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Thu

13

Dec

2007

The Megachurch Juggernaut - Has an evangelical phenomenon shaken hands with the devil?
Thursday, 13 December 2007 00:57
by Maryann Mann

It brought to mind the spectacle of Madison Square Garden. Sandwiched within the mammoth sanctuary, seating in the neighborhood of 3,300, I was like Jonah in the belly of the whale. Colossal projection screens displaying upbeat lyrics. Megawatt loud speakers blasting worship bands. The mood was kinetic, lit with spirit — a racial cornucopia of guests and members preparing anxiously for the pastor's morning sermon.

Maybe it wasn't so bad after all.

Before I knew it the reverend was on stage. He snatched up the microphone. He stepped out from the pulpit… and that's when my jaw was left hanging. Here I am — a visitor mind you — to the famous Brooklyn Tabernacle Church . Perhaps I could bring a good friend of mine here, he was looking for a spiritual home. But my friend is gay, and to my dismay, the pastor lambasted his kind. I listened as the minister praised election-season bribery over hate-bated, homophobic politics. Electoral "victory" in 2004 in the fight over same-sex marriage was this morning's evangelical highlight. And as I sat in the "arena", my emotions in a swirl, it brought to mind yet another stirring image: I thought about my friend — the one who is gay — and what I would say if he were sitting beside me.

Theologically conservative rhetoric like this is not unique to the ministry of Brooklyn Tabernacle. Indeed, many churches steer clear of campaigning from the pulpit. But with the meteoric rise of megachurches like this one a disconcerting drift within the evangelical movement bares serious reflection. The drift is one of principles: Bedroom morality prevailing over empathy; decadence offsetting social justice; subservience to almighty materialistic desires versus simply finding peace with God.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective… Sermons

The megachurch phenomenon is a movement four decades in the making. Unleashed in the tectonic anti-establishment cultural shift of the 1960s, the first modern ritual-less services to gain megachurch traction had been harvested in the Crystal Cathedral of Orange County, California. According to the New Yorker, pastor Norman Vincent Peale, founder of Crystal Cathedral, "advocated and launched what has become known as the marketing approach to Christianity". These tactics included, among other things, referring to church guests as "customers".

Rooted in Pentecostalism, the megachurch of today is breaking all kinds of new ground. No doubt. The Madison Garden of the south? Yeah, that actually is a church. In 2005, Joel Osteen, head pastor and televangelist of the world famous Lakewood Church, and spiritual home to some 30,000 members, has, according to Business Week, laid out "$90 million to transform the massive Compaq Center in downtown Houston — former home of the NBA's Houston Rockets — into a church… complete with a high-tech stage for his TV shows and Sunday School for 5,000 children." Osteen predicted that the move will ultimately launch weekend attendance to numbers at or near 100,000. According to Lakewood's website, Osteen's "broadcast [now expands] into over 200 million households…" As of 2007, Lakewood 's congregation has grown to over 52,000, and climbing. Says Osteen to Business Week: "Other churches have not kept up, and they lose people by not changing with the times."

Modern megachurches tend to be characterized not only in size (qualified as a church with over 2,000 members) but in subscribing to secular standards of corporate operation. Conspicuously epitomizing a "market approach" to Christ gave way to a methodology insider's term: "Seeker-Friendly". The Seeker-Friendly method aims at making church as unobtrusive and entertaining as possible in order to expand and exponentially thrive on an infinite base of new "customers". Hence, what is often called — or what critics consider — a "self-centered" over "God-centered" theology seems to marginalize biblical orthodoxy by reducing God to a practical "domesticated deity," to quote the New Yorker: "a God [demanding] no real sacrifice from his children."

Megachurches are modeled off the Fortune 500 playbook, where church leaders are quite literally CEOs. As reported in Business Week, reverend Bill Hybels, founder of the 20,000 member strong Willow Creek Community [Mega]Church in affluent South Barrington, Illinois, "hired Stanford MBA Greg Hawkins, a former McKinsey & Co. consultant, to handle the church's day-to-day management." Identical to veritable CEO Joel Osteen, Hybels strings together self-help programs with optimistic messages intended simply "to make people feel good about themselves." Indeed, Business Week continues: "so adept at the sell are some evangelicals that it can be difficult to distinguish between their religious aims and the secular style they mimic."

