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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. A. Reasoner

    What a great gig. Tons of cash, no taxes, an imaginary product, and no one ever comes back to complain it was all a scam. All you have to do is maintain the tradition of fear and ignorance.

    October 14, 2013 at 11:09 am |
    • Guest

      Just because you think it is an imaginary product does not make it so. It only makes it Your opinion!

      October 14, 2013 at 10:25 pm |
    • kuul jay

      I don't know much about bible but I do believe that somewhere jesus told a richman for u to gain a place in a God kingdom u have to live ur riches n everything to follow him

      October 15, 2013 at 2:30 am |
  2. ?

    Religion is a scam, no new news here. Search the net for the "luxury Catholic Bishop" in Germany, hustling the poor to live the high life will never stop until all man made religions, their gods and hustlers fade away.

    October 14, 2013 at 9:02 am |
    • Guest

      Some Religions may be a scam but Jesus is not a scam artist.

      October 14, 2013 at 10:23 pm |
  3. Believer

    There needs to be some honest checks and balances regarding integrity.

    October 14, 2013 at 8:44 am |
    • LinCA

      @Believer

      You said, "There needs to be some honest checks and balances regarding integrity."
      Wouldn't that pretty much destroy organized religion?

      October 14, 2013 at 8:08 pm |
    • Rinvic

      Those pastors/preachers really need to read the 23rd chapter of the book of Jeremiah, and the 34th chapter of the book of Ezekiel to see what God Almighty has to say about the pastors and the shepherds.

      October 29, 2013 at 5:07 am |
  4. Brother Maynard

    I'm surprised that there are so many here, believer and non, that are surprised by the actions of these pastors.
    These guys, in the big picture, are amateurs. 200K cars / Million dollar homes are peanuts.
    Try funding a war and over throwing governments, like the Catholic church has done. Compare the profit margine of these guys to the Pope ... not even close.

    October 14, 2013 at 8:01 am |
  5. cdgood

    I wonder if any of these men have read the book of Jeremiah chapter 23 and Ezekiel 34. God makes it as clear as day what will happen to the pastors and the shepherds of His flock. This is just my two cents.

    October 14, 2013 at 7:02 am |
  6. wh

    Please take this show off.

    October 14, 2013 at 5:47 am |
    • saggyroy

      I think they should leave it on. Atheists could not have produced a better expose` about religion.

      October 14, 2013 at 6:08 am |
  7. kellie

    Just curious why Cedric Spencer felt the need to send the same(basically)post twice? If you saw the show and you read the posts, maybe you'll understand that its YOUR last paragraph to which refers to snakes that most persons are addressing. Since neither you nor I have been to heaven your references serves only to justify the vulgar flashy opulence of these carnal men. Most Christian are instructed by the behaviour of the earthly Jesus who walked among the people and said things about taking care of the poor–feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and making disciples. Do you remember the Rev. Dr. ML King a man of SUBSTANCE–learned, properly credentialed and humble. He would have been a success in any field he selected. Which makes me wonder what would be the real skill set of these "bishops" were they not able to draw those poor unthinking masses.

    If only these "bishops" would MAN UP and simply say, "I just love bling, bling gators, jewelry, high style–always have and
    always will. And I especially love it when others pay for it for me."

    October 14, 2013 at 3:56 am |
  8. DODO

    we pay our congresspeople over a hundred k a year and subsidize 75 percent their health insurance costs, even though it is forbidden

    October 14, 2013 at 1:46 am |
  9. Cedric Spencer

    I don't find it particularly surprising that the secular community would only focus on the carnal trappings of these men's lives. Let's face it, if you don't live by faith you can't really understand faith and what a relationship with God is anyway. So it isn't shocking that contemporary secular society would be engrossed in marveling at the blessings these men enjoy; however, to hear and read the thoughts of so many in the body of Christ that are so lacking in knowledge of God's intent for our lives is tragic.
    -Abraham became wealthy as he walked with God.
    -Joseph controlled the massive wealth of Egypt .
    -Job was wealthy before God allowed him to be tried by the devil and even wealthier afterwards.
    -David was certainly wealthy
    -Solomon's riches are legendary
    -When the children of Israel departed from Egypt they took the wealth of Egypt with them.
    ... I could go on, but you get my point. It is not a biblical principle that God's people be poor or impoverished. It never has been. So I'm not sure where/when this tradition of insecurity came into the body of Christ, but the devil is a lie. It is not an embarrassment for a man to sow over 2 decades of his life into God's kingdom and be successful, any more than it is for any individual to sow 2 decades of his life into any private endeavor and be successful.

    The church should be celebrating men who have figured out a way to reach souls and be a blessing to lives on such an effective scale. If the world doesn't get it that is okay because they are walking after the flesh anyway, but the body of Christ should know that Christ came that we would have life more abundantly. It was not his intent that we should live in poverty. Even God likes nice stuff. Check out the biblical description of Heaven. Streets paved with gold? Christ didn't say, "In my Fathers house are many middle class suburbs"' He said, "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." That doesn't sound like we serve a God hung up on appearing humble.

    The bible does not support a view of the role of Pastor that requires that they be poor, less than, or second class. That is tradition born of man and has no place in the body of Christ.

    With that said, don't be no fool. There are men who claim to be servants of God that are solely after money. Like the old folks used to say, "There's a snake in every garden". So it behooves us to be wise and examine the lives of those we follow. We should be looking at the fruit their lives are bearing. An olive tree won't bring forth apples, nor vice versa. So, if a pastors life only seems to bear fruit for him, or the fruit is not in alignment with Kingdom principles, then we have something to be critical about.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:42 am |
  10. Isom Richardson

    This is about Business nothing else, If you were to ask any of the preachers profile in this episode the name of the tribe in which they are from what would they said? do you notice the way they act ? They all claim to be ex- drug user or pimps and the famous line I was call to preach.I can't belived that there are so many foolish people who frequent places like that. is peter Tosh still living.

    October 14, 2013 at 1:28 am |
  11. kellie

    No matter how much money you acquire from those poor members, which you call "Blessings," It's your personal taste, ego
    and GREED that dictate you live such a vulgar materialistic life. Such vulgar display of materialism is sinful and not God directed nor scripture supported, no matter how you(bishops)try to twist it.

    It doesn't matter what your salary is, it matters how you use it. It should be used to the glory of God and not squandered on selfish gains in the midst of the poor. Duplicating Jay Z's lifestyle is not a call from GOD.

    Pastor Rick Warren is financially better off than all 3 "bishops" with a membership that outreaches all 6 churches and enjoys global recognition and RESPECT. Yet it appears his life style is not reflective of his wealth it is based upon his humble beliefs on Christ, and his divine CALLING/ASSIGNMENT. These bishops are an embarrassment and a disgrace. Whoever assigned them bishop should be ashamed.

    Yes the 3 bishops are all African Americans, and are not "a credit to their race."

    October 13, 2013 at 7:01 pm |
    • Saved by Grace

      I heard that. I attended the church of Harvest in Los Angeles and help to build it up when he came . I work in the Harvest house with sister Brenda. He came and change the entire church with his prosperity teachings. The half ways house and drug programs no longer got the support that came from the small humble church that had a major impact on taking care of the weak in the community. He built his entourage of follows and stop preaching from the gospel. I liked the young man that called him out on his teaching. Where is his first wife ? She is a healthy southern causation sweetheart but he is a monster. Pastor Mc Clinton is not a pastor that teaches the truth.

      October 13, 2013 at 10:45 pm |
    • Cedric Spencer

      If you think a Bentley is vulgar, I suggest you make other arrangements for your eternity because God rolls big up in Heaven. The bible describes Heaven in such lavish terms that the products of MTV Cribs would blush. What are your delicate sensibilities going to do then. The bible declares that the wealth of the wicked is laid up for the righteous. If you don't want your portion, I'll take it. IJS... lol

      I don't find it particularly surprising that the secular community would only focus on the carnal trappings of these men's lives. Let's face it, if you don't live by faith you can't really understand faith and what a relationship with God is anyway. So it isn't shocking that contemporary secular society would be engrossed in marveling at the blessings these men enjoy; however, to hear and read the thoughts of so many in the body of Christ that are so lacking in knowledge of God's intent for our lives is tragic.
      -Abraham became wealthy as he walked with God.
      -Joseph controlled the massive wealth of Egypt .
      -Job was wealthy before God allowed him to be tried by the devil and even wealthier afterwards.
      -David was certainly wealthy
      -Solomon's riches are legendary
      -When the children of Israel departed from Egypt they took the wealth of Egypt with them.
      ... I could go on, but you get my point. It is not a biblical principle that God's people be poor or impoverished. It never has been. So I'm not sure where/when this tradition of insecurity came into the body of Christ, but the devil is a lie. It is not an embarrassment for a man to sow over 2 decades of his life into God's kingdom and be successful, any more than it is for any individual to sow 2 decades of his life into any private endeavor and be successful.

      The church should be celebrating men who have figured out a way to reach souls and be a blessing to lives on such an effective scale. If the world doesn't get it that is okay because they are walking after the flesh anyway, but the body of Christ should know that Christ came that we would have life more abundantly. It was not his intent that we should live in poverty. Even God likes nice stuff. Check out the biblical description of Heaven. Streets paved with gold? Christ didn't say, "In my Fathers house are many middle class suburbs"' He said, "In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you." That doesn't sound like we serve a God hung up on appearing humble.

      The bible does not support a view of the role of Pastor that requires that they be poor, less than, or second class. That is tradition born of man and has no place in the body of Christ.

      With that said, don't be no fool. There are men who claim to be servants of God that are solely after money. Like the old folks used to say, "There's a snake in every garden". So it behooves us to be wise and examine the lives of those we follow. We should be looking at the fruit their lives are bearing. An olive tree won't bring forth apples, nor vice versa. So, if a pastors life only seems to bear fruit for him, or the fruit is not in alignment with Kingdom principles, then we have something to be critical about.

      October 14, 2013 at 1:51 am |
  12. Topaz

    There is only one gospel and that is the Gospel of Jesus Christ's death for our sins, burial and resurrection 3 days later. Turn from your sins (repent) and put faith in the name Jesus Christ as a payment to god for your sins and eternal life is yours.

    October 13, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
    • ploj

      Filthy liar

      October 13, 2013 at 6:16 pm |
  13. Recovering Ex-Christian

    Religion is a hoax designed to keep people in line. Has been for thousands of years.

    October 13, 2013 at 3:27 pm |
    • ploj

      Recovering atheist. Athies are the most hateful, deluded frauds ever.bi am so glad I escaped their influence even though I had to go into hiding

      October 14, 2013 at 11:53 am |
  14. Gatorfan

    Yeah, you morons who put money into the collection point are making payments on the pastor's Bentley.

    Dumb sheep. Give your money to reputable charities instead.

    October 13, 2013 at 3:16 pm |
  15. syed

    Tax free business, where no One can raise question or show doubts. Religion is the biggest scam and business in the World.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:37 pm |
  16. thunderac

    Interesting that some of the pastors mentioned above have committed adultery as well.

    October 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm |
  17. Matt

    Every example that this article gives is about black pastors. Seems racist.

    October 13, 2013 at 10:48 am |
    • Reality # 2

      To correct the situation:

      Comparing the "takes" of various "preachers":

      guidestar.org was the source of the data unless otherwise indicated.

      Glen Beck (part time Mormon preacher, $32 million in 2010, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/04/08/glenn-beck-earned-32-mill_n_529903.html

      and from guidestar.org

      Rev. Franklin Graham $800,000+/yr.

      Rev. Billy Graham, $400,000/yr.

      Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield $331,708/yr.

      Rev. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, $200,000/yr.

      Erica Brown $134,221/yr.

      Eboo Patel $120,000/yr and his “non-profit’s” investment portfolio of $1.2 million

      Dr. Herb Silverman $100,000/yr. ?

      Imam Rauf and his wife Daisy, $400,000/yr./ea. estimated

      October 13, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  18. Name*Mbkaos

    jesus said cast aside your worldly things and follow me and I will make you fishers of men. Pride is not a fruit of the spirit. Organized religion is the scourge of Christianity. Jesus was a humble man, cared nothing for riches.

    October 13, 2013 at 10:02 am |
    • Reality # 2

      But did Jesus utter said words (Mark 1: 16-19)? As per many contemporary NT scholars, he did not. For example, see

      ttp://www.faithfutures.org/JDB/jdb190.html and Professor Gerd Ludemann's review in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, pp. 10-11

      October 13, 2013 at 1:05 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.