Pastor Paul Crouch looked into the camera and told his flock that Trinity Broadcasting Network needed $8 million to spread the Gospel throughout India and save 1 billion souls from damnation.
Crouch, head of the world's largest Christian broadcasting network, said even viewers who couldn't afford a $1,000 pledge should take a "step of faith" and make one anyway. The Lord would repay them many times over, he said.
"Do you think God would have any trouble getting $1,000 extra to you somehow?" he asked during a "Praise-a-thon" broadcast from Trinity's studios in Costa Mesa.
The network's "prayer partners" came through once again, phoning in enough pledges in one evening to put Christian programming on 8,700 television stations across India.
TBN was not short on cash. In fact, it could have paid for the India expansion out of the interest on its investment portfolio. But at TBN, the appeals for money never stop. Nor does the flow of contributions.
Over the last 31 years, Crouch and his wife, Jan, have parlayed their viewers' small expressions of faith into a worldwide broadcasting empire - and a life of luxury.
The network, little known outside fundamentalist Christian circles, was buffeted by unwanted publicity last week, when The Times reported that Crouch had paid a former employee $425,000 to keep silent about an alleged homosexual tryst.
But millions of people needed no introduction to TBN. Its 24-hour-a-day menu of sermons, faith healing, inspirational movies and Christian talk shows reaches viewers around the globe via satellite, cable and broadcast stations. Its programs are dubbed in 11 different languages.
In the U.S. alone, TBN is watched by more than 5 million households each week, more than its three main competitors combined. Its signature offering, "Praise the Lord," has as many prime-time viewers as Chris Matthews' "Hardball" on MSNBC - remarkable for a faith network. Televangelists who once dominated the field, such as Pat Robertson, now air their shows on TBN.
Much as Ted Turner did for TV news, the Crouches have created a global infrastructure for religious broadcasting. But that is just one element in their success. Another is a doctrine called the "prosperity gospel," which promises worshipers that God will shower them with material blessings if they sacrifice to spread His word.
This theme - that viewers will be rewarded, even enriched, for donating - pervades TBN programming.
"When you give to God," Crouch said during a typical appeal for funds, "you're simply loaning to the Lord and He gives it right on back."
Though it carries no advertising, the network generates more than $170 million a year in revenue, tax filings show. Viewer contributions account for two-thirds of that money. Lower-income, rural Americans in the South are among TBN's most faithful donors. The network says that 70% of its contributions are in amounts less than $50.
Those small gifts underwrite a lifestyle that most of the ministry's supporters can only dream about.
Paul, 70, collects a $403,700 salary as TBN's chairman and president. Jan, 67, is paid $361,000 as vice president and director of programming. Those are the highest salaries paid by any of the 12 major religious nonprofits whose finances are tracked by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.
TBN's "prayer partners" pay for a variety of perquisites as well.
The Crouches travel the world in a $7.2-million, 19-seat Canadair Turbojet owned by TBN. They drive luxury cars. They have charged expensive dinners and furniture to TBN credit cards.
Thirty ministry-owned homes are at their disposal - including a pair of Newport Beach mansions, a mountain retreat near Lake Arrowhead and a ranch in Texas.
The Crouches' family members share in the benefits. Their oldest son, Paul Jr., earns $90,800 a year as TBN's vice president for administration. Another son, Matthew, has received $32 million from the network since 1999 to produce Christian-themed movies such as "The Omega Code."
Overseeing these expenditures is a board of directors that consists of Paul Crouch, Jan Crouch and Paul's 74-year-old sister, Ruth Brown. Control resides primarily with Paul. In a 2001 legal deposition, Jan said she did not know she was a corporate officer and could not recall the last board meeting she attended.
TBN's declared mission as a tax-exempt Christian charity is to produce and broadcast television shows and movies "for the purpose of spreading the Gospel to the world."
Supporters' tax-deductible donations fund the ministry's worldwide television network - and keep it growing. Expansion is an overriding goal. Televised appeals seek money for new transmitters, more satellite time and fresh cable deals to bring God's word to an ever-larger audience.
As more people hear the Crouches' message, more are inspired to send donations. That pays for further expansion, which brings more viewers - and more donations.