Whatever. It's a money making bonanza — and it's working. Megachurch leaders have become worldwide celebrities the likes of Dr. Phil. Subtract the "churchese" and they're disturbingly indistinguishable. Many Lakewood members are known to arrive with Osteen's own bestselling, self-helper Your Best Life Now (or perhaps his newest publication Become a Better You) in one hand and the original good book in the other. Many times folks are without bibles at all. Besides, what are those multi-million dollar projection screens for? Saddleback [Mega]Church pastor Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life has sold over 24 million copies to literal customers to become the fastest selling nonfiction book of all time. Other megachurch leaders: Kenneth Hagin, T.D . Jakes, Joyce Meyer and Kenneth Copeland are all bestselling authors too. And now… praise to his bounty… they're rich. Obscenely — "I-onechya-ta-git-excited-about-yer-laff" — rich.

God's Millionaires

Want in?

It's at the crux of megachurch philosophy. The doctrine is known as Word of Faith. Critics call it the prosperity gospel. The main premise of the teaching is that submission to God's will promises Christians an abundance of wealth. Word of Faith/prosperity gospel centers heavily on the spiritual riches those tested and devoted souls are guaranteed to receive, while at the same time preaching financial returns as evidence of His preferential treatment.

Osteen's first book is a veritable study guide. A clear-cut and uncomplicated read, Your Best Life Now is filled with tales of trials and triumph from Osteen's own personal perspective. Nearly all of his stories hammer home broad-spectrum Word of Faith philosophy: Expect and you shall receive. But between the words — sometimes right inside them — strings a very fishy message. God's rewards, in return for Osteen's faith — as far as his book leads readers to believe — were almost always dictated in the form of bountiful, material gains. Says Osteen in an interview with beliefnet.com: "I believe if we expect God's favor, if we declare it, if we thank him when we see good things happening, we're going to see more of that". Osteen says he preaches on outlook, not cash. "I don't think I've ever preached a message on finances."

All well and good. Although, the conclusions in Osteen's New York Times bestseller suggest otherwise. The attitude of empowerment and expectancy that Osteen — and others — so famously claims makes strange bedfellows when God's justice is demonstrated expressly in the form of flourishing, financial growth. Following this curious line of logic "faith in Christ… will take you to streets of gold for all eternity," noted author, radio host and evangelical advocate, Hank Hanegraaff, in an interview for his book Christianity in Crisis.

And while faith has its place, there is the penultimate issue of tithing. It's what Pat Robertson, televangelist and founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, calls: the Law of Reciprocity. The law breaks down like this: Give generously and you too shall receive… Generously.

Tithing has always been a cornerstone in the Christian church. Financial gifts from devoted church members have traditionally gone directly into stated budgets for purposes of church maintenance and outreach. But there is something different when it comes to the megachurch. Giving becomes a relatively addictive notion with what the tithe seems adhered to; that is: heaven-sent financial reciprocity. Is this the attitude of God's expectancy or the subliminal provocation of greed? It's unclear. But when you're in an arena surrounded by thousands, with a cash-rich Father figure at the helm, well, it's nearly impossible not to kowtow to the moment.

But what is the collective substance of these moments? This movement? This megachurch phenomenon? Closer examination of Word of Faith doctrine seems possessed of all sorts of new questions: Superficial group thought; distorted morality; corruption of the emotionally and financially vulnerable. Indeed, answers may rest in the latest fact that megachurches are now offering direct deposit — in the form of tithes from your bank card to the church account, that is.

The prosperity gospel was the crux of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker's church-as-infomercial television ministry — that is until reverend Jim went to jail for accounting fraud. Bakker, by the way, began his career — in the 1960s — working diligently for Pat Robertson's budding network.

Still, other Word of Faith oddities abound. One includes glossolalia, the religious practice of speaking in tongues. Or divine, on the premises faith-healings. Not too mention a peculiar piece of dogma dubbed: "Little Gods". Little Gods is the revelation — purportedly based on John 10:34 — that man is not only made in the image of God, but makes the case he actually is one.

