Internationally, he is chiefly known as "Pastor Gas" for the "Farting Preacher" viral video, one of the very earliest viral videos on the Internet (see Satire).
Tilton was particularly influenced by the style of infomercials made by real estate promoter Dave Del Dotto, who produced hour-long infomercials showing Del Dotto's glamorous life in Hawaii--which Del Dotto constantly stressed anyone could achieve just by following the principles set up in Del Dotto's many "get rich quick" books--as well as "interviews" of students who were brought out to Del Dotto's Hawaiian villa for said interviews, specifically for their on-camera testimonials about the success in life they were now enjoying thanks to Del Dotto's teachings. Upon his return from Hawaii in 1981, Tilton--with the help of a $1.3M (US) loan from Dallas banker Herman Beebe--put together his new show, an hour-long religious infomercial with the title Success-N-Life.
As a result of Tilton's television success, the membership of the Word of Faith Family Church (renamed "Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center") grew to become an 8,000 member megachurch.
Tilton is the author of several self-help books about financial success, including The Power to Create Wealth, God's Laws of Success, How to Pay Your Bills Supernaturally, and How to be Rich and Have Everything You Ever Wanted. Most of Tilton's books were published in the 1980s and distributed via promotion on Success-N-Life and through the many mailings Tilton's ministry sent his followers. The books were republished in the late 1990s and are now used as centerpieces of his current infomercial series.
Even before the ABC News investigation into his ministry, Tilton had controversy in his background. In a deposition video for a lawsuit that was taped August 18, 1992, Tilton admitted to having robbed a fruit stand as a teen and abusing marijuana, LSD, and various barbiturates as a young man prior to his conversion to Christianity in 1969. Tilton also admitted several times on Success-N-Life that he used to "drink lots of alcohol and use lots of drugs" before his conversion.
In 1991, Diane Sawyer and ABC News conducted an investigation of Tilton (as well as two other Dallas-area televangelists, W.V. Grant and Larry Lea). The investigation, spearheaded by Trinity Foundation president Ole Anthony and broadcast on ABC's Primetime Live on November 21, 1991, found that Tilton's ministry threw away prayer requests without reading them, keeping only any money or valuables sent to them by viewers, garnering his ministry an estimated US$80 million a year.
Ole Anthony, a Dallas-based minister whose Trinity Foundation church works with the homeless and the poor on the East side of Dallas, took an interest in Tilton's ministry after some of the people coming to the Trinity Foundation for help told him they had lost all of their money making donations to some of the higher profile televangelists, especially fellow Dallas area minister Robert Tilton. Curious about the pervasiveness of the problem, the Trinity Foundation got on the mailing lists of several televangelists, including Tilton, and started keeping records of the many types of solicitations they received almost daily from various ministries.
Former Coca-Cola executive Harry Guetzlaff came to the Trinity Foundation for help and told Anthony that Guetzlaff had been turned away from Tilton's church when he found himself on hard times following a divorce. He had been a longtime high-dollar donor, and gave up his last $5,000 as a "vow of faith" just weeks earlier. Guetzlaff's experience combined with the sheer magnitude of mailings from Tilton's ministry spurred Anthony, a former intelligence officer in the United States Air Force and licensed private investigator, to start a full investigation of Tilton's ministry. Guetzlaff joined Anthony in the task of gathering details on Tilton's operation, and would later do much of the legwork in finding and following the paper trail for the ABC news investigation.
ABC producers, who had started working on their own investigation into a number of televangelists in early 1991, contacted the Trinity Foundation for information on Tilton. After ABC and Trinity Foundation compared notes, data, and details, the two groups decided to pool their efforts and began planning the undercover portion of the story. Anthony agreed to portray himself--a Dallas-based minister with a small church looking into the ways televangelist ministries were able to grow so quickly--and ABC producers would pose as Anthony's "media consultants". Together, the team got behind the scenes with hidden cameras and microphones for a meeting at Response Media, the Tulsa, Oklahoma-based marketing firm handling Tilton's mass mailings, to discuss a proposal sent by Anthony to Response Media about fundraising for a religious-based TV talk show. The director of Response Media, Jim Moore, described for Anthony and the hidden cameras (concealed in the undercover Primetime Live producers' glasses and handbags) many of the techniques used by Tilton to raise funds for his ministry. Moore also said that Tilton was "doing very well, financially" and described the main strategy Tilton employed for such a high-return rate on his mailings--that is, send the recipient a "gimmick" that would compel the recipient to mail something back in return, and most recipients who would be inclined to respond would include some money along with it--but declined to disclose how much Response Media was being paid for its services nor how much money the mailings were generating for the Tilton ministry.
