Prosperity in African American Religion
Prosperity in African American Religion
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter begins with a discussion of the significant role played by African Americans in other religious movements that have synthesized New Thought metaphysics with evangelical, charismatic Christianity. It then discusses African American religious materialism, economic development and the contemporary Black church, Christian capitalism in the African American community, and Black megachurches.
Thou shalt remember the Lord thy God: for it is he that giveth thee power to get wealth.
“¡Yo quiero lo mío!” A young Hispanic woman unflinchingly demands. She seems to be looking right at me across the distance between her as a televised image and me as a bleary-eyed, early-Sunday-morning-before-church channel surfer. “I want my stuff—RIGHT NOW!” a professionally dressed African American man demands, bouncing boxer-style on his toes for extra emphasis. An African American woman signs the phrase with an intensity that mirrors that of the spoken words. So forcefully do they convey a sense of authority and urgency as they lay their claim to their “stuff” that I find myself caught up in the collective effervescence of the moment. It is all I can do to keep myself from adding mine to their chorus of voices “YEAH, I WANT MY STUFF RIGHT NOW, TOO!”
These are the opening moments of a commercial for the Faith teacher Creflo A. Dollar's videotape series Laying Hold of Your Inheritance: Getting What's Rightfully Yours. The spot continues with two short excerpts from this dynamic, African American minister's message to the believer. With great passion, his arms extended before him, he entreats the viewer: “God knows how to lay hold of the invisible until it becomes visible; all He wants us to do is be like Him!” In another clip he very animatedly, and with eyes wide, shouts in a rapid- (p.132) fire cadence: “You already possess everything that you're trying to get ahold of. But we gotta learn how to seize it; we gotta learn how to lay hold of the invisible!” The voiceover continues: “Learn how to get what's rightfully yours with our monthly product offer Laying Hold of Your Inheritance. To order this powerful four-tape series, write to the address or call the number on the screen.”
This advertisement for Pastor Dollar's tape series was aired at the end of the weekly broadcast of “Changing Your World,” an outreach production of World Changers International Ministries. This is the 20,000-member, African American megachurch in College Park, Georgia, that was founded and is copastored by Dr. Creflo Dollar and his wife, Taffi. The ministry was one of several profiled in an Ebony magazine article on megachurches, with congregations of 10,000 to 25,000, in predominately African American communities across the country. On the morning I saw it, that 30-second television spot seemed to crystallize the spirit of the Word of Faith Movement.
Many of today's high-profile teachers of the Faith Message are well-dressed, energetic, and politically and financially savvy African American men, like Pastor Dollar, Pastor Fred Price of Crenshaw Christian Center in South Central Los Angeles, and Pastor Keith Butler of the Word of Faith International Christian Center in Southfield, Michigan. It would be inaccurate, however, to think of the Word of Faith as a Black religious movement. The movement has attracted followers from a broad demographic spectrum throughout the United States and in many countries abroad since its emergence in the 1960s and 1970s. This movement and its message have fired the imaginations and inspired the faith of thousands (and perhaps even millions) of followers the world over. Nevertheless, it is worth examining the implications, in the religious history of African Americans, of a movement that teaches that here and now is where God wishes to “prosper” the faithful. Today's movement may appear to be a new development to some observers, but the Word of Faith Movement actually stands in a long line of similar religious movements to emerge in twentieth-century America—movements that have synthesized New Thought metaphysics with evangelical, charismatic Christianity. As in today's Word of Faith Movement, African Americans have played a significant part in these earlier movements.
The religion and religious institutions of African slaves and their descendants in America have always had to be concerned with the material, social, political, and spiritual needs of their followers. To limit ministry to the spiritual realm was a luxury they could not afford, given the legacy of slavery and their post-Emancipation experience of discrimination. It was the role of Black churches and other religious institutions in their communities to take up the (p.133) slack and meet the needs of the people. This must be appreciated to fully understand the movement under observation in this book.1 Many in the Word of Faith Movement claim to possess some new revelation of God's divine plan, but in reality the Faith Message is not a body of new teachings, despite its differences from past prosperity teachings and movements.
