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. Andre Williams

    Im not really surprised by this show. It pays to preach!!! I guess I will open up my own church and call it "The Church of the Almighty DOLLAR, then god"

    October 19, 2013 at 2:33 am |
  2. tracey tatum

    I feel sad, charity is cast to the side. Instead some preachers are show-offs, giving the church a bad image. I am confused with the direction of the show.

    October 18, 2013 at 4:05 pm |
  3. rena soto

    I saw an episode of the show while in the hospital. I was repulsed and horrified by it. We are supposed to repent and turn from our sin. These men are "shepherds of the flock". Yet, they glorify their sin. Marriage is a holy covenant before the Lord Jesus Christ. It is not a contract before men. There are three parts to the marriage:The Lord, the husband and the wife. This is not Christianity. It is a bad witness. Read I Timothy 3. Praying for you.

    October 17, 2013 at 7:06 pm |
  4. FitchD

    I'm a PK and my father is a big time Preacher- He has held many positions within the UNMC and was the pastor of Crenshaw UNMC in LA-CA at 1x in his life– He retired at the age of 70 preaching as the SR Pastor of "Glide" in SF-CA. I've seen it all as a PK- but what troubles me the most about this show is - the black church is dying" - and you have preachers with entourages and stalkers– who are worrying about "shacking" and preachers wives worrying about "whose married or not" .. I'm team Deitrick as he's a MAN 1st and then a Man of God– Keep telling the truth– as that's all you can do.. What you all should really do– is come to "Glide" and see what "REAL" church looks like– What I mean by that– Sit next to a Drug addict- HIV /Aids-Transgender-Homeless person and praise god.. I look at the congregations and I don't see the real world on this show- I see fake fake fake church folks who say they are Christians but would get up from their seats if a drug addict-HIV/Aids- Transgender-Homeless person sits next to them– these are the same church folks who will not acknowledge their Gay music director or may say "I don't know how to accept you yet as a "Transgender"–what! Do you really think God turns away anything he/she makes!!– so the next time you speak to them all– tell them to come worship with "Glide" no need for suits-fancy dresses and big hats– I would suggest to wear jeans– and eat in the cafeteria downstairs w the homeless as they feed them 365 days a yr. this is what I'm talking abt "Real" church.. Tell the pastor with the entourage their is no need for that here.. Come and enjoy its an experience..

    October 17, 2013 at 1:35 pm |
  5. Mechele R. Dillard

    I think this show definitely has positives to offer, especially for those who are willing to look beyond the "bling" of it and really look at the people–men, primarily–and their actions. And, the negatives found can, in themselves, become positives for those viewers who are willing to take a real look and see what is being related. Enjoyed this article–thanks. http://tvruckus.com/2013/10/17/preachers-of-l-a-pastor-jay-haizlip-struggles-with-apryldavid-dilemma/

    October 17, 2013 at 12:57 pm |
  6. kickpress

    Jesus is the Word of God.

    The Bible records in simple words and in every reference that the name of the Savior send by God is "Word of God."

    But ordained religious blessing sellers have a different Word of God.

    Their Word is "Malachi" a religious blessing seller whose spiritual descendants where the ordained blessing sellers of Jesus own day.

    Jesus taught that all of God's blessings are free for the asking in His name. Blessing sellers all teach that you must pay them money for God's full and complete blessings.

    Blessing sellers have a different gospel that Jesus vociferously, violently and irrevocably condemned in all 4 New Testament Gospels written about Him.

    Their aren't 2 "Words of God." Only One whose name is Jesus. The very last thing blessing sellers want you to learn are what Jesus said and did to blessing sellers. They never, ever teach about it.

    Followers of Jesus don't ask for or accept money for sharing the Good News about the Person and teachings of Jesus. Only condemned blessing sellers do.

    October 16, 2013 at 3:32 pm |
  7. Pastor Alex Kumpf

    This is what the Bible says about Prosperity preachers in 1 Timothy 6:2-10. Just let it speak for itself"who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.6 But godliness with contentment is great gain. 7 For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it."