The formula has proved extraordinarily successful. While other religious broadcasters have struggled, TBN has posted surpluses averaging nearly $60 million a year since 1997. Its balance sheet for 2002, the most recent available, lists net assets of $583 million, including $238 million in Treasury bonds and other government securities and $31 million in cash. It has 400 employees across the country.
Such figures have prompted questions about why the network continues to plead for contributions. Wall Watchers, a nonprofit group in Charlotte, N.C., that monitors religious ministries, has urged Christian donors to stop writing checks to TBN.
"They have more money than they need," said Wall Watchers chairman Howard "Rusty" Leonard, a former investment manager for the Templeton mutual fund group. "There's nothing like this. It's over the top."
The Crouches declined to be interviewed for this article. Through TBN officials, they said the ministry keeps raising money so it can avoid going into debt as it pays for TV stations, satellite time and other ways to spread the Gospel.
Regarding the Crouches' salaries, the ministry said that during the network's first 21 years, Paul was paid less than $40,000 a year on average and Jan less than $35,000. The couple accepted higher compensation only in the last decade, as they approached retirement, officials said. Their current salaries were determined by independent compensation experts hired by the ministry's accounting firm, TBN said.
Devoted viewers say the Crouches have nothing to apologize for. Indeed, the ministry's material success is part of its appeal to believers - proof that the Crouches enjoy God's favor.
"The fruit of God is on their life," said Tennille Lowe, a computer analyst in Phoenix City, Ala., who is in her 20s and watches the network every day. "If they weren't prospering, I'd say, 'Wait a minute. I don't see any evidence [of God's blessing] in their life.' "
The most visible evidence of the Crouches' success is Trinity Christian City International in Costa Mesa, a striking white wedding cake of a building surrounded by reflecting pools, sculptures and neoclassical colonnades.
Visitors to the complex, alongside the San Diego Freeway, can attend live studio broadcasts, buy TBN-branded clothing and stroll down a re-creation of Via Dolorosa, the street in Jerusalem where Jesus walked to his crucifixion. In a high-tech 50-seat theater, people watch biblical movies in seats that tremble during the quakes, storms and other disasters recounted in the Scriptures.
The ministry owns a similar complex near Dallas and a Christian entertainment center outside Nashville.
But most TBN devotees will never visit those places. They connect with the network through its television programs, which provide a spiritual lifeline for millions. Many of these viewers worship in their living rooms. TBN preachers are their pastors.
"I don't go to church.... I turn the TV on and it's right there," said Sherry Peters, a bookkeeper in Mississippi. "Sometimes I will watch it for weeks on end, every day."
Olivia Foster, 52, of Westminster, sends the network $70 a month out of her $820 disability check.
"Without TBN, I wouldn't be here," said Foster, who lives alone and suffers from AIDS. "That's the Gospel truth. It gave me purpose that God could use me. I watch it 18 hours a day."
Paul Crouch is the son of Pentacostal missionaries. Raised in Missouri, he took an interest in broadcasting at 12, when a friend introduced him to ham radio. By 15, he was a licensed operator. In a high school essay, he wrote that he "would one day use this invention of shortwave radio to send the Gospel around the world," according to his autobiography, "Hello World!"
At the Central Bible Institute in Springfield, Mo., Crouch and fellow students wired the campus for low-wattage radio and broadcast Gospel messages.
After graduation, Crouch stayed in Springfield and went to work for the Assemblies of God, a branch of Pentacostalism whose rituals include faith healing and speaking in tongues. His job was to maintain a film library. At the time - the early 1950s - many Protestant denominations were experimenting with movies and television as tools to win converts and teach the faithful.
During a visit to Rapid City, S.D., in 1956, Crouch was smitten by "a slight 98-pound angel" in a red dress, he later recalled. This was Jan Bethany, daughter of a leading Assemblies of God pastor.
The two married a year later and eventually settled in Rapid City, where Crouch became an associate pastor of his brother-in-law's church. In 1961, the Crouches left to run the Assemblies of God's new broadcast production facility in Burbank.