Elder Lightfoot Solomon Michaux, “The Happy Am I Evangelist,” was important in the history of urban religious movements with large African American followings. He was the founder of the Gospel Spreading Church and from the 1920s through the 1940s played a significant role not only in African American religion but in the early development of religious radio and television broadcasting. Under his leadership the church developed the 594-unit Mayfair Housing Project (in Washington, D.C.), whose “Mayfair Mansions” was one of the largest privately owned housing developments for African Americans in the United States and one of the first church-related housing projects back in 1946.2
Another leader of an urban religious movement with a sizeable African American clientele was the man born George Baker but better known as Father Major Jealous Divine, or “Father Divine.” Father Divine established the Peace Mission Movement in Sayville, Long Island, New York, in 1919, during the height of the first great wave of African American migrants from the South to the northern urban, industrial centers like New York, Detroit, and Chicago.3 Frequently mentioned in the same breath as Father Divine was Charles Manuel Grace, another of the flamboyant leaders of urban religious movements that gained a large African American following in the years immediately following the Great Migration. This charismatic leader—also referred to by many of his followers as “Sweet Daddy” Grace—founded the United House of Prayer for all Nations and promised his believers, mostly poor urban African Americans, that they could live the good life by placing their trust, their faith, and most of all their money in his hands. The organization owned a coffee plantation in Brazil and an egg hatchery in Cuba and was reported to own between 111 and 350 churches nationwide. Daddy Grace wore long hair and kept long fingernails and lived lavishly in mansions across the country owned by the organization. One of those was a 20-room mansion in Montclair, New Jersey, as well as an 83-room mansion on the West Coast. The number of his followers was estimated at between 27,500 and three million at various points over the course of his lifetime and ministry. He died in 1960.
Today's Faith Message is a synthesis of more than one belief system: one strand comes from contemporary evangelicalism's emphasis on the “born again” experience and on the inerrancy and absolute authority of the Bible in all matters; another part draws on the beliefs and practices of the charismatic movement's free operation of the gifts of the Spirit, based on the biblical account of the day of Pentecost in the book of Acts. However, it is its New Thought strand that promises believers prosperity and other earthly rewards if they will learn to apply certain principles in order to “real-ize” God in everyday life and situations. There is a strong practical, instrumental accent in New Thought metaphysical philosophies. Once believers learn to think, or “meditate,” correctly (or “hygienically”) and then speak accordingly, they have access to a power that comes directly from God and is made available to them as, at least in the case of the Word of Faith Movement, Christians through faith in Christ. But the emphasis placed on today's Faith teachers—for example, Frederick K. C. Price, who is thought to be responsible for bringing the Faith Message to the Black community4—neglects the historical context necessary to fully understand this particular movement and the development of its doctrine. Two people are responsible for introducing New Thought to the African American community through large ministries before today's Fred Price: Johnnie Colemon and Frederick Eikerenkoetter, better known as “Reverend Ike.”5
Johnnie Colemon is the founder of the Universal Foundation for Better Living, an association of Black New Thought metaphysical congregations (especially those led by ministers trained at the Johnnie Colemon Institute, its educational arm). Colemon is an important, though little-known, figure in the development of African American New Thought institutions; she paved the way for the development of the Word of Faith Movement in the African American community. In 1956 she founded the Christ Unity Temple in Chicago, which was the first predominately Black Unity (New Thought) congregation. In 1974, having split with the Unity denomination in response to its pervasive racism, she founded the Christ Universal Temple for Better Living. She also established the Johnnie Colemon Institute, a school of metaphysics to educate and train ministers and lay people to carry the message of New Thought Christianity, based upon her teachings. The Universal Foundation for Better Living was incorporated as a New Thought denomination in 1974, with over 23 member congregations by the late 1980s. Colemon began broadcasting her mes (p.135) sages on television in 1981, allowing her to reach a far larger audience than was possible preaching three services in her local church.6
Born and raised in the South, in her youth Colemon was diagnosed with an incurable disease. After reading some literature of the Unity School of Christianity, and practicing the teachings, which emphasized positive thinking to create healing and other manifestations of prosperity, she was disease free within two years. Today, Johnnie Colemon is still at the helm of the denomination she founded back in 1956. Her foundation is the parent organization to a number of ministries, including what is said to be the largest metaphysical bookstore in the Midwest, the Colemon Academy elementary school, a multimedia center, restaurant and banquet facility, a prison ministry, and a 24-hour prayer ministry, to name but a few. Her church, which sits on a 32-acre “multicomplex” and reports serving nearly 20,000 members, is still spreading the gospel of living a better life through changing one's thoughts and speech to focus on positive things. Better living includes access to any and all forms of material, physical, social, and emotional prosperity. In some quarters Jonnie Colemon is known as “the First Lady of New Thought.”
