Three Angels Broadcasting Network: A High-Flying Organization
By Edwin A. Schwisow
Did the three angels of Revelation 14 have a stiff tailwind
as they shouted their apocalyptic warnings from the skies?
The Bible doesn't spell out the weather report, but it does
say the angels showed up in full voice—energetic, hardly out
of breath—when they delivered their messages.
The same can't quite be said this year for their high-flying
Illinois namesake, satellite television network Three Angels
Broadcasting Network (3ABN).
For the first time in its nearly two-decade history, donations
to the independent Adventist programming and broadcasting ministry
slipped last year, as 3ABN continues its quest to reach every
nation, kindred, tongue and people on earth. And according to
3ABN president Danny Shelton, the reasons for the decline are
by no means understood at headquarters. Some 3ABN supporters,
however, believe that the answer may be written prominently on
the inside fuselage walls of two executive jet aircraft (one
now for sale, one leased) that 3ABN's founders have been using
for more than a year for corporate travel.
3ABN's around-the-clock five-satellite ministry has grown
from its start in the mid-1980s to a ministry receiving annual
donations of about $15 million a year. Led by the country-voiced,
sweet-singing Shelton and his demure, soft-spoken wife, Linda,
3ABN's story makes inspiring reading. Danny Shelton, who points
to his high school diploma as the epitome of his formal education,
is a poster boy for sanctified ambition. Some 3ABN supporters
speak of him as "inspired" and almost messianic, and until last
year, 3ABN's rate of ascent was measured in increments of angelic
The Sheltons have established a new style in Adventist media,
stripped of the aristocratic cool of a George Vandeman, the cerebral
rumble of an H.M.S. Richards, or the austere reclusiveness of
a William Fagal. The Sheltons present themselves, instead, as
a simple, God-fearing family, dedicated to proclaiming Adventist
Christianity around the world, 24 hours a day. And many who know
the Sheltons personally say that what you see on television is
what you get in person—authenticity, plainspokenness, dedication.
But 3ABN's growth from a mom-and-pop media outlet in North
Frankfort, Ill., to a multimillion-dollar corporation is not
happening without growing pains.
What once was seen as Danny Shelton's precocious, hands-on
style is now interpreted by critics as heavy-handed control of
3ABN's small, compliant board. And the Sheltons' use of the executive
jets reinforces a view that success has tainted the self-sacrificing
spirit of 3ABN's first couple. Always a man who takes pride in
keeping in touch with his supporters, Shelton knows he's not
pleasing everyone these days—he admitted as much in a lengthy
Dec. 29 telephone interview with Adventist Today. But he still
believes he has been faithful to the vision God has given him
and that 3ABN is operating in an impressively thrifty, efficient
"We had an Associated Press reporter here this month, and
you could tell she was very skeptical about 3ABN. She stayed
here several days, and we gave her access to everything, opened
our books to her, gave her the information she wanted. By the
end, her attitude had turned around completely, and we believe
her story will be very positive."
The story of 3ABN is a positive one of outstanding growth—an
old, old story the Sheltons tell often and well. Shelton, a builder
and carpenter, saw the need to create a television network to
spread the end-time gospel. By most accounts, he's delivered
what he promised—simple, conservative, direct Bible preaching
and music that calls audiences to conversion. Last year, 3ABN
added around-the-clock Spanish-language programming and a 24-hour-a-day radio presence on satellite.
Shelton characterizes 3ABN programming as "more hard-hitting"
than denominationally produced fare, and says 3ABN's status as
an independent nonprofit insulates the church from criticism
of being too critical of other Christian denominations—most notably
Roman Catholicism. And he says he would welcome the advent of
additional networks, of Adventist-oriented satellite programming—say,
networks to meet the minds of intellectuals and liberals, Muslims
and Hindus, New Age pagans, or secular American agnostics. The
network, he says, reaches the world—but through programming designed
primarily for an already Christianized viewership. But, he claims,
there's plenty of room for other Adventist entrepreneurs to devise
television ministries for other demographics.
By some counts, 3ABN is now the second-largest religious broadcasting
television network in the world. And records show that thousands
have found their way into Adventism by watching 3ABN telecasts.
Many Adventist pastors point to viewers of 3ABN who have appeared
at their church doors, eager and informed for baptism.
