Televangelism: The new missionary weapon

published on October 5, 2010

Book Review by Dr Vaidehi Nathan

McDonaldisation, Masala McGospel and Om Economics: Televangelism in Contemporary India, Jonathan D James, Sage Publications, Pp 232 (HB), Rs `595.00

TELEVANGELISM is a phenomenon that has grown rather fast. One is not even sure of the number of evangelical channels operating in India today. Their numbers could be mind boggling if counted. They have not only helped the missionaries in spreading the gospel but have also contributed to the revenue of some of the global Christian outfits, run by persons like Benny Hinn.

A research publication ‘McDonaldisation, Masala McGospel and Om Economics: Televangelism in Contemporary India’ by Jonathan D James looks at some of these issues, to unravel how the global networks operate in India and how they are culturally alien to the Indian ethos. The book is based on field research, interactions with pastors at various levels and some Hindu leaders.

Explaining the term McDonaldisation, the author says “McDonalds turns its customers into involuntary unpaid labour, where they must queue to give their orders, carry their food, eat most of their food with hands and clear away their own rubbish. Customers are being socialised to become part of the routinised world of service workers. Likewise, global televangelism is turning their audiences into their ‘labour force’ as televangelists, such as, Benny Hinn and Pat Robertson ask for ‘co-labourers’ (listeners) to financially support their global ministries.”

The televangelists offer the virtual as real. Using technology, orchestra, choruses and trained body movements, they communicate with an audience, who are sitting in the comforts of their chairs and couches. “Preaching and/or teaching is often reduced to a commercial transaction of spiritual (symbolic) goods, with statements such as ‘Do you need healing? Do you need prayer” Send a donation and get this free CD or book.”

At the forefront of this fast growing crowd of televangelism, are the Pentecostalism and ‘neo- Pentecostalism’ so much so that it is estimated that one in 25 of the global population are Pentecostals. In Christian parlance it is called Charismatic movement, which now operates ‘almost totally outside official Pentecostal denominations.’ It is in fact this non-confirming to the officialdom that is causing much consternation among the traditional evangelists. Overawed by the powerful medium of TV worship, the well-rehearsed dramatic presentation and the use of technology for maximum effect, the regular church goers have started expecting similar performances in the church. There have been ‘deserters’ but that is not a huge number, yet.

The book also makes a reference to the growth of ‘Hindu televangelism’ as an influence of Christian televangelism. It of course points out the vast difference in the content and packaging.

The church in India has been going through systematic cultural adaption. Hindu rituals are being appropriated (camphor, flower, coconut breaking, lamps et all) by the church to localise the religion. The cultural alienation was found to be one of the stumbling blocks for the spread of Christianity here. The evangelists now encourage the converts to retain their original Hindu names, continue to follow the Hindu rituals, live within the community while professing loyalty to the Church and Christ. Crypto Christians. In fact according to this book, the church found that when people convert and come out of their indigenous community, and cut off from it, they are of no use for further conversions. On the other hand, if the neo-converts continue to live among their original communities, they were potential tools for evangelical work. This method is being advocated strongly in north India where the missionaries have had least success. Andhra Pradesh is one of the success stories. The state today has 66,000 churches and 150 organisations based in Hyderabad. According to the book, the number of ‘churchless Christians’ in Madras are equal to the number of those baptized!

The author repeats some clichéd shallow statements on Hindus — the now demolished Aryan invasion theory, the so-called animalist tribal religion as opposed to ‘organised’ Hindu religion, the frivolous and unfounded comments on Hindutva and the proponents of it – which do not gel well in the text. He drops a bomb when he says that Thiruvalluvar in writing Thirukural was influenced by St Thomas! While discussing Christianity he ignores the fact that the church continues with the caste denominations of the converts and does not give them the promised social upliftment.

Coming back to televangelism, the book says “the Charismatic gospel and televangelism have responded to a need, placing on the Christian market a new set of spiritual ‘goods and services’ — healing, deliverance, prosperity and success.” It also points out that the televangelists call Jesus the healer and giver and not the saviour. “Evangelist Benny Hinn, at the end of his programmes ‘reaches out to the camera and implores viewers to come toward the screen. “I see cancer, Lord dissolve that cancer.” Hinn proclaimed on a recent show “I see a leg losing feeling. Lord restore feeling to that leg.” Furthermore, ‘the capture of television [by Charismatics] is itself part of the struggle against Satan and his powers.’ Hence the use of television itself represents a Charismatic victory against the forces of the world.”

Televangelism has made worship another form of entertainment, says Jonathan. He is a researcher and writer on media, religion and culture and is currently an adjunct Lecturer at Edith Cowan University, Perth. A well-researched book, that looks at televangelism critically and its influences both positive and negative on the churches in India. The Hindu angle is only a minimal part of it. Televangelism is the latest weapon in the hands of the church to promote Christianity. Should we add ‘beware’?

(Sage Publications, B1/1-1 Mohan Co-operative Industrial Area, Mathura Road, New Delhi – 110 044)

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