Colemon founded the first predominantly Black Unity congregation. New Thought metaphysical teachings, synthesized with charismatic Christianity, are the ideological basis for today's Word of Faith movement. Thus, Colemon should be thought of as a forerunner of the contemporary African American Faith teachers, although she is not generally thought of this way. Colemon's gender should not be overlooked. There are not many prominent African American women out front in the Word of Faith Movement. For the most part, the women who are visible generally play a secondary role as part of a ministry team headed by their husbands. It is likely that Colemon is not as well recognized as Fred Price or others of today's male Faith teachers because she was a church founder and pastor at a time when it was not generally acceptable for women to hold that office.
Another direct predecessor of the Word of Faith Movement in the African American community is the organization founded by Dr. Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, “Reverend Ike.” The United Church and Science of Living Institute (founded in 1969) was preceded by the Miracle Temple in Boston, 1965; and Eikerenkoetter had founded another ministry in Harlem in 1966. He encouraged followers to seek the “good life” in the here and now, rather than waiting for their “pie in the sky” when they died. Like Johnnie Colemon, Reverend Ike built a church and an “institute” to teach people how to live better lives. Of course, the connotations of the word “better” suggest not only relationships and so forth but also living a life of material and physical abundance and prosperity. There are significant parallels to the Higher Life doctrine that (p.136) informed Kenyon's doctrine.7 Like the Faith teachers of today, Reverend Ike emphasized that God wanted believers to live “better lives” through the use of positive thinking. Like other “prosperity teachers” before him, Reverend Ike maintained a flamboyant lifestyle and spoke of poverty as a curse on humanity. Reverend Ike was well known for sayings such as “The best thing you can do for the poor is not become one of them” and “The lack of money is the root of all evil.” He was also seen on television and was known for his “Blessing Plan,” in which viewers became what are today referred to as “partners” with the ministry, financially supporting the production of the broadcast. This was not only a means of underwriting the broadcasts but was presented to the audience as a method for achieving one's financial goals and acting on one's faith, demonstrating that one desired and deserved financial prosperity and success. He would bless prayer cloths and send them to viewers in return for their financial donations. These cloths were supposed to have healing power and could be applied to the afflicted part of one's body to receive the benefit.
Like many other prosperity teachers and leaders of urban movements, Reverend Ike was not a native of Harlem, where his ministry rose to prominence. He was born in Ridgeland, South Carolina, in 1935 and later migrated north. He had graduated from the American Bible College in New York, earning a bachelor's of theology in 1956, and later served as a chaplain in the air force before returning home as an evangelist and faith healer. Back in Ridgeland, he established the United Church of Jesus Christ for All People in 1962 and the United Christian Evangelistic Association as its corporate vehicle. In 1964 he married and moved to Boston, where he established the Miracle Temple and his reputation as a healer grew. It was during this time in Boston that Reverend Ike began to teach about using the power of the mind to achieve prosperity.
Although they vary on a number of characteristics, a few things are common to each of these figures: (1) They all promised their followers, who were overwhelmingly from the poor and working classes of the Black community, the “good life” in this present world as well as in the next. (2) They incorporated New Thought metaphysics with the other teachings they espoused and disseminated to their audience; these ministries picked and chose (and mixed and matched) religious forms rather freely in times when this practice was not nearly as accepted as it is today. (3) They also spoke out against social injustice in various ways, including (but not limited to) direct or indirect participation in politics. (4) Finally, they extended their charisma into the realm of marketing products and diversified economic pursuits and utilized and appropriated the mass media in the service of their messages. In this respect, then, Elder Michaux, Johnnie Colemon, and Reverend Ike can be seen as direct predecessors (p.137) of such notable African American television ministers as Frederick K. C. Price, Creflo A. Dollar, and T. D. Jakes.8
“Redefining Kingdom Business”: Economic Development and the Contemporary Black Church
To varying degrees, economic activity and community development through their religious institutions has a long history in the experience of African Americans. Even so, there are many within the Word of Faith Movement who fail to acknowledge this long history of engagement with the material concerns of life from within a faith-based context. Moreover, despite the claims of many African Americans in today's movement that, historically, leaders of denominational Black churches have neglected to adequately empower and teach their members about financial matters—especially at the level of personal finance—indeed there are many denominational, non–Word of Faith ministries in which faith and economic development continue to mutually reinforce each other. Contrary to the claims of many of their members, Word churches are not the only ones in which remarkable examples of contemporary African American fiscal enterprise can be found.
