Canadair Turbojet owned by TBN. They drive luxury cars. They have charged expensive dinners and furniture to TBN credit cards.

Thirty ministry-owned homes are at their disposal -- including a pair of Newport Beach mansions, a mountain retreat near Lake Arrowhead and a ranch in Texas.

The Crouches' family members share in the benefits. Their oldest son, Paul Jr., earns $90,800 a year as TBN's vice president for administration. Another son, Matthew, has received $32 million from the network since 1999 to produce Christian-themed movies such as "The Omega Code."

Overseeing these expenditures is a board of directors that consists of Paul Crouch, Jan Crouch and Paul's 74-year-old sister, Ruth Brown. Control resides primarily with Paul. In a 2001 legal deposition, Jan said she did not know she was a corporate officer and could not recall the last board meeting she attended.

TBN's declared mission as a tax-exempt Christian charity is to produce and broadcast television shows and movies "for the purpose of spreading the Gospel to the world."

Supporters' tax-deductible donations fund the ministry's worldwide television network -- and keep it growing. Expansion is an overriding goal. Televised appeals seek money for new transmitters, more satellite time and fresh cable deals to bring God's word to an ever-larger audience.

As more people hear the Crouches' message, more are inspired to send donations. That pays for further expansion, which brings more viewers -- and more donations.

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