[Vision2020] Prosperity Preaching

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Mon Dec 31 08:52:24 PST 2007

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Believer bitter over 'prosperity' preachings

   - Story Highlights
   - In-debt believer gave money to prosperity preachers
   - Now bitter that promised blessings never arrived
   - Supporters say message is biblically sound
   - Critics say evangelists prey on vulnerable to enrich selves

*(AP) *-- The message flickered into Cindy Fleenor's living room each night:
Be faithful in how you live and how you give, the television preachers said,
and God will shower you with material riches.

And so the 53-year-old accountant from the Tampa, Florida, area pledged $500
a year to Joyce Meyer, the evangelist whose frank talk about recovering from
childhood sexual abuse was so inspirational. She wrote checks to flamboyant
faith healer Benny Hinn and a local preacher-made-good, Paula White.

Only the blessings didn't come. Fleenor ended up borrowing money from
friends and payday loan companies just to buy groceries. At first she
believed the explanation given on television: Her faith wasn't strong

"I wanted to believe God wanted to do something great with me like he was
doing with them," she said. "I'm angry and bitter about it. Right now, I
don't watch anyone on TV hardly."

All three of the groups Fleenor supported are among six major Christian
television ministries under scrutiny by a senator who is asking questions
about the evangelists' lavish spending and possible abuses of their
tax-exempt status.

The probe by Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the
Senate Finance Committee, has brought new scrutiny to the underlying belief
that brings in millions of dollars and fills churches from Atlanta to Los
Angeles -- the "Gospel of Prosperity," or the notion that God wants to bless
the faithful with earthly riches.

All six ministries under investigation preach the prosperity gospel to
varying degrees.

Proponents call it a biblically sound message of hope. Others say it is a
distortion that makes evangelists rich and preys on the vulnerable. They say
it has evolved from "it's all right to make money" to it's all right for the
pastor to drive a Bentley, live in an oceanside home and travel by private

"More and more people are desperate and grasping at straws and want
something that will alleviate their pain or financial crisis," said Michael
Palmer, dean of the divinity school at Regent University, founded by Pat
Robertson. "It's a growing problem."

The modern-day prosperity movement can largely be traced back to evangelist
Oral Roberts' teachings. Roberts' disciples have spread his theology and
vocabulary (Roberts and other evangelists, such as Meyer, call their donors
"partners.") And several popular prosperity preachers, including some now
under investigation, have served on the Oral Roberts University board.

Grassley is asking the ministries for financial records on salaries,
spending practices, private jets and other perks. The investigation, coupled
with a financial scandal at ORU that forced out Roberts' son and heir,
Richard, has some wondering whether the prosperity gospel is facing a day of

While few expect the movement to disappear, the scrutiny could force greater
financial transparency and oversight in a movement known for secrecy.

Most scholars trace the origins of prosperity theology to E.W. Kenyon, an
evangelical pastor from the first half of the 20th century.

But it wasn't until the postwar era -- and a pair of evangelists from Tulsa,
Oklahoma -- that "health and wealth" theology became a fixture in
Pentecostal and charismatic churches.

Oral Roberts and Kenneth Hagin -- and later, Kenneth Copeland -- trained
tens of thousands of evangelists with a message that resonated with an
emerging middle class, said David Edwin Harrell Jr., a Roberts biographer.
Copeland is among those now being investigated.

"What Oral did was develop a theology that made it OK to prosper," Harrell
said. "He let Pentecostals be faithful to the old-time truths their
grandparents embraced and be part of the modern world, where they could have
good jobs and make money."

The teachings took on various names -- "Name It and Claim It," "Word of
Faith," the prosperity gospel.

Prosperity preachers say that it isn't all about money -- that God's
blessings extend to health, relationships and being well-off enough to help

They have Bible verses at the ready to make their case. One oft-cited verse,
in Paul's Second Epistle to the Corinthians, reads: "Yet for your sakes he
became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich."

Critics acknowledge the idea that God wants to bless his followers has a
Biblical basis, but say prosperity preachers take verses out of context. The
prosperity crowd also fails to acknowledge Biblical accounts that show God
doesn't always reward faithful believers, Palmer said.

The Book of Job is a case study in piety unrewarded, and a chapter in the
Book of Hebrews includes a litany of believers who were tortured and
martyred, Palmer said.

Yet the prosperity gospel continues to draw crowds, particularly lower- and
middle-income people who, critics say, have the greatest motivation and the
most to lose. The prosperity message is spreading to black churches,
attracting elderly people with disposable incomes, and reaching huge
churches in Africa and other developing parts of the world.

One of the teaching's attractions is that it doesn't dwell on traditional
Christian themes of heaven and hell but on answering pressing concerns of
the here and now, said Brian McLaren, a liberal evangelical author and

But the prosperity gospel, McLaren said, not only preys on the hope of the
vulnerable, it puts too much emphasis on individual success and happiness.

"We've pretty much ignored what the Bible says about systemic injustice," he

The checks and balances central to Christian denominations are largely
lacking in prosperity churches. One of the pastors in the Grassley probe,
Bishop Eddie Long of suburban Atlanta, has written that God told him to get
rid of the "ungodly governmental structure" of a deacon board.

Some ministers hold up their own wealth as evidence that the teaching works.
Atlanta-area pastor Creflo Dollar, who is fighting Grassley's inquiry, owns
a Rolls Royce and multimillion-dollar homes and travels in a church-owned

In a letter to Grassley, Dollar's attorney calls the prosperity gospel a
"deeply held religious belief" grounded in Scripture and therefore a
protected religious freedom. Grassley has said his probe is not about

But even some prosperity gospel critics -- like the Rev. Adam Hamilton of
15,000-member United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas
City, Missouri -- say that the investigation is entering a minefield.

"How do you determine how much money a minister like this is able to make
when the basic theology is that wealth is OK?" said Hamilton, an Oral
Roberts graduate who later left the charismatic movement. "That gets into
theological questions."

There is evidence of change. Joyce Meyer Ministries, for one, enacted
financial reforms in recent years, including making audited financial
statements public.

Meyer, who has promised to cooperate fully with Grassley, issued a statement
emphasizing that a prosperity gospel "that solely equates blessing with
financial gain is out of balance and could damage a person's walk with God."


Juanita Flores
Advocate for the Truth from Jesus
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