The formula has proved extraordinarily successful. While other religious broadcasters have struggled, TBN has posted surpluses averaging nearly $60 million a year since 1997. Its balance sheet for 2002, the most recent available, lists net assets of $583 million, including $238 million in Treasury bonds and other government securities and $31 million in cash. It has 400 employees across the country.
Such figures have prompted questions about why the network continues to plead for contributions. Wall Watchers, a nonprofit group in Charlotte, N.C., that monitors religious ministries, has urged Christian donors to stop writing checks to TBN.
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.
"They have more money than they need," said Wall Watchers chairman Howard "Rusty" Leonard, a former investment manager for the Templeton mutual fund group. "There's nothing like this. It's over the top."
The Crouches declined to be interviewed for this article. Through TBN officials, they said the ministry keeps raising money so it can avoid going into debt as it pays for TV stations, satellite time and other ways to spread the Gospel.
Regarding the Crouches' salaries, the ministry said that during the network's first 21 years, Paul was paid less than $40,000 a year on average and Jan less than $35,000. The couple accepted higher compensation only in the last decade, as they approached retirement, officials said. Their current salaries were determined by independent compensation experts hired by the ministry's accounting firm, TBN said.
Devoted viewers say the Crouches have nothing to apologize for. Indeed, the ministry's material success is part of its appeal to believers -- proof that the Crouches enjoy God's favor.
"The fruit of God is on their life," said Tennille Lowe, a computer analyst in Phoenix City, Ala., who is in her 20s and watches the network every day. "If they weren't prospering, I'd say, 'Wait a minute. I don't see any evidence [of God's blessing] in their life.' "
The most visible evidence of the Crouches' success is Trinity Christian City International in Costa Mesa, a striking white wedding cake of a building surrounded by reflecting pools, sculptures and neoclassical colonnades.
Visitors to the complex, alongside the San Diego Freeway, can attend live studio broadcasts, buy TBN-branded clothing and stroll down a re-creation of Via Dolorosa, the street in Jerusalem where Jesus walked to his crucifixion. In a high-tech 50-seat theater, people watch biblical movies in seats that tremble during the quakes, storms and other disasters recounted in the Scriptures.
The ministry owns a similar complex near Dallas and a Christian entertainment center outside Nashville.
But most TBN devotees will never visit those places. They connect with the network through its television programs, which provide a spiritual lifeline for millions. Many of these viewers worship in their living rooms. TBN preachers are their pastors.
"I don't go to church.... I turn the TV on and it's right there," said Sherry Peters, a bookkeeper in Mississippi. "Sometimes I will watch it for weeks on end, every day."
Olivia Foster, 52, of Westminster, sends the network $70 a month out of her $820 disability check.
"Without TBN, I wouldn't be here," said Foster, who lives alone and suffers from AIDS. "That's the Gospel truth. It gave me purpose that God could use me. I watch it 18 hours a day."
A Ham-Radio Start
Paul Crouch is the son of Pentacostal missionaries. Raised in Missouri, he took an interest in broadcasting at 12, when a friend introduced him to ham radio. By 15, he was a licensed operator. In a high school essay, he wrote that he "would one day use this invention of shortwave radio to send the Gospel around the world," according to his autobiography, "Hello World!"
At the Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Mo., Crouch and fellow students wired the campus for low-wattage radio and broadcast Gospel messages.
After graduation, Crouch stayed in Springfield and went to work for the Assemblies of God, a branch of Pentacostalism whose rituals include faith healing and speaking in tongues. His job was to maintain a film library. At the time -- the early 1950s -- many Protestant denominations were experimenting with movies and television as tools to win converts and teach the faithful.
During a visit to Rapid City, S.D., in 1956, Crouch was smitten by "a slight 98-pound angel" in a red dress, he later recalled. This was Jan Bethany, daughter of a leading Assemblies of God pastor.
The two married a year later and eventually settled in Rapid City, where Crouch became an associate pastor of his brother-in-law's church. In 1961, the Crouches left to run the Assemblies of God's new broadcast production facility in Burbank.
Twelve years later, the Crouches went out on their own, renting air time on KBSA-TV Channel 46 in Santa Ana. TBN's first studio set included pieces of furniture from the Crouches' bedroom, with a shower curtain as a backdrop.