Church of God contact inspires TV-network changes
By Dixon Cartwright
HAWKINS, Texas--Prime Time Christian Broadcasting Network (PTCB) is a West Texasbased satellite and cable concern that telecasts religious programming over the air 24 hours a day to Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and beyond. PTCB also hooks up by cable to television sets all over the country and by satellite around the world.
Its programming is reminiscent of the old Mexican-border radio stations, like XEG, XERF and XELO, that beamed the gospel according to fundamentalist preachers to North America late at night in the 1950s and '60s.
But PTCB may be having an identity crisis. Its owners and managers have recently learned about the Sabbath and feast days and the origins of pagan holidays, and as a result they're making changes: in their personal lives and in their programming policies.
They sell airtime to many preachers and ministries--PTCB officials estimate that at any moment upwards of a million people could be watching their programs--and they have banned shows promoting Christmas and Easter.
Owners Al and Tommie Cooper and manager Jeff Welter and his wife, Amy, are growing more and more interested in an understanding of Scripture similar to that espoused by many of the Churches of God. Instrumental in their new understanding have been Joe Good of Nederland, Texas, Mitchell Smith of Lindale, Texas, and Tim Kelley of Hawkins, Texas.
Mr. Good, a former Baptist, is founder and director of Hatikva Ministries, Nederland, a "Hebrew roots" ministry that holds many beliefs in common with the Church of God groups with origins in the Worldwide Church of God.
Mr. Smith, Mr. Kelley and their families have backgrounds in the WCG and are founders of the East Texas Fellowship, which usually meets in the Kelleys' house, between Hawkins and Big Sandy.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Kelley attend other congregations as well, including the United Church of God Big Sandy; United Church of God, an International Association; and Church of God International; as well as other living-room groups.
The Journal on May 19 talked with Mr. Smith, 56, and Mr. Kelley, 45, at the Kelleys' residence about their friends at Prime Time Christian Broadcasting Network. Also present was Mr. Smith's 34-year-old son Gary.
The interview took place shortly after Mr. Smith and Mr. Kelley returned from the PTCB studio, near Midland, and a two-hour live interview May 12.
One reason for the network officials' interest in modifying their understanding of Scripture was their exposure to Mr. Good's weekly telecast, Promise of the Father, which airs over PTCB. Mr. Good had mentioned to the PTCB people that he has friends in East Texas who have observed the Feast of Tabernacles for more than 30 years, and he offered to arrange a meeting with them.
The meeting turned out to be a televised talk show during which Mr. and Mrs. Welter interviewed Mr. Good, Mr. Kelley and Mr. Smith.
"The program was live for two hours, from 8 to 10," said Mr. Smith, "but they have repeated it over and over."
Mr. Smith said Mr. Welter, the station manager, has "openly kept the Sabbath" for three months, and Mrs. Welter has observed it longer than that.
"And they were genuinely interested in learning about the holy days," said Mr. Kelley.
Mr. Smith and Mr. Kelley were logical sources of information about the feast days thanks to their background in the Church of God and because they are planning a new Feast site for this fall near Ardmore, Okla.
"They were interested in finding out what we were doing for this festival," said Mr. Kelley, "and then they wanted to know why we felt it was so important that people attend. It just gave us a great opportunity to start teaching and talking about the plan of salvation, the need to keep the holy days and the need to keep the law."
On the air, the men explained that they are not legalists, even though they believe in the law.
"We said that keeping the law is not bondage," said Mr. Kelley, "because some of the questions they had gotten in the past were from people thinking keeping the law was bondage. Some of their listeners have told them their whole network is going back into bondage. We explained to them why that is not the case."
When station personnel began changing their beliefs and practices, some of their client broadcasters were upset because they could no longer go to the studio to videotape on Friday night or Saturday.
"They won't allow it until the sun goes down on Saturday night," said Mr. Smith.
The Journal asked Mr. Kelley and Mr. Smith what was the most difficult question of the interview.
"I don't think anything was difficult," said Mr. Kelley, "because this guy was just in our hands. The interviewer, Jeff Welter, was really wanting to learn."
Mr. Smith and Mr. Kelley explained to the viewing audience that they are former members of the Worldwide Church of God, that they have observed the Feast for 30-some years, and at times they kept it along with 12,000 other people at one site in Big Sandy.
"They couldn't imagine this," said Mr. Smith. "They didn't know this was going on. When we said this, everybody started laughing."
Mr. Smith told Mr. and Mrs. Welter about the East Texas Fellowship's work with other Church of God and "Torah-observant" ministries.
"We mentioned we have been working with a lot of different ministries, including Joe Good's, Dell Griffin's and Dean Wheelock's, and they were really happy to hear we were working with various people."
Mr. Kelley explained to Mr. Welter he does not consider the little group of half a dozen families, the East Texas Fellowship, a ministry. The East Texas Fellowship exists simply to make various ministries accessible to other people.
Mr. Kelley and Mr. Smith pursue the same goal through their annual Footsteps of the Messiah conference each December near Wagoner, Okla.
"I didn't mention Herbert Armstrong," said Mr. Kelley, "but I did mention the Worldwide Church of God. Some people in their calls asked us what happened to the Worldwide Church of God, although we were never able to get to most of their written questions because of the discussion we were having with the host and his wife. We were able to answer only one question, even though there was a stack of them about an inch thick from the viewing audience. There was a bomb threat too."
A bomb threat?
"During the show a staff member handed Mrs. Welter a note, which she passed to her husband on camera," said Mr. Kelley.