Given 3ABN's resilience, success, and impressive economic
expansion during each of its first eighteen years, why the plateau
or downturn in 2003? Danny Shelton says he has no easy answers
and refuses to chalk it up to a slow economy or donor dissatisfaction.
He says he needs time and outside help to sort things through.
"I've asked the Lord to show me if, perhaps, something I,
Danny Shelton, am doing is the reason we're down this year. Frankly,
I don't know the reasons, yet," he says.
But he's not meditating on these things to the detriment of
his other duties. He continues to work hard to sign more agreements
with cable outlets to carry 3ABN programming. Recent successes
in placing 3ABN on cable in the southeastern United States have
brought more than a million new potential viewers—a success that
by all counts should add hundreds of new names to the 3ABN donor
But observers are increasingly asking if Danny and Linda's
use of corporate jets (one, a Mitsubishi Diamond, owned by 3ABN
and now for sale; and another leased plane, a Cessna Citation)
may contain elements of the answer to 3ABN's financial concerns.
At press time, Shelton still rejected that possibility: 3ABN
receives about 1,500 letters a month from viewers, he says, and
there is no indication from these letters that the planes have
become an issue among donors. 3ABN's supporters understand that
the Sheltons need to circulate, reach out, meet the people, he
says. They want to see him and Linda, speak to them personally,
share. He believes supporters understand that by using an executive
plane, 3ABN can reach many more people much more effectively.
But others suggest that in using the planes, the Sheltons
may be erasing the very credibility their visits are intended
to stoke. Kermit Netteburg, now with the North American Division
as assistant for communication and a man Shelton acknowledges
as an acquaintance, noted last August that 3ABN's use of the
plane seems to coincide directly with the decline of as much
as a million dollars in annual donations.
But Netteburg also claims to empathize with 3ABN's decision
to use the planes: "What we sometimes forget is that 3ABN is
now a very big organization," Netteburg said. "To run a corporation
this large takes resources. One thing I can tell you is that
at a recent meeting, the Sheltons arrived on time, rested and
ready to work, and were the only ones who were able to be home
that night, to sleep in their own beds, ready for work the next
What the weary, and perhaps envious, Netteburg sees as an
advantage, however, may be seen by others as self-indulgence—a
trait not lightly tolerated in a denomination whose top executives
do not now enjoy, and in fact never have enjoyed, regular use
of jet-powered executive aircraft. A Shelton acquaintance who
has been featured prominently on 3ABN in recent years, Adventist
missionary pilot David L. Gates, echoes those thoughts. Son of
a foreign missionary and subject of a recent biography published
by the denomination's Pacific Press, the bone-thin Gates lives
an austere life as a missionary to South America.
"Danny and I were talking, a while back, and he told me I
needed a jet like his for the work I do," Gates remembers. "And
my response was, 'Danny, I ask many people working with me to
make tremendous sacrifices. And if I flew in a plane like yours,
I would have no credibility among these people. Yes, in a practical
sense I could use a jet. But as a leader, I have to stay close
to the people, live as they live, travel as they travel. That's
the only kind of leadership I know.' "
Gates's asceticism hardly represents the entire philosophical
bandwidth of 3ABN supporters. But it captures an essential trait
of Adventism that bears emphasizing—that Adventists by and large
are hypercritical of the appearance of ostentation and privilege
among those they see as called by God to service. Are the Sheltons
losing touch with the mindset of their self-sacrificing donors?
The downturn in 3ABN donations was tacitly acknowledged in
May 2003 in a general letter in which the usually positive Sheltons
admitted that things just weren't going as well as they should,
at least with 3ABN's Spanish-language programming venture. They
said that donations had, indeed, reached a plateau and that developing
the Spanish-language component was impossible unless funding
took a turn for the better.
Meanwhile, in South America, an Adventist-affiliated group
known as "A.D.Venir" (pronounced Ah Day VehnEER)—led by David
Gates himself—was placing a competing Spanish-language programming
service on satellite, at a cost of $1.5 million.
The times are indeed changing, as 3ABN struggles to find a
management style that remains true to its self-proclaimed principles
of thrift and accountability. It now directs an international
empire that reaches most of the globe with multilingual signals
on five satellites, from studios in America, Russia and the Philippines.
In the process, the planes may be costing 3ABN a lot more than
fuel, insurance and airport fees.
