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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. http://www.blueboxpartners.com/link.asp?p=19

    I read through something which stated I was preventing for my expert living, Eilers stated within an job interview. "And I assumed, effectively, not likely. This isn't about me striving to acquire a greater occupation and transfer on and conquer the globe."
    http://www.blueboxpartners.com/link.asp?p=19 http://www.blueboxpartners.com/link.asp?p=19

    November 28, 2013 at 2:48 am |
  2. Angelena

    It makes me sad when I see how so many are being led "astray" by men and women who are supposed to be the example. What happened to being the salt of the earth and the light of the world? And if it makes me angry, I wonder how God feels about it? He's probably madder than...heaven (smile).

    November 27, 2013 at 10:42 pm |
  3. Joseph Pressley

    This is exactly an example of one of the many things that give Christianity a bad name, Preachers shouldn't be "driving Ferrari's and living in big houses." It goes against everything Jesus preached.

    November 26, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  4. JD

    Is this what religion has come to in the US? Do preachers really need to go on reality TV to get more attention to their cause?

    This is a sad sign of the growing atheist population, and the loss of religiosity in our country. Preachers should not have to resort to this level of fame in order to gain more followers. People should want to believe in religion, not want to watch the "desperate preachers of LA" on the Oxygen network.

    November 18, 2013 at 9:26 pm |
    • urnotathinkerareu

      http://www.truthbeknown.com/victims.htm

      December 30, 2013 at 4:55 pm |
  5. jj

    Jesus never preached prosperity. Consider the lilies.

    November 18, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  6. Steve Finnell

    THE OPPOSITE OF A POSITIVE

    The opposite of a positive is always a negative. When the positive is stated it is understood that absent the positive, that the negative occurs or has occurred. Example: If a person is alive, that is a positive. The negative is the opposite, which is, a person is dead.

    Matthew 24:11-13.....13 But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved.

    The positive stated: He who endures will be saved.
    The negative implied: He who does not endure will not be saved.

    Mark 16:16 He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved; but he who has disbelieved shall be condemned.

    The positive stated: He who has believed and has been baptized shall be saved.
    The negative axiom: He who has not been baptized will not be saved.

    Luke 7:50 And He said to the woman, "Your faith has saved you; go in peace."

    The positive stated: Her faith saved her.
    The negative inference: Without faith she would not have been saved.

    Romans 9:27 Isaiah cries out concerning Israel, "Though the number of the sons of Israel be like the sands of the sea, it is the remnant that will be saved;

    The positive stated: A remnant of Israel will be saved.
    The negative understanding: The whole of Israel will not be saved.

    John 10:9 I am the door; if anyone enters through Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.

    The positive stated: If anyone enters through Jesus he will be saved.
    The negative implication: By not entering through Jesus you will remain unsaved.

    Acts 2:41,47 So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and that day there added about three thousand souls. 47...And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved.

    The positive stated: The Lord was adding the saved to His church. (The saved were those who believed the gospel and were baptized.)
    The negative implication: Those who did not believe Peter's message and were not
    baptized, were not saved, and they were not added to the church.

    Romans 10:13 for "Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved."

    The positive: If you recognize the authority of the Lord and appeal to His authority you will be saved.
    The negative implication: If you deny the authority of the Lord, and do not call on Him, you will be lost.

    1 Peter 3:20-21...safely through water. 21 Corresponding to that , baptism now saves you-not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience-through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

    The positive: Baptism saves you.
    The negative axiom: Those who are not baptized remain unsaved.

    THE OPPOSITE OF A POSITIVE IS ALWAYS A NEGATIVE!

    Revelation 2:10 Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to cast some of you into prison, so that you will be tested, and you will have tribulation for ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.

    The positive stated: Remain faithful in order to receive the crown of life.
    The implied negative : If you do not remain faithful you will not receive the crown of life.

    THE OPPOSITE OF A POSITIVE?