In order to observe some of the more recent examples of the economic activity that has being conducted through or in connection with Black churches, one need look no further than the local communities in which these churches are situated and whose populations form the base of their clientele. Although mainstream American media may not be aware of it, the popular African American press has taken notice of, and is celebrating, the expansion of financial activity and community development within African American communities across the country. In the past five years several popular magazines have carried stories about the rise of Black churches involved in large-scale economic and community development, with or without the help of the federal government. To help situate the Word of Faith Movement's claim to leadership in financial matters in a broader context, the following section examines some examples of contemporary Christian economic activity in African American communities across the United States. What is significant in these ministries is, in contrast to that of some influential ministries of the past, the range and scope of these ministries' activities and the resources many of them have at their disposal. And although some are part of the Movement, many of these ministries do have denominational affiliations and are not related to the Word of Faith Movement in any way.
Black Enterprise magazine ran an article entitled “Economic Deliverance through the Church” in its February 1997 issue in which the author says that “Black churches are bringing the gospel of economic development to inner city communities” and looks at a variety of projects successfully undertaken in recent years by prominent ministries led by African Americans, situated in inner-city communities with large African American populations, and concerned with not only saving souls but also providing jobs, addressing societal ills, and creating wealth in and for members of the African American community.9
One of these churches was Atlanta's Wheat Street Baptist Church, whose nonprofit organization, Wheat Street Charitable Foundation, serves the community as its development “arm.” According to the article, the church takes in more than $50,000 in rents annually and has real estate holdings worth more than $33 million. Listed among Wheat Street's enterprises and holdings are its North and South Plazas, with two strip malls that house 10 small businesses (not owned by the church) on Auburn Avenue in the Martin Luther King, Jr., historical district; the Wheat Street Towers (a senior citizens' home); the Wheat Street Gardens (a low-income family housing development); and a 1,000-member credit union with assets of more than $1 million. The business manager, Eugene Jackson, explains that the church's former pastor, William Holmes Borders, Sr., provided the motivation and the vision for the church to move into the economic realm and take on the type of development projects that it has. Jackson said: “[Rev. Borders's] vision was to make religion pragmatic. It's not enough to have worship service on Sunday. The Church has to meet the needs of its members and their community.”10
Another ministry discussed in the article is the 2,500-member Northwest Community Baptist church in Houston, Texas (pastored by James Wallace Edwin Dixon II). This church, whose annual budget was, at the time of the article's publication, $1.5 million (up from $50,000 16 years before), has constructed the 36,000-square-foot Excel-Eco Shopping Center, which also houses a number of small businesses. Among those businesses are the Deliverance Grocery and Deli Institute, a grocery store training initiative; a drug rehabilitation center; and 22.6 acres of land purchased in 1990 for $955,000, for the purpose of building a 3,000-seat sanctuary, community life center, and Christian educational facility. A nonprofit organization directs Northwest's economic activity: the Excel Eco Community Development Corporation played a key role in the negotiations to purchase the land. Out of this corporation developed the (p.139) Excel-Eco Construction Company, made up of a group of church members who were also builders. This company was contracted to renovate the site in preparation for the church's planned construction project. The construction company and other businesses owned or co-owned by the church as part of the Excel-Eco Shopping Center provide revenue for the church's other projects by tithing 10 percent of their profits as reinvestment back into the parent organization. The key to Northwest's success, according to the article, has been its savvy in negotiating the purchase of real estate.
