Trinity Foundation     |     TheDoorMagazine

Vol 27 · Issue 1358 · PUBLISHED 12/13/2006

Get Rich with God

Pastor Mac Hammond's suburban megachurch preaches heavenly financial rewards in the here and now — if you've got the faith to give till it hurts

by Beth Hawkins
City Pages
December 13, 2006

In the spring of 1906, a traveling preacher named William Joseph Seymour stepped off a train in Los Angeles. He'd heard there was a storefront church in the migrant-rich city preaching a message much like his own: that no one had really received baptism in the Holy Spirit unless the Lord had reached down and impelled him to speak in a private, God-given language, just as described in the Bible passage about the first Pentecost.

Seymour was the son of former slaves, self-educated, blind in one eye, and willing to persevere when the church he'd heard about gave him a tepid reception. For a while, he delivered his sermons in the homes of black domestics and janitors. Before long, one of Seymour's new followers began babbling spontaneously and ecstatically. Others soon began speaking in tongues, too, and within days Seymour himself had been blessed with the gift.

Other signs and wonders followed, and the word spread. For most of the blacks, Mexicans, and uneducated whites then flocking to the West Coast to seek their fortunes, California hadn't turned out to be the land of milk and honey. Seymour's message—that the Rapture and the bounty of heaven were near—was something to cling to. Conducting meetings out of a private home, Seymour quickly acquired a multiracial following (practically unheard of in the viciously segregated LA of the day) and, before long, a meeting space in a wood-frame two-story building at 312 Azusa Street that had once housed a church but most recently served as a stable.

Azusa Street "smelled of horses and had neither pews nor a pulpit," wrote theologian Harvey Cox. "But Seymour and his friends...placed timbers on upended nail kegs for benches, and piled up shoeboxes for a pulpit." The crowds that streamed there grew so big that services were eventually held around the clock to accommodate them all. Café society was scandalized by the spectacle of healings and trances, but the downtrodden congregation was electrified by the idea that God could be experienced directly, without fancy trappings, and kept the revival going night and day for three years.

A century later, Pastor Mac Hammond stands on a broad, low stage at the front of the auditorium-sized sanctuary of his church in Brooklyn Park. Part of the Word-Faith movement, an offshoot of Pentecostalism, Living Word Christian Center is a lineal descendant of Seymour's revival, but it's a world apart from the inner-city squalor of Azusa Street. Living Word's main facility—which houses not just Hammond's church but his parochial high school, bookstore, coffee shop, and other amenities—is located in an industrial park a short jaunt off of Interstate 694, past a middle-market hotel and several anonymous warehouses. There's a small taupe sign and some very modest landscaping, but little else to distinguish the church from the Wilsons Leather facility next door.

Hammond is tall, broad-shouldered, and perpetually tan. He is blessed with a brilliant white smile and a warm Southern drawl. Partway through the service, his face momentarily grows weary and his voice drops. He's been talking about the importance of the tithe, the practice of giving 10 percent of one's gross income to the church. He speaks wistfully of letters from anguished parishioners who say they're too broke to contribute that much. He wishes they understood that the proper response to that fear is to redouble one's resolve.

"God says the only way to get out from under financial pressure is to give, to tithe," he explains. "You may feel like you do not have enough to support your family, but it's just the opposite. Adversity, trials, tests, the crown of life—you must keep tithing through these tests of faith.

"Some people stop when it appears tithing hasn't paid off," he clucks. "But if you keep believing unto death, the crown will be yours. Financial adversity is a test of Satan to abandon the practice of giving and tithing. Do it anyway and you will get the crown."

Ushers hand around white baskets, collecting envelopes that look like ATM deposits: This much for the tithe, this much for the capital campaign or parochial school scholarship fund, and so on. Many don't put anything in the basket because they have already arranged to have their credit cards charged or their checking accounts automatically debited on a regular basis. Still others see Hammond on KARE 11 or the religious broadcasting network that airs his Winner's Way nationwide and call up to give over the phone.

If outer accoutrements like clothing and cars are any indication, Living Word's congregation appears to be doing pretty well financially. The majority is white, but not as white as Minnesota on the whole. Possibly a third of the families in attendance are African American, interracial, Asian American, or Latino. A few are dressed in jeans and sweatshirts, but most look like they just left their desks at corporate offices with their heels and suits. A number of women wear tall African headdresses.

