When the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar asked those who would donate to his World Changers Church to hold their contributions in the air, a sea of blue envelopes rippled through the 5,000-seat Theater at Madison Square Garden.
Dollar — who drives a Rolls Royce, owns a lavish home in suburban Atlanta and a $2.5 million apartment on Manhattan’s Columbus Circle, and flies between them in a private jet — thanked them for their generosity. And he reminded them: Give and you shall receive.
That’s the message of Dollar, among the highest-profile of an increasingly visible number of black preachers advocating the pro-wealth philosophy known as prosperity gospel.
Their message — that God intends believers to be wealthy and prosperous — has spawned a massive following across the country, including New York. Dollar, pastor of a megachurch based in Atlanta, where he has more than 20,000 followers, began renting Madison Square Garden for Saturday services here two years ago. That service draws thousands from the metro area each weekend.
“I don’t give just out of expectations,” said Bryant Wilson, 39, an Army master sergeant from Bayside, who stuffed a blue donation envelope into a collection box at a World Changers service. “But as far as my finances are concerned, my givings have returned to me. I can see it in my promotions, I can see it in my income. I actually have more.”
Sandra Fletcher, 56, of Copiague, who sings with the World Changers choir, joined two years ago after her son-in-law urged her to watch telecasts of Dollar’s preachings. She had been a member of the Massapequa Full Gospel Tabernacle, but says Dollar’s message has encouraged her to devote more energy to printing and karaoke businesses she started in 2002.
“The biggest change has been my attitude,” Fletcher said. “What most people do when they have a business is if it’s not working they do something else. I take the attitude that God is the source.”
Contrary to Biblical teachings
Still, critics say prosperity gospel betrays Christian traditions by linking money and church involvement to an extent at odds with Christ’s teachings.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
“They are twisting the meaning of the Bible,” said the Rev. Calvin Butts, president of the State University of New York at Old Westbury.
“Jesus’ teachings were always focused on the needs of the least among us,” said Butts, who also is pastor of Harlem’s Abyssinian Baptist Church. “It is wrong to say that because you are poor somehow you must not be faithful or in synch with the teachings of God.”
To be sure, many white preachers, including Fort Worth televangelist Kenneth Copeland, have also professed the prosperity doctrine. Prosperity gospel was first pushed into widespread acceptance in the 1960s by a white Oklahoma preacher named Kenneth Hagin, Copeland’s early mentor.
But many critics say black prosperity preachers have been especially harmful to black church traditions. Those traditions, they say, have emphasized helping the greater community and challenging secular leaders rather than aligning with political power.
Creflo Dollar — that is his given name — counters that supporting political leaders is in keeping with the Bible. At Madison Square Garden, Dollar opened his sermon by praying for President George W. Bush by name. “We pray for our political leaders and support those politicians who support godly principles,” Dollar said recently.
And while other black leaders were criticizing the president’s response to Hurricane Katrina victims last fall, Dallas megachurch leader T.D. Jakes, another proponent of prosperity gospel, was rallying to Bush’s side.
Dollar’s World Changers Web site includes an online “School of Prosperity,” where for $20 one can learn “Why God wants you rich.”
And Dollar, who believes God never says ‘no’ to any prayer as long as you know how to pray, sells prayer coaching tapes. He said his wealth comes from the sale of books and inspirational tapes, not from church donations. The church enterprises take in an estimated $80 million annually.
“Bishop Jakes and I are smart businessmen — we use our investment skills to bring us money,” Dollar said. “But people assume our money is coming from the congregation.”
Not rich, just responsible
Even church leaders critical of prosperity gospel, including Butts, have from the pulpit urged churchgoers to secure themselves financially.
The Abyssinian Development Corporation, a non-profit group created by the Butts’ Abyssinian church, has helped bring $250 million in investment for housing, businesses and community development in Harlem.
“Our church looks to point people to ways they can relieve themselves from debt,” Butts said. “But we don’t emphasize prosperity as the result from faithful living. Some of the most faithful and deeply religious people are not rich in terms of material wealth.”
In Roosevelt, the Rev. Reggie Tuggle, of Memorial Presbyterian Church, while not advocating Dollar’s particular brand of prosperity, does urge congregants to get out of debt, purchase their homes and build wealth. So does the Rev. Floyd Flake, whose Allen A.M.E. Church in Jamaica, Queens, is a center of both personal and community economic development.
And both Jakes and Dollar have organized housing, food and other assistance programs to benefit the poor. Jakes’ Dallas-based Potter’s House church arranged permanent housing for hundreds of displaced Hurricane Katrina victims. Dollar’s World Changers church provides groceries for about 180 families per week, a church spokesman said, and is building about a dozen small homes in a Brazilian shanty town.
Even so, their harsher critics say prosperity preachers focus so heavily on material gain that followers are often distracted from pursuing more subtle spiritual growth.
“Prosperity gospel has gained a following because of the hope it gives of a brighter tomorrow,” said the Rev. Marvin Dozier, pastor of Unity Baptist Church in Mattituck. “But if you put all your aspirations in one bucket and prosperity is what you are after, when prosperity doesn’t fulfill itself, you find your faith anemic.”
Doctrine key to black churches
Black churches have long stressed economic development and social advancement for whole communities. Since before the Civil War, donations to black churches helped support runaway slaves, set up schools, feed needy families and bankroll the civil rights movement.
“In the past, when we talked about prosperity in African-American churches our concern was on the upward mobility on the entire community,” said R. Drew Smith, director of the Public Influences of African American Churches Project at Atlanta’s Morehouse College. “The message has shifted so the concern now is how one can achieve personal gain, with very little discussion of the collective needs of the African-American community.”
Critics of prosperity gospel often point to various passages in the Bible they say indicate Jesus’ aversion to wealth. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven,” Jesus says in Luke 18. ” … For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
But proponents say the Bible indicates God wanted his followers to have material comforts.
Dollar says biblical descriptions of Jesus’ crucifixion — one says “soldiers gambled for his clothes by throwing dice” — shows that Jesus must have been wealthy enough to have worn fine garments.
“When you go to the scriptures, there is no way you can conclude Jesus was poor.”
Butts is one of the critics who says that is a misreading of the Bible. Some critics have pointed to the Biblical references to Jesus as an itinerant preacher with no permanent home.
‘Storing up riches for heaven’
Many of Dollar’s followers say they are happy to share their paychecks with his church because they receive spiritual healing and monetary gains in return.
“I feel once I’m blessed, I can give more to the kingdom,” said Fletcher, who said she gives 10 percent of her family income to World Changers. “Because once you’re taking care of the kingdom of God, you’re storing up riches for heaven.”
Wilson said Dollar’s preaching has encouraged him to feel comfortable about asking for wealth even though he grew up in a Christian tradition that rejected materialism and stressed austerity.
“I grew up in the South and came from churches that taught that and always thought there was more,” said Wilson, who attributed a recent promotion to the church’s positive message. “But if you think about it, God did not want us to be poor.”