Floyd Flake, the senior pastor of Allen African Methodist Episcopal Church in Queens, New York (and a member of the United States House of Representatives from January 1986 to December 1997), is quoted in the article as saying: “We've realized that the political-social model we've been operating on in the last 30 years is bankrupt.” Apparently, what Flake meant in the statement was that the Black Church can no longer focus only on achieving social justice and political opportunity. This model has been eclipsed by post-civil-rights-era American economic realities, as the ranks of “The Truly Disadvantaged,” or permanent underclass, have swelled in the 1980s and 1990s. The need for jobs and economic opportunity leading to financial stability and economic self-empowerment seems to be shaping the agenda of today's business-minded religious leaders in much the same way the structure of a Jim Crow society shaped the political activity of ministers only a generation or so ago.
The economic development activities of Flake's church focused on building an apartment complex for senior citizens with federal Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding. It created the Allen Housing Development Fund Corporation, which came to own and manage a 300-unit housing development, as well as 10 other nonprofit organizations. These nonprofits provide a variety of community social services, including a resource center for battered women and a home care agency. The church-based organization also holds other real estate, as well as renovating buildings to rent space out to local businesses.
In 2002 South Central Los Angeles marked the tenth anniversary of the uprising and social unrest triggered by the trial in the Rodney King police beating. In response to the unrest in the area, exacerbated by the high rate of unemployment, the First AME Church, popularly known as “FAME,” developed a community organization in 1992 to address the need to rebuild South Central Los Angeles and make it an economically viable community. The name given the organization was FAME Renaissance, and it includes approximately 13 different community services, one of which is the Business Resource Center. This center offers a revolving loan program for entrepreneurs interested in starting new businesses or expanding existing ones. The payments made on the loans go back into the loan program to help others in the same manner. (p.140) This is a modern-day mutual aid society, but in economic development terms; it is not just a food pantry, a clothes closet, or a provider of rent and bills assistance.
The article summarizes the ethos of “Christian capitalism” that is motivating Wheat Street and the other churches in their forays into contemporary forms of economic community development:
This brand of Christian capitalism encourages African Americans to pool their dollars to invest in each other and their communities. Unlike a corporation that keeps its profits, church-based business enterprises enrich the neighborhood by providing resources and much needed services like day care, soup kitchens and substance abuse counseling.11
Out of the Church and into the Forum
The cover of the September/October 2000 issue of Gospel Today magazine carries the headline “Redefining Kingdom Business: Leading Ministries Shaking up the Economy”12 and photos of two well-known African American ministers, both with very large congregations and, seemingly, an even broader range of business pursuits as heads of their respective ministries. These two men, Bishop T. D. Jakes and Pastor Kenneth Ulmer, are held up as examples of the ways African American Christians are branching out and expanding the boundaries of Christian ministry to include financial and economic stewardship of resources and community economic development.
According to the article, there is indeed a shift, or transfer, of wealth from the hands of the “sinner” (secular or “unsaved” individuals, organizations, etc.) to those of the “righteous,” those to be found within the influence of the church and evangelical religious community. The introduction to the story tells its readers: “In case you haven't been paying attention, there is something huge going on in the area of `prosperity' among Christians”13 and goes on to profile the economic influence of several religious leaders in the communities in which they are situated.
Bishop Jakes (who was also featured on the cover of the July 2001 issue of Time as the year's “Best Preacher” and possibly the next Billy Graham) is the pastor of the Potter's House church in Dallas, Texas, and fast becoming a major figure in evangelical commerce. With more than 80,000 attendees, his yearly women's conference, “Woman, Thou Art Loosed,” filled the Atlanta Dome in 2000 (as well as the Super Dome in New Orleans in 2001), and, (p.141) without the help of the mayor's office, brought an estimated $100 million into the local economy of Atlanta via hotels, restaurants, and retail. After Graham, Jakes is reportedly the only other evangelist to bring this kind of attendance to such a large venue. He is also fast becoming a leader in the marketplace of “inspirational entertainment.” In fact, Jakes is the prolific author of several Christian self-help books and a financially successful—and critically acclaimed—stage play, “Behind Closed Doors.” If those enterprises were not enough, he has recently launched his own music record label, Dexterity Sounds, in collaboration with EMI Gospel Group, a nationally known gospel music company, and has not only produced recordings of his own church's mass choir but signed several top-selling gospel music artists. Jakes is quoted as saying that he believes it is his God-given charge to develop all his talents to their fullest potential; that includes those talents not directly related to preaching and running a successful local church.