Mr. Welter did not reveal its contents to the audience, but later he showed it to Mr. Smith, Mr. Kelley and Mr. Good. The note was from someone upset with the contents of the program who vowed to blow up the station.
"You touch some nerves in a situation like this," said Mr. Smith. "You've got some great Christians out there calling in bomb threats."
"One of the funniest things that happened," said Mr. Kelley, "was when Joe was explaining Antiochus Epiphanes. Jeff asked him a question about it, and Joe went on to explain the abomination of desolation and how he felt that it was a crucifix. And here behind Jeff is a cross. In fact, the Prime Time logo has a cross in it. But they're moving along, step by step, in changing and understanding these things."
Mr. Kelley told The Journal the East Texas Fellowship does not single out and "push" Joe Good, who is a prolific lecturer and researcher, or any other teacher or ministry.
"We're pushing the Word of God," he said. "Any ministries that we come in contact with that can help, we support them. On the program I said some things Joe didn't agree with and vice versa. For one thing, I explained that not all Israelites are Jews, and Joe doesn't quite latch onto that."
Mr. Kelley said other network staffers, besides the owner and manager and their wives, are "still very Protestant in their thinking and are having a hard time coming around and seeing this. But they said they've started down the path and they're not turning back."
Although Mr. Kelley and Mr. Smith call the East Texas Fellowship a "Hebrew roots" group, Mr. Smith isn't entirely comfortable with that description.
"Sometimes when people hear 'Hebrew roots' they think you're moving into Judaism," said Mr. Smith. "That's the last thing we're doing. God expects the Jews to keep the commandments and everything just like He expects the gentiles to do it. They're all expected to do the same thing. God through Israel laid all these things out; He used Israel as a teaching tool."
He said he is more comfortable calling the group a "Bible fellowship."
Mr. Kelley said the fellowship studies the "Hebrewness" of the Scriptures.
"We study the Scriptures, and we try to find Messiah, Jesus, in all the Scriptures, Old and New Testament. We try to understand the background of the people who wrote the Bible, both Old and New, because we've come to see that you have a much better understanding of the New Testament if you'll look at the first-century customs of the people who wrote the Scriptures--and they were Jews."
One Sabbath a month the group does not meet and encourages its members on that day to visit other congregations in the area.
"I visit United in Big Sandy," said Mr. Smith. "Once in a while I've gone to Worldwide. That may be a no-no, but I've got a lot of friends in Worldwide."
Mr. Smith's son Gary teaches a Hebrew class as part of the Sabbath-get-together format and plans to teach Hebrew at the Feast site in Oklahoma in September and October.
What is the gospel?
The Journal asked Mr. Smith what he thinks the Bible means by preaching the gospel.
"The apostles were commissioned by Jesus Christ Himself to go into all the world and preach the gospel," he said, "making disciples of all men, so to speak. They're still doing that by means of the Bible, and they've just about reached the whole world.
"A lot of times people say they're commissioned to do this and preach what they call the gospel. Actually, what they're doing is putting forth a midrash, their own interpretation of the Scriptures.
"What I'm saying is, unless you just read the Scripture, those scriptures [such as Matthew 28:19] are directed to the apostles themselves, and to this day they're still fulfilling the commission that Jesus sent them out to fulfill."
The Journal asked Mr. Kelley what he would call "the work."
"I'd say the work is teaching Messiah and everything that pertains to Messiah to all those who you are able to come into contact with.
"I think, for example, that teaching the holy days is the work.
"If you can do nothing but show the Messiah in the holy days, then you're doing the work, because people are going to grab hold of that and start turning toward God.
"They may never know the gospel of the Kingdom per se, but when God looks down upon them is He going to say 'I'm going to cast you off because you don't know about the different resurrections'?"
"No one man or no one ministry has the whole thing," commented Mr. Smith.
"I don't care what ministry it is, they cannot teach you the whole gospel.
"If you can teach somebody part of it, like Tim was saying--if you can concentrate on the feast days, like Dell Griffin, who deals with the return of the house of Israel--then you're providing a valuable service."
"We've seen that God didn't reveal it all to any one ministry," said Mr. Kelley, "that He's revealed little bits and pieces through these different ministries throughout the whole world.
"We need to start looking at some of these ministries to see that. None of them are all right, and none of them are all wrong."
Mr. Kelley believes the future of the Churches of God involves God's preparation of individuals to be "individual ministries."
"He's going to force us out of the corporations into smaller and smaller groups so we can become useful tools to Him," he said. "Until you are on the spot and teaching something, you're not learning anything. God intends all of us to be testimonials of Yeshua Messiah. We're not being testimonials by simply sending in a tithe check every week."
Mr. Smith made a concluding comment about his friends at Prime Time Christian Broadcasting Network.
"I feel like the heavenly Father is using this network as a vessel right now, and I am very thankful He is allowing us to tag along for the show."
For more information about the East Texas Fellowship or the Feast of Tabernacles at Lake Murray Resort near Ardmore, Okla. (Sept. 24 through Oct. 2), write Mitchell Smith at 405 N. Main St., Lindale, Texas 75771, U.S.A., or firstname.lastname@example.org. Or write Mr. Kelley at Rt. 2, Box 364-5, Hawkins, Texas 75765, U.S.A., or email@example.com.
Or call Mr. Smith at (903) 882-7446 or Mr. Kelley at (903) 769-2750.
Contact the Prime Time Christian Broadcasting Network at P.O. Box 61000, Midland, Texas 79711, U.S.A., or (800) 572-4242.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God