However, Moore did disclose, as part of his sales pitch to Anthony, that the response letters generated by the fundraising mailings Response Media sends out for its clients would never actually be delivered to the client; instead, they would be sent, unopened, to the client's financial institution or institutions of choice. "You never have to touch it," Moore added in response to a clarification question from Ole Anthony about dealing with the gimmick objects sent to the potential donors in the mailers. One of the ABC producers asked for clarification as to whether this was a standard practice--"So, the mail goes straight to the bank?"--and Moore asserted that it was: "The mail goes to the bank, and they put the money in your account. We just get the paper with the person's name and how much they gave."
Trinity Foundation members, acting on this information, started digging through garbage dumpsters outside Tilton's many banks in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area as well as dumpsters outside the office of Tilton's lawyer, J.C. Joyce (who was also based in Tulsa). Over the next 30 days, Trinity's "garbologists", as Anthony dubbed them, found tens of thousands of discarded prayer requests, bank statements, computer printouts containing the coding for how Tilton's "personalized" letters were generated, and more, all of which were shown in detail on the Primetime Live documentary, now titled "The Apple of God's Eye". In a follow-up broadcast on November 28, 1991, Primetime Live host Diane Sawyer said that the Trinity Foundation and Primetime Live assistants found prayer requests in bank dumpsters on 14 separate occasions in a 30-day period.
Tilton vehemently denied the allegations and took to the airwaves on November 22, 1991 on a special episode of Success-N-Life entitled "Primetime Lies" to air his side of the story. Tilton also asserted that the prayer requests found in garbage bags shown on the Primetime Live investigation were stolen from the ministry and placed in the dumpster for a sensational camera shot, and that he prayed over every prayer request received, to the point that he "laid on top of those prayer requests so much that 'the chemicals' actually got into my bloodstream, and...I had two small strokes in my brain."
After Trinity Foundation members spent weeks poring through the details of the documents they and ABC had uncovered, sorting and scrutinizing each prayer request, bank statement, and computer printouts dealing with the codes Tilton's banks and legal staff used when categorizing the returned items, Ole Anthony called a press conference in December 1991 to present what he described as Tilton's "Wheel of Fortune", using a large display covered in actual prayer requests, copies of receipts for document disposition, and other damaging information that demonstrated what happened to money and prayer requests that the average Tilton TV follower sent Tilton. When both Tilton and his lawyer, J.C. Joyce, reacted to the news by claiming that the items Anthony was displaying had somehow been stolen by "an insider", Anthony responded in a subsequent interview that "Joyce was our mole--a lot of this stuff came from the dumpster outside his office."
Primetime Live's original investigation and subsequent updates included interviews with several former Tilton employees and acquaintances. In the original investigation, one of Tilton's former prayer hotline operators claimed that the ministry cared little for desperate followers who called for prayer, saying that Tilton had a computer installed in July 1989 to make sure the phone operators were off the line by seven minutes. Also in the original report, a former friend of Tilton's from college (who remained anonymous and was shown in silhouette) claimed that both he and Tilton would go to tent revival meetings as a sport and would claim to be anointed and healed at the meetings, adding that the two had often discussed the notion that after graduation, they would set up their own roving revival ministry "and drive around the country and get rich." In a July 1992 update to the investigation, Primetime Live interviewed Tilton's former maid, who claimed that prayer requests that were sent to Tilton's house by the ministry were routinely ignored until he told her to move them out of the house and into the garage; according to the maid, "they stacked up and stacked up" in Tilton's garage until he had them thrown away. In the same interview, Tilton's former secretary came forward and claimed that Tilton lifted excerpts from "get rich quick" books and used them in his sermons, and that she never saw him perform normal pastoral duties such as visiting with the sick and praying with members.
Despite Tilton's repeated denials of misconduct, the state of Texas and the Federal government got involved in subsequent investigations, finding more causes for concern about Tilton's financial status with each new revelation. After nearly 10,000 pounds of prayer requests and letters to the Tilton ministry were found in a disposal bin at a Tulsa-area recycling firm in February 1992 along with itemized receipts of their delivery from Tilton's main mail handling service in Tulsa rather than from the church offices in Farmers Branch, Tilton admitted in a deposition given to the Texas Attorney General's office that he often prayed over computerized lists of prayer requests instead of the actual prayer requests themselves, and that prayer requests were in fact routinely thrown away after categorization.