Joyce Meyer has preached it. Indeed, T.D. Jakes told Charisma magazine that followers fail "to appreciate their [own] divinity". Kenneth Hagin professed it in the December, 1980 edition of Word of Faith magazine: "Every man who has been born again is an incarnation... The believer is as much an incarnation as was Jesus of Nazareth." The controversy that is Little Gods has been critically charged as heresy. In fact, in his book Christianity in Crisis , Hank Hanegraaff, went so far as to label Word of Faith dogma as "cultic".

Understanding not all megachurches operate by a static set of rules, the fundamental questions remain — especially as relates to a gospel of prosperity. Consecrating wallets at the expense of Christ seems a crisis for modern theology. But millions are flocking — in bodies and tithes. So, what is harnessing this lock, stock appeal?

Reebok. Adidas. The Cross.

The sign says: Son-Bucks… I'll repeat that… No, you heard me…

The color scheme is identical. It's round design, the same. And Jesus, smack-dab in the middle. Folks, welcome to the Faith Church café. Erected in the former heartland of New Milford , Connecticut, Faith [Mega]Church sticks out like a tumor. Upsetting traffic with its hellish congestion it fits the physical mold of a Best Buy or Macy's. The sanctuary is colossal. We can take that as red. What peaks my curiosity is its bookstore. Packaged with merchandise, school supplies and all, the Faith Church website assures worshipers its "bookstore offers Biblical information in the form of books, tapes and topical scriptures..." Some noted authors? Well, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, T.D. Jakes and Joyce Meyer. Boo-ya. Church on church marketing. The merge of Christ with commerce. A sales strategy if He ever saw one.

"Visit Willow Creek… and you are confronted with a puzzle. Where in God's name is the church?" so opened an article in The Economist. For sure, Willow Creek brings to mind the Time Warner building. Through its penetrating glass front doors (no stained glass!) and its massive first floor lobby you can hop the escalator right upstairs. Need to burn off some steam? Go ahead, hit the gym. The [mega]church gym. Bookstore? They have one too. Both Willow Creek and Lakewood host numerous onsite resource centers and fitness facilities — not too mention extravagant, multi-choice food courts. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Church leaders argue these mega-amenities promote good old fashioned fellowship. Yet, a disconcerting trend has emerged concordant with its theme park wonder. Observers are becoming evermore pressed to find any customary symbols of Christ. Something's happening. Megachurch sanctuaries transformed into concert halls are opting for added glitz in lieu of altars, steeples, stained glass and bibles. The cross is gone too. No joke. In fact, online browsers to megachurch sites are finding perplexing logo-like replacements. Christian City [Mega]Church — founded in Australia — has a warm, tri-colored circle as its image. Sweet. Seeker-Friendly. Commercial.

Precisely. Former megachurch reverend turned marketing mogul, Maurilio Amorim, stated it plainly to the New Yorker: "We're trying to create a brand for churches… We're trying to create a culture." (emphasis added) No doubt. The marketing approach to Christ is funneling millions a year into megachurch coffers. And that's on average. Lakewood's label brings in roughly $1 million a week. A prosperous move, reports Business Week. This method of "marketing and services helps to create a brand loyalty any CEO would envy. Willow Creek [now] ranks in the top 5% of 250 major brands, right up with Nike and John Deere..."

The extraordinary irony behind megachurch philosophy is its conspicuously Darwinian core. In order to compete in the 21 st century for that unsaved, consumer-junkie soul, it's clear: Adapt. Evolve. Or die.

Exit: crown of thorns. Enter: the swoosh.

McChurch in the Making

It was Sunday morning when I walked through the doors of Spring Ridge Elementary School in Frederick , Maryland. At this point in their development Frederick Christian Fellowship had yet to break ground on a permanent house of worship. A minor hiccup, so it seemed, judging by the influx of sedans in the parking lot.

Praise songs bounced off the walls like a pinball machine as fold-out chairs lined the cafeteria floor. Members and guests helped themselves to complimentary coffee and pastries before making their way to a seat. FCF founder, reverenced Randy Goldenberg, eventually took to the stage. A fit, good looking and charismatic guy, Goldenberg hit the ground running. His sermon was light — on Abraham's obedience — and all seemed right with the world.

But a peculiar thing happened. Concluding his service reverend Goldenberg asked first time guests to raise their hands. I declined. At least half a dozen hands went up. Reverend Goldenberg pleaded with these folks to see an usher — and exchange their personal information — in order to claim a curious prize: Free lunch for your family to Red Lobster.