Signs of the Times
About 3,000 Adventist businessmen and their families gathered
last August to celebrate the annual divisionwide convention of
Adventist-laymen's Services and Industries (ASI), of which 3ABN
is a prominent member. The network commanded a well-lit corner
booth on the ASI exhibit floor—clearly, the most often-visited
booth among the hundreds of exhibitors.
Shelton himself, in casual attire, showed up sporadically
at the booth, but he seemed preoccupied with other matters. His
staff told visitors that because of overwhelming responsibilities—3ABN
was taping or televising live several convention plenary sessions—Shelton's
availability to talk personally with them would be limited.
As I circulated among the scores of booths on the exhibit
floor, several prominent exhibitors, of their own accord, volunteered
their disappointment with 3ABN's decision to acquire and operate
the planes. They knew me for my 26 years with Adventist media
in the North Pacific Union, much of it during the halcyon years
of 3ABN's growth. I had helped organize large broadcasting conventions
in the Northwest, bringing together media-minded pastors, technicians,
laymen and church executives—including former General Conference president Robert Folkenberg.
During those conventions, we'd given 3ABN supporters unlimited
time to explain how local groups could sponsor low-power television
stations to rebroadcast the 3ABN signal. Even today, 3ABN acknowledges
that the Pacific Northwest has the highest concentration of facilities
rebroadcasting their signal of any union territory in North America.
I was—and am—considered supportive of the vision of 3ABN and
well-informed on media matters, and it was entirely natural for
men such as retired pastor/evangelist Don Gray of Vancouver,
Wash., to tell me quietly, "The plane is hurting Danny, I'm afraid.
He should just get rid of it." Several other ASI members made
similar comments—not as a condemnation of 3ABN, but in the sorrowful,
hushed tones of a relative lamenting a loved one who continues
to refuse medical treatment for a dread disease.
When, sometime later, I asked Shelton himself about the possibility
that his traveling arrangements were hurting the 3ABN cause,
he dismissed it out of hand—as he apparently does with others
who raise the issue. He is determined, he said, to weather any
turbulence—in fact, he says there is no turbulence—regarding
He explained to me that the planes make it possible for him
and Linda to meet more people, more often. That's what the Adventist
people want and expect, he said. And in the post-911 era, traveling
by common carrier simply takes too much time and limits him and
his wife to too few visits to too few churches and rallies across
Indeed, since acquiring the aircraft, 3ABN's weekend rallies
have increased markedly in frequency—a fact that ordinarily would
stimulate donations to the cause. But the opposite has occurred.
The network is wrestling to remain in contact with the down-home
values and concerns of its donors—that much is clear. But now,
as it emerges as a worldwide corporation, the bonds of credibility
seem strained. And the plane is not the only problem.
It doesn't help that word is out that the Sheltons' salaries
exceed those of even the highest-paid administrative ministers
in the Adventist Church (a charge Danny Shelton categorically
denies, citing figures that show he personally earned less than
$50,000 last year and that he declined to accept any retirement
But 3ABN's audited statements for calendar years 2001 and
2002 show that the decrease in salary must be quite recent, as
Shelton is quoted on those documents as earning more than $60,000
All told, the temperature is rising in the cockpit. And Danny
Shelton's voluntary forfeiture of part of his salary suggests
he's feeling at least some of the heat. But, is lopping off $700
or $800 from his monthly paycheck going to be enough to fight
the perception that the Sheltons have succumbed to the siren
call of creature comforts and opulence?
What of the Future?
No one questions the genius of Danny Shelton and the on-screen
appeal of his wife and family members. No one disputes that the
Sheltons have accomplished what no other Adventist dared attempt.
But in my recent conversation with Shelton, one 60-second
aside he volunteered in the course of our two-hour interview
seemed to reveal more about the issue than all of the other minutes
combined. Speaking of the many times 3ABN has been criticized,
he offered: "It is actually at the times when we are under greatest
attack that we receive the most donations. Those who have attacked
us have actually helped us grow."
It was a challenge—and perhaps in writing this article with
its references to the couple's high-flying ways, I have already
fallen into the negative column of the Sheltons' esteem. But
I hope not. I write as a friend and well-wisher, representing
what must surely be scores of voices in Adventism who fear writing
that letter, or letters, to 3ABN.
