Channeling Jesus

Bring together a TV-production mogul and the charismatic leader of Calvary Chapel, and you get Cross TV all religion, all the time

Jeffrey Hadden, the University of Virginia professor, is skeptical of the economic viability of Cross TV. He notes that Pat Robertson, overseer of The 700 Club and a religious figure of much greater influence than Pastor Bob Coy, tried something similar with the Family Channel but eventually fell back on the cheaper model of primarily showing reruns. The Family Channel was sold in early 1998 to Fox, the network responsible for Cops, Melrose Place, and other less-than-family-friendly programs.

"All [Cross TV] need[s] is another $100 million from Bill Gates," Hadden jokes. "They'll either have to seriously compromise the quality of what they're doing, or they'll find they just don't have the money to do it."

Whatever the prospects for Cross TV, there is little doubt that the flock at Calvary Chapel will continue to grow -- so long as Pastor Bob is in the pulpit. Although congregants claim that Jesus Christ is their sole target of worship, they idolize Pastor Bob as well. Followers tend to cite his sayings almost as often as parables from the Bible. And on days when he doesn't preach, attendance drops dramatically, according to people who regularly attend the church.

On one recent Saturday night, Pastor Bob is more animated than usual. Dressed in a double-breasted blue suit, pastel green shirt, and flower-print tie, he's once again complaining about the conventional image of Jesus Christ. "Jesus is not coming on the scene as a real nice Sunday school kind of guy," he exclaims. "Jesus Christ is a radical!"

In place of the serene, handsome Savior dressed in flowing robes, Pastor Bob offers another image: the Jesus Christ of the Crucifixion: blindfolded, fitted with a crown of thorns, flogged with a cat-o'-nine-tails, and nailed to a cross to die. He describes this image repeatedly, says Jesus died for our sins. Says it wasn't pretty.

And our Lord and Savior is still being crucified, Pastor Bob continues. What's wrong with Nativity scenes in public places? There's no room for God on the dollar bill? The Ten Commandments have no place in the courtroom? No prayer in our public schools?

And now it's payoff time. Pastor Bob exalts the people who want to accept Jesus Christ as their Savior to come forward. They always do. But for some reason, tonight the aisles stay empty. Nobody steps forward to be born again of the Holy Spirit. An uneasiness fills the sanctuary. People scan the aisles for those hoping to be saved. But the Holy Spirit doesn't seem to be working tonight.

Then one woman heads toward the front. She is greeted with relieved applause from the crowd. The gates are now open. Five more people quickly follow her. Some are crying; others are smiling. Two more people make their way to the front, holding hands. And another. Nine in all. Not a bad haul for the Lord.

Pastor Bob leads a prayer: "Lord God, I open my heart and invite you inside...."

The next night a similar scene will be repeated. Videotaped for Cross TV, a service led by Pastor Bob will go out to 45,000 homes in Broward County. And, in a few more months, Calvary Chapel services may reach as many as 25 million people in the Philippines. Only God knows if anyone will watch.

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address:

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