Preaching prosperity

HERSHEY, Pa. — Televangelist Joyce Meyer, down-home despite her trim purple corporate suit, talks about her listeners’ troubles with the intimacy of a sister sufferer.

She knows they lose patience with their husbands and kids and feel bad about it; they worry all the time; they overeat. She knows they have unresolved pain — from childhood abuse, troubled marriages.

When she calls them worrywarts or describes a tense scene from the Meyer household — mimicking with abandon her whining kids and her own nagging voice — the audience at the Giant Center responds with delight.

One laughing woman catches the eye of another, a total stranger, and declares, “That’s so true!”

Thousands of people — most of them women — flocked here to hear Meyer speak at four meetings in late April. The 8,100-seat arena was so full that one night fans were sitting in the Hershey Bears penalty box.

They shopped in the lobby for her books and tapes and shouted their amens while she preached. In interviews, they said over and over that they like her because she’s “so real,” she’s a “straight-shooter,” she’s not “holier than thou.” Meyer tells them about her abusive father, her failed first marriage, her past depression.

As part of a long line of “prosperity gospel” preachers — a line that also included Jim and Tammy Bakker — Meyer points her fans to a God who can fix their problems. He even wants them to be wealthy.

“We’re going to press in and take hold of what you have for us,” she told God in an opening prayer, her arms spread wide and the light dancing off her dangling, sparkly earrings. “We refuse to leave the way we came.”

Meyer is part of a new breed of TV preachers who rebuilt the genre in the years following the scandalous 1980s downfall of the Bakkers and Jimmy Swaggart.

In her 20 years in ministry, the 60-year-old Meyer has created a major TV presence, a series of conferences that include as many as 20 in the United States and others overseas each year, 46 books, more than 225 audio tapes and 75 videos.

The ministry, based near St. Louis, says it takes in about $8 million a month in revenues and funds numerous charities, including its own St. Louis Dream Center for needy people in the inner city.

Questions have surfaced recently about Meyer’s finances, though. Besides the charities, the ministry also funded a $2 million house for Meyer and her husband, David, plus others for her four children, who are on the ministry payroll, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The paper said Meyer called the houses parsonages.

Wall Watchers, a watchdog group that gathers financial data from evangelists, says Meyer’s ministry “has had a long history of not being financially transparent,” though it’s doing somewhat better since the Post-Dispatch series last fall.

Meyer’s ministry seems “about as resourceful as other ministries” in applying money to useful programs, but questions remain about her salary and “what appears to be a lavish lifestyle” furnished to her by the ministry, said the watchdog group.

It advised people not to give to Meyer and similar evangelists until they “embrace complete financial disclosure and no longer teach prosperity theology that is manipulative and veers far from how respected scholars interpret the Bible’s teaching.”

Prosperity gospel fans, though, often don’t blink an eye at lavish lifestyles. “I feel she deserves it,” Ada Lenhard, 53, of Columbia said of Meyer. “She’s not just helping herself.

Long lines were snaking from the arena’s main doors by the time they opened, two hours before Meyer’s 7 p.m. appearance April 22.

Some people had driven from Connecticut or upstate New York. One woman from Georgia had flown up to attend with her mother from Lancaster, Pa. A videographer, a Web designer, a finance manager, an unemployed painter and a bank loan officer were among the fans.

Admission was free, but inside the lobby people were spending money at tables laden with Meyer’s books and tapes, some of them packaged in white plastic traveling cases. The Emotional Healing Package, for example, included five videos and two booklets and sold for $110.

More than 200 local Meyer fans wearing “Ministry of Helps” badges handed out catalogs, worked as ushers and staffed the tables.

A half-hour of praise songs revved the audience up for Meyer’s opening “mini-teaching,” about worry.

“I grew up in an atmosphere that was really full of turmoil,” she said, adding she learned from Bible study that “if you’re going to have peace, you have to have it on purpose.

“Let go of anything that may be bothering you,” she exhorted the audience. “God will be happy to work on your problem if you’ll just let go and let him do that.”

The meeting lasted almost three hours and offered up Meyer’s trademark blend: old-time revival preacher and contemporary motivational speaker.

“We never get free of things if we don’t deal with them,” she said, illustrating with a story from her own life. “Because I still had all this stuff in my soul that had not been dealt with yet, every time I had a trial it was that stuff that came up out of me.

“I finally realized it’s not my circumstances. It’s not my kids. It’s not my husband. It’s me. ‘God, help me,’ ” she said, as murmurs of agreement and then applause swelled. ” ‘Do something to me. Fix me.’ “

When it was time for the offering, collected in white cardboard tubs, Meyer presented testimonies about her ministry.

They came from a woman who described on videotape beating a drug problem with Meyer’s help, and a man who joined her on stage to say her show helped set him right when he was in prison.

Giving not only helps people like those two, it’s the way Christians sow seeds of their own wealth, Meyer said.

“What would make us think that God wants sinners to have everything while his people go around with the worst jobs and the worst cars and the worst houses?” she asked. “Sinners don’t represent God. We represent God.

“I want you to have what God wants you to have, and be what God wants you to be,” she said. “And I know if you don’t learn how to be a giver, that’s never going to happen in your life. Amen?” “What would make us think that God wants sinners to have everything while his people go around with the worst jobs and the worst cars and the worst houses?” she asked. “Sinners don’t represent God. We represent God.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Religion News Service, USA
May 15, 2004
Mary Warner

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday May 17, 2004.
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