Twelve years later, the Crouches went out on their own, renting air time on KBSA-TV Channel 46 in Santa Ana. TBN's first studio set included pieces of furniture from the Crouches' bedroom, with a shower curtain as a backdrop.
The televangelists Jim and Tammy Bakker, then friends of the couple, moved from Michigan to help with the fledgling network and lived with the Crouches for a time.
The partnership didn't last long. In his autobiography, Crouch says that Jim Bakker tried to take over the network, but failed. The Bakkers then left for South Carolina and started their own TV ministry, which was a huge success before it was wrecked by scandal in 1987. Bakker admitted to an affair with a secretary and was later convicted of defrauding followers who invested in a religious retreat.
TBN, meanwhile, was quietly broadening its reach - with help from the Almighty, by Crouch's account. During the network's first day on the air, God moved a mountain so a clear broadcast signal could reach an antenna atop Mt. Wilson, Crouch wrote in his autobiography.
"And we will ever know that it was not just a spiritual mountain - this was a real dirt, rock and tree mountain!"
In its early days, TBN delivered programming through a web of UHF and low-power stations. Then, as the cable industry developed, Crouch bought time on systems across the country.
One evening in 1975, he was inspired to embrace a new technology. Crouch wrote that he was sitting in the den of his Newport Beach home when God projected a map of the U.S. on the ceiling. Beams of light struck major population centers, then spread throughout the country.
"I sat there transfixed by what I was seeing as I cried out to God to show me what all this meant," Crouch wrote. "As I waited upon the Lord, He spoke a ringing, resounding word to my spirit - 'Satellite!' "
While other televangelists concentrated on developing programs, Crouch built an unmatched distribution system. TBN outlasted or eclipsed its rivals and now leads all faith networks in revenue and viewership.
Today, the ministry and its subsidiaries own 23 full-power stations in the U.S. - including KTBN Channel 40 in Santa Ana - and 252 low-power stations serving rural areas.
Overseas, the network owns interests in stations in El Salvador, Spain and Kenya. Contracts with cable and satellite companies and station owners further extend its reach. All-told, TBN airs on more than 6,000 stations in 75 countries, including places as remote as Rarotonga in the Cook Islands and Mbabane, Swaziland. Its programs are also available over the Internet.
To serve this diverse audience, translators at the network's International Production Center in Irving, Texas, dub programs into Spanish, Afrikaans, Portuguese, Hebrew, French, Italian, Russian, Arabic, Hindi and Chinese.
A typical day of TBN programming includes health and lifestyle shows, Bible study, religious movies and late-night Christian rock videos. Pentecostal pastors espouse the prosperity gospel and offer prophecies about the Second Coming of Jesus.
Mainstream evangelists such as Robertson, Billy Graham and Robert H. Schuller appear on the network. Some lease their air time. Such payments bring in more than $35 million a year, nearly one-fifth of TBN's revenue. So many preachers want air time that the network keeps a waiting list.
The most popular offering is "Praise the Lord," a nightly, two-hour mix of talk, prayer and music. The Crouches and a revolving cast of guest hosts hold forth on a set decorated with stained-glass windows, chandeliers, imitation French antiques and a gold-painted piano.
With his silver hair, mustache and bifocals, Paul Crouch comes across as a grandfatherly sort. What he calls his "German temper" can rise quickly, however. He often punctuates a point by shaking a finger at the camera.
"Get out of God's way," he said once, referring to TBN's detractors. "Quit blocking God's bridges or God is going to shoot you, if I don't."
Jan Crouch wears heavy makeup, long false lashes and champagne-colored wigs piled high on her head. She speaks in a sing-song voice and lets tears flow freely, whether reading a viewer's letter or recalling how God resurrected her pet chicken when she was a child.
She and Paul project the image of a happily married couple. But off the air, they lead separate lives and rarely stay under the same roof, according to former TBN employees and others who have spent time with the couple.
The Crouches also present themselves as thrifty and budget-conscious. During one telethon, Paul said his personal $50,000 donation to TBN had wiped out the family checking account. He often says that he and his wife live in the same Newport Beach tract house they bought 33 years ago for $38,500.