    October 15, 2013 at 8:11 pm |
  8. saddness

    I know why this show was made! So people can see this Preachers are nothing but MONEY HUNGRY!!! And rock stars want be. It's sad how many hungry kids they could have save rather spend it in a Bentley.

    October 15, 2013 at 6:43 pm |
  9. kickpress

    In all 4 New Testament Gospels Jesus vociferous, violently and irrevocably condemned religious blessing sellers.

    Yet you will never, ever hear today's prosperity preachers teach what Jesus said or did to blessing sellers.

    Jesus said of religious hypocrites it would be better for them if they had never been born.

    No Holy Spirit filled follower of Jesus ever accepts or asks for money for sharing what God gave us all for free just as Jesus taught us.

    It's the utter simplicity of Jesus teachings that ordained ministers hate and devote their lives to trying to cover up.

    They can't get rich following Jesus instructions so they have invented their own new and different gospel which they sell for a price.

    October 15, 2013 at 6:03 pm |
    • Cedric Spencer

      Interesting thought. I see that Jesus preaching and then going to stand by the collection plate to judge what was being given. He even talked about their giving as the were giving it. I poor woman gave her last and thought it was barely worth a penny, Christ celebrated the spirit with which she gave it. Christ taught that giving is part of Kingdom principles. I see a lot of folks on this blogs form misrepresenting the bible. Criticizing people who preach who teach that God wants His children to prosper. What foolishness is that? The entire Old Testament is God making the children of Israel to prosper only to remove His grace from them when they broke covenant with Him. Read Job who the bible proclaims was so wealthy that he was the greatest man in the east (and that was before God blessed him with double for his trouble). Paul wrote that through Christ those that accept Him as their savior are inheritors of the blessings of Abraham. Do you people even know what that means?

      I think the thing that bothers me the most about all of the sanctimonious religiosity and self-aggrandizing pontification is that it makes the church look like we're stuck in the dark ages. We look as though we don't realize the simple reality that God uses men and women of flesh and blood to reveal His love and grace. Not one pastor priest rabbi or imam is perfect. God uses these vessels which are just as broken as you and I to show us just how much He loves us and to reveal that it is in Him we live, in Him we move, and in Him we have our being. Stop putting those that He uses to minister to us on unrealistic pedestals and then being shocked when they don't fit your ideals. That is foolishness. There is soooo much more that needs to be said on this subject, but I don't have the time and most of y'all won't bother reading anything that doesn't support your myopic perspective anyway.

      October 15, 2013 at 6:37 pm |
      • Me

        Actually I read it and appreciated you for articulating your views so thoughtfully. I wholeheartedly disagree with most of it though. But first I agree that preachers, teachers and men and women of God are imperfect, they are men and women after all. I think we can all agree with you there. However, these prosperity preachers are not simply saying, I am healthy in mind, body and soul; I have a roof over my head, and loving partner and family who I can feed. They are saying look at my "bling" bentley, airplane and mansion. Then claim that they are fulfilling their duty of teaching and helping the least of us. What could they do if instead of building palatial churches and homes? Build community centers and collaborate to build a stronger safety net for those who might one day need it. Foster a spirit of humanity, maybe? Your explanation is spot on in that God wants us to prosper, but I don't know that He wants us to boast of wealth, fame and the worship of material things.

        October 20, 2013 at 12:56 pm |
  10. Casey

    this show is a joke

    October 15, 2013 at 11:50 am |
  11. follower

    Ignorance on display – in the name of god. Read your Bible people and then you will know the truth. You do not need a preacher to read/interpret for you (that is the Old Testament approach). You can read for yourself and the Holy Spirit will guide you in the way of truth. This show is just a small reflection of what is really going on behind closed doors at most churches (greed, adultery, and all manner of evil by wolves pretending to be pastors/preachers). Apostasy in the church and false doctrines taught by demons. These churches are really cults and the parishioners are being brainwashed with nonsense. Read your Bible for yourself people.