For a church without a permanent home this seemed a rather odd and inexplicable expense.

But I was outnumbered as a chorus of "wows" hovered in the room like a haze. Goldenberg brought the service to a close. And as parishioners helped with the refolding of chairs one last sidebar came over the speakers: For those Christians interested in taking communion you could help yourself on the way out the door. I asked a church member what that was about. The rule, I was told, was not to pressure (remember, Seeker-Friendly).

But further research into FCF history exhumes another disquieting fact. As early as April, 1994, the church was literally bribing people out to service. Yeah. According to the New York Times, Goldenberg "offered $10 to all newcomers… an inducement [which] became national news."

What happened the following week was downright remarkable. FCF attendance was lower the next Sunday "but higher than it had been before…" (emphasis added) The Times went on: "On the Sunday of the giveaway, about 300 people attended, nearly double the regular attendance. Most of the newcomers accepted the money and all but a few demonstrated that they had a conscience — they put the $10 in the collection plate. Mr. Goldenberg said that only 32 people kept the cash…One week later, the pastor said, there were about 200 people in church, and, despite the lack of incentives, many new faces." (emphasis added)

FCF makes no secret of its overall goal. Says its website: "We believe that before all is said and done, before Jesus Christ returns, that God will use us to impact the lives of 20,000 people…" Membership is now near 1,500.

But one wonders if the purchase of a major piece of property will ever actualize this megachurch-to-be. Because while FCF has since moved on from Spring Ridge Elementary it still rents space from a neighborhood complex.

Until then — I suppose — its more money in the pot for Red Lobster.

The Fruits of Mega-Scandal

Drawing in millions of devotees to a gospel of prosperity by diluting theological tenets and branding spiritual culture with a market approach to Christ — vis-à-vis megachurch spectacle — has transformed contemporary Christianity into a cash cow of astonishing proportions. And God's millionaires are at the helm: Megachurch founders, associates and portfolios of subsidiary business.

An investigation by the New York Times into megachurches and their off-shoot companies reported startling findings: "Business interests are as varied as basketball schools, aviation subsidiaries, investment partnerships, etc..." The branding of faith with those quaint, little symbols (in lieu of a pesky, troublesome cross) is representative of a shift into commercialism in the battle for Christian market share, now made manifest in evangelical-corporate empires. Says Business Week: "All this growth, plus the tithing many evangelicals encourage, is generating gushers of cash. A traditional U.S. church typically has fewer than 200 members and an annual budget of around $100,000. The average megachurch pulls in $4.8 million."

Joel Osteen received a $13 million advance on Becoming a Better You. T.D. Jakes drives a Mercedes. Televangelist Benny Hinn lives in an ocean-front estate; Joyce Meyer's, a private compound. Pat Robertson owned the goddamned Ice Capades. "I do think we need Christians who are in first class as well as coach," said T.D. Jakes in the Fort Worth Star Telegram.

Yet, what is most troubling about the affluence of megachurch leaders is not the wealth itself, but the use of counterfeit biblical teachings in order to justify entrepreneurial fortunes. It would seem where a gospel of prosperity lacks sound doctrinal support it is supplanted by cotton candy Christianity, playing on Western tendencies toward oniomania and monetary addiction. "Jesus was not a capitalist; check out what [He] says about how hard it is to get into heaven if you're a rich man," said the reverend Robert W. Edgar, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, to Business Week.

Megachurch and televangelist ministers gross enormous salaries. Much of the millions raked in are profits generated by books, iTunes and DVDs. But how much of that is going back into the ministry, considering were it not for thousands of devoted followers most of these [mega]ministers would reside in relative obscurity? And while the amusement park-like atmosphere of megachurches is largely funded by tithing and food-courting, it is evermore important to ask if any of these funds go directly into subsidizing personal lifestyles.

According to the Washington Post the Senate Finance Committee has recently announced an investigation into at least six Word of Faith ministers. Megachurch pastors and televangelists alike — Joyce Meyer, Kenneth Copeland and Benny Hinn among them — are subjects of a probe following reports of unrestrained spending on ministries and private estates.

