"Jesus told us to go forth and spread the word to the entire world," said the Rev. Randy Morrison of Speak the Word Church in Golden Valley. "I can't physically do that, but my TV signal can."
And it does. Morrison's sermons are beamed by satellite to every continent except Antarctica. But while his church has one of the most ambitious TV ministries in Minnesota, it is not unique. The days in which a handful of televangelists ruled the airwaves are gone as a growing number of churches here and across the nation take their messages to the masses via cable-access TV and Internet video.
About 200 Minnesota congregations now have their own TV shows, ranging from "talking head" lectures to elaborate, multi-camera church service broadcasts.
Zion Lutheran Church in Anoka hopes to have its services on the Metro Cable Network today or next Sunday. The Ethiopian Evangelical Church in Minnesota is offering downloadable sermons and hymns while it readies a cable-access TV show on the St. Paul Neighborhood Network. Light the Way Church in Cottage Grove has a music video show aimed at teens.
"It's more of a service to our members than an evangelism project," said Zion's Rev. Tim Johnson, who believes it's a way to reach members who can't reach church, especially in winter weather.
"We are a regional church that draws members from five suburbs. And, of course, there's an increasingly large population of seniors. We conduct communion services in six retirement facilities."
As for whether the broadcasts will cause members to reach for their remote control instead of their car keys on cold mornings, Johnson agreed that that's a good possibility.
"But we'll joke about it during the broadcast," he said.
TV once was the exclusive domain of evangelical Christians, but that has also changed. Now, nearly every religion is represented on the local airwaves -- from secular humanism to Eckankar, from Judaism to Islam, from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism.
Earlier hesitancy to jump into the TV age had a lot to do with the medium's negative image. Televangelists were tainted by scandals, such as the one involving Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, or looked upon as modern-day snake-oil salesmen who used their airtime to beg for money.
"We've gotten beyond that," said Morrison, whose church has a 43-person television staff, an internal TV studio and a network-quality production facility.
"This is a great thing if you use it for good. I was in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s. I said, 'God, how are we going to reach all these people?' Then I looked at their homes -- although we'd call them shacks -- and they all had TV antennas on them."
It's also a way to keep in touch with members who can't make it to church regularly. That was the goal when Westwood Lutheran Church in St. Louis Park started showing its services on public-access TV.
"We hear from shut-ins who really appreciate that," said Doug Geston, a member of the church's all-volunteer Video Ministry Team. "I suppose, occasionally, we reach a new member this way. But if it serves as a recruiting tool, that's just a bonus."
The user-friendly electronic revolution has played a major role in the growth of the local TV ministries. Video-editing programs are available for home computers, and most of them require little, if any, formal training. That's how Geston ended up being in charge of editing Westwood's four-camera program.
It has been a learning process for ministers. The Rev. John Magee from Light the Way Church in Cottage Grove is still taken aback when a viewer approaches him in public and talks about one of his sermons.
"You're accountable to a much larger audience," he said. "I don't know these people, and they don't know me. It's different than having a discussion with someone from the congregation."
To attract younger viewers, his church also started a weekly half-hour show featuring faith-related music videos. And they are booking it on multiple public-access stations, not just the one in Cottage Grove.
But it's not only megachurches using multimedia.
"While some of the bigger churches have been doing this for years, we're starting to get a lot of smaller, ethnic congregations coming in," said Mike Wassenaar, executive director of the St. Paul Neighborhood Network. Churches don't even need to buy fancy equipment.
"All they need to have are motivated volunteers," Wassenaar said. "We'll provide the equipment and the training to use it."
Morrison is one of Minnesota's televangelism pioneers. He's been broadcasting his sermons for 20 years -- or taping them, at least. "We started with one red JVC camera," he said.
No one is sure how many viewers the TV ministries attract. Public-access stations don't monitor viewership, and, Morrison noted, "They don't have Nielsen ratings in Ghana. But we know from the e-mails we get that people are watching."
Not passing the collection plate
Many of Minnesota's TV ministries generally consider it gauche to ask for money.
"We've got people watching who don't have enough money to buy food for their kids," said Sean Cline, the television department director at Speak the Word Church. "The last thing we're going to do is ask them to send money to us."
But the local shows do have to compete with TV ministries from elsewhere that are more financially driven. Magee has a response ready when people ask about that.
"I always remind them, 'When you're in the hospital, who's going to come visit you: me or that guy in Oklahoma City who keeps asking you to send him money?'" he said.
Morrison admits that his TV operation loses money, but he declined to say how much.
"The congregation supports it because that's how we reach out to people," he said. "Sure, some people send us money, but that's not the point."
Sometimes they even reach people in ways that they never expect. Magee got a call one Sunday afternoon about an elderly woman who had just died. The EMTs called him, they explained, because the woman had just finished writing him a letter.
"She had been watching on TV," he said. "The sermon that day was about God's divine acceptance and about how there's no sin so great that God can't forgive it. She was wrestling with resolution with God. Her letter said, 'I'm watching you right now, and you're telling me that everything is going to be OK. I know that I'm going to be fine.'"
Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392