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

Over the last 100 years, Pentecostalism, the faith birthed in part on Azusa Street, has become the planet's fastest-growing religion. Its global expansion has proved most dramatic in places where there are large masses of the poor and immiserated: For the past generation, its greatest growth has happened in Africa, Latin America, and the poorest parts of Asia. And since Pentecostalism, unlike more mainstream Christian denominations, has no worldwide clerical hierarchy to shape and dictate the creed of its followers, it has spawned a staggering number of variations through the years. Many religious scholars now believe that some offshoot of Pentecostalism is practiced by about one-fourth of the world's Christians.

Living Word is among a subset of churches known as "Word Faith" institutions, a distinctly American variant that has spawned some of the best-known TV and radio ministries of the past 30 years (Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Paul Crouch, Benny Hinn) and is characterized, at least in many instances, by a seeming inversion of Pentecostalism's traditional appeal to the downtrodden. To the contrary, Pastor Mac and others like him assure their believers that God wants them to be rich—and not in some next-world, metaphoric sense that only pays off at the gates of heaven.

Prosperity gospel has long been a staple in many Pentecostal churches. What's different about Living Word is that it's being preached in a suburban megachurch, an enormous venue that reaches a new audience: people who are already prospering.

Defined as churches attended by 2,000 or more people each week, megachurches have doubled in number to 1,200 in the last five years. The fastest growing among them are upscale suburban megachurches that share characteristics with Living Word: They're nondenominational, have no expectation that new members know one testament from another, and boast members who not only tend to be much younger than parishioners at traditional churches, but are newer to churchgoing in general. Virtually all use electric guitars, bass, drums, and TV screens.

With a membership of 8,500 and weekly attendance in the 4,000-7,000 range, Living Word is larger than the megachurch average of 3,646, but not even close to the big boys: Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston has 25,000 members, Creflo Dollar's World Changers has 23,000. Hammond's empire does stand out in one way: Megachurches on average take in some $6 million a year, or about one-fifth of Living Word's annual revenues.

Inside the former mattress factory that Living Word calls home, one enters an expansive lobby decorated in the same faux-posh neutrality as any downtown chain hotel. To one side, a hall leads past a bookstore and a multimedia center, facilities for children of different ages, meeting areas and classrooms, and a cafeteria. At the end is a school, complete with a gymnasium.

On the other side of the main lobby, past a long, marble-topped reception desk, doors open onto the sanctuary, an auditorium that's more convention hall than church nave. Theater seats ring a curved stage on three sides; more look down from a semicircle of balcony. Above the stage there are three enormous television screens, and seating areas are dotted with smaller monitors. There's a dais set up for a live band, but there isn't a religious icon or stained glass window in sight. You have to go out the back of the sanctuary to find the only room that looks like a church facility: the chapel.

The contemporary megachurch was the brainchild of an enterprising seminary graduate named Bill Hybels who wanted to learn how to reach "the unchurched." In the early 1970s, Hybels went door-to-door in suburban Chicago, collecting what were then surprising answers: People didn't like getting dressed up, or the remote-feeling medieval symbols, or the formality of the proceedings. They found church boring and predictable. The church Hybels went on to open, Willow Creek, now ministers to 17,000 people a week in a 7,000-seat sanctuary.

It's no accident that many of the churches resemble office buildings. "The idea is that evangelical Christianity is part of everyday life," says Jeanne Kilde, an expert in religious history affiliated with the University of Minnesota's Institute for Advanced Study who has written a book about megachurch architecture. "It should not be a separate place marked by a steeple—i.e., God's house, where you go to be in community with other Christians. The church should be integrated into everyday life. It's not a place you go to one hour a week, it's a place you should frequent."

The architecture supports people's desire to experience God for themselves, not through some imposing clerical authority figure. Gone is the traditional pulpit, for instance. "There's nothing above you," Kilde explains. "As opposed to traditional churches, it's a different spatial relationship, with greater audience power, as opposed to clerical power. It's a complicated power dynamic between the audience and the clergy. Spatially, the audience has a great deal of power with the huge sweeping banks of seating and their elevated position above the preacher, while the preacher is just one figure, one body, up there on the stage. But of course the giant screens mitigate that, with the one figure blown up to a huge size."

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