All told, Pastor Mac's flock offered up some $24,047,130 in "contributions" in 2005, according to Living Word's annual report, or about $460,000 a week. On top of that, there is the revenue raised by Hammond's related ventures, which include Maranatha Christian Academy, a two-campus parochial school located in north Minneapolis (elementary) and Brooklyn Park (high school); a teetotaling downtown Minneapolis nightclub, Club Three Degrees; a bookstore; a coffee shop; a Christian internet service provider; and numerous other ventures. These businesses brought in over $8.5 million in revenue in 2005.

The cash underwrites a sprawling suburban compound complete with a cavernous sanctuary where you can watch a larger-than-life Pastor Mac on big-screen TVs and listen to him via a state-of-the-art sound system. Cameras record services for broadcast and for sale on DVDs in the lobby.

Living Word is the church where Michele Bachmann earlier this fall told parishioners that Christ had compelled her to run for Congress, and Hammond is the minister who made headlines when he told his flock that he'd vote for her. Hammond is just as conservative as the story suggests, but politics—even the "values" politics of the religious right—isn't really what he and Living Word are all about.

Rather, the message that packs them in is the gospel of prosperity, the perfect marriage of almighty God and the almighty dollar. Also known as the health and wealth movement, the name-it-and-claim-it doctrine, or "Positive Confession," the creed has historically appealed mostly to poor people and minorities in rural backwaters and inner-city slums. But thanks to the efforts of a new generation of "pastorpreneurs" like Hammond, who preach in upscale suburban megachurches, the message has found a new, more prosperous audience.

This time around, the good word has been translated into the comfortable, familiar language of self-help and business-inspiration literature. And it's delivered without the things people find off-putting about church: the pews, the dress codes, the interminable sermons, and above all that gloom and doom about sin. God, it seems, wants these folks to go ahead and enjoy their riches in the here and now.

Wednesday nights are Believers' Nights at Living Word, when the faithful hope to achieve a state of euphoria known as "moving in the holy ghost." Accordingly, the weekly service starts with 45 minutes of live music. Or more specifically, of a single catchy, rhythmic, one-refrain song repeated until most people are out of their seats swaying and bobbing in time. The words scroll across the giant TV screens at the front of the sanctuary so that instead of holding hymnals, people have their arms free to wave.

Finally, Lynne Hammond, Mac's wife, takes the stage. She steps to a clear plastic podium, lifts a wireless microphone and begins speaking in tongues. The sounds coming out of her mouth have the cadence of words and sentences. There are pauses, as if someone were answering back, strings of sounds that rise like questions, and flirtatious coos. It's babble, but it sounds completely natural.

Even without actual words issuing from her mouth, Pastor Lynne is engaging. She has a pleasant voice and a girlish giggle. She's wearing strappy sandals, a fashionable skirt that comes to mid-calf, and a matching top. Her makeup is probably too heavy if you're standing next to her, but from the back of the sanctuary or via the omnipresent TV screens, the dark eyeliner and mascara just animate her face.

Some members of the congregation join her and, picked up by microphones scattered around the room and reflected back at the crowd on a similar number of speakers, the sound rises to a steady blur. "There are six people here who are depressed," Pastor Lynne says, finally uttering the first comprehensible words of the evening. "One of you is even contemplating suicide."

She wants those people to get up and run a lap around the auditorium, past the stage. "If you do that, your depression will be lifted from you," she promises. It takes a minute or two, during which she repeats herself, but on the north side of the room a woman gets up and starts to run. She's crying noisily, gasping for breath. Several others quickly join her.

"All right," Pastor Lynne coaxes, her voice sweet, "there's one more, in the balcony." Heads swivel as a man rises from his seat.

Next Pastor Lynne asks if the person present with the metal plate in their skull would step forward. A teenage girl approaches the stage. Lynne puts a hand on her forehead and shouts, "No, no more, no more surgeries. Be healed." She broadens the call to anyone with metal in their bodies. "No," she commands each, "no more."

Some remain standing, but when she takes her hands off others, they crumple to the floor. A small squad of male ushers in blue blazers trails her, catching anyone who collapses. Some get up within a minute or two; when they don't, women ushers come around with blankets to cover them up.

Music has risen in the background, and Pastor Lynne moves around the room touching people's foreheads and shoulders. In addition to her healing commands, she plies the crowd with funny, charming asides. "I won't forget you, honey," she says to a teenage boy who comes running up as she turns to go back up on the stage. "You..." she shakes a finger at him and giggles coquettishly. "You."