But nowadays, neither of the Crouches uses that home much. Whether in Southern California or on the road, they live in a variety of other TBN-owned homes. In all, the network owns 30 residences in California, Texas and Ohio - all paid for in cash, property records show.
These include two Newport Beach mansions in a gated community overlooking the Pacific. One of them was recently on the market for an asking price of $8 million. A real estate advertisement said it featured "11,000 square feet of opulent European luxury with regulation tennis courts and a rambling terraced hillside orchard with view of the blue Pacific."
In Costa Mesa, the ministry owns 11 homes in a gated development adjacent to Trinity Christian City International.
In Sky Forest, a resort community in the San Bernardino National Forest, the network owns a four-bedroom, five-bath home.
TBN officials say the real estate purchases were consistent with the network's charitable mission, because the homes serve as venues for broadcasts and provide lodging for the Crouches and fellow televangelists as they travel across the country. The properties have also been good investments, they said.
From 1994 to 1996, TBN spent $13.7 million to acquire Twitty City, a tourist attraction on the former Nashville-area estate of country singer Conway Twitty, along with some adjacent property. After extensive renovations, the site reopened as Trinity Music City USA, a Christian entertainment park with TV studios, a church, a concert hall and a movie theater.
The amenities include a pair of condominiums for the Crouches. One is furnished in Paul's taste, the other in Jan's, former employees said.
In Colleyville, Texas, near the network's International Production Center, TBN owns nine homes on 66 acres along a country road, a spread called Shiloh Ranch. Six horses graze in a pasture; TBN officials say they were gifts from admirers.
Paul and Jan visit from time to time, and TBN occasionally broadcasts specials from the ranch.
Ministry officials say that a Christian drug treatment program also uses the property, but former employees say the program left years ago and Colleyville officials say there is no permit for such an operation.
Wherever they happen to be staying, the Crouches indulge expensive tastes courtesy of TBN donors, former employees say.
Kelly Whitmore, a former personal assistant to Jan Crouch, said in interviews with The Times that she used a TBN American Express card to make numerous personal purchases for Jan and Paul, including groceries, clothes, cosmetics, alcohol and a tanning bed.
Whitmore, 43, who lives outside Nashville, worked at TBN from 1992 to 1997. On the air, Jan once called her "my right arm."
TBN officials now describe her as a disgruntled ex-employee whose word cannot be trusted. Whitmore acknowledged that she has hired an agent and hopes to sell her story to TV or film producers.
Whitmore and another former employee, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Jan Crouch's special passion was antiques.
Credit-card receipts show that in December 1994, TBN bought about 40 items from Cool Springs Antiques in Brentwood, Tenn., including a three-piece wine cabinet for $10,000, a $2,800 candelabrum, a $350 birdbath and a seven-piece bedroom suite that cost $3,995.
At Harris Antiques and Imports in Forth Worth, Texas, TBN spent $32,851 in a single day in 1995. The purchases included two French chests for about $1,900 each, a $1,650 brass planter and a $1,095 bronze urn.
TBN officials said the items were reproductions, not antiques, and were used to furnish studio sets and network-owned houses. They said the tanning bed was used to darken the skin of 25 actors cast in TBN stage productions set in Biblical times.
Whitmore said she regularly used ministry money and a network-owned van to stock the bars in Paul's and Jan's separate condominiums at Trinity Music City.
Whitmore said the Crouches directed her to make the purchases at a store called Frugal McDougal, hoping it would not be recognizable on credit-card statements as a liquor store.
Credit card receipts also offer a glimpse of the Crouches' dining habits. In Nashville in the mid-1990s, Paul Crouch hosted dinners with TBN employees in a private room of Mario's, an upscale Italian restaurant, spending $180 or more per person for parties of up to a dozen, the receipts show.
A former top TBN official described heavy consumption of wine and liquor at a dozen such dinners. The ex-official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing a fear of retaliation.
"I have no problem with people drinking," the former official said, "but I have a problem drinking with [prayer] partners' money."
In separate interviews, Whitmore, the former TBN official and a third person who traveled and socialized with ministry leaders said that at the end of a dinner, Paul Crouch would sometimes hold up a TBN credit card and say: "Thank you, little partners!"
