On Friday morning at the gym (a unique ecosystem that often forces you to watch things on television you otherwise wouldn’t), I happened to catch a glimpse of a reality television show called “Thicker Than Water” that focuses on the trials and travails of Christian musician and minister Ben Tankard and his family. The show’s airing of dirty laundry, and the Tankard clan’s penchant for the material, made me wonder about the multimedia age’s effect on Christian worship—which seems to be jumping the shark on a routine basis.
Virtually at that very moment, Creflo Dollar’s name began trending on Twitter. In a day that will likely live in infamy for his World Changers Church, the good reverend issued a bold plea for $65 million dollars. Not to feed the poor, or perhaps protect Christians being persecuted and murdered in other parts of the world, mind you—but to name and claim a new Gulfstream G650 (one of the most elite planes on the private jet market). You see, Rev. Dollar’s last plane had engine troubles, and now his movement needs that G650 so that World Changers “can continue to blanket the globe with the Gospel of grace.” Apparently, that monumental task can’t be accomplished flying commercial.
At the risk of mixing religious metaphors (and with preemptive apologies to my Jewish friends), Rev. Dollar’s fundraising request—which it should be noted was quickly removed from its website after it caught fire on the Internet—is the very epitome of chutzpah. Like many of the adherents of the so-called prosperity gospel, it would also appear Rev. Dollar has had his Oral Roberts moment.
For the benefit of those who may not remember, a brief history lesson is in order. Oral Roberts was a preacher who, alongside the likes of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and Pat Robertson (in varying degrees, they were all progenitors of the mega-church that played a major role in birthing the prosperity gospel movement), pioneered the very lucrative televangelism model in the 1970s and 80s. Roberts had flamboyant and outright distasteful methods of raising money that often involved visions from God of massive capital campaigns. One day in 1987, Roberts told his followers that God would “call him home”unless he received $8 million. In case you were wondering how the story ends, he eventually got more than what he needed to remain in his mortal coil—at least until his passing in 2009.
Never mind the fact that, as a man of God, you’d think Mr. Roberts would have embrace the idea of The Creator calling him home. Also besides the point is the idea that something as inherently mortal as money could sway the judgment of God. Rev. Dollar’s Gulfstream appeal recalls the Roberts incident because both requests were so audacious, self-serving and completely out of step with reality that one can only shake your head in disbelief, or laugh at the preposterousness of it all.
Except, of course, that there’s nothing funny about it. Dollar’s big money request was atrocious, both from a fiduciary and public relations perspective. Churches are in fact non-profit organizations, and have a real responsibility to raise and spend money wisely. The fact that a pastor was able to entreat his parishioners for a $65 million IOU speaks volumes about the competence of those entrusted with the church’s finances (disclosure: your writer actually sits on the Board of Trustees for his own church). Not to mention that invoking the term “ministry” in a solicitation for a private jet is a gross misuse of the term, to say the least.
Without realizing it, Dollar has managed to detonate a new improvised explosive device (IED) under the prosperity doctrine, which has always been theologically suspect and seems as if its primary concern is to make its adherents rich rather than spiritually mature. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being wealthy, yet there’s something particularly egregious with people who do so at the expense and manipulation of needy people.
That is particularly true of preachers who use a position of service to enrich themselves on the backs of credulous lower income worshippers. With prosperity gospel preachers, you can’t help but wonder if they want believers to gain material goods for the express purpose of making themselves richer.
Requests like the one made by Dollar are pernicious for a host of reasons. It makes Christianity an easy target for skeptics, and makes it all but impossible to spread the good news in a world being rent asunder by strife and bad news. It’s a syndrome epitomized by one observer as “Big Box Christianity”, which in truth is a perversion of religious doctrine.
What proponents of the “name it and claim it” theology—to the extent it can be called that—don’t realize is that their interpretation of scripture is simplistic at best and duplicitous at worst. It feeds on the angst of people who are often desperate to improve their lives and circumstances. It mocks the notion of a kind and benevolent God who, contrary to popular opinion, doesn’t behave like some sort of cosmic version of Ed McMahon gifting checks from American Family Publishers on random families.
The idea of a pastor asking for $65 million to buy a jet creates the false impression that God’s blessings can be purchased. In addition, it completely mocks Biblical instructions for tithing and offering. For the countless number of small congregations—whose leaders don’t have Gulfstream jets, fancy cars or big houses at their disposal—parishioner giving is their sole means to pay their bills and remain afloat.
For most church goers, tithing and offering is a serious expression of their commitment to their faith, their God and their congregations. It’s virtually identical to any donation one would make to a secular charity or cause. They should have a reasonable expectation that their hard-earned dollars won’t be misused, or for that matter spent on lavish or frivolous indulgences.
Rev. Dollar’s manipulative call for money was not only made in bad taste and even worse judgment, it was a profound disservice to his congregants. At this point, those under his stewardship really should consider whether they want to entrust their spiritual development to a man who pulls such an absurd stunt.