Back on stage she recounts a dream. It's long and involved and populated with characters who sound more Harry Potter than Bible. There are seraphim and cherubim and angels and archangels, each wearing a costume she describes in detail. As the celestial beings arrive on Earth, graves open up and their occupants are lifted to heaven as the Earth is covered in black water.

At this, Pastor Lynne brightens again. She knows she's not supposed to speculate about the Rapture, she confesses, but she can't help but think the dream was sent to her as a signal it's coming much sooner than she imagined. "The rabbis say it will happen on one of the 7s," she explains. Previously, she had barely dared hope that meant 2021, but this dream was so vivid that now she thinks it might be 2014 or even 2007.

The crowd gasps, and Pastor Lynne changes the subject. "It's time to talk about obedience," she says, "and that means the offering." As ushers circulate, she wades back into the crowd, laying on hands. People throughout the auditorium join hands, and as the people she touches collapse, whole rows of worshippers are pulled to the ground, laughing hysterically.

The band starts up again: "Drunk, drunk, drunk, drunk on the new wine." The lyrics refer to the biblical story about the first Pentecost, when passers-by mistook worshippers' supernaturally charged euphoria for drunkenness. But it actually sounds like a drinking song, and repeats itself for 20 minutes or so, the congregation becoming progressively giddier. Two and a half hours after the service started, her buoyant flock finally disperses.

In a video on Living Word's website titled, "Pastor Mac's Airplane Testimony," Hammond describes his lifelong love of flying. Dressed not in one of his immaculate suits but in jeans, a plaid shirt, and a bomber jacket, he talks to the camera while leaning on the wing of a sleek, bullet-shaped plane.

As a young man, flying was everything to Hammond. He was a fighter pilot in the Vietnam War, and later owned an aviation company. "Flying was my god and I needed to come down," he says, stroking the plane's red-and-white wing. "When I gave up flying for the ministry, I thought I would never fly again."

About 10 years later, though, "the day came when he gave flying back to me." Hammond had become a friend of the prosperity gospel's most successful televangelist, Kenneth Copeland, who was also an avid pilot. Hammond's grounded status saddened Copeland, and when Copeland's Fort Worth ministry upgraded its fleet, he offered to give Hammond a small plane in exchange "for $1 a month until the Lord returns."

"Kenneth became the instrument that God used to give flying back to me," Hammond gushes. Living Word later used the equity in that plane to buy a better one, and then a better one after that, so that they could travel to preach at churches throughout the country.

Hammond felt blessed, but he missed the daredevil style of the flying of his Air Force days and began to dream of having a plane he could use for aerobatic flying, specifically the Extra 300L. He was earning upward of $50,000 a year in honoraria for the guest appearances made possible by Copeland's gift, he says, and so he began saving. Within a few years he had realized his dream and purchased the $250,000 beauty that serves as video backdrop for what quickly turns into a parable about giving to God.

Recently the plane's been popping up in his prayers, Hammond continues. He meditated long and hard about it, eventually concluding that God meant for him to donate the plane to Living Word's "Breakthrough to Destiny" capital stewardship campaign, an effort to raise $30 million over and above the church's budget for a substantial addition to the building. "We must give not just from our income stream," he explains, "but from our asset base."

As he climbs into the cockpit, Hammond rhapsodizes that although it's out of his hands, he hopes the Lord prospers him again with a chance to fly a stunt plane. And he hopes Living Word members will be moved to find a way to give from their own asset bases.

The tale speaks volumes about James "Mac" Hammond Jr.'s rise. Hammond was unable to answer questions for this story by press time, but according to the boilerplate bio in Living Word's publications, he earned a BA in English from Virginia Military Institute in 1965. After graduation, he enlisted in the Air Force and trained as a pilot, ultimately flying 198 combat missions in Southeast Asia during two tours of duty.

Back in the United States, Hammond went into aviation, becoming the owner "of a successful air cargo business serving the Midwestern United States." In 1980, a business merger brought the Hammonds to Minneapolis, where they started Living Word in a hotel meeting room in Plymouth. Within a year, membership had grown from 12 to 150 and Living Word began holding services at North Hennepin Community College. Two years later, the swelling congregation moved again, to a rented warehouse in Brooklyn Park. In 1998, the church moved into its current facility, a former mattress factory purchased for $3.5 million and renovated with $12 million from a previous stewardship drive.

