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

The cash underwrites a sprawling suburban compound complete with a cavernous sanctuary where you can watch a larger-than-life Pastor Mac on big-screen TVs and listen to him via a state-of-the-art sound system. Cameras record services for broadcast and for sale on DVDs in the lobby.

Living Word is the church where Michele Bachmann earlier this fall told parishioners that Christ had compelled her to run for Congress, and Hammond is the minister who made headlines when he told his flock that he'd vote for her. Hammond is just as conservative as the story suggests, but politics—even the "values" politics of the religious right—isn't really what he and Living Word are all about.

Rather, the message that packs them in is the gospel of prosperity, the perfect marriage of almighty God and the almighty dollar. Also known as the health and wealth movement, the name-it-and-claim-it doctrine, or "Positive Confession," the creed has historically appealed mostly to poor people and minorities in rural backwaters and inner-city slums. But thanks to the efforts of a new generation of "pastorpreneurs" like Hammond, who preach in upscale suburban megachurches, the message has found a new, more prosperous audience.

This time around, the good word has been translated into the comfortable, familiar language of self-help and business-inspiration literature. And it's delivered without the things people find off-putting about church: the pews, the dress codes, the interminable sermons, and above all that gloom and doom about sin. God, it seems, wants these folks to go ahead and enjoy their riches in the here and now.

W ednesday nights are Believers' Nights at Living Word, when the faithful hope to achieve a state of euphoria known as "moving in the holy ghost." Accordingly, the weekly service starts with 45 minutes of live music. Or more specifically, of a single catchy, rhythmic, one-refrain song repeated until most people are out of their seats swaying and bobbing in time. The words scroll across the giant TV screens at the front of the sanctuary so that instead of holding hymnals, people have their arms free to wave.

Finally, Lynne Hammond, Mac's wife, takes the stage. She steps to a clear plastic podium, lifts a wireless microphone and begins speaking in tongues. The sounds coming out of her mouth have the cadence of words and sentences. There are pauses, as if someone were answering back, strings of sounds that rise like questions, and flirtatious coos. It's babble, but it sounds completely natural.

Even without actual words issuing from her mouth, Pastor Lynne is engaging. She has a pleasant voice and a girlish giggle. She's wearing strappy sandals, a fashionable skirt that comes to mid-calf, and a matching top. Her makeup is probably too heavy if you're standing next to her, but from the back of the sanctuary or via the omnipresent TV screens, the dark eyeliner and mascara just animate her face.

Some members of the congregation join her and, picked up by microphones scattered around the room and reflected back at the crowd on a similar number of speakers, the sound rises to a steady blur. "There are six people here who are depressed," Pastor Lynne says, finally uttering the first comprehensible words of the evening. "One of you is even contemplating suicide."

She wants those people to get up and run a lap around the auditorium, past the stage. "If you do that, your depression will be lifted from you," she promises. It takes a minute or two, during which she repeats herself, but on the north side of the room a woman gets up and starts to run. She's crying noisily, gasping for breath. Several others quickly join her.

"All right," Pastor Lynne coaxes, her voice sweet, "there's one more, in the balcony." Heads swivel as a man rises from his seat.

Next Pastor Lynne asks if the person present with the metal plate in their skull would step forward. A teenage girl approaches the stage. Lynne puts a hand on her forehead and shouts, "No, no more, no more surgeries. Be healed." She broadens the call to anyone with metal in their bodies. "No," she commands each, "no more."

Some remain standing, but when she takes her hands off others, they crumple to the floor. A small squad of male ushers in blue blazers trails her, catching anyone who collapses. Some get up within a minute or two; when they don't, women ushers come around with blankets to cover them up.

Music has risen in the background, and Pastor Lynne moves around the room touching people's foreheads and shoulders. In addition to her healing commands, she plies the crowd with funny, charming asides. "I won't forget you, honey," she says to a teenage boy who comes running up as she turns to go back up on the stage. "You..." she shakes a finger at him and giggles coquettishly. "You."

Back on stage she recounts a dream. It's long and involved and populated with characters who sound more Harry Potter than Bible. There are seraphim and cherubim and angels and archangels, each wearing a costume she describes in detail. As the celestial beings arrive on Earth, graves open up and their occupants are lifted to heaven as the Earth is covered in black water.

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