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY BLOG. http://steve-finnell.blogspot.com

    November 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm |
    • urnotathinkerareu

      This is called black and white thinking...nothing more. It is also understood that life is lived in the "grey areas". Religion can make you fantasize all sorts of scenarios with it's black and white round and round circular reasoning. It is religious SPECULATION....nothing more...nothing less. Heaven and hell are the ultimate black and white thinking that offers NOT a solution as does the "I'm saved" and your not dichotomy. Faith has no evidence because there is none. If I said I had a car you could buy if you just wrote me a cheque...would you do it?...sight unseen and on faith? Absolutely not....either would I. Yet people give their whole lives to a faith process that is exactly the same. They get sucked in by the "magic" of a promise of which there is no evidence. Study both sides of the issue in ALL it's context before deciding.
      http://www.truthbeknown.com/victims.htm

      December 30, 2013 at 5:10 pm |
  7. stevie68a

    Man can have only one master. Their god is Money.

    November 6, 2013 at 10:21 am |
  8. R. Renee

    Preachers of L.A. walks a thin line between ministry and entertainment. How much of what you see is real ministry and how much of it is for entertainment purposes only?

    When the preachers/church gets in bed with the entertainment industry, the industry runs the show. Before you know it, the preachers/church will be serving the interest of the industry.

    Let’s be real. The entertainment industry’s interest is not in “saving souls.”

    November 1, 2013 at 12:06 pm |
  9. Realist

    ************************************
    ..................................................

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

    ... and thank goodness ...

    ... because he emanates from the ...

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

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

    November 1, 2013 at 7:06 am |
  10. Realist

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

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

    ... and thank goodness ...

    ... because he emanates from the ...

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

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

    November 1, 2013 at 7:01 am |
  11. Erin Zachary

    I at first also felt this show would be an embarrassment for the church but after watching bishop gibson i don't see how anyone can say the work he is doing in these communities is not God's work he is going where a lot of preachers won't go so before you write another article about these men of God pray and ask God to make you available to do their assignment God Bless You

    October 31, 2013 at 2:04 am |
  12. T.Neal

    These men will have there day before the Lord and the only entourage they will have are their escorts to Hell.

    October 30, 2013 at 8:02 pm |
  13. skbn113

    Sensual, arrogant, self-indulgent.

    2 Peter 2

    I'm not saying every single one of these men (and women!) are "sensual, arrogant, self-indulgent" but close to it!

    2 Peter 2 speaks of Destructive Doctrines, Doom of False Teachers and Depravity of False Teachers....those are the head liners of the chapter.

    "....illustrating the greed of false teachers who deceive and exploit for personal gain."

    EXPLOIT.

    Just look at their body language.

    TRUTH may come out of their mouths and oh, I'm sure that it does.

    Ministers don't have to be "poor" as in flat out impoverished. But now these people
    and their type want FAME on top of it all. It has nothing to do with the real gospel, in my opinion.

    So they may tell (part of) the truth....

    But then check out the houses, the cars, the wrist watches, the bling, THEIR BODY LANGUAGE.

    I want someone to slap one of those sticky signs on their backs without them knowing and they walk about
    all day long with people laughing behind their backs....the signs saying "I got mine!!!"

    October 30, 2013 at 12:59 pm |
    • skbn113

      I would add to my comment:

      At this point more is said about false life-style than of false beliefs.

      October 30, 2013 at 1:02 pm |
  14. cybervigilante

    The Prosperity Gospel. What a total perversion of the message of Christ. The New Testament is clear that All will be forgiven, EXCEPT for false preachers who sin against the Holy Spirit, so they are certainly bound for hell – and one can only hope they all go there as soon as possible.

    October 28, 2013 at 9:28 pm |
  15. Shelbi

    Could this show be a potential stumbling block for those that are weak? I Corinthians 8
    Selah

    October 28, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
    • skbn113

      For those that are "weak" (and I assume you take that to also include the gullible), anything can
      be a stumbling block.

      "Woe to him who causes another to stumble."