As each revelation became increasingly more damaging, viewership and donations declined dramatically, prompting Tilton to stop paying for television airtime for Success-N-Life in 1993, and the last episode aired nationally on October 30, 1993.
Several donors to Tilton's television ministry sued Tilton himself in 1992 and 1993 charging various forms of fraud. One of the parties suing won $1.5M (US) in 1994 when it was discovered that a family crisis center for which they had made donations (and recorded an endorsement testimonial) was never built nor was ever intended to be built. The judgment was later reversed on appeal.
The decline of Success-N-Life also led to the end of Tilton's 25-year marriage to wife Marte, who had served as the administrative head of the Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center, in 1993. Dallas lawyer Gary Richardson, who represented many of the parties suing Tilton for fraud, attempted to intervene in the Tiltons' divorce, citing the potential for the divorce settlement to be used to hide financial assets that were currently part of the many fraud cases; Richardson's petition to have the divorce action put on hold until after the fraud cases were settled was denied.
Tilton returned to television in 1994 with a new show called Pastor Tilton, a show with an emphasis on "demon-blasting" practices, usually involving Tilton shouting as loud as possible at demons supposedly possessing people suffering from pain and illness. His show was typical of other charismatic pastors such as Sam and Jane Whaley, whom Tilton credited for "casting out (his) own demons" in 1993. Tilton was introduced to the Whaleys by his new wife, televangelist Leigh Valentine (her first husband's last name, her maiden name is Middleton), a former beauty queen. She was Miss Missouri in 1977 but had to resign her title after a car accident left her almost lame and unable to perform her duties. Tilton and Valentine were married in the Dominican Republic on February 10, 1994. Tilton installed Leigh as an associate pastor at Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center and brought demon blasting to the church, a significant change from the Word-Faith prosperity doctrine that had defined the church since its founding.
Pastor Tilton was off the airwaves due to low ratings by the end of 1994. Tilton filed for divorce from Leigh in 1996 after a brief separation and reconciliation in November 1995 and fired several Word of Faith Family Church employees brought in by Leigh. The Tiltons' divorce, marked by mutual acrimonious statements to each other through the media, a motion by Leigh Valentine's lawyer that the Word of Faith Family Church should be included in the list of Tilton's personal financial assets (the judge rejected the motion), and courtroom claims by Leigh that she was verbally assaulted and physically abused by an often-drunk Tilton (along with alleged bizarre behavior by Tilton, such as proclaiming himself Pope and claiming that "rats were eating his brain"), was finalized in 1997.
Prior to their marriage, Leigh Valentine had her own demon-blasting evangelical ministry. Valentine claimed during her divorce action that Tilton confiscated her evangelism ministry materials (books, tapes) for sale through his own ministry, but she was not granted them as part of the divorce disposition and was unable to successfully restart her own ministry after divorcing Tilton. After their divorce, she moved to North Carolina and began her own cosmetics line. She declared Chapter 7 bankruptcy in June 2006.
After moving to Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1996, Tilton returned to the airwaves in 1997 with a new version of Success-N-Life, buying airtime on independent television stations primarily serving inner city areas. Gone were the demon-blasting sessions; back again were the Word-Faith messages and calls for "vows". In 1998, the program began airing on cable channel BET as part of the two hour late-night umbrella rotation block of religious programming entitled BET Inspiration. As of 2007, Success-N-Life is still a part of BET Inspiration, usually occupying the first hour of the programming block, as well as running on cable religious programming channel The Word Network. Most of the episodes of Success-N-Life shown on BET Inspiration were taped in the late 1990s--with testimonials from 1980s-era episodes interspersed throughout the episodes--but Tilton has also recorded infomercials for his books at least once a year since 2003, often appearing with his third wife, Maria Rodriguez, and their four French poodles. These infomercials also appear under the title of Success-N-Life on BET Inspiration.
The Word of Faith Family Church and World Outreach Center, whose membership had declined to fewer than 300 by 1996, was finally formally dissolved by Tilton. Though Tilton was still listed as the church's senior pastor, he had not preached at the church since March 16, 1996, when he named Chattanooga, Tennessee minister Bob Wright as senior associate pastor. The church building was purchased by the city of Farmers Branch in 1999 for use as a future civic center; however, the economy suffered a downturn and the plans were scrapped, and the building was finally demolished in 2003 to make room for a new youth hockey center.