    October 14, 2013 at 10:44 pm |
    • kickpress

      Well said!

      October 16, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
  12. Brian G

    Amen. I came out of the prosperity movement years ago. But now some of the churches are looking to EXPAND or expound error from the Holy Scriptures. My feeling is a lot of denominations are all falling in the same trap. Uplifting man and his spirtual gifts while keeping the context of scripture at bay. For example: If Pastor Haddon is divorced and has a child out of wedlock, where or why is he leading any church?

    October 14, 2013 at 10:35 pm |
  13. P00py4Him

    Brockton’s Lil’ Poopy Stays Out Past His Bedtime
    Police say they found the 9-year-old in a car smelling of marijuana.
    By Eric Randall | Boston Daily | May 10, 2013 9:54 am

    It’s been a quiet few months for Brockton’s own child rapper Lil’ Poopy. (Or maybe it hasn’t? Honestly, we haven’t been paying much attention.) But the tenuous calm, the murky détante that defined young Poop’s recent relations with the state’s Department of Children and Families has been shattered.

    Nine-year-old Lil’ Poopy, you’ll recall, became subject to investigation with the state’s child welfare authorities when Brockton police expressed concern at his rap videos, in which he spanks some ladies and makes puns about Coca-Cola and cocaine, and whatnot. (You know, kid stuff.) Poopy’s people called the complaint racist, and the state ultimately left it alone.

    Until now! The Boston Herald’s Gayle Fee has the Poopy Scoop. (Pun credit: The Herald) and it would seem that Lil’ Poopy is acting a bit big for his (soiled?) britches. Yes, Brockton Police found him along with his videographer in a car outside McDonald’s that smelled an awful lot like, well … like Peter Parker’s girlfriend, we’ll leave it there for the children.

    October 14, 2013 at 8:04 pm |
    • P00py4Him

      (Jesus Bling at about 0:30 yall)

      October 14, 2013 at 8:07 pm |
  14. Truth

    1 John 2:16,17 “the showy display of one’s means of life—does not originate with the Father, but originates with the world. 17 Furthermore, the world is passing away and so is its desire, but he that does the will of God remains forever.”
    1 Timothy 6:10 10For 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.

    October 14, 2013 at 7:59 pm |
  15. Crosswinds

    1 Timothy 6:5........5 And protracted wrangling and wearing discussion and perpetual friction among men who are corrupted in mind and bereft of the truth, who imagine that godliness or righteousness is a source of profit [a moneymaking business, a means of livelihood]. From such withdraw.

    October 14, 2013 at 6:09 pm |
  16. Crosswinds

    1 Timothy 6:5........5 and constant wrangling among people whose minds no longer function properly and who have been deprived of the truth, so that they imagine that religion is a road to riches.

    October 14, 2013 at 6:06 pm |
  17. TBT

    BOB and all those who are alike....

    Matthew 12:31. Therefore I say to you, any sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven men, but blasphemy against the Spirit shall not be forgiven.
    32 And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit, it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.

    October 14, 2013 at 3:44 pm |
  18. TBT

    As Jesus put is it in Matthew, Chapter 6....24“No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.

    Clearly, these hypocrites serve MONEY!

    October 14, 2013 at 3:28 pm |
  19. Val

    I don't know much about those pastors...in fact, I know very little. Let's say they are preaching the word of God correctly and have made a lot of money from their other jobs (outside the church), what's the problem w/ them having nice things. If you had a lot of $, would you drive an old car, would you live in a tiny one-bdrm home if you didn't have to? There's nothing wrong w/ having nice things and pastors/clergymen are no exception. The problem comes when you gain it deceitfully, against the Word and Will of God. I won't judge these folks; I've only seen one episode and I understand how networks manipulate (by editing) what they want you to see and HOW you interpret it; they feed off of ur senses and profit all the way to the bank. God will judge.

    October 14, 2013 at 11:12 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.