In a statement, ministry officials said that if Crouch thanked donors, it was "a sincere gesture and remembrance of true thanks."
They also said it was appropriate for TBN to pay for dinners at which network business was conducted. When network credit cards were used to pay for personal expenses or for alcohol, the Crouches or other TBN officials reimbursed the ministry, they said.
TBN never stops raising money. All that varies is the method.
The network appeals directly for cash during weeklong "Praise-a-thons" held twice a year, in the spring and fall. The approach is not subtle. The Crouches suggest that "Praise the Lord" will go dark if viewers don't send money.
No mention is made of the ministry's flush finances.
"The question is: Shall we keep this great, live, prime-time 'Praise the Lord' program on the air for another year?" Paul Crouch asked during last November's telethon. "It's really up to you."
Jan, from a studio in Atlanta, added: "Oh, dear friends, come on. We've got to keep 'Praise the Lord' on the air."
Viewers pledge a total of $90 million during a typical "Praise-a-thon." TBN says it collects about half the money promised.
During the rest of the year, the ministry keeps donations flowing by less intrusive means.
Except during "Praise-a-Thons," pastors appearing on the network can solicit donations only during the last 30 seconds of a half-hour show or the last 60 seconds of a one-hour show. TBN executives call this "the 11th Commandment."
But the network's toll-free "prayer line" is always visible at the bottom of the TV screen, bringing a steady stream of calls from people troubled by debts, illnesses and other problems.
The calls are answered by paid and volunteer "prayer warriors" in a cluster of drab two-story buildings in a Tustin office park.
The workers, Bibles at the ready, write down callers' requests - for healings, financial relief, mended marriages, jobs - and pray with them on the phone. TBN officials say the prayer requests are then taken to a chapel on the premises and prayed over.
While they have callers on the phone, the volunteers ask for their names and addresses. Later, the information is entered into a direct-mail database, one of Trinity's most powerful fundraising tools.
If the sumptuous Costa Mesa complex with its biblical murals and reflecting pools is TBN's spiritual heart, the Tustin complex is its financial nerve center.
Workers there deal with a daily avalanche of mail from around the world - poems, prayers, testimonials and donations in a variety of currencies. With surveillance cameras overhead, employees process the mail in an assembly-line-like operation, separating donations from prayer requests. The Spartan décor and brisk pace suggest a bank processing center.
In an adjoining room, employees enter the letter writers' names and addresses into the direct-mail database, which has 1.2 million names. An in-house printing and mailing operation generates thousands of letters a day asking the faithful to give.
Sheryl Silva of Anaheim is among those who do. She says the network has been a source of strength during difficult times, including a period of homelessness.
"I love to give whenever I can - at least $15 per month," said Silva, 46, who has glaucoma and gets by on a monthly disability check of about $900. "I give because I don't want them to go off the air. They might be the only thing good on TV that day."
Just as the fundraising never ceases, TBN's efforts to widen its audience are unending.
In recent years, the network has focused on winning viewers in the former Soviet-bloc countries, the Middle East and Asia. Crouch is negotiating with Chinese officials to make TBN available in hotels, embassies, foreign residential compounds and churches.
Earlier this year, the network converted to a digital signal, enabling it to deliver three spinoff channels through the same pipeline that carries TBN.
The Spanish-language channel Enlace USA serves the growing evangelical audience in Central and South America. JC-TV offers youth-oriented Christian programs. The Church Channel broadcasts church services.
In March, Crouch made a three-day trip to Iraq, where his son Matt filmed him giving a satellite receiver to an Iraqi pastor. Crouch handed $10,000 in cash to another Iraqi clergyman to buy receivers for churches and individuals who wanted to watch TBN.
In a fundraising letter, Crouch said that while he was in the war zone, God granted him another miracle.
"I honestly believe that Matt and I, with our small group, were made invisible to the barriers, checkpoints, armed guards, military infrastructure and enemies all around us!" he wrote. "Supernatural favor was our portion as we moved effortlessly through the war-torn and suffering city of Baghdad."
Then he asked his followers for their support.
"Will you help us help them? I know you will!"
