Probe Puts Prosperity Teachings Under Critical Eye

One believer is bitter that the money she donated to several prominent ministries didn't bring about the material blessings the preachers had assured would come.

"I wanted to believe that God wanted to do something great with me like he was doing with them," said Cindy Fleenor, a 53-year-old accountant from Tampa, Fla., according to The Associated Press. "I'm angry and bitter about it. Right now, I don't watch anyone on TV hardly."

Fleenor wrote checks to Benny Hinn and Paula White - two popular televangelists - and pledged $500 a year to Joyce Meyer, another prominent evangelist. But Fleenor has yet to be showered with the riches that the preachers said would come as donors give.

The three preachers preach what critics call the "prosperity gospel," a highly criticized theology that teaches wealth is a sign of God's blessing. They encourage believers to donate and instill hope that they will experience prosperity. While they do not exclusively teach that God's riches mean money in people's wallets, it's still a key part of their sermons.

The "gospel of wealth" is denounced in many Christian circles. Still, many are flocking to the multi-million-dollar churches prosperity preachers have built to hear the positive messages and are faithfully giving in hopes of being blessed.

"More and more people are desperate and grasping at straws and want something that will alleviate their pain or financial crisis," said Michael Palmer, dean of the divinity school at Regent University, according to AP. "It's a growing problem."

Emerging church leader and author Brian McLaren says one of the prosperity teaching's attractions is that it doesn't dwell on traditional Christian themes o heaven and hell but on answering pressing concerns of the here and now, as reported by AP.

Richard Young, author of The Rise of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen, has said that society today is overstressed and already believes they are living in Hell daily and thus is eager to embrace the messages that prosperity preachers like Osteen deliver.

But the teachings put too much emphasis on individual success and happiness, McLaren said.

"We've pretty much ignored what the Bible says about systemic injustice," he said.

Evangelist Meyer, who has improved her ministry's financial transparency in recent years, recently stressed the need for balance in the teachings.

A prosperity gospel "that solely equates blessing with financial gain is out of balance and could damage a person's walk with God," she said.

Prosperity teachings became prominent, mainly in Pentecostal and charismatic churches, with evangelists Oral Roberts and Kenneth Copeland - then, Kenneth Hagin - in the postwar era.

"What Oral did was develop a theology that made it OK to prosper," said David Edwin Harrell Jr., a Roberts biographer, according to AP. Harrell noted that Roberts and Copeland trained tens of thousands of evangelists with "health and wealth" theology - a message that resonated with an emerging middle class.

Money isn't the only thing people are blessed with, prosperity preachers say. God's blessings extend to health, relationships and being able to help others.

Six prosperity preachers are currently under investigation for allegedly abusing their non-profit status to shield lavish lifestyles. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has requested financial statements and responses to questions about personal and organizational finances from ministries led by Paula and Randy White, Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. The deadline to turn over the papers was Dec. 6.

While Grassley has stressed that the investigation is about whether the ministries are playing by the rules and not about doctrine, some wonder if the probe can strictly keep off theology questions.

"How do you determine how much money a minister like this is able to make when the basic theology is that wealth is OK?" said the Rev. Adam Hamilton, a prosperity gospel critic, of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City, Miss. "That gets into theological questions."

Joyce Meyer is the only one of the six that has promised to fully cooperate with Grassley's probe. Kenneth and Gloria Copeland have turned in papers; lawyers for Randy and Paula White have asked for more time; recent contact has not been made by Benny Hinn who had agreed to respond by Dec. 12 but did not; and Creflo Dollar and Eddie Long have indicated they will not comply with Grassley's probe.

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