      October 30, 2013 at 1:04 pm |
  16. Mennofight

    As a pastor myself, my first instinct is to judge. "Wow I'm glad I am not like those guys". Then I go on my way and feel better about myself. The truth is though I am just as messed up as them, if not more, in ways that are not as public or on the front line. I am not saying I have a deep hidden sin, but I am just as guilty as my brother or sister even if I have sinned once. Thank God for Jesus who paid the price for my sin... all of our sin so He could get back what was His..... us. In their weakness, He is made strong. In my weakness, He is made strong. More of Him, less of me.

    October 26, 2013 at 1:17 am |
  17. Steve Finnell

    THE THIEF'S PLAN OF SALVATION

    Can men living in the 21st century steal the thief's plan of salvation and be saved? No they cannot. The thief was the one and only person saved by his plan.

    What did the thief do to be saved?

    1. The thief obviously believed that Jesus was the Christ.(Luke 23:39)
    2. The thief feared God.(Luke 23:40)
    3. The thief asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His kingdom.(Like 23:42)

    THAT WAS THE THIEF'S PLAN OF SALVATION! Yes he was saved (Luke 23:43)

    What was not in the thief's plan of salvation?
    1. The thief did not believe in his heart that Jesus was raised from the dead by God the Father.(Romans 10:9 that if you confess with they mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead , you will be saved;) The thief could not believe that God raised Jesus from the dead; because Jesus was sill alive when the he was saved.

    2. The thief was not baptized for the forgiveness of sins. (Acts 2:38)

    3. The thief could not be baptized in water in order to be saved. (Mark 16:16, 1 Peter 3:21)

    THE THIEF DIED UNDER THE OLD COVENANT AND GOT A DIRECT PARDON FROM JESUS. Men living today can only be save by the terms of pardon under the New Covenant.
    The terms of pardon are: FAITH John 3:16-REPENTANCE Acts 2:38-CONFESSION Romans 10:9-10-WATER BAPTISM Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21, Mark 16:16.

    PEOPLE OF THE 21 CENTURY CANNOT STEAL THE THIEF'S PLAN OF SALVATION AND BE SAVED!

    YOU ARE INVITED TO FOLLOW MY CHRISTIAN BLOG. http:/steve-finnell.blog spot.com

    October 25, 2013 at 9:38 am |
  18. Anonymous

    All i can say is this show in no way represents the true meaning behind the Gospel. This is absolutely distasteful in so many levels. It makes the CHURCH look bad and of course it's manipulated towards the devils favor when we have "high-profile" preachers selling their souls for profit. Some of what these guys are saying are totally not Spirit-filled inspiring words at all! Propaganda and bafoonery! I'm all about God's grace and mercy and I know He knows there hearts above all things, the time will come for humility once again. This has to be done in order for God's Word to be proven again and again!

    October 21, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  19. a slaves kind of slave

    Prophets for profit. I am assuming these men made their money from the collection plates…for the most part. Jesus, from what I’ve read, was a humble man. He didn’t dress like the Kings of his time. These men, with the exception of the guy from Huntington Beach, seem strictly about the life style. The ignorance of the comment about feeling he deserves the same lifestyle as Jay-Z perfectly sums up everything that is wrong with these guys. The only difference between these guys and the Bakers, or other like televangelists, is they have convinced their flocks Jesus wants them to spend the money on themselves as opposed to the other who need it far more. If for a dollar a day someone can feed a child for a week…imagine what a Bentley, Rolex, huge gold rings and necklaces could provide. Prophets for profit. If Jesus truly exists this type of ministering was never exhibited by him and even greatly looked down on and warned against.
    AGAIN I AM NOT TALKING ABOUT THE GUY FROM HUNTING BEACH. THE SKATER WITH THE TATS. HE SEEMS VERY OUT OF PLACE ON THAT SHOW

    October 21, 2013 at 2:36 pm |
  20. beholder87

    Most people either never read/heard of or forgot 1 Timothy 6:3-10...

    October 20, 2013 at 9:06 am |
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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.