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October 9th, 2013
07:07 PM ET

Believers in bling: Behold, the prosperity 'Preachers of L.A.'

Opinion by Kate Bowler, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Money. Women. Fame. Church.

That's a day in the life of “The Preachers of L.A.,” a new reality show centered on the lives of megachurch pastors of the so-called “prosperity gospel.”

The show, which premiers Wednesday night on the Oxygen Network, is a chaotic mix of prayer, "house porn," and neatly orchestrated dust-ups between senior pastors and their “first ladies.”

In some ways, the combination of the prosperity gospel with the “Real Housewives” format is a match made in Oprah-produced heaven.

Men of the cloth cruise Southern California in lavish cars weighed down by their gold watches and tiny dogs.

As Ron Gibson, a bishop in the largest Pentecostal denomination in the country, explains: “P. Diddy, Jay Z. They’re not the only ones who should be driving Ferraris and living in nice houses.”

Clarence McClendon, said to be so good-looking that he must take out restraining orders on women in his church, concurs: “The Bible says that I wish above all things that you would prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers.”

He grins. “I believe that.”

To critics, "The Preachers of L.A." represents the distilled toxicity of Christianity combined with a money-obsessed generation of American preachers.

Even to sympathizers, the show seems to reaffirm all the negative stereotypes about greedy prosperity preachers more interested in bling than the BIble.

So why would six well-established prosperity preachers put so much on the line, with so much to lose?

I have spent the last decade studying the prosperity gospel and trying to convince readers that, underneath all the hype about the lifestyle of its preachers, there is serious theology at work.

The prosperity gospel is an offshoot of Pentecostalism that centers on a new understanding of faith. Faith, rather than simple trust, is re-imagined as a spiritual power released by positive thoughts and words.

This faith formula was a blend of early 20th-century American theologies of self-help, popular psychology, metaphysical philosophy and can-do attitudes about the power of the mind.

During the economic boom of the 1950s, tent-toting Pentecostal healers like Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagin and A. A. Allen began to expand on what this newfound spiritual power could do.

By their teaching and their example, they showed a generation of believers how they could use their faith to change their circumstances. Faith could heal bodies, multiply finances, restore families and bring a taste of heaven down to Earth.

The prosperity gospel is predicated on the belief that your life—your body, wallet, family, career and full head of hair—is a witness to whether your faith is effective.

Having traveled the country to visit these churches, I have seen preachers make this point in a thousand ways: from boasting about their perfect health (“I’ve never been sick!”), giving tours of their airplane fleet, even handing out cash in the Sunday service.

In "Preachers of L.A.," when Bishop Noel Jones of the 20,000-member City of Refuge rolls out of his Sunday service with his entourage in a gleaming town car, fawning women pressed up against the glass, his celebrity status is confirmed.

But this is not just show-and-tell bragging. It’s meant to be a spiritual witness, concrete proof that God is present. Look at what God can do!

What's most dangerous for a cast of prosperity preachers, though, are the unwritten rules of all reality shows: The rich and the mighty must prove that they, too, are plagued with “real-life” problems. They might be in a Lear jet, but they are suffering in a Lear jet.

“Being a pastor is very dangerous, because you have to be perfect at all times,” says one L.A. pastor.

“People put you up on a pedestal that you can’t live on,” complains another.

Or as Pastor Deitrick Haddon bemoans behind designer sunglasses: “I’m a pastor, but at the end of the day, I’m a MAN.”

The problem is these ministers gave up being “just a man” when they became prosperity preachers. The movement places a great weight on the spiritual power of leaders as living proof of what the prosperity gospel can do.

You will find a theological justification for this every time a journalist asks a prosperity pastor a few pointed questions about why he or she needs a plane or a vintage muscle car collection or a personal rare bird sanctuary.

The answer is always the same: What I have, I use for the ministry. If the prosperity gospel worked for me, it can work for anyone. I’m commissioned by God with special gifts for special purposes.

These pastors’ Midas touch provides endless sermon illustrations designed to tantalize audiences: If only you believe what I believe, you can have what I have, too.

Because these leaders are symbols of more and better, some argue that the prosperity gospel’s primary aim is to inspire. It infuses people with optimism and a desire to want, expect and make steps toward achieving greater things.

But don't mistake the prosperity gospel and its preachers for religious sideshows or easy targets.

If you look past the Rolexes, Mercedes, gold chains and monogrammed pocket squares, you might see something surprising. These pastors, bejeweled as they are, would never want their lifestyle to be a barrier to their evangelism.

Precisely the opposite. They still want their message and their ministry to transcend—and be mediated through—their material "blessings."