Los Angeles's Great Western Forum was once the home of the Los Angeles Lakers basketball franchise. This 17,500-seat stadium has served the local community as the venue for sporting events and music concerts since 1967 when it was built, but the Forum now has a new owner, a new purpose, and a new role in the community. Since its sale in the year 2000 for the sum of $22.5 million,14 the Forum has been the home of Faithful Central, another of the megachurches that have recently emerged in the African American religious community. Led by their pastor, Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, Faithful Central's purchase of the Forum was big news in the Black Church community and served as a powerful example of the direction the contemporary Black Church is taking nationally.
Another ministry exemplifying recent trends in Christian economic development is Florida's Redemptive Life Fellowship church, led by Harold C. Ray, presiding bishop over the Kingdom Dominion Church Fellowship, a consortium of churches in West Palm Beach.15 Ray, a former attorney, is the head of the National Center for Faith-Based Initiatives (NCFBI), described as “a national collaboration of faith-based entities” whose aim is the elimination of “historic poverty and the dependency-inducing system.” The strategy for achieving this goal is the development of “self-actualizing and self-sustaining community-based economics” in inner-city communities across the United States.16
Ray presides over a 12-member board of governors17 who administer what are referred to as “regional embassies,” each of which are staffed by accountants, economists, political analysts, and so on. The sphere of influence of this collaboration of ministries is estimated at 80 million people.18 The organization's goal is to become a “one-stop center” for more than 50,000 churches (p.142) looking to consolidate and maximize their financial resources. The staff of each regional embassy oversees economic development and funnels resources into the local communities and churches. Bishop Ray's future plans include the establishment of a National Faith-Based Law Center, a National Faith-Based Tax and Accounting Center, and a series of websites encouraging Blacks to invest, shop, financially plan, and make travel arrangements through their own local communities.
Ray was pictured on the cover of the July 2001 issue of Gospel Today magazine in a photo with President Bush. The president, in one of his first official acts in January 2001, created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives by executive order. The mission of the Office is to lead a “determined attack on need” in American communities. The program was designed to provide federal funding that would allow the role of faith-based community organizations to be expanded and strengthened so they might be able to compete with other social service groups and provide services to the needy through government or privately funded sources. To help promote and implement his faith-based initiative plan, the president created the Centers for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives through another executive order. These centers are attached to seven cabinet departments: Justice, Agriculture, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, and the Agency for International Development. The intent of the president's program is to use government to help and not hinder faith-based community groups, building on the types of organizations that have long existed in the African American and many other communities. It also gives official recognition to the important role these organizations have played in the lives of those who have been involved with them.
One final example of contemporary African American faith-based organizations in community development and wealth creation is the Nehemiah Corporation of America, a not-for-profit community development corporation whose approach to community development and revitalization takes the form of economic empowerment and wealth creation prinicipally through homeownership and affordable housing. This faith-based organization was first established in Sacramento, California, in 1994, and since 1997 the flagship Nehemiah Program has grown to become the largest privately funded down payment assistance program nationwide. The corporation's subdivisions include: the Nehemiah Community Reinvestment Fund, a financial institution specializing in financing community development projects; the Nehemiah Community Foundation, which supports other faith-based and community-based organizations; the Nehemiah Urban Christian Ministries Initiative, responsible for developing, sponsoring, and promoting new urban Christian (p.143) ministries; the Sacramento Valley Fund, which invests in the development of housing, commercial, and industrial projects; and the Nehemiah Progressive Housing Development Corporation, which develops affordable housing for families and seniors through state and federal tax credit programs.19 The thousands of new homeowners (from all racial and ethnic backgrounds), the new urban ministries begun and supported, the various community service organizations supported, and the community development and revitalization projects that have been funded through the Nehemiah Corporation of America and the other organizations discussed in this chapter all bear witness to the fact that today's African American faith-based organizations are continuing a tradition of economic investment and development in Black communities across the country.
The Black Megachurches
Another recent article, “The New Megachurches: Huge Congregations with Spectacular Structures Spread across the U.S.,” profiled 16 churches described as “representative examples of a new trend in Black America that has caused conversions, talk and some controversy from Los Angeles to Atlanta and from New York to New Orleans.”20 The article classifies as megachurches those that have congregