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. Mack

    Ha ha, Christianity, this is what you've become. Nanny nanny boo boo.

    October 9, 2013 at 11:29 pm |
  2. lewtwo

    Performance art - they nailed it.

    October 9, 2013 at 11:28 pm |
  3. samuel

    the gospel of prosperity is from the pit of hell. wealth in most cases leads to insensitivity and spiritual blindness especially when its hoarded. it becomes an idol. behind the prosperity gospel is the love of money and the world. store up your treasures in heaven where there is no moth or rust. pursue peace and holliness without which no man will see GOD. the HOUSE OF THE LORD shall be called a house of prayer but we have turned it into a den of thieves exploiting people. time for repentance and preparation for the second coming of JESUS CHRIST IS NOW. remember the foolish virgins.

    October 9, 2013 at 11:26 pm |
    • cdgood

      Oh my goodness, Samuel, you are telling the whole truth. What bible are these la pastors reading. It does not seed to be the Word of God (KJV). I am not standing in judgment of anyone. I have heard many people who were not Christians say "i don't want to be like church folks." Now we know why. Romans 14:12 "So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God." 1 Timothy 6:10 "For the love of money is the root of all evil: which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows." This is very Grievous and a sad state of affairs. Jesus please help us all before it is too late. God bless you Samuel for speaking the truth in Jesus name.

      October 14, 2013 at 6:49 am |
  4. JM

    Self-centered clueless fools who don't seem to give a 2nd thought to 'the poor'. Sounds like they think that they themselves are gods to be worshiped.

    October 9, 2013 at 11:08 pm |
  5. jrm

    By-the-way, I heard that two men who also founded two interesting belief systems said that the easiest way to make money is to invent a religion.
    ( I don't want to mention the names of the two men because I don't want to offend anyone).

    October 9, 2013 at 10:54 pm |
    • RC

      L. Ron Hubbard being one of 'em. I ain't skeerd.

      October 10, 2013 at 12:21 pm |
  6. jrm

    Woooow!!!! I grew up attending on of these blab it and grab it churches. They should be in the business of preaching and interpreting God's word, but they are in the God business.
    I am glad to see that this show is exposing this false doctrine that is founded on greed. For those who need to know how this doctrine got started, try looking up E.W. Kenyon and who was the real influence on him. He is one of the founding father's of this greed of faith doctrine.
    I hope that some people will find what they are looking for outside of this greed factory.

    October 9, 2013 at 10:50 pm |
  7. B.S. Police

    This is some Bull Sh..!

    October 9, 2013 at 10:48 pm |
  8. mason

    Religion; best tax free white collar scam ever devised by those who sell immortality to mortals. LOL

    October 9, 2013 at 10:39 pm |
  9. annier

    I'm not a big bible authority, but isn't there something in it about "it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than a rich man to get into heaven" ???????? I saw an ad for this show. It is ***DISGUSTING***.

    October 9, 2013 at 10:38 pm |
  10. Galaxy Prime

    Now you know why it says: "In God We Trust" on all American currency. People of religion trust that god will keep them up to their necks in money.

    October 9, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  11. Sarah

    These grasping, greedy liars are NOT representative of all "religion" and certainly not of Christianity.

    October 9, 2013 at 10:26 pm |
  12. Albert

    Any pastor..preacher,minister..whatever that is driving anything newer than a 10 year old car and wearing real jewelry is scamming and stealing their money. And televangelists should be horse whipped and in prison.

    October 9, 2013 at 10:24 pm |
  13. blessingpoint

    Silver and Gold have I some, but such as I have give I not to thee!

    These pastors are a far cry from the Apostles (Acts 3:6).

    October 9, 2013 at 10:19 pm |
  14. 99mystic99

    this is why all churches should be taxed

    October 9, 2013 at 10:07 pm |
  15. WhenCowsAttack

    They're all black? All of them?

    October 9, 2013 at 9:52 pm |
    • truthbetold

      Obviously you didnt watch the show. They are not all Black.......

      October 11, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • calvin

      They are not all black

      October 14, 2013 at 12:50 pm |
  16. Elder Yves Johnson

    Reblogged this on Yves Johnson Ministries and commented:
    Please let me know your thoughts on this new show. I'll provide comments after you all speak to it. Thanks.


    October 9, 2013 at 9:50 pm |
  17. Just Call Me Lucifer

    Could religion possibly get any more ridiculous? Peter Popoff can cure the sick and feeble, as long as the check cashes.
    How sad that human kind still has to deal with stupid sheep.

    October 9, 2013 at 9:47 pm |
  18. ron

    people do what they want in their lives and then blaming God,for this is what happened when there is no repentance of sin and refusing the call of the lord this is what he said proberbs 1;27 when your fear cometh as desolation,and your destruction cometh as a whirlwind;when distress and anguish cometh upon you.then shall they call upon me,but i will not answer;they shall seek me early,but they shall not find me:for that they hated knowledge,and did not choose the fear of the LORD:They would none of my counsel:they despised all my reproof.Therefore shall they eat the fruit of their own way,and be filled with their own devices.for the turning away of the simple shall slay them,and the prosperity of fools shall destroy them.but whoso hearkeneth unto me shall dwell safely,and shall be quiet from fear of evil.

    October 9, 2013 at 9:37 pm |
  19. Dyslexic doG

    religion: it's all about the mammon ...

    October 9, 2013 at 9:33 pm |
  20. All Religions are Man Made 100%

    "...They want a god who cares about their heath, their mortgage payments and their ability to afford a better life."


    October 9, 2013 at 9:29 pm |
    • Bob

      In the beginning man created god in his own image to be used whenever it was convenient or profitable.

      October 9, 2013 at 10:05 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.