(Jimmy Swaggart leads the Family Worship Center Church band and choir at a recent Sunday service. Photography by Don Kadair)
Most people assumed the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart’s career as a televangelist was finished in 1991 when police in Indio, California pulled him over for driving on the wrong side of the road and found him with a prostitute and a carful of pornography. The incident would have spelled trouble for any minister. But coming just three years after Swaggart’s tearful, televised confession over another high-profile prostitution scandal, the California traffic stop appeared to be the final blow for the Ferriday-born preacher.
There’s no question the ensuing years were difficult for Swaggart. Defrocked by the Assemblies of God church hierarchy, he stepped down as head of the Family Worship Center Church, handing over the reins, for a time, to his son, Donnie Swaggart. Church attendance at Sunday services dwindled, and his worldwide televangelism empire crumbled.
But in recent years Jimmy Swaggart Ministries, which celebrated its 60th anniversary last October, has experienced something of a comeback, due in large part to the addition of SonLife Broadcasting Network—a production powerhouse established six years ago that has capitalized on the growth of digital media platforms by broadcasting Swaggart’s Pentecostal-style programming 24/7 via radio, TV, satellite, cable and the Internet to all corners of the globe.
It’s a family-run business now spanning three generations, with 81-year-old Jimmy and his wife of 63 years, Frances, still very much at the helm. Donnie, 60, and his son, Gabriel Swaggart, 31, are also key players in the operation. They all have their own shows on SBN—The Message of the Cross with Jimmy, Frances and Friends, Backstage with Donnie, and Generations of the Cross with Gabriel. Also filling the daily programming lineup are sermons, rebroadcasts of Sunday services, prayer rallies, vintage video clips from Swaggart’s heyday in the 1980s, and hours of the rich, gospel-style music for which Jimmy Swaggart is so well known.
The Swaggarts keep their cards close to the vest and did not respond to numerous requests for an interview. That’s not surprising, though. They have kept a low profile in recent years. They don’t fraternize with other church leaders in the Capital Region, and Jimmy and Donnie don’t attend regular, monthly prayer breakfasts with a group of more than a dozen local Evangelical ministers. They don’t advertise in the mainstream media, they don’t participate in community events, and the money they raise through the ministry doesn’t appear to go to any needy causes in the Baton Rouge area, or anywhere for that matter.
Perhaps that’s why so many people assume that Jimmy Swaggart Ministries is no longer anything but a page or, perhaps, a chapter in the history book of 20th century televangelists. But that assumption would be incorrect. The ministry, its growing broadcast network and its aged but still undeniably charismatic leader are very much in the game, doing a brisk business based on the model they’ve always used—making a buck by purportedly saving souls.
THE STEALTH APPROACH
It’s impossible to say how many people Swaggart’s ministry touches or how many followers it has, but SBN’s geographic reach is undeniably extensive. The network broadcasts on 80 radio stations across 20 states, mostly low-powered stations on the FM dial that Swaggart picked up for cheap in the 1990s and early 2000s. SBN also appears over the airwaves of nearly 70 local TV stations, as well as 110 cable and satellite stations in 38 states, including major markets like Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City.
Outside the U.S., SBN is available via satellite on every continent except Antarctica. In Central America alone, where the ministry’s following is particularly strong, the network can be found on 70 different channels in 12 countries. A full-time translator employed at the SBN studios on Jimmy Swaggart Ministries’ sprawling Bluebonnet Boulevard campus translates all the programming into Spanish.
How all this broadcast exposure translates into revenue for SBN and the ministry is anyone’s guess. Though FWCC and SBN are nonprofit organizations, they are not required to file a 990 financial disclosure form with the Internal Revenue Service because they’re a church and church-affiliated organization, respectively.
It’s also unclear what type of financial arrangement SBN has with the cable and satellite companies that carry its programming. Cox Cable, which airs programming locally on channel 276, declines to discuss its arrangement with the network, citing client confidentiality arrangements.
What is known is that the industry today is very different than that of 30 or 40 years ago, when televangelists had to buy blocks of coveted and pricey airtime to get on local TV. Today, with so many digital options available and so many channels to fill, content-hungry cable and satellite systems will often give away air time to religious broadcasters.
“When everything went digital a few years ago it opened up the major markets, which went from having one station to as many as 10,” says Lucas Fry, general manager at local Christian station WLFT-TV. “That’s been very important to the religious community.”
Fry thinks many in the industry underestimate SBN’s reach. He believes it’s one of the largest religious broadcasting networks in the country, second only to the California-based Trinity Broadcasting Network. The National Religious Broadcasters, which is the industry’s trade organization, could not verify Fry’s assertion or SBN’s size in relation to other networks. That’s because, in typical fashion, SBN is not a member of the NRB.
Fry says SBN’s stealth approach works to its advantage.
“SBN is a huge broadcast operation,” he says.
FEEDING THE MACHINE
What’s also clear is that Swaggart’s ministry is highly skilled at fundraising, and SBN and its multiple platforms make it easier than ever to peddle packaged religious material—not only the Bibles, books and music you might expect to find, but also logo items like T-shirts and even an acrylic red Frances and Friends insulated tumbler, complete with a lid and straw. It sells for $15.
Every month or so, the ministry holds a daylong fundraiser that is promoted during Sunday services and advertised across all SBN platforms for a week or so in advance. In mid-February, it was the Share-a-thon. In early March, a Bible-thon, where followers were encouraged to buy any one of the several published versions of the Jimmy Swaggart Expositor’s Study Bible—either for themselves, as gifts, or to donate to needy churches in Third World countries.
The bibles—which include a ladies’ edition, a giant print version and a Crossfire edition aimed at teens and young adults, among others—were all marked down at least 50% during the fundraiser, according to the SBN website. But they weren’t cheap. A case of 12 went for $500, a discount off the regular price of $1,200. A single bible was on sale for $50. By comparison, various versions of the King James Bible on Amazon.com range in price from less than $8 to about $18.
