Get Rich with God

Pastor Mac Hammond's suburban megachurch preaches heavenly financial rewards in the here and now — if you've got the faith to give till it hurts

In the spring of 1906, a traveling preacher named William Joseph Seymour stepped off a train in Los Angeles. He'd heard there was a storefront church in the migrant-rich city preaching a message much like his own: that no one had really received baptism in the Holy Spirit unless the Lord had reached down and impelled him to speak in a private, God-given language, just as described in the Bible passage about the first Pentecost.

Seymour was the son of former slaves, self-educated, blind in one eye, and willing to persevere when the church he'd heard about gave him a tepid reception. For a while, he delivered his sermons in the homes of black domestics and janitors. Before long, one of Seymour's new followers began babbling spontaneously and ecstatically. Others soon began speaking in tongues, too, and within days Seymour himself had been blessed with the gift.

Other signs and wonders followed, and the word spread. For most of the blacks, Mexicans, and uneducated whites then flocking to the West Coast to seek their fortunes, California hadn't turned out to be the land of milk and honey. Seymour's message—that the Rapture and the bounty of heaven were near—was something to cling to. Conducting meetings out of a private home, Seymour quickly acquired a multiracial following (practically unheard of in the viciously segregated LA of the day) and, before long, a meeting space in a wood-frame two-story building at 312 Azusa Street that had once housed a church but most recently served as a stable.

Azusa Street "smelled of horses and had neither pews nor a pulpit," wrote theologian Harvey Cox. "But Seymour and his friends...placed timbers on upended nail kegs for benches, and piled up shoeboxes for a pulpit." The crowds that streamed there grew so big that services were eventually held around the clock to accommodate them all. Café society was scandalized by the spectacle of healings and trances, but the downtrodden congregation was electrified by the idea that God could be experienced directly, without fancy trappings, and kept the revival going night and day for three years.

A century later, Pastor Mac Hammond stands on a broad, low stage at the front of the auditorium-sized sanctuary of his church in Brooklyn Park. Part of the Word-Faith movement, an offshoot of Pentecostalism, Living Word Christian Center is a lineal descendant of Seymour's revival, but it's a world apart from the inner-city squalor of Azusa Street. Living Word's main facility—which houses not just Hammond's church but his parochial high school, bookstore, coffee shop, and other amenities—is located in an industrial park a short jaunt off of Interstate 694, past a middle-market hotel and several anonymous warehouses. There's a small taupe sign and some very modest landscaping, but little else to distinguish the church from the Wilsons Leather facility next door.

Hammond is tall, broad-shouldered, and perpetually tan. He is blessed with a brilliant white smile and a warm Southern drawl. Partway through the service, his face momentarily grows weary and his voice drops. He's been talking about the importance of the tithe, the practice of giving 10 percent of one's gross income to the church. He speaks wistfully of letters from anguished parishioners who say they're too broke to contribute that much. He wishes they understood that the proper response to that fear is to redouble one's resolve.

"God says the only way to get out from under financial pressure is to give, to tithe," he explains. "You may feel like you do not have enough to support your family, but it's just the opposite. Adversity, trials, tests, the crown of life—you must keep tithing through these tests of faith.

"Some people stop when it appears tithing hasn't paid off," he clucks. "But if you keep believing unto death, the crown will be yours. Financial adversity is a test of Satan to abandon the practice of giving and tithing. Do it anyway and you will get the crown."

Ushers hand around white baskets, collecting envelopes that look like ATM deposits: This much for the tithe, this much for the capital campaign or parochial school scholarship fund, and so on. Many don't put anything in the basket because they have already arranged to have their credit cards charged or their checking accounts automatically debited on a regular basis. Still others see Hammond on KARE 11 or the religious broadcasting network that airs his Winner's Way nationwide and call up to give over the phone.

If outer accoutrements like clothing and cars are any indication, Living Word's congregation appears to be doing pretty well financially. The majority is white, but not as white as Minnesota on the whole. Possibly a third of the families in attendance are African American, interracial, Asian American, or Latino. A few are dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, but most look like they just left their desks at corporate offices with their heels and suits. A number of women wear tall African headdresses.

All told, Pastor Mac's flock offered up some $24,047,130 in "contributions" in 2005, according to Living Word's annual report, or about $460,000 a week. On top of that, there is the revenue raised by Hammond's related ventures, which include Maranatha Christian Academy, a two-campus parochial school located in north Minneapolis (elementary) and Brooklyn Park (high school); a teetotaling downtown Minneapolis nightclub, Club Three Degrees; a bookstore; a coffee shop; a Christian internet service provider; and numerous other ventures. These businesses brought in over $8.5 million in revenue in 2005.

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