In the mid-1970s a vision came to Paul Crouch, but it wasn't what a man of the cloth might have expected.
A map of North America had appeared on his ceiling, glowing with pencil-thin beams of light that shot in every direction. "Lord," asked Crouch, a Pentecostal minister, "what does this mean?"
God, according to Crouch, had just one word for him: "Satellite."
Crouch, who belonged to the Assemblies of God, had been trying to spread the Gospel through a small television station in Tustin, but the vision changed his business plan. He bought more television stations, then piled on cable channels and eventually satellites, filling the airwaves with evangelical programming until he had built the world's largest Christian television system — the Trinity Broadcasting Network, or TBN.
The controversial pioneer of televangelism, whose broadcast empire was called "one of evangelicalism's most successful and far-reaching media enterprises" by the Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism, died Saturday, said his grandson, Brandon Crouch. He was 79.
Crouch, who had heart problems and other ailments, was hospitalized in October when he became ill during a visit to a TBN station in Colleyville, Texas. In early November the network announced that he had improved enough to return to California. His family did not immediately disclose where he died or the cause of death.
TBN was not the first Christian network — televangelist Pat Robertson had launched the Christian Broadcast Network a decade earlier — but TBN surpassed its rivals in scope and ambition, bringing the word of God to a global audience of millions.
"He has created an enormous platform for many ministries to do what he says is very important to him — that is, to spread the Gospel not only in this country but around the world," said Steve Strang, founder and chief executive of Charisma Media, a leading publisher of books and magazines for charismatic and Pentecostal Christians.
The son of a poor missionary, Crouch was known for preaching a gospel of prosperity. His twice-yearly Praise-a-Thons on TBN generated as much as $90 million a year in donations, mostly in small amounts from lower-income Americans. "When you give to God," Crouch said in a typical appeal, "you're simply loaning to the Lord and he gives it right on back."
Crouch channeled much of the revenue into charity, funding soup kitchens, homeless shelters and an international humanitarian organization, Smile of a Child, founded by his wife, Jan. In 2011 he donated more than 150 low-power TV stations to Minority Media and Telecommunications Council, which helps minorities, women and other underrepresented communities own and operate TV and radio stations.
But Crouch's main mission was to build an alternative to secular media, a dream he achieved with single-minded devotion and creativity. TBN, which celebrated its 40th anniversary this year, is a 24-hour family of networks with something for nearly every evangelical Christian demographic. Offerings have included Biblical cartoons and soap operas, game shows, programs on fitness and faith healing, religious movies and late-night Christian rock videos. Prominent independent ministers such as Robertson, Jimmy Swaggart and Robert Schuller bought airtime on TBN, which also broadcast Billy Graham's crusades.
The center of Trinity's lineup has long been the nightly talk show "Praise the Lord." Hosted by the silver-haired Crouch and his flamboyantly coiffed wife, it emanates from an Orange County studio decorated with stained-glass windows, gilded imitation antiques and plush pews for the audience.
The extravagance carried over to Crouch's personal life, provoking criticism from watchdog groups as well as members of his family. He and his wife had access to TBN's multimillion-dollar private jets and more than two dozen ministry-owned homes, including his-and-her mansions in Newport Beach, a mountain retreat near Lake Arrowhead and a ranch in Texas.
In 2012, granddaughter Brittany Koper, who had been the network's finance director, went public with detailed allegations of fiscal improprieties, including excessive salaries, four-figure expense-account meals and a $100,000 mobile home for Jan Crouch's dogs paid with tax-exempt donations.
Koper's accusations were widely covered by the mainstream press, as was a charge by her sister, Carra Crouch, who said she was raped by a TBN employee and forced by her family to cover up the crime.
Amid the flurry of negative headlines, their father, Paul Jr., quit TBN, where he had held staff and board positions, leaving his younger brother, Matthew, as heir apparent.
The family disputes were the latest in a series of embarrassing events over recent years, including news reports in 2004 that Crouch had paid a former employee $425,000 to keep quiet about claims of a homosexual tryst. Crouch denied having sexual contact with the employee.