It is time to pass the offering buckets at World Changers Church New York, and Troy and Cheryal Anderson are eager to give the Lord his due. They wave their blue offering envelope overhead, as all around them worshipers whoop and holler their praises to God.
Inside the envelope is 10 percent of the weekly pay Mr. Anderson takes home as an electrician’s apprentice – he earns about $30,000 a year – and a little more for the church’s building fund.
The Andersons, who live in the Bronx, are struggling financially. A few weeks ago, the couple, who have two young children, had no money to buy groceries. But they believe what their pastor, the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar Jr., said on this recent Saturday night about the offering time: “It’s opportunity for prosperity.”
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“Remember,” said Mr. Dollar, a familiar figure across the country because of his “Changing Your World” television show and best-selling books, “if you sow a seed on a good ground, you can expect a harvest.”
Mr. Dollar, whose Rolls-Royces, private jets, million-dollar Atlanta home and $2.5 million Manhattan apartment, furnish proof to his followers of the validity of his teachings, is a leading apostle of what is known as the “prosperity gospel.”
It is a theology that is excoriated in many Christian circles but is becoming increasingly visible in this country, according to religious scholars. Now, it is beginning to establish a foothold in New York City, where capitalism has long been religion.
Mr. Dollar – his real name – is the most prominent among a host of prosperity preachers that have put down roots in the city. He is quick to insist that he warns Christians to “love God, not money” and teaches “total life prosperity,” meaning prosperity not only in finances but in everything from health to family life.
“Money by itself cannot define prosperity,” Mr. Dollar said in a recent phone interview. “When you say, ‘prosperity,’ people think money. They are not incorrect, but they are incomplete.”
Asking the faithful to donate is a part of virtually all religions. Outside of Christianity, Muslims pay zakat, and Jewish synagogues have membership dues. Conservative Protestants see tithing – offering a portion, usually a tenth, of one’s income back to God and the church – as a biblical mandate.
Many Catholic churches suggest that tithing be divided between the local church and a charity of their choice. Most teach that believers can trust God to take care of their needs.
It is the connecting of religious faithfulness, especially in giving, to material riches that causes many Christians, including other evangelicals, to accuse prosperity teachers of verging on heresy.
“There’s no question that almost every Christian leader – reformed, Pentecostal, however you want to call it – sees it as a blight on the face of Christianity,” said Timothy C. Morgan, deputy managing editor at Christianity Today, an evangelical magazine. “Yet it’s so seductive.”
The theology taps into the country’s self-help culture, said William C. Martin, a professor emeritus of religion and public policy at Rice University in Houston. “One of the goals of America is for you to become prosperous,” he said. “For the church to put a blessing on that and say, ‘God wants you to be rich,’ is quite appealing.”
While prosperity preachers were largely discredited in this country in the late 1980’s with the rash of scandals involving religious broadcasters, the booming television ministries of a coterie of new prosperity kings, including Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn and Mr. Dollar, demonstrates its staying power. Mr. Dollar, 41, a former college football player, started World Changers Church in Atlanta in an elementary school cafeteria in 1986.
The church now has almost 25,000 members, according to church officials.
But New York City is Mr. Dollar’s largest television market. And just over a year ago, Mr. Dollar began flying up from Atlanta to preach at Saturday night services in the theater at Madison Square Garden. Membership at World Changers Church New York is now at more than 5,000, church officials said.
Frederick K. C. Price, a prosperity preacher from Los Angeles, has also set up in New York, starting Crenshaw Christian Center East in Upper Manhattan several years ago. The church attracts about a thousand worshipers every Sunday.
In Lower Manhattan, Dan Stratton, a former commodities trader and acolyte of Kenneth Hagin, another well-known name in prosperity circles, serves as pastor of the Faith Exchange Fellowship, which caters to professionals. Mr. Stratton has written a book called, “Divine ProVision: Positioning God’s Kings for Financial Conquest.”
And among Latinos in New York City, the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, a Pentecostal prosperity church that originated in Brazil, has experienced rapid growth.
New York has long been acquainted with prosperity preachers, having given the world the Rev. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, the indefatigable man known as “Reverend Ike.”
