Prominent black leaders have denounced increasingly popular megachurches, saying many have abandoned Jesus’ emphasis on social justice to preach a gospel of wealth and self-help.
“The message of many churches has been co-opted by American capitalism,” said the Rev. Frederick Haynes III of the Friendship-West Baptist Church in South Dallas. “A megachurch should not just be known for the traffic jam it creates on Sunday, but for doing something more in the community.”
The criticism came at a summit of about 100 black ministers — including the Revs. Joseph Lowery, Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and scholar Cornel West — held this week at Haynes’ church.
Several popular black megachurch leaders and televangelists, such as Bishop T.D. Jakes in Dallas and the Rev. Creflo Dollar of Georgia, openly back President Bush. They preach to stadium-sized congregations that worshippers receive health and prosperity through their faith — a belief system called Word of Faith, said Lawrence Mamiya, professor of religion and Africana studies at Vassar College. Leaders often speak proudly of their own wealth and success, he said.
Jakes, who claims 30,000 churchgoers, said in a written response Wednesday that his church, The Potter’s House, and his ministries give people the tools and mind-set to be successful.
“Economic empowerment and family prosperity are crucial to our survival,” he wrote. “The economic gulf that exists between people of color … and European-Caucasians is a breach that remains too wide, a chasm that should and can be closed.”
Jakes, who was criticized in the past for appearing at the president’s side in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, said the black community needs unity rather than divisive criticism.
But as elections approach, conflict is sharpening between traditional black churches, the crucible of the civil rights movement, and megachurches that tend to be more conservative, Mamiya said.
Sharpton said Monday the leaders at the summit would combat Christian conservatives — megachurches in particular — for focusing on the “bedroom morality” of gay marriage and abortion while ignoring what he called the immorality of the war, attacks on voting rights and the erosion of affirmative action.
Haynes called the megachurches’ conservative teachings “prosperity gospel” and said it turns Christianity on its head. Those teachings blame the poor for their circumstances and praise the pursuit of earthly riches, he said.
Haynes, who ministers to about 8,000 people, said his megachurch differs because it focuses on eliminating poverty, making the justice system fairer to young black men and political activism.
While Jakes and many conservative pastors do charity work as well, they do not speak out politically, Haynes said.
Jakes has said he keeps politics out of his preaching in order to reach out to people of all races and political affiliations. Several churches, including Dollar’s, did not return calls seeking comment.
Word of Faith emerged among white Pentecostal and evangelical churches and has more recently gained appeal among blacks, Mamiya said.
Black Word of Faith megachurches attract mostly middle-class blacks, who respond to their self-affirming message rather than more traditional churches’ messages of guilt or obligation, Mamiya said.
“It is really a question of whether the black middle class will continue to support the black poor,” Mamiya said. “If they don’t, I would see in that a big influence from Word of Faith or prosperity gospel.”