Pastor Paul Crouch calls it "God's economy of giving," and here is how it works:
People who donate to Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network will reap financial blessings from a grateful God. The more they give TBN, the more he will give them.
Being broke or in debt is no excuse not to write a check. In fact, it's an ideal opportunity. For God is especially generous to those who give when they can least afford it.
"He'll give you thousands, hundreds of thousands," Crouch told his viewers during a telethon last November. "He'll give millions and billions of dollars."
Preachers who pass the hat while praising the Lord have long been the stuff of ridicule in film and fiction. But for Crouch and his Orange County-based television ministry, God's economy of giving is no laughing matter. It brings a rich bounty, year after year.
Crouch has used a doctrine called the "prosperity gospel" to underwrite a worldwide broadcasting network and a life of luxury for himself and his family.
For at least a century, preachers have plied the notion that dropping money in the collection plate will bring blessings from God - material as well as spiritual. But Crouch, through inspired salesmanship and advanced telecommunications technology, has converted this timeworn creed into a potent financial engine.
TBN collects more than $120 million a year from viewers of its Christian programming - more than any other TV ministry. Those donations have fueled its rise from a rented studio in Santa Ana to a global broadcasting system whose programs appear on thousands of channels - via satellite, cable and over-the-air broadcasts - in a dozen languages.
The network's donors also help fund generous salaries for Crouch ($403,700 a year) and his wife, Jan ($361,000), and an array of perks, including a TBN-owned jet and 30 homes across the country, among them a pair of Newport Beach mansions and a ranch in Texas.
The prosperity gospel is rooted in the idea that God wants Christians to prosper and that believers have the right to ask him for financial gifts. TBN has woven this notion into its round-the-clock programming as well as the thousands of fund-raising letters it mails every day.
During one telethon, Crouch, 70, told viewers that if they did their part to advance the Kingdom of God - such as by donating money to TBN - they should not be shy about asking God for a reward.
"If my heart really, honestly desires a nice Cadillac & would there be something terribly wrong with me saying, 'Lord, it is the desire of my heart to have a nice car & and I'll use it for your glory?' " Crouch asked. "I think I could do that and in time, as I walked in obedience with God, I believe I'd have it."
Other preachers who appear on the network offer variations on the theme that God appreciates wealth and likes to share it. One of them, John Avanzini, once told viewers that Jesus, despite his humble image, was a man of means.
"John 19 tells us that Jesus wore designer clothes," Avanzini said, referring to the purple robe that Christ's tormentors wrapped around him before the Crucifixion. "I mean, you didn't get the stuff he wore off the rack&. No, this was custom stuff. It was the kind of garment that kings and rich merchants wore."
TBN viewers are told that if they don't reap a windfall despite their donations, they must be doing something to "block God's blessing" - most likely, not giving enough.
Crouch has particularly stern words for those who are not giving at all.
"If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and have not contributed & you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven," he said during a 1997 telecast.
A central element of the prosperity gospel is that no one is too poor or too indebted to donate. Bishop Clarence McClendon, a preacher whose show "Take It By Force" appears on TBN, told viewers in March that God had asked him to deliver a message to those in financial difficulty:
They should "sow a seed" by using their credit cards to make donations. In return, the Lord would see to it that the balances would be paid off within 30 days.
"Get Jesus on that credit card!" McClendon said.
Proponents of the prosperity gospel - also known as the "name it and claim it" gospel and the "health and wealth" gospel - point to a verse in the Hebrew Scriptures in which the Lord warns the faithful not to "rob" him by withholding their tithes:
"'Test me in this,' says the Lord Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.' "
E.W. Kenyon, an evangelical pastor in the first half of the 20th century, was an early and influential advocate of the idea that God would grant material wishes.
Kenyon wrote about the "power of faith" to bring health and wealth. He depicted an Almighty who not only protected his followers and forgave their sins, but handed out gifts if asked. The important thing was to ask.
Kenyon's ideas inspired what came to be known as the Word of Faith movement. Many of the phrases Kenyon coined - such as "What I confess, I possess" - are still used by evangelists.