Reverend Ike, a religious broadcasting pioneer who favored gaudy suits, fancy cars and aphorisms like, “the lack of money is the root of all evil,” became a fixture on 1,500 television and radio stations in the 1970’s. These days, Reverend Ike maintains a lower profile but continues to minister every week from his church in Upper Manhattan.
The Andersons started attending World Changers last summer. Mrs. Anderson, 29, discovered Mr. Dollar on late-night television. When the couple learned he had started a church in New York, they decided to visit. On their first Saturday, Mr. Dollar preached about loving others.
“I thought, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” Mr. Anderson said. “You’re preaching on love to a bunch of New Yorkers?”
Mrs. Anderson wanted to join the church right away, but Mr. Anderson, 32, was more cautious. The next week it was Mrs. Anderson having second thoughts. They agreed to become members in their fourth week.
Mr. Dollar’s mantra is to preach the Bible with “simplicity and understanding.” And that is what many of his followers say they appreciate most: his ability to decode the Bible and offer advice for daily living.
Mr. Anderson said he started to apply Mr. Dollar’s teachings on love at his job, trying to be more helpful to people. The couple also started to apply his teachings on tithing.
But just as they started to give, their children became sick, and the family began to fall badly behind on the bills. “Things went from bad to worse,” Mr. Anderson said.
A few weeks ago, they had no food and no money. A concerned neighbor, however, surprised them with groceries. Another friend offered winter coats for their children, ages 5 and 7.
The Andersons attributed the unexpected gifts to God’s provision and said they looked to the testimonies of others in the church for inspiration
Latrell Hope, 27, her older brother, Tylon Thomas, 34, and their mother, Margaret McLeod, were among the several thousand people who showed up for the church’s first service in October 2004. The family had begun watching tapes of Mr. Dollar together on Sundays and had become “partners” of World Changers, sending donations and prayer requests to Georgia.
But the family was also in the midst of financial travails. Before coming to World Changers, both Latrell and Tylon were out of work for more than a year. They wound up living in a ramshackle Brooklyn apartment. At night, they cried and prayed together.
Several months ago Latrell landed a job through a temp agency as a marketing assistant, and Tylon got a job as a supervisor of a law firm’s copy center. According to Mr. Thomas, the key was diligence, “sowing his seed,” as the Bible teaches, and learning to “activate” what Mr. Dollar was preaching in his life.
Mr. Dollar and other prosperity preachers say they take their message straight from the Bible, noting that figures like Solomon and David were wealthy. But many evangelical theologians contend that prosperity preachers are quoting selectively.
Prosperity is indeed prominent in the Old Testament, but the hardship experienced by Jesus’ followers is prominent in the New Testament, said Professor John Jefferson Davis Jr., who teaches systematic theology and Christian ethics at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, an evangelical institution outside Boston. “Part of the problem is things are out of focus here, and what Jesus makes very clear and central, self-denial and bearing your cross, is somehow left on the cutting-room floor.”
Wall Watchers, an evangelical organization that monitors the finances of Christian ministries, gave Mr. Dollar’s organization an “F” grade for financial transparency in its yearly report and urged donors not to give to it and similar groups. World Changers officials say members can inspect audited financial statements on the church’s finances if they desire, but they declined to release them to The New York Times.
According to church officials, the New York church collects an average of $345,000 a month, which works out to more than $4 million annually; the Atlanta church’s operating budget is $80 million a year. The offering collected in New York stays entirely in New York, Mr. Dollar said.
About $800,000 of it goes toward renting the theater in Madison Square Garden; an additional $84,000 pays for the church’s rented office space nearby; only about $120,000 is spent on the salaries of three people who are on staff. The bulk of the rest, according to church officials, is designated for the church’s building fund. The church hopes to raise $200 million for a complex in the city.
Mr. Dollar’s salary is set by a compensation board at the Georgia church, but he declined to reveal it. He also declined to say how much of his salary and fees he donates back to the church, except to say that he is one of the church’s biggest givers.
He and his wife live in a million-dollar mansion in Atlanta that is owned by the church. He has said that his two Rolls-Royces were gifts from congregants. But shortly after he started the New York church, he and his wife, Taffi, purchased a $2.5 million apartment in the new Time Warner Center on their own.
As for the Andersons, they are confident that material rewards are on the way for them. They have already grown tremendously in other areas, they said. It is just a matter of time before the blessing spills over.