In March 2005, Tilton started a new church in Hallandale, Florida, not far from his home in Miami Beach. The church had already existed for some time under the pastorship of controversial former televangelist David Epley. Tilton's new church, now called "Christ The Good Shepherd Worldwide Church", has approximately 200 members as of 2007. On Sunday May 13, 2007, the church moved into a new location at 16601 NW 8th Avenue in Miami, and was officially renamed "Word of Faith Church", much like his original church in Dallas. The new, larger location was purchased from another church. Tilton also started a church in Las Vegas, Nevada in 2005, also originally named Christ The Good Shepherd Worldwide Church. It has also been officially renamed "Word of Faith Church." The Las Vegas church's resident pastor is Natalie Vafai and holds its services at the Henderson Convention Center.
Tilton has also begun traveling the country again, in what he calls "The Renewed Robert Tilton Success-N-Life Miracle Rallies." According to his assistant pastor in Florida, he plans to broadcast his church services and miracle rallies on TV soon and has approached the Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) about this.
When Tilton returned to television in 1997, he established his ministry's headquarters in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where his lawyer J.C. Joyce's offices were located, and set up a Post Office box as its mailing address. A woman employed by Mail Services, Inc., a Tulsa-area clearinghouse handling mail sent to Tilton's ministry, said that when she worked for Mail Services, Inc. in 2001, prayer requests were still routinely thrown away after donations, pledges, etc. were removed.
Steve Lumbley, who worked for Tilton's ministry in 1991 when the original Primetime Live investigation took place, told a reporter for the Dallas Observer in 2006 that reports of prayer request disposal that were the centerpiece of the 1991 Primetime Live exposé were highly exaggerated. In an article for the dallasobserver.com blog "Unfair Park", Lumbley asserted that "[t]he mailings all had some kind of gimmick. They weren't godly at all. But the primary allegation that came out of that--that prayer requests were thrown away--was categorically untrue, and I can guarantee you that was not a normal practice." However, Lumbley, who now runs a Christian watchdog website called ApostasyWatch.com, does credit ABC and the Trinity Foundation for exposing Tilton's unethical fundraising tactics, noting that "God was using Ole and ABC to chastise Tilton and bring him down."
The Trinity Foundation still monitors Tilton's television ministry as part of Trinity's ongoing televangelist watchdog efforts. In a 2003 interview published in Tulsa World, Ole Anthony estimated that with none of the Word of Faith Family Church overhead and with television production costs at a fraction of the original Success-N-Life program, Tilton's current ministry was likely grossing more than $24M (U.S.) per year tax-free.
In 1985, two American men began distributing a video they compiled lampooning Tilton and his ostensible conversations with God. The video exploits Tilton's facial expressions and preaching style. Entitled Pastor Gas, the video featured a medley of footage from Success-N-Life, overdubbed with well-timed sound effects of flatulence. Unofficial VHS copies of the video circulated in the United States through the late 1980s, under such titles as Heaven Only Knows, The Joyful Noise, and The Farting Preacher. After the hosts of The Mark and Brian Show, a radio program in Los Angeles, mentioned the video on the air, the video's authors saw the market potential and began selling official copies of their creation. Similar videos have since been made in more recent times using more recent footage of Tilton and are distributed throughout the internet, all under the Farting Preacher name. The video distribution (including digital bootlegs distributed online) expanded public awareness of Robert Tilton and his controversial "television ministry".
The stand-up comedy material of Ron White also includes mention of Robert Tilton. In the opening to White's act in the first Blue Collar Comedy Tour movie, Ron claims that "while sitting in a beanbag chair naked eating Cheetos," he finds Tilton on TV and believes Tilton is talking specifically to him: "Are you lonely?" "Yeah." "Have you spent half your life in bars pursuing sins of the flesh?" "Man, this guy's good..." "Are you sitting in a beanbag chair naked eating Cheetos?" Ron gapes in horror before squeaking, "...Yes sir!" "Are you going to get up and send me a thousand dollars?" (pause for effect) "Close! Thought he was talking about me for a second. Apparently, I ain't the only cat on the block (who) digs Cheetos!"
In the early 2000s, the Trinity Foundation put together a number of news broadcasts, including the initial Primetime Live piece, from the years surrounding the investigations into Tilton's ministry on a DVD entitled The Prophet of Prosperity: Robert Tilton and the Gospel of Greed. The DVD also includes segments from The Daily Show's "God Stuff" (hosted by Trinity Foundation member John Bloom, a.k.a. Joe Bob Briggs), excerpts from the Pastor Gas videos, and a number of mocking music videos, as well as moments from Success-N-Life showing Tilton's more outrageous claims of "visions from God".