Because of the tax-exemption granted to churches by the Internal Revenue Service, religious organizations are free from the burden of reporting on finances whatsoever. But after allegations involving the purchase of "such amenities as private jets and Rolls-Royces" reported the Post, GOP Iowa senator Charles E. Grassley has "asked for credit card records, clothing and jewelry expenses and any cosmetic surgery expenses" as part of the congressional query.

In 1988 televangelist Jimmy Swaggert lost his empire after soliciting roadside sex with a prostitute. In 1994 Pat Robertson was accused of using tax exempt, non-profit charity resources to run a blood diamond mining operation out of Africa. And megachurch founder reverend Ted Haggard — famous for preaching on the sins of sexual immorality — was forced to resign in late 2006 after allegations of soliciting homosexual sex and methamphetamine abuse.

Perhaps not coincidentally, only one of the six megachurch pastors - Joyce Meyer - is presently cooperating with the Senate Finance investigation.

The Question of Ethics

Not all preachers are duplicitous, just as most churches cause no harm. As the writer of a screenplay surrounding the infamous rise of reverend Jim Jones and Peoples Temple church it would be irresponsible to draw hard and fast comparisons. Peoples Temple lived communally, megachurches do not. Jones loathed capitalism, megachurches are built on it. But several points of connection do stand mentioning: Peoples Temple provided no bibles; they were intent on building a culture; it used millennialism to coax from members unhealthy — sometimes blind — loyalty. Jim Jones also went so far as to bribe followers with money, while pressuring it to come back as an offering. Similarities like this are cause for concern.

Megachurches also play into urban sprawl in a way that needs to be questioned. Congesting local roadways with thousands of commuters is detrimental to the social fabric of communities. Most megachurches, being planted in rural areas, are now major factors in the economics of sprawl — identical to American prisons. Mini-malls, motels and fast food joints are springing up amongst such fertile ground. Research has shown corporate extensions like these plague U.S. towns like a virus. They produce waste, guzzle energy, provide low paying jobs and encourage consumption. Grab a house blend at Son-Bucks and think about it.

But megachurches are adding local economies to their calling. ChangePoint [Mega]Church in Anchorage, Alaska, for example, has become a dominant socio-economic force. Reports the New York Times: "Church leaders say they hope to draw people to faith by publicly demonstrating their commitment" to the community. One way: Leasing a cold storage facility to Sysco, a corporate food-distribution giant. Another? Construction of a colossal mixed-use sports center: part athletics, part ministry. ChangePoint's business manager, COO Doug Rieder, admits that while he hopes the community will not divide over religious lines "we do want to convert [people], no doubt about it…"

How do tax assessments combat this mixed-use challenge? Who holds the power in community politics as megachurch investments blur the lines between evangelism and a non-convert's freedom of association? What are the parameters — in the murky waters of economics — when it comes to the separation of religion and (local) government? These are questions megachurch and community leaders must openly face.

What about the ethics of noticeably marketing to kids? Established megachurches from Willow Creek and Lakewood to up-and-comers such as Frederick Christian Fellowship are on the same page. "Kids are often a prime target of megachurches" finds Business Week. What is to be said of a corporate movement when kids are directly besieged? Okay, so it's not Phillip Morris, but if the argument is that this message is biblical then please explain the disappearing bibles? Better yet, ask a child to explain it.

Hence, the revenue obsessed mission with expanding this brand of God. Individual Word of Faith pastors have been criticized for financially (and spiritually) bankrupting believers, but the movement has yet to be sanctioned. Christian City [Mega]Church CEO Phil Pringle has a goal of building 1,000 churches by the year 2020. He's even gone so far as to exploit the hellish tragedy of 9/11 in an advertisement of millennialism and end times prophesy. And it continues.

How? The answer, so it seems — and raising the most red flags — is that this phenomenon remains unregulated. Due in large part to federal tax exemptions, megachurches and televangelists are free to operate as they see fit — on a secular, corporate-style powerhouse of unfettered profit-driven muscle. No wonder prosperity is gospel.

The late, Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, had a knack for shaking people to their core: "A life is either all spiritual or not spiritual at all. No man can serve two masters. Your life is shaped by the end you live for. You are the image of what you desire."

After all: Churches nowadays are closing for Christmas just when the mall has opened.