But according to a 1995 Twin Cities Reader investigation, the official version omits a few details. Hammond did own a company called Meridian Air Cargo, but the business went bankrupt in 1978, plunging the Hammonds into poverty. Even a decade later, while dealing with the IRS concerning unpaid interest on his taxes, Hammond described his finances as meager, the story reported.

"I entered the ministry in 1981, my wife and I starting a small church," Hammond wrote in a statement to the court. "We had no personal assets of any significance, and still have none: We do not own a home, we do not have any investments/retirement/savings accounts, we have two vehicles (with substantial balances owing) and an average accumulation of household effects."

The Lord helped the Hammonds bounce back pretty quickly. According to Living Word's annual report, last year it spent $14 million on salaries for 263 full-time and 118 part-time staffers. Among them are the Hammonds and their sons, John Hammond, who is in charge of the church's multimedia programs, and Jim Hammond, who heads the family ministries. Both Hammond daughters-in-law are fixtures in Living Word's various publications and missionary activities. Unlike other nonprofits, the church does not have to disclose what it pays its top earners.

All told, in 2005 Living Word was a $30-million operation, according to its annual report, paying millions in honoraria to guest ministers and operating church satellite facilities in outstate Minnesota, Wisconsin, and downtown Minneapolis.

In 1995, Living Word spent $1.8 million to buy 91 acres of land at the southwest corner of highways 169 and 610. The property, where the church then planned to build its long-term home, is now worth $9.5 million, according to materials describing the current capital fundraising campaign. But Living Word has decided against building there: "In the past few years...the Spirit of God has clearly dealt with us to pursue selling the property and using the proceeds to help pay off/upgrade this [Brooklyn Park] facility."

The most sought-after of those upgrades is a parking ramp; Living Word administrators fear the awkward street parking in the industrial park surrounding the church may be discouraging converts. "Parking may not appear to be the most exciting building and expansion project that a church can consider, but such access is absolutely critical to fulfilling our destiny of reaching 5,500 additional people in the years ahead," church materials explain. "If we cannot get people to and through our doors on a regular basis, then we cannot impact their lives with the good news of Jesus Christ."

As it is, the facility is in some ways more akin to a community college than a church. Living Word's staff administers dozens of small group programs, ranging from Bible study to automobile maintenance. There's an Heirs Together marriage group, a single parenting group, a manhood group, and a "Road to Purity" group for men who struggle with temptation. There are at least a dozen sports groups and any number of classes and small groups focusing on finances and business networking. You can learn about getting out of debt, drawing up a budget, or conducting a faith-based job search.

There are sessions on how to talk to outsiders about your new faith, and literature describing in detail the best approaches to interacting with members of other religions. Visitors can purchase sermons on cassette tape, CD, or DVD, or use their credit card to sign up for classes and other church events. The array of possibilities in the bookstore is even broader, ranging from self-help manuals about weight loss and fitness to Pastor Mac's own books, which include Positioned for Promotion, Winning at Your Finances, and Plugged in and Prospering.

Most of them deliver the same bottom line: Dig deep and you, too, might be able to afford your own stunt plane. "When we were saved, God gave us as many resources as we could be responsible to manage at that time," Hammond writes in Simplifying Your Life. "That point defined our level of need. Then, as the light of God's Word began to increase in us, we began to grow and become responsible for more....

"Our standard of living at the time we got saved is the starting point, our basic level of need, and it shouldn't be anything else for a while. Now, if we do things God's way, we won't remain at that level. God is a God of increase, and prosperity is a progressive event. It doesn't happen overnight, but with a little faithfulness, it will happen."

Onstage at another Living Word Believers' Night, visiting pastor Creflo Augustus Dollar is quick to joke about his name. (Yes, that is what his parents christened him.) He's handsome, a sharp dresser, and often the butt of the jokes he delivers in a voice that's pure Jimmy Walker. He talks about his own wealth more brashly than Hammond, and people cheer.

He tells a story about a time years ago when his Georgia church couldn't pay the broadcasters who televised his sermons. He prayed on the problem, and before long two things happened. First, the broadcasters agreed to reduce the size of the bill. Second, Evander Holyfield appeared in his office waving a massive check. Dollar had already "been prospered," he explains, he just needed to realize it. (He does not mention that he was later cited for contempt of court for refusing to discuss donations said to be between $4.3 million and $7 million made by Holyfield in the weeks preceding Holyfield's 1998 divorce.)

