Paul Crouch, who with his wife Jan co-founded the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), died November 30 after a decade-long battle with degenerative heart disease. The Assemblies of God minister and Christian media mogul was 79.
Crouch will be most remembered, and reviled, for the way in which he revolutionized religious broadcasting in the United States and throughout the world. Beginning with one humble TV station in 1973, forty years later TBN is the world’s largest network of its kind, from coast to coast and around the world. According to its website, TBN is featured on over 5,000 television stations and over 70 satellites. And over the last four decades they expanded to include more niche market channels and internet streaming platforms. All day, every day, TBN is broadcasting online and via television though North and South America, the heart of Europe, the Middle East, the tip of Africa, Asia, and Australia.
To think that all of this began with a prayer and dream is phenomenal. But one of the things that will complicate Crouch’s legacy will be the proliferation and promulgation of the damnable doctrine of the prosperity gospel—one of America’s most troublesome exports to global Christianity— that occurred during his tenure as TBN’s president. Historians and theologians will most likely look unfavorably upon him and the way his media accelerated, authorized, and affirmed a teaching that seems to conflate the American Dream with Christian sanctification and faithfulness. And in the last few years several scandals regarding financial malfeasance and other practices added even more suspicion to a network already viewed adversely by many Christians and disbelievers alike.
To be sure, I have bemoaned the sensational and even downright heretical elements of Crouch’s dream-come-true. I long despised the gaudy furniture on the sets, and could never get around Jan’s larger than life pink wigs. The Praise-a-thons were also times where I questioned the integrity of the network and many of its choice preachers (even though I know you have to raise money, the “seed” schemes used were always problematic to me). But, admittedly, I cut my early ministry teeth on TBN, watching Bishops TD Jakes, Clarence McClendon, GE Patterson, and a few others with much regularity. TBN gave me access to a ministry world I could not experience in Mississippi and in many ways gave me rich preaching when the local bread was stale. When I interviewed Bishop Carlton Pearson back in 2007, he spoke glowingly about how Paul Crouch gave him an opportunity to broadcast live his Azusa conferences, a platform that catapulted Jakes, Donnie McClurkin, Juanita Bynum and many others into national prominence. It was actually Paul watching Azusa one night that he saw and heard a word from an overweight black man who turned Crouch’s world around. Jakes would go on to be, according to Time magazine, our generation’s Billy Graham. This will in part due to the medium that is TBN. And though the most memorable preachers broadcast on TBN are folks Jakes (and Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, etc.), the network was also a place to watch Evangelical leaders like Adrian Rogers, Charles Stanley, EV Hill, and many others.
I’ve not watched TBN much at all over the last several years but I must admit that I find Crouch, with all his flaws, an inspirational figure. The way in which he and Jan applied faith, entrepreneurial trial and error, and media acumen to creating and sustaining the network is amazing, even miraculous. As other networks have emerged in TBN’s wake, I am convinced that they learned a lot about what to do (and not to do) from these Pentecostal pioneers. As someone who has always dreamed big, I know that little becomes much when you put it in God’s hands. Even though there is much about which we heartily disagreed, Paul Crouch was a testimony of this truth.
My prayers are with the Crouch family. Behind the scenes, Paul was a husband, father, grandfather. May the God of all comfort be with Jan, Paul Jr, and Matt, and all those who loved him dearly as an ordinary man of God with an audacious vision.