After Kenyon's death in 1948, other pastors used aspects of his teachings to draw an even more emphatic connection between piety and prosperity. Pentecostalists such as Oral Roberts were particularly ardent in espousing this doctrine.
In the 1960s, Pastor Kenneth Hagin, often described as the father of the Word of Faith movement, raised the profile of the prosperity gospel still further, promoting it on television and in books with titles such as "Godliness Is Profitable" and "How to Write Your Own Ticket with God."
Hagin preached a four-part formula that he said he received in a vision from Jesus: Say it. Do it. Receive it. Tell it.
First, believers must ask God for what they want. Next, they must demonstrate their faith through donations. Then they will tap into the "powerhouse of heaven" and receive their gifts. Finally, they must spread the news.
Most of today's leading televangelists preach some version of this creed.
Paul and Jan Crouch were brought up in the Assemblies of God, a Pentecostal denomination where the prosperity gospel flourishes. After working in ministries in South Dakota and Michigan, the couple moved to Southern California in 1961 to run an Assemblies of God TV production facility in Burbank.
They launched their own network in 1973. After two nights on the air on KBSA-TV Channel 46 in Santa Ana, they were broke. So the next night, they staged a telethon.
The phones hardly rang. Then Paul Crouch hit on an idea, he recalled in his autobiography, "Hello World!" He told Jan to announce on the air that an anonymous donor had promised to give $20,000 - on condition that viewers pledge the same amount that night.
The anonymous donor was Crouch, and the $20,000 was money the couple had already lent the network. If viewers came through with $20,000, they would forgo repayment of the loan.
By evening's end, viewers had phoned in $30,000 in pledges, enough to keep TBN on the air.
"Without really realizing it at the time, I had put into motion one of God's most powerful laws - the law of giving and receiving, sowing and reaping," Crouch wrote. "Thirty-, 60- and 100-fold blessing is, indeed, a glorious truth and blessing for those who will simply obey the word of the Lord!"
The prosperity gospel became the foundation of TBN fundraising. The Crouches and TBN personalities such as faith healer Benny Hinn present the doctrine with passion and a flair for the dramatic.
During fundraising "Praise-a-thons," the Crouches read testimonials from donors whose debts supposedly were miraculously forgiven - or who inexplicably received checks in the mail. They pray over donors' pledge cards.
In 2000, TBN televangelists told viewers that those who promised $2,000 would get the money back before the end of the year - and would find that their debts had been canceled. Later, donors were invited to send in loan statements and other debt paperwork. The documents were burned on a stone altar.
During another pitch, Crouch read on camera a letter he said was from a financially strapped viewer who had pledged $4,000.
According to Crouch, the donor wrote: "Within 15 minutes of that time, I received a check in the U.S. mail in the amount of $5,496.70. No explanation&. I know it's not an income tax return. I don't make enough money to file returns."
That year, in a fundraising letter to the network's "prayer partners," Crouch wrote: "Praise the Lord, the reports of awesome miracles of debts canceled and God's people coming out of debt continue to come in. God's economy of giving really works!"
Most mainstream theologians and pastors say the prosperity gospel is at best a doctrinal error and at worst a con game. They point out that Jesus and his disciples abandoned their possessions in order to live a spiritually rich life.
"It is difficult to fathom how anyone familiar with the abundance of biblical teaching about the 'deceitfulness of riches' could have devised the prosperity gospel," said William Martin, a sociology professor at Rice University and author of a biography of Billy Graham.
"While the Bible does not condemn all wealth, it surely points to its dangers in numerous passages."
Critics of TBN say that the promise of financial miracles - besides being a distraction from the core principles of Christianity - can cause real harm.
Ole E. Anthony, founder of the Trinity Foundation in Dallas, a televangelist watchdog, said he knew people who had given the last of their savings to TV preachers, hoping for a windfall that never came.
"The people on TBN are living the lifestyle of fabulous wealth on the backs of the poorest and most desperate people in our society," Anthony said. "People have lost their faith in God because they believe they weren't worthy after not receiving their financial blessing."
Thomas D. Horne, of Williford, Ark., a disabled Vietnam-era veteran, said that in 1994 he was swept away by the rhetoric of TBN pastors and donated about $6,000 in disability benefits.