There is a reason why the prosperity gospel represents a powerful stream in American religious life.

As my own research shows, millions of American Christians have turned to the prosperity gospel to help them understand God as deeply invested in their everyday lives. They want a God who cares about their heath, their mortgage payments and their ability to afford a better life.

Many believers in the prosperity gospel will despise the “The Preachers of L.A.” for advertising the humanity of the man behind the message. Still others will tune in because of their deep belief that the high life might actually be divine.

Kate Bowler is assistant professor of the History of Christianity in the United States at Duke Divinity School and author of "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel." The views expressed in this column belong to Bowler.

- CNN Religion Editor

Filed under: Belief • Bible • Christianity • Entertainment • Faith • Faith & Health • Media • Money & Faith • Pentecostal • Prayer

soundoff (480 Responses)
  1. ...and they are all wrong

    Christianity is the world's largest religion by far, with about 2.3 billion followers. Its annual growth rate is 1.3%, or an annual gain of 29,900,000 followers. It is the third fastest growing religion (behind Islam and Hinduism, but not by much truly), but the independent Christian churches and Charismatic Christianity have the highest growth rate of any religion at 2.4%, over half a percent higher than Islam. Christians currently account for about 33% of the world's population (about 1/3).

    Islam is the world's second largest religion, with about 1.6 billion followers. Its annual growth rate is 1.8% (half a percent higher than Christianity), and annual gain of 28,800,000. It is the world's fastest growing religion. Muslims currently account for about 23% of the world's population (about 1/4).

    October 9, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
    • Realist

      ..................................................

      ... http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ...

      ... and thank goodness ...

      ... because he emanates from the ...

      ... http://www.EVILbible.com

      ..................................................

      November 1, 2013 at 7:02 am |
  2. God will not win

    Quran (5:33) – "The punishment of those who wage war against Allah and His messenger and strive to make mischief in the land is only this, that they should be murdered or crucified or their hands and their feet should be cut off on opposite sides or they should be imprisoned; this shall be as a disgrace for them in this world, and in the hereafter they shall have a grievous chastisement"

    October 9, 2013 at 9:25 pm |
  3. God will not win

    Quran (3:56) – "As to those who reject faith, I will punish them with terrible agony in this world and in the Hereafter, nor will they have anyone to help."

    October 9, 2013 at 9:24 pm |
  4. Uncle Sam

    Take away their tax exempt status.

    October 9, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  5. Jeebusss

    Well yeah! They have to spend all that money they swindle gullible Christians out of somehow!

    October 9, 2013 at 9:20 pm |
  6. Pete

    Why are 99% of these folks black?
    Is this some kind issue of racial gullibility?

    October 9, 2013 at 9:12 pm |
    • Thinker

      They are 99% black because this show doesn't focus on the white ones, but they exist.
      Greed and deception are color blind....

      October 10, 2013 at 1:48 am |
      • Ann

        Some white greedy preachers, Joyce Myers, Kenneth Copeland, The People that owes TBN, Paula White (the biggest) charges $10,000 to speak 1 hour, then take an offer for $20,000 and walk away, Benny Hinn, and the list goes on. Those folks do not give back anything, they are takers in the Name of Jesus!

        October 10, 2013 at 12:31 pm |
  7. Topher

    This is so creepy I don't know where to begin. This is reason #87 why talking to 'gods' in YOUR HEAD is just not a good idea. Crazy that every one of these Humans believes in a god, a soul, and an afterlife!!

    Wake up kiddies, it's 2013!!

    October 9, 2013 at 9:11 pm |
    • HillieBillie

      If they want a second life so bad, just go to the website already...

      October 9, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
    • Angus P.

      Topher, you can't fix stupid. Let them believe in their celestial garbage, in a few more decades much more of Mankind's religions will get swept under the rug of mythology where they belong.

      October 9, 2013 at 9:15 pm |
  8. Andy_Anderson

    Maybe they need to read their book a little bit further:

    Now when Jesus heard these things, he said unto him, Yet lackest thou one thing: sell all that thou hast, and distribute unto the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come, follow me.
    And when he heard this, he was very sorrowful: for he was very rich.

    And when Jesus saw that he was very sorrowful, he said, How hardly shall they that have riches enter into the kingdom of God!

    October 9, 2013 at 8:58 pm |
    • Sarah

      ...or throw away the stupid book, stop believing in magic/fairy tales/dreams of a second life/souls/gods/hells/demons etc and GET YOURSELF A GOOD LIFE HERE AND NOW 🙂

      October 9, 2013 at 9:13 pm |
    • Realist

      ..................................................

      ... http://www.GODisIMAGINARY.com ...