Why? Do they fear losing Danny's friendship or further invitations
to promote their own ministries via 3ABN? I don't know, and Danny
assured me in our interview that his supporters are fearless
in criticizing 3ABN. So, what gives? What may well be happening
is that Shelton has not yet fully grasped that times are changing
rapidly for 3ABN. For most of his media career, Danny Shelton
has thrived on controversy—as the blue-eyed David defending against
heavy-browed Goliaths such as the General Conference, competing
ministries, and local county leaders who recently challenged
3ABN's nonprofit credentials.
But today, 3ABN is neither small nor, apparently, invulnerable.
And in what some donors see as another sign of the times, 3ABN
has let out the word that it now receives more donated money
than any other Adventist media ministry, including the venerable
Voice of Prophecy and It Is Written programs.
While technically correct, the information reinforces a view
that 3ABN's little David may be drinking too eagerly from the
brook of its own success, paying less attention to selecting
the thrifty, smooth stones that have contributed to its rise
The plane, the salary, the strong personal control, the bit
about being biggest—all form the borders of what could develop
into a less-than-flattering jigsaw portrait of a modern 3ABN
The Sheltons are by no means unaware of at least some of these
issues. They're trying to respond to the challenge, but 2003
may well go down as the year they prescribed the wrong medication
for, essentially, the right problems.
They understand that 3ABN's bigness is gnawing at the critical
essence of its appeal—the hominess, the access, the Mr. Rogerliness.
And they also sense that controversy and attacks by others are
not quite the allies they were when 3ABN was a babe in arms.
What Danny seems one moment to accept—and the next to deny—is
that 3ABN is not what it used to be. It's bigger, it's stronger,
its influence is worldwide. And with that power comes a new image—an
impersonality far more vulnerable to criticism, where rumors
can take on lives of their own and brood for decades in the recesses
of the public subconscious.
The Sheltons believe their planes help them bolster their
repartee with the Adventist public, when in fact the aircraft
may be eloquently contradicting the very message they were intended
to help deliver.
One supporter I spoke with at the ASI convention suggested
that the Sheltons would do well to study the success of the late
Wal-Mart founder, Arkansan Sam Walton. Walton, by all accounts,
recognized that as his company matured, his leadership role was
not to micromanage the company and sign every purchase order
(as Danny Shelton told me he does for 3ABN) but to preserve at
all costs the image of what Wal-Mart stands for: "We like you
so much, we want to save you lots of money."
Like Walton, Shelton is an honor graduate of the Horatio Alger
School of Success. And like Walton, Danny Shelton's father was
an Arkansan, a fact attested by Danny's faint southern accent.
And, like Wal-Mart on the retailing scene, 3ABN has now surpassed
its Adventist media rivals. Walton kept alive the "We like you
so much, we want to save you lots of money" motif by driving
his pick-up—not a jet-propelled vehicle, by all accounts—and
popping in ad hoc to check up on his outlets and tell the faithful
that the sky was the limit.
Though a billionaire in stock holdings, Walton dodged the
pretenses of privilege and through example told the people that
Wal-Mart was still in the down-home, neighborly business of saving
its customers money. Supporters of 3ABN seem to be asking the
Sheltons for the same assurances. They want to hear, in word
and example, that 3ABN is still exclusively in the business of
saving its viewers' souls. And the Sheltons are learning that
spelling out that message for a multimillion-dollar corporation
is not a task for the symbolically faint of heart.
The task ahead could, in fact, call for cutting back some
travel mileage and working harder to pack more symbolism into
fewer visits—as Ronald Reagan did during his presidency.
Yes, there's been a new kind of turbulence at 3ABN. No one
is passing out parachutes, and no one is calling for mid-air
replacement of the pilot—yet. But the organization is discovering,
as St. Paul learned long ago, that though all things may be lawful,
not all things are expedient, or appropriate, in the grander
scheme. The network can still recapture its image as the beloved
David, slaying the giants of unbelief, greed, hypocrisy, and
worldly entitlement with the thrifty sling of self-sacrifice.
But it will never reach the whole world with the gospel if
it loses the soul of its personality. Now would be an excellent
time to divest the planes—citing financial constraints.
The gesture would play well in the conservative provinces—in
fact, the communal sigh of relief would be heard across the land.
It's a compelling move that could do wonders for the bottom line
in 2004. It's a thought the Sheltons might do well to prayerfully
ponder, the next time they're in the skies.
Edwin A. Schwisow was public relations officer for the North
Pacific Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. He now lives
in Sandy, Ore., where he publishes books and writes for magazines.