From there, he segues into stories about his multimillion-dollar homes, his Rolls Royces, and his jets, holding himself up as a living testament that faith is rewarded with riches. "Jesus meant us to worry about money. Without it, we don't have everything he meant us to have," he exclaims. "Just because we're living in hard times doesn't mean we have to have a hard life. Living from paycheck to paycheck is not living in abundance. Money is not the root of all evil, not having any money is the root of all evil."

Over the last 100 years, Pentecostalism, the faith birthed in part on Azusa Street, has become the planet's fastest-growing religion. Its global expansion has proved most dramatic in places where there are large masses of the poor and immiserated: For the past generation, its greatest growth has happened in Africa, Latin America, and the poorest parts of Asia. And since Pentecostalism, unlike more mainstream Christian denominations, has no worldwide clerical hierarchy to shape and dictate the creed of its followers, it has spawned a staggering number of variations through the years. Many religious scholars now believe that some offshoot of Pentecostalism is practiced by about one-fourth of the world's Christians.

Living Word is among a subset of churches known as "Word Faith" institutions, a distinctly American variant that has spawned some of the best-known TV and radio ministries of the past 30 years (Kenneth Copeland, Kenneth Hagin, Paul Crouch, Benny Hinn) and is characterized, at least in many instances, by a seeming inversion of Pentecostalism's traditional appeal to the downtrodden. To the contrary, Pastor Mac and others like him assure their believers that God wants them to be rich—and not in some next-world, metaphoric sense that only pays off at the gates of heaven.

Prosperity gospel has long been a staple in many Pentecostal churches. What's different about Living Word is that it's being preached in a suburban megachurch, an enormous venue that reaches a new audience: people who are already prospering.

Defined as churches attended by 2,000 or more people each week, megachurches have doubled in number to 1,200 in the last five years. The fastest growing among them are upscale suburban megachurches that share characteristics with Living Word: They're nondenominational, have no expectation that new members know one testament from another, and boast members who not only tend to be much younger than parishioners at traditional churches, but are newer to churchgoing in general. Virtually all use electric guitars, bass, drums, and TV screens.

With a membership of 8,500 and weekly attendance in the 4,000-7,000 range, Living Word is larger than the megachurch average of 3,646, but not even close to the big boys: Joel Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston has 25,000 members, Creflo Dollar's World Changers has 23,000. Hammond's empire does stand out in one way: Megachurches on average take in some $6 million a year, or about one-fifth of Living Word's annual revenues.

Inside the former mattress factory that Living Word calls home, one enters an expansive lobby decorated in the same faux-posh neutrality as any downtown chain hotel. To one side, a hall leads past a bookstore and a multimedia center, facilities for children of different ages, meeting areas and classrooms, and a cafeteria. At the end is a school, complete with a gymnasium.

On the other side of the main lobby, past a long, marble-topped reception desk, doors open onto the sanctuary, an auditorium that's more convention hall than church nave. Theater seats ring a curved stage on three sides; more look down from a semicircle of balcony. Above the stage there are three enormous television screens, and seating areas are dotted with smaller monitors. There's a dais set up for a live band, but there isn't a religious icon or stained glass window in sight. You have to go out the back of the sanctuary to find the only room that looks like a church facility: the chapel.

The contemporary megachurch was the brainchild of an enterprising seminary graduate named Bill Hybels who wanted to learn how to reach "the unchurched." In the early 1970s, Hybels went door-to-door in suburban Chicago, collecting what were then surprising answers: People didn't like getting dressed up, or the remote-feeling medieval symbols, or the formality of the proceedings. They found church boring and predictable. The church Hybels went on to open, Willow Creek, now ministers to 17,000 people a week in a 7,000-seat sanctuary.

It's no accident that many of the churches resemble office buildings. "The idea is that evangelical Christianity is part of everyday life," says Jeanne Kilde, an expert in religious history affiliated with the University of Minnesota's Institute for Advanced Study who has written a book about megachurch architecture. "It should not be a separate place marked by a steeple—i.e., God's house, where you go to be in community with other Christians. The church should be integrated into everyday life. It's not a place you go to one hour a week, it's a place you should frequent."

The architecture supports people's desire to experience God for themselves, not through some imposing clerical authority figure. Gone is the traditional pulpit, for instance. "There's nothing above you," Kilde explains. "As opposed to traditional churches, it's a different spatial relationship, with greater audience power, as opposed to clerical power. It's a complicated power dynamic between the audience and the clergy. Spatially, the audience has a great deal of power with the huge sweeping banks of seating and their elevated position above the preacher, while the preacher is just one figure, one body, up there on the stage. But of course the giant screens mitigate that, with the one figure blown up to a huge size."