But then, the Jimmy Swaggart Expositor’s Study Bible is no ordinary bible. It is annotated throughout with commentary by Swaggart—explanations and cross references that are printed in red and inserted directly into the scripture passages, as opposed to being included as end notes or footnotes. For that reason, some of Swaggart’s critics consider the Jimmy Swaggart Expositor’s Study Bible to be sacrilegious and have blasted it in blogs online.
But in other circles it’s a big seller, according to Fry, who knows a lot of ministers who buy it and give it as a gift.
“It’s well-written,” he says. “It’s one of the best-selling reference bibles in the world. It’s what feeds the machine.”
Judging from the calls that flooded the ministry throughout the day during the March 1 Bible-thon, Fry’s assertions are accurate. The callers came from everywhere and they bought bibles by the caseloads. According to updates provided hourly on Swaggart’s flagship station in Baton Rouge, 88.5 WJFM-FM, tens of thousands of bibles were purchased for Cuba, Puerto Rico and Botswana. Thousands more were bought by individuals for themselves, friends and family.
The ministry doesn’t announce how much money it makes off fundraisers like Bible-thon, but if 20,000 bibles were sold that day at an average price of $50 each–and judging from the numbers announced during the hourly updates that’s a conservative estimate—the March 1 Bible-thon grossed $1 million.
There’s another Bible-thon scheduled to take place on April 1.
“Every time you turn around they’re selling something,” says the Rev. David Diamond, pastor of the Redeeming Life Church, who has known Swaggart for decades. “There’s always a thon—a share-a-thon, a telethon. It’s really comical in a sad sense.”
STILL IN COMMAND
Diamond is one of those who doesn’t like Jimmy Swaggart. He is not alone. Swaggart has made many enemies in this town over the years. Some of the grudges are related to business deals that went bad and ended up in court. (See related story). Some, like Diamond’s, are based on long ago disagreements over the church or the ministry. Some are simply rooted in the fact that Swaggart has never much appeared to practice what he preaches. His critics contend he lives high on the hog in an upscale gated community, reportedly drives a luxury car, and heads a ministry that constantly peddles religious merchandise at what appears to be a handsome markup.
“Did you ever hear of a Jimmy Swaggart unwed mothers’ home? A program for drug offenders? An orphanage?” Diamond says. “What have they built in Baton Rouge to help the hurting? Zero.”
But Swaggart still holds sway over those who attend FWCC, and their numbers have increased notably since the early 2000s, when published reports estimated the Sunday worship crowd to be just a few hundred.
On a recent Sunday at least 1,500 worshipers attended the 10 a.m. service, a mostly middle aged crowd that appeared evenly divided between whites and blacks. They appeared engaged throughout the two-hour service, clapping, singing, swaying and some, periodically, letting out a loud, heartfelt “hallelujah” or “glory, glory, glory.” One even started speaking in tongues while the music played.
Swaggart didn’t preach to the congregation that day. He has handed a lot of those duties off to grandson Gabriel, the fiery and energetic youth minister who is clearly the heir apparent to the operation. But the senior Swaggart is still in charge of the show, sitting prominently on the stage with Frances by his side, and he still delivers a masterful musical performance. He’s at his best when he plays, and a gentleness and appealing authenticity come through in his music. His fingers still glide easily over the piano keys, and his deep baritone is still strong and rich as he sings a favorite spiritual from his childhood, Some Golden Daybreak.
It’s a made-for-TV moment, captured by three stationary floor cameras and two roving videographers. A 10-member band and seven singers provide backing vocals when Swaggart performs. There’s also a 45-person choir. These aren’t the strains of Christian rock heard in many megachurches across America. It’s old-time religion repackaged for the 21st century and beamed around the world using the latest technology money can buy.
Compared to the biggest megachurches in America today, FWCC is relatively small. Joel Olsteen’s Lakewood Church outside of Houston pulls in more than 50,000 worshipers across multiple campuses on a single Sunday. Even locally, Healing Place and Bethany Church attract as many as 10,000 or so each over several services and several locations. The Pentecostal-style of worship FWCC embraces was always outside of mainstream religion in America, even among other Evangelical denominations. That’s more true than ever today. Swaggart’s fundraising methods are also anachronistic compared to the model employed by the megachurches, which try to win followers by engaging them in ministries rather than hounding them to buy Bibles.
“The large, nondenominational megachurches are more about what they can do for those around them than having their hand out,” says Jim Long, editor of Outreach magazine, which follows the megachurch movement in the U.S. “That is not the perception that a lot of people had about Swaggart.”
But Swaggart’s reach is geographically vast, and demographically he is trying to expand it to a new generation of worshipers through Gabriel, who is pastor of Crossfire Youth Ministry and travels around the country holding rallies. In February, he held one in Chattanooga, Tennessee. In April, he’s headed to Albuquerque, New Mexico—and in July he hosts the annual International Youth Conference here in Baton Rouge, which promises to attract thousands of youth from around the country over five days. Other events are planned later this year. As with the merchandise, SBN promotes the rallies and conference across the platforms then develops them into content for SBN programming.
Whether the younger generations of Swaggarts have the skills, smarts and charisma to sustain Jimmy Swaggart Ministries and grow it after its namesake founder is gone remains to be seen. But there’s something to be said for the fact that they have stuck beside the elder Swaggart and helped him reinvent his ministry in the digital age, despite his transgressions and the humiliation that he visited upon the family decades ago. It’s somewhat paradoxical and also somehow touching—a testament to their commitment to family, the power of Jimmy Swaggart’s personality, and the redemption that comes with forgiveness.