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

"I entered the ministry in 1981, my wife and I starting a small church," Hammond wrote in a statement to the court. "We had no personal assets of any significance, and still have none: We do not own a home, we do not have any investments/retirement/savings accounts, we have two vehicles (with substantial balances owing) and an average accumulation of household effects."

The Lord helped the Hammonds bounce back pretty quickly. According to Living Word's annual report, last year it spent $14 million on salaries for 263 full-time and 118 part-time staffers. Among them are the Hammonds and their sons, John Hammond, who is in charge of the church's multimedia programs, and Jim Hammond, who heads the family ministries. Both Hammond daughters-in-law are fixtures in Living Word's various publications and missionary activities. Unlike other nonprofits, the church does not have to disclose what it pays its top earners.

All told, in 2005 Living Word was a $30-million operation, according to its annual report, paying millions in honoraria to guest ministers and operating church satellite facilities in outstate Minnesota, Wisconsin, and downtown Minneapolis.

Courtesy of Living Word Christian Church

In 1995, Living Word spent $1.8 million to buy 91 acres of land at the southwest corner of highways 169 and 610. The property, where the church then planned to build its long-term home, is now worth $9.5 million, according to materials describing the current capital fundraising campaign. But Living Word has decided against building there: "In the past few years...the Spirit of God has clearly dealt with us to pursue selling the property and using the proceeds to help pay off/upgrade this [Brooklyn Park] facility."

The most sought-after of those upgrades is a parking ramp; Living Word administrators fear the awkward street parking in the industrial park surrounding the church may be discouraging converts. "Parking may not appear to be the most exciting building and expansion project that a church can consider, but such access is absolutely critical to fulfilling our destiny of reaching 5,500 additional people in the years ahead," church materials explain. "If we cannot get people to and through our doors on a regular basis, then we cannot impact their lives with the good news of Jesus Christ."

As it is, the facility is in some ways more akin to a community college than a church. Living Word's staff administers dozens of small group programs, ranging from Bible study to automobile maintenance. There's an Heirs Together marriage group, a single parenting group, a manhood group, and a "Road to Purity" group for men who struggle with temptation. There are at least a dozen sports groups and any number of classes and small groups focusing on finances and business networking. You can learn about getting out of debt, drawing up a budget, or conducting a faith-based job search.

There are sessions on how to talk to outsiders about your new faith, and literature describing in detail the best approaches to interacting with members of other religions. Visitors can purchase sermons on cassette tape, CD, or DVD, or use their credit card to sign up for classes and other church events. The array of possibilities in the bookstore is even broader, ranging from self-help manuals about weight loss and fitness to Pastor Mac's own books, which include Positioned for Promotion, Winning at Your Finances, and Plugged in and Prospering.

Most of them deliver the same bottom line: Dig deep and you, too, might be able to afford your own stunt plane. "When we were saved, God gave us as many resources as we could be responsible to manage at that time," Hammond writes in Simplifying Your Life. "That point defined our level of need. Then, as the light of God's Word began to increase in us, we began to grow and become responsible for more....

"Our standard of living at the time we got saved is the starting point, our basic level of need, and it shouldn't be anything else for a while. Now, if we do things God's way, we won't remain at that level. God is a God of increase, and prosperity is a progressive event. It doesn't happen overnight, but with a little faithfulness, it will happen."

Onstage at another Living Word Believers' Night, visiting pastor Creflo Augustus Dollar is quick to joke about his name. (Yes, that is what his parents christened him.) He's handsome, a sharp dresser, and often the butt of the jokes he delivers in a voice that's pure Jimmy Walker. He talks about his own wealth more brashly than Hammond, and people cheer.

He tells a story about a time years ago when his Georgia church couldn't pay the broadcasters who televised his sermons. He prayed on the problem, and before long two things happened. First, the broadcasters agreed to reduce the size of the bill. Second, Evander Holyfield appeared in his office waving a massive check. Dollar had already "been prospered," he explains, he just needed to realize it. (He does not mention that he was later cited for contempt of court for refusing to discuss donations said to be between $4.3 million and $7 million made by Holyfield in the weeks preceding Holyfield's 1998 divorce.)

From there, he segues into stories about his multimillion-dollar homes, his Rolls Royces, and his jets, holding himself up as a living testament that faith is rewarded with riches. "Jesus meant us to worry about money. Without it, we don't have everything he meant us to have," he exclaims. "Just because we're living in hard times doesn't mean we have to have a hard life. Living from paycheck to paycheck is not living in abundance. Money is not the root of all evil, not having any money is the root of all evil."

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