The anonymous design suggests no one will be put on the spot. Newcomers won't be singled out for proselytizing and members needn't be defensive about their lack of scriptural knowledge. Sermons are relentlessly positive, and the vast array of programming the churches offer during the week is geared as much toward the pressures of everyday life as the Bible.

It's a winning formula. According to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford Seminary, half of all churchgoing Americans now attend just 12 percent of the nation's 400,000 churches. Four megachurch pastors were on the New York Times bestseller list in 2005. Few of Hammond's followers may be laborers, like Seymour's, but it would seem they are every bit as anxious to know that the Lord is tuned in not just to their spiritual well-being but to their worldly concerns as well.

Hammond's Sunday sermons contain a not-too-subtle subtext: Once you've tithed, it's okay to take the money God prospers you with and retreat to your cul-de-sac. Ostensibly, the gospel of prosperity does distinguish between being greedy and seeking prosperity in order to be able to minister to others—but according to this strain of theology, that need not include feeding war orphans or clothing inner-city urchins; it really means increasing the size of the church—a goal that can be realized through the influx of new dollars as well as new souls.

Hammond is pretty clear on the point in a pamphlet titled, "Winning in Your Finances: How to Walk God's Pathway of Prosperity": "Do we use our excess money to purchase a bag of groceries for someone that can't afford any food?" he asks. "Do you fill up someone's car with gas? Do we slip him a $20 bill when you shake his hand? Though these are all charitable things to do, they will not, however, meet the greatest need in a person's life. No amount of money can purchase a man's salvation. No amount of money can purchase a healing. The only thing that meets human need on every level consistently and permanently is the Word of God. So consequently, the seed that you have left over is best used to get the Word of God into the hearts of others."

As a rule, Word Faith adherents are conservative, but not politically active. There are a few exceptions on the latter count, chief among them affairs in the Middle East. Christ will not come back until Israel converts. The first step toward that was the creation of Israel. Now, the temple has to be rebuilt. Indeed, Israel is the largest of Living Word's charities. In 2005, $228,000 was sent to a hunger-relief effort in Israel, as compared to $53,000 for tsunami victims, and $101,000 for hurricane relief. Financial support was also extended to missionaries abroad, and to other churches.

A doctoral candidate in sociology at the University of Virginia, Tony Tian-Ren Lin has studied churches like Hammond's extensively. "Word Faith Pentecostalism offers [people] the perfect way to not feel guilty about having made it and about not helping others," he says. "I got mine because I was faithful, and the best way I can help you is to tell you about this formula for being rich. But I don't have to make any material sacrifices.

"It's a spiritual spin on capitalism, on the consumerism in this culture," he continues. Believers needn't be dependent on the outside world, where, cars and big-screen TVs notwithstanding, they may be just one paycheck from financial ruin. "It plays to that insecurity," says Lin. Their own inner resources are enough to keep them afloat: "If I keep tithing and keep believing, I'll be all right."

In part it's an outgrowth of what he calls the therapeutic ethos: Everybody has a purpose and the inner resources to fulfill it, provided they can only find them. Modern faith healings tend to address believers' mental demons rather than their physical ones, says Lin. "Doctors are now part of this movement, practicing medical doctors. And so being filled with the spirit in those churches is much more intellectual.

"Financial prosperity is the big promise, but it's not the only reason people come," Lin adds. "A lot of what they do is Dr. Phil and Oprah with a spiritual spin. It's that therapeutic aspect, that good feeling, which encourages people to keep coming. You have the power, you can say screw your boss. Where else can you go where you'll hear this message? This is [another version of] the Jesse Jackson 'I Am Somebody' speech."

On a different Believer's Night, the crowd is thinner and more subdued, and hardly anyone is moving in the Holy Ghost. The slack in the service is taken up by even more music than usual. It's as if Pastor Lynne took the crowd's pulse and decided not to fight it, to let everyone out early.

Just as she's wishing everyone a good night, a woman comes to the front and says she wants to testify. She's chubby, with long blond hair, big bangs, and a baggy white T-shirt. She's shaking with nerves, but seems determined to relate every detail of her experience.

