(Photo: Christian Faith Center / File)
The prosperity gospel, as critics call it, is growing highly prominent megachurches and has blacks divided on the controversial message.
While the nation's largest African American religious organization the 7.5 million-member National Baptist Convention has clearly denounced the prosperity gospel especially with many black communities suffering in poverty, tens of thousands of black Christians flock to services every week to hear the message of wealth and abundance.
"God gives us power to get wealth. Does that sound like he wants you to be on welfare? That's in the Bible!" the Rev. Frederick K.C. Price, pastor of Crenshaw Christian Center in Los Angeles, told Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. Current membership at Crenshaw is reported to be over 18,000.
"I am one of the very few ministers that are very open, very, very open, because I don't have anything to hide," Price said. "And I do it I tell my people here all the time, 'I'm only doing it so that you can see that there's somebody the same color that you are, breathing the same contaminated air, paying the same outrageous prices for everything else, and I'm prospering because of the Book.'"
Price recently filed a lawsuit against ABC over a March airing on the network's 20/20 program that he says inaccurately portrayed him as living a lavish lifestyle, including a mansion, a yacht and seven luxury automobiles. The lawsuit claims the TV show, which upset Price's congregation, severely damaged his reputation.
Another preacher of prosperity, Bishop Eddie Long, celebrated the 20th anniversary of his New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Lithonia, Ga., just last week.
In addition to claiming 25,000 members, the Atlanta-area megachurch has TV ministries, a fitness center, a school, and a program for the homeless and addicted.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Long lives in affluence and preaches a gospel that mixes the prosperity of American capitalism with a conservative theology that says God blesses people financially as well as spiritually.
A nonprofit started by Long and his church provided him more than $3 million in salary and benefits between 1997 and 2000, as revealed by nonprofit records obtained by the Journal-Constitution.
Since then, Long's salary and benefits have not been divulged.
Recognizing the rise in prosperity messages in more black pulpits, Dr. Robert M. Franklin, author of recently released Crisis in the Village, has called the prosperity gospel movement the single greatest threat to the historical legacy and core values of the contemporary black church tradition.
Several megapastors preaching abundance are under fire for what one author and national talk show host says is "deceiving true believers" for fame and fortune.
In the upcoming self-published book Snakes in the Pulpit, talk show host Reuben Armstrong blasts T.D. Jakes, Eddie Long, Creflo Dollar and Joel Osteen, calling them "false prophets."
"Really look at our churches today," said Armstrong in a video statement. "Ask yourself, 'Are churches really concerned about saving your soul or are they concerned about your money, your pocketbooks?'"
Armstrong was recently banned from StreamingFaith.com, a faith-based portal used by many churches to broadcast their programs online, because the author "slandered a few of our beloved partners," Armstrong quoted Streaming Faith managers, according to The Atlanta-Journal Constitution.
Jakes is one of the nation's most well-known preachers and heads The Potter's House, a predominantly African American megachurch in the Dallas area.
"I don't think there is any such thing, truly, as prosperity gospel," he told Religion & Ethics Newsweekly. "It's just a tag that we put on an extreme point of view."
"I'm not against marching," Jakes continued, "but in the '60s the challenge of the black church was to march. And there are times now perhaps that we may need to march. But there's more facing us than social justice. There's personal responsibility, motivating and equipping people to live the best lives that they can really does help them to live the scriptures and to bring them to life."
Offering one explanation for the rise in the prosperity message in black churches, Michael Eric Dyson, professor at Georgetown University, said it's a way to "justify black upward mobility and middle class existence without feeling guilty."
"The civil rights movement said, 'You are responsible for your brother and sister. You ought to bring them along.' The prosperity gospel says, 'Your brother or sister is responsible for him or herself, and what they should be doing is praying right, so that God can bless them, too,'" Dyson said, according to Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.
Franklin says the achievements of the African American community are losing ground, especially among church leaders who have shifted more focus onto individual achievement.
As the most accomplished generation of black Americans, we could and should do more to renew our villages (African American communities), Franklin said.
That includes helping the poor. According to Franklin, one-fourth of the black community lives in poverty.
While Franklin acknowledges the significant charitable giving and efforts of megachurches and other churches, he said there's still something missing.
It's "the role of the church as a prophetic force in society, amplifying the voice of the poor and the voiceless," he pointed out, "and it's that justice note that's missing in much of the prosperity gospel appeal," he said in the PBS news program.
Christian Post reporter Eric Young in Washington contributed to this report.