Time went by and he did not receive the promised surfeit of money. Last year, he found out that TBN had purchased a Newport Beach mansion overlooking the Pacific. He wrote to the network, asking for his money back.
"I want to recoup my hard-earned disability money I sent to these despicable people," said Horne. He said he has received no reply.
Philip McPeake is another donor for whom God's economy of giving did not deliver. Out of work and out of luck in November 1998, McPeake heard the Rev. R.W. Schambach make an impassioned plea for donations on TBN's Kansas City television station, KTAJ.
Schambach promised that if viewers sent $200 as a down payment on a $2,000 pledge, God would give them the rest within 90 days - with a bonus to follow.
McPeake sent in his money and waited for his luck to change. When it didn't, he complained to the Missouri state attorney general's office and the Federal Communications Commission. TBN refunded his donation.
Carl Geisendorfer, who runs a low-power Christian television station in Quincy, Ill., offered TBN programming for 19 years - until, he said, he grew disgusted by the televangelists' financial appeals.
He said he pulled TBN off the air in 2002 after watching a preacher tell viewers that they should pledge $2,000 - even if they didn't have it - in order to receive a financial miracle from God.
"I should have canceled TBN several years earlier, but I thought Paul Crouch would finally see the light on how foolish and prideful that false gospel is," said Geisendorfer, president of Believer's Broadcasting Corp., a small media group. "I'm sorry I waited as long as I did."
Geisendorfer said donations to his station dropped 25% after he dropped TBN's programs. He said Paul Crouch called him and, during a 90-minute conversation, admitted to struggling over how far to go in promising financial rewards to donors.
"He said, 'What's the difference if some believe it or not. It works for many people. Why not?' " Geisendorfer wrote in a newsletter sent to station supporters last year. He quoted Crouch as saying: "The money comes in and the world is being reached by the Gospel."
Crouch declined to be interviewed for this article. His son, Paul Crouch Jr., a TBN executive, said critics of the prosperity gospel overlook the fact that the network has used viewers' contributions to bring God's word to millions of people.
He said it was unfortunate that "the prosperity gospel is a lightning rod for the Body of Christ. It's not what drives TBN."
If TBN was interested only in money, the younger Crouch said, it would sell advertisements instead of funding its operations primarily with viewers' contributions.
"We could double our money tomorrow," he said.
He added that appeals for money make up a small part of TBN programming and are prominent mainly during TBN's twice-yearly, weeklong "Praise-a-thons."
Those are the times when Rick Johnston, a retired pastor who lives near Flagstaff, Ariz., swings into action.
Johnston, 56, organizes groups of like-minded Christians to try to jam TBN's phone lines during "Praise-a-thons." The strategy is to stay on the line as long as possible offering phony pledges.
"I feel like a little fly trying to knock down Goliath," Johnston said. "But if I can stop somebody from being robbed of $100, I'm going to do it. There are worse things in life I could be guilty of doing."
Not all TBN donors are looking for a financial payback. Many say they are more interested in the promise of salvation and in helping spread the message of Jesus.
Jeanne Fish, 87, a widow who lives in a Tustin apartment, said she took solace from TBN when her husband died nearly 20 years ago and has been a loyal viewer ever since.
"I get so much out of it," she said. "It's almost like getting a theology degree. It's kind of hard to turn off, in fact."
Loyal viewers are dumbfounded that TBN generates controversy within the evangelical community.
"I'm just so amazed and shocked that so many people don't like [TBN] in the Christian world," said Arthur Robbins, an artist who lives near Santa Cruz. "It's a huge undertaking to promote the Gospel worldwide, and they're doing it."
On the air, Paul Crouch responds to criticism of the prosperity gospel by invoking Satan.
"If the devil can keep all of us Christians poor, we won't have any disposable income to build Christian television stations," Crouch said once.
Michael Giuliano, an expert in televangelism at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, said this is an effective strategy.
"It's very, very powerful," he said. "In a world of uncertainty, you know who the good guys in the white hats are and who the guys in the black hats are. And giving money to TBN is a tangible way to join the fight for the good guys."