Her story starts on the eve of a two-day prayer marathon the year before. It was the woman's wedding anniversary and she didn't really want to spend it at church. She did, though, after telling God that she expected some signs from him that she had made the right choice. The first couple of signs are ho-hum, but she describes them as supernatural events: The Lord compelled a friend to call to make sure she was going. Jesus guided her husband to tell her the prayer meeting should come before their anniversary dinner.

She's weeping by the time she gets to the third sign. A few hours into the prayer meeting, she reports, she was overcome by a euphoric feeling. She jumped up and ran down near the stage. She just stood there, she said, until she snapped out of her reverie and made her way back to her seat. She was sure she looked vain and foolish, but when she sat back down, her seatmates assumed she had gone to the bathroom. The man sitting behind her tapped her on the shoulder and pointed to the armrest on her seat, where a gold ring sat. While she was gone, the man told her, another man had come along and carefully placed the ring there.

She twists it from her finger and holds it over her head. When she realized it fit perfectly, she immediately knew it was her third sign and knew its significance: She was the bride of Christ on her anniversary. Her spontaneous sprint to the stage had been a bride's trip down the aisle, and the ring bonded her to him in marriage, proving that she was worthy of his love. The crowd is still talking about her in awed tones as people file out.

Never underestimate humans' tendency to believe in magic, says Paula Cooey, a professor of religion at Macalester College: "We're a sign-hunting people." The signs are crucial to understanding why people keep coming and keep giving when all they get in return for putting their grocery money in the collection basket is a little further behind.

"Psychological studies show that once you've bought into an ideology, you'll walk on hot coals to defend it," says Cooey. Psychologists call the phenomenon ideological formation: Challenged with evidence contrary to their beliefs, people prefer fine-tuning a creed to abandoning it. Most will ultimately swallow any number of explanations as to why the formula hasn't yet worked for them.

"It's a way of making sense, a hopeful logic. 'If I'm good, if I give, I'll get back,'" says Cooey. "You're living from paycheck to paycheck and thinking, 'This is my way out.' Or, if you're doing well, 'I got this, I deserve this.' It's very hard to live in a world where you're not going to get what you deserve, and where instabilities are visible on TV everyday."

And often the formula does work, Cooey notes, at least for a while. When people join, family budget troubles often do relax a little, she says: "When you quit drinking, smoking, and gambling, what happens to your income?" Then, too, churches preaching the prosperity gospel tend to spawn the kind of networks that help people with job hunting or prospecting for customers.

As part of the research for her book Bait and Switch, author Barbara Ehrenreich attended a number of Christian job networking events in Georgia. Ehrenreich didn't end up with any job leads, but she did emerge with a sense of what makes the formula so appealing.

"What we want from a career narrative is some moral thrust, some meaningful story we can...tell our children," she writes. "The old narrative was 'I worked hard and therefore succeeded' or sometimes 'I screwed up and therefore failed.' But a life of only intermittently rewarded effort—working hard only to be laid off, and then repeating the process until aging forecloses decent job offers—requires more strenuous forms of explanation. Either you look for the institutional forces shaping your life, or you attribute the unpredictable ups and downs of your career to an infinitely powerful, endlessly detail-oriented God."

What happens when you've tithed and contributed to the capital campaign and you haven't been prospered with anything other than a stack of unpaid bills? The doctrine holds that you haven't believed sincerely enough. And if you already possess all the tools for prosperity, then you can believe the failure's all yours, too.

"There's a lot of self-blame," says Lin. "You didn't do this or that. The formula is often so complicated that it's not step one, step two, step three—it's step one, step 1.2, step 2.5, and so on."

Macalester's Cooey adds that because people usually work so hard for so long to prop up their belief, when disillusionment finally sets in, it's bitter. "You'll adjust and adjust and adjust," she says, "and when you finally break, it's severe and dramatic."

Pastor Mac has an answer for those who might hear Cooey's words and feel a satanic seed of doubt trying to enter their hearts: If you manage your finances in a godly fashion, you won't fall prey to hucksters. The tithe comes first—off one's gross income, in fact, since income taxes are man's law and not God's—and then one's own family, he insists in Simplifying Your Life.

"Unfortunately, I see some people doing just the opposite," he writes. "They either don't know any better, or they hear someone on TV saying he's prophesying to them to clean out their bank account and send him the money, and they do it. Sadly, that happens, even though it shouldn't. You don't labor to obtain an income just so you can give it away to someone claiming he has need of it."

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