      ... and thank goodness ...

      ... because he emanates from the ...

      ... http://www.EVILbible.com

      ..................................................

      November 1, 2013 at 7:03 am |
  9. JJ

    Lol...any idiot who gets taken by these crooks and cons deserve it.

    October 9, 2013 at 8:51 pm |
  10. Stan

    And on the 8th day......the Lord commanded his disciples based in LA to Make It Rain

    October 9, 2013 at 8:47 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Hilarious.

      October 9, 2013 at 8:50 pm |
  11. Frank

    God hates the truth.

    October 9, 2013 at 8:39 pm |
    • which god, there are so many

      Hi Frank, it's me 🙂

      October 9, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
  12. Morgan

    These guys are performers and con men, plain and simple. And if you're foolish enough to bankroll their lavish lifestyles, then you deserve the fleecing, little sheep.

    October 9, 2013 at 8:30 pm |
    • Topher

      Agreed.

      October 9, 2013 at 8:31 pm |
  13. I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

    This article is hilarious.

    1. Properity preaching

    "If you look past the Rolexes, Mercedes, gold chains and monogrammed pocket squares, ..."

    How can you look past the Ferrari or the fleet of jets? This lavishness living on tax-free donations is the sort of excess that drove Martin Luther to post 95 theses on the door or Francis of Assisi to insist on a vow of poverty.

    2. A reality show?

    With all the contrived 'drama' in a reality show do these people think they will be seen as anything other than wealth obsessed egotists?

    October 9, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  14. Try as they might, you can't enter the Kingdom until you follow the KING!!!

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVkoQHCXSK8&w=640&h=360]

    October 9, 2013 at 7:57 pm |
    • Topher

      Uhmb! Uhmb! I just threw up in my mouth a little.

      October 9, 2013 at 8:21 pm |
      • Austin

        Topher, is that me?

        October 9, 2013 at 8:27 pm |
  15. Bruce

    “The Bible says that I wish above all things that you would prosper and be in health, even as your soul prospers"

    Prosper does not mean luxurious indulgence.

    October 9, 2013 at 7:56 pm |
    • craig

      God will judge these preachers .It truly makes me so sad, This not God's way. This is mans way, the worlds way. There is no humility, no fruits of the spirit.

      October 14, 2013 at 2:50 pm |
  16. Priorities

    Money. Women. Fame. Church.???

    October 9, 2013 at 7:38 pm |
    • Priorities

      Nope!

      Put God first,
      Family next,
      Other things last!

      October 9, 2013 at 7:40 pm |
      • Priorities

        Why does a god need anything? Why put god on the list at all?

        October 9, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
        • Priorities

          Because Christian god is a vain jerk.

          October 9, 2013 at 8:25 pm |
  17. Matthew 5

    He said:

    3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
    4 Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
    5 Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
    6 Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
    7 Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
    8 Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
    9 Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
    10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

    11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

    October 9, 2013 at 7:36 pm |
    • Tony

      It's easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven... I don't memorize...I analyze...want a passage number..then your missing the point

      October 9, 2013 at 8:49 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      @Tony,

      I think the point is to highlight the hypocrisy of prosperity preaching.

      Prosperity preaching is not exactly consistent with the meek inheriting the earth. I don't recall Jesus preaching anything positive about the accu.mulation of wealth in his name.

      October 9, 2013 at 8:53 pm |
      • Tony

        Did you read what I illustrated?

        October 9, 2013 at 8:56 pm |
  18. Gol

    Never heard of any of them.

    October 9, 2013 at 7:33 pm |
  19. Apple Bush

    These people are just typical evangelicals. No story here.

    October 9, 2013 at 7:21 pm |
    • Topher

      NO.

      October 9, 2013 at 8:12 pm |
    • elliott carlin

      I suppose all atheists are like C. Dick Dawkins who thinks mild pedophilia is not harmful.

      October 9, 2013 at 8:46 pm |
      • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

        Why would you suppose that?

        The creation museum people *are* pretty typical evangelicals. If not please make the distinction clear for us.

        October 9, 2013 at 8:55 pm |
      • Pon

        just a little petting?

        October 9, 2013 at 9:16 pm |
  20. Apple Bush

    Based on the evidence, either there are no gods, or they are helpless to do anything.

    October 9, 2013 at 7:20 pm |
    • Pon

      I read on here yesterday that god went to hell for stealing stories for his book.

      Good thing he came to the desert in the Bronze Age so it was a book....if their god had landed on Earth now, it would have been a DVD and pirating those gets you a worse place in Hell than just plagiarizing a book. Anyways...

      October 9, 2013 at 9:18 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.