Sunday, January 27, 2008

The gospel of money


Pinsky_12opedonline The gospel of money

Megachurch pastors and broadcast ministries are drawing renewed scrutiny for living lavishly off the faithful’s funds. Fortunately, a divide is emerging in the world of evangelicals: the ‘haves’ and the ‘will have none of it.’

By Mark I. Pinsky

"The love of money," the New Testament teaches in I Timothy 6:10, "is the root of all evil." But what about some televangelists' fondness for major bling — such as multiple, multimillion dollar estates, luxury cars, vacation homes, exotic trips and private jets? Does that make them, in the words of one author, "pimps in the pulpit?"

Many outside the evangelical movement are puzzled by the apparent lack of outrage following reports of high-living, tax-exempt religious broadcasters. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, has been looking into six megachurch pastors and broadcast ministries, requesting financial records. Richard Roberts has stepped down as president of Oral Roberts University following charges that he used the school's resources for family perks, such as a trip to the Bahamas for his daughter.

These charges come as no surprise to those within the evangelical world. Such tales of excess and profligacy have been an open secret for years.

(Illustration by Sam Ward, USA TODAY)

Some justify this way of life by arguing that, as advocates of the "prosperity gospel," it only follows that those who are the most faithful will prosper — in a big way. Is this why there has been no outcry among the faithful? Perhaps it is a reflexive circling of the wagons.

"Within conservative media ministries, criticism from outsiders often is seen as a badge of honor that validates a ministry's righteousness," says Quentin Schultze, of Michigan's Calvin College, author of Christianity and the Mass Media in America.

Loyalty or gullibility?

But there is something new going on. Just as political, ideological and generational fissures are emerging among the nation's evangelical leadership, there is also one involving lifestyle.

In one camp are those being scrutinized by Grassley: Benny Hinn of Texas, a flamboyant faith healer whose followers believe he can raise the dead; Paula White, a motivational speaker whose recent divorce from her co-pastor husband rocked their Tampa megachurch; and Joyce Meyer, a St. Louis author and speaker whose broadcasts are heard in 200 countries. They make no apologies for the way they spend their salaries, speaking fees, CD and book royalties and "love offerings," lavish gifts of cash and jewelry.

What makes this discussion delicate and sometimes uncomfortable — especially among evangelicals — is that many of these leaders come from the Pentecostal (or Charismatic) tradition. This brings with it undercurrents of class and culture. Historically, those once derided by other Christians as "holy rollers" for their ecstatic prayer and preaching have their roots in the working and lower-middle class, in rural areas and small towns. There is the implication that their leaders, having grown up in hardscrabble circumstances, tend to have a nouveau riche weakness for flashy displays of wealth.

In the other camp are those in the Billy Graham tradition, who are determined to live more modestly and to give back much of what they earn. These include Rick Warren, pastor of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and author of The Purpose-Driven Life; and Joel Osteen, leader of Houston's Lakewood Church and author of Your Best Life Now.

Followers of Warren and Osteen's tend to come from those a little higher up the demographic scale than most Pentecostals — solidly middle-class people from the Sunbelt suburbs. As the cameras pan their audiences, they appear to be somewhat more affluent.

Warren is vociferous in his opposition to prominent Pentecostals' embrace of the prosperity gospel. "Success in any area often creates a spirit of entitlement — 'I deserve this' — that is the exact opposite of servant leadership," Warren says. "It is evidence of insecurity and low-self esteem. Insecure people show off. Secure people serve."

Warren takes no salary from his church and has returned every dollar he has earned from the congregation. He will not accept money to speak, and he gives away 90% of his sizable book royalties, in what he calls "reverse tithes."

"The opulent lifestyles of televangelists make me sick," he says of those ministries being investigated.

Trying for a balanced life

Osteen, a rising young star in the evangelical firmament, has stopped taking a salary from his 48,000-member congregation, thanks almost entirely to his own best-selling books. "We make plenty of money from our books," says Osteen, who does not solicit contributions on his nationally televised broadcasts from the Compaq Center. "But we just live normal lives. We try to be conservative and honor God with our life and with our example."

(Not always, however. Osteen's wife and co-pastor, Victoria, was not above a diva-like snit fit on a flight bound for Vail, Colo., in 2005 after claiming her first-class seat had not been cleaned. An altercation with flight attendants led to a two-hour delay, and the Osteens were asked to leave the plane. Victoria, who called the incident a "minor misunderstanding," later paid a $3,000 fine assessed by the Federal Aviation Administration.)

Osteen owns just one home where he and his wife have lived in for 13 years, and until recently, he drove a 9-year-old car. Osteen flies commercial and, on the road, pays his own hotel bills.

True to his Mr. Nice Guy message and his image as "The Smiling Preacher," Osteen refuses to condemn those in Grassley's spotlight. Yet, despite his personal wealth, Osteen has a much more modest way of living and of interpreting the prosperity gospel. "I never preach a message on money," he says. "I do believe that God wants us to be blessed, to have good marriages, to have peace in our minds, to have health, to have money to pay our bills. I think God wants us to excel. But everyone isn't going to be rich — if we're talking about money."

There is a clear difference between praying for health and financial self-sufficiency, which is reasonable and understandable, and the expectation of divinely mandated wealth and the right to profligacy. American evangelicals have enough enemies. Why hand such adversaries another stick — especially a gilded one — to beat them with?

Mark I. Pinsky, religion writer for the Orlando Sentinel, is author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed.

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