Jesus ®
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Marie Natha said:

0
Christian Journalist
Correction to your story - It was Robert Schuller who founded Crystal Cathedral, not his mentor Norman Vincent Peale. Peale was famous for his "positive thinking" platform and Guidepost Magazine. The late Walter Martin, the original Bible-Answer-Man used to compare him with the Apostle Paul - "I find Paul appealing, and Peale appauling."
 
December 13, 2007
Votes: +0

Maryann Mann123 said:

0
Thank You & Correction
Correction: Indeed, televangelist Robert H. Schuller founded Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove, CA - not Norman Vincent Peale. Apologies and many thanks.
 
December 13, 2007
Votes: +0

David Waters said:

0
...
Is this meant to be objective???? I guess not. It is a venting session, closer to an op-ed than a story... thanks for giving us lots of opinnion and not allowing us the right to draw our own conclusion by fair unbiased factual journalism...... If the churches are sad, this type of journalism is even more sad.

David
 
December 14, 2007
Votes: +0

Don in Texas said:

0
So many errors
I attend Lakewood Church and am perplexed by so many errors in your op-ed. For instance, we are taught about Christ and sacrifice and none of us is taught that we are going to get rich just because we tithe. Lakewood has no food courts... though I wish we did since my entire family volunteers after church to minister to visitors (or seekers as you call them) and we usually bring snacks from home. As far as not bringing our Bibles.... WE DO! Haven't you heard the declaration that begins each service, where we hold up our bibles. There are too many other errors in your op-ed regarding Lakewood and Pastor Osteen to deal with now. Shame on you for these falsehoods.
 
December 18, 2007
Votes: +0

susan howard said:

0
a hard hitting article!
As a Christian I find it curious that the comments on this article are critical in the most superficial areas. Lakewood does sell food and books, etc. I also don't see the article declaring that Lakewood members do not bring bibles. I read it as a criticism of churches like Willow Creek (and Lakewood) where things like bibles and stained glass AND crosses are becoming harder and harder to find. Ms. Mann does not lambast any particular church and/or pastor, rather an examination of the corporate structure these churches follow. I see criticism about what constitutes as a food court when you let slide the fact that CROSSES ARE DISAPPEARING FROM CHRISTIAN CHURCHES?? How can that be? ...Ms. Mann's piece, while alluding to certain conclusions, does the job this article was (to me) meant to do-- ask the questions so many refuse to ask. Is it ethical to market directly to children? Is it healthy to PAY PEOPLE to come out to church (as was mentioned about another church)?? And if Maryann Mann is so wrong why are so many megachurch ministers refusing to cooperate with the new Sentate Finance Committee probe?? ...I am a Christian and I enjoyed the article VERY MUCH!
 
December 18, 2007
Votes: +0

adedapo o. said:

0
mr
Wow, what an article. I thoroughly enjoyed it but there are a number issues that it raised. As christians have become more concerned about stained glasses in hurches and other symbols than about the changed lives that actually reflect a christ centered life. Are these mega churches all bad?, there investments in the inner cities of america in the face of cdeclining government assistance, is god sent to many areas. Concerning the leaders, i believe that they will answer to God for any wrong doing that they may be involved in, but i would rather not judge, like the bible instructs.
 
December 20, 2007
Votes: +0

The Neurocritic said:

0
Jeff Keilholtz and Z Magazine
Assuming that you and Jeff Keilholtz are not the same person, you've been plagiarized!

http://www.zcommunications.org...icle/16735
 
August 12, 2008
Votes: +0

Sylvia said:

0
...
Good article. keep pointing to the "red flags". People do need to draw their own conclusions, just don't start with your own bias.
Signed,
reformed "seeker customer"
 
October 21, 2008
Votes: +1

Adam said:

0
Self Prophets
all mega churches preach about being rich when the so called preachers are the only ones getting rich. They speak nothing about Jesus just about how rich he's going to make them. Its not christianity anymore its who wants to be a millionaire. There's tons of rich people in hell.
 
July 25, 2009
Votes: +0

leo said:

0
...
The promise of wealth from paying tithe has long been used to divert attention away from teh fact you are only that much poorer after paying tithe. The one who isnt poorer is the charletain whose words of comfort you accepted. Ask Jim Baker.
 
July 25, 2009
Votes: +0

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