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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

The televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, then friends of the couple, moved from Michigan to help with the fledgling network and lived with the Crouches for a time.

The partnership didn't last long. In his autobiography, Crouch says that Jim Bakker tried to take over the network, but failed. The Bakkers then left for South Carolina and started their own TV ministry, which was a huge success before it was wrecked by scandal in 1987. Bakker admitted to an affair with a secretary and was later convicted of defrauding followers who invested in a religious retreat.

TBN, meanwhile, was quietly broadening its reach -- with help from the Almighty, by Crouch's account. During the network's first day on the air, God moved a mountain so a clear broadcast signal could reach an antenna atop Mt. Wilson, Crouch wrote in his autobiography.

"And we will ever know that it was not just a spiritual mountain -- this was a real dirt, rock and tree mountain!"

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.

In its early days, TBN delivered programming through a web of UHF and low-power stations. Then, as the cable industry developed, Crouch bought time on systems across the country.

One evening in 1975, he was inspired to embrace a new technology. Crouch wrote that he was sitting in the den of his Newport Beach home when God projected a map of the U.S. on the ceiling. Beams of light struck major population centers, then spread throughout the country.

"I sat there transfixed by what I was seeing as I cried out to God to show me what all this meant," Crouch wrote. "As I waited upon the Lord, He spoke a ringing, resounding word to my spirit -- 'Satellite!' "

While other televangelists concentrated on developing programs, Crouch built an unmatched distribution system. TBN outlasted or eclipsed its rivals and now leads all faith networks in revenue and viewership.

Today, the ministry and its subsidiaries own 23 full-power stations in the U.S. -- including KTBN Channel 40 in Santa Ana -- and 252 low-power stations serving rural areas.

Overseas, the network owns interests in stations in El Salvador, Spain and Kenya. Contracts with cable and satellite companies and station owners further extend its reach.

All-told, TBN airs on more than 6,000 stations in 75 countries, including places as remote as Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and Mbabane, Swaziland. Its programs are also available over the Internet.

To serve this diverse audience, translators at the network's International Production Center in Irving, Texas, dub programs into Spanish, Afrikaans, Portuguese, Hebrew, French, Italian, Russian, Arabic, Hindi and Chinese.

A typical day of TBN programming includes health and lifestyle shows, Bible study, religious movies and late-night Christian rock videos. Pentecostal pastors espouse the prosperity gospel and offer prophecies about the Second Coming of Jesus.

Mainstream evangelists such as Robertson, Billy Graham and Robert H. Schuller appear on the network. Some lease their air time. Such payments bring in more than $35 million a year, nearly one-fifth of TBN's revenue. So many preachers want air time that the network keeps a waiting list.

The most popular offering is "Praise the Lord," a nightly, two-hour mix of talk, prayer and music. The Crouches and a revolving cast of guest hosts hold forth on a set decorated with stained-glass windows, chandeliers, imitation French antiques and a gold-painted piano.

With his silver hair, mustache and bifocals, Paul Crouch comes across as a grandfatherly sort. What he calls his "German temper" can rise quickly, however. He often punctuates a point by shaking a finger at the camera.

"Get out of God's way," he said once, referring to TBN's detractors. "Quit blocking God's bridges or God is going to shoot you, if I don't."

Jan Crouch wears heavy makeup, long false lashes and champagne-colored wigs piled high on her head. She speaks in a sing-song voice and lets tears flow freely, whether reading a viewer's letter or recalling how God resurrected her pet chicken when she was a child.

She and Paul project the image of a happily married couple. But off the air, they lead separate lives and rarely stay under the same roof, according to former TBN employees and others who have spent time with the couple.

The Crouches also present themselves as thrifty and budget-conscious. During one telethon, Paul said his personal $50,000 donation to TBN had wiped out the family checking account. He often says that he and his wife live in the same Newport Beach tract house they bought 33 years ago for $38,500.

But nowadays, neither of the Crouches uses that home much. Whether in Southern California or on the road, they live in a variety of other TBN-owned homes. In all, the network owns 30 residences in California, Texas, Tennessee and Ohio -- all paid for in cash, property records show.

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