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 anonymous design suggests no one will be put on the spot. Newcomers won't be singled out for proselytizing and members needn't be defensive about their lack of scriptural knowledge. Sermons are relentlessly positive, and the vast array of programming the churches offer during the week is geared as much toward the pressures of everyday life as the Bible.

It's a winning formula. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, half of all churchgoing Americans now attend just 12 percent of the nation's 400,000 churches. Four megachurch pastors were on the New York Times bestseller list in 2005. Few of Hammond's followers may be laborers, like Seymour's, but it would seem they are every bit as anxious to know that the Lord is tuned in not just to their spiritual well-being but to their worldly concerns as well.

Hammond's Sunday sermons contain a not-too-subtle subtext: Once you've tithed, it's okay to take the money God prospers you with and retreat to your cul-de-sac. Ostensibly, the gospel of prosperity does distinguish between being greedy and seeking prosperity in order to be able to minister to others—but according to this strain of theology, that need not include feeding war orphans or clothing inner-city urchins; it really means increasing the size of the church—a goal that can be realized through the influx of new dollars as well as new souls.

Courtesy of Living Word Christian Church

Hammond is pretty clear on the point in a pamphlet titled, "Winning in Your Finances: How to Walk God's Pathway of Prosperity": "Do we use our excess money to purchase a bag of groceries for someone that can't afford any food?" he asks. "Do you fill up someone's car with gas? Do we slip him a $20 bill when you shake his hand? Though these are all charitable things to do, they will not, however, meet the greatest need in a person's life. No amount of money can purchase a man's salvation. No amount of money can purchase a healing. The only thing that meets human need on every level consistently and permanently is the Word of God. So consequently, the seed that you have left over is best used to get the Word of God into the hearts of others."

As a rule, Word Faith adherents are conservative, but not politically active. There are a few exceptions on the latter count, chief among them affairs in the Middle East. Christ will not come back until Israel converts. The first step toward that was the creation of Israel. Now, the temple has to be rebuilt. Indeed, Israel is the largest of Living Word's charities. In 2005, $228,000 was sent to a hunger-relief effort in Israel, as compared to $53,000 for tsunami victims, and $101,000 for hurricane relief. Financial support was also extended to missionaries abroad, and to other churches.

A doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia, Tony Tian-Ren Lin has studied churches like Hammond's extensively. "Word Faith Pentecostalism offers [people] the perfect way to not feel guilty about having made it and about not helping others," he says. "I got mine because I was faithful, and the best way I can help you is to tell you about this formula for being rich. But I don't have to make any material sacrifices.

"It's a spiritual spin on capitalism, on the consumerism in this culture," he continues. Believers needn't be dependent on the outside world, where, cars and big-screen TVs notwithstanding, they may be just one paycheck from financial ruin. "It plays to that insecurity," says Lin. Their own inner resources are enough to keep them afloat: "If I keep tithing and keep believing, I'll be all right."

In part it's an outgrowth of what he calls the therapeutic ethos: Everybody has a purpose and the inner resources to fulfill it, provided they can only find them. Modern faith healings tend to address believers' mental demons rather than their physical ones, says Lin. "Doctors are now part of this movement, practicing medical doctors. And so being filled with the spirit in those churches is much more intellectual.

"Financial prosperity is the big promise, but it's not the only reason people come," Lin adds. "A lot of what they do is Dr. Phil and Oprah with a spiritual spin. It's that therapeutic aspect, that good feeling, which encourages people to keep coming. You have the power, you can say screw your boss. Where else can you go where you'll hear this message? This is [another version of] the Jesse Jackson 'I Am Somebody' speech."

On a different Believer's Night, the crowd is thinner and more subdued, and hardly anyone is moving in the Holy Ghost. The slack in the service is taken up by even more music than usual. It's as if Pastor Lynne took the crowd's pulse and decided not to fight it, to let everyone out early.

Just as she's wishing everyone a good night, a woman comes to the front and says she wants to testify. She's chubby, with long blond hair, big bangs, and a baggy white T-shirt. She's shaking with nerves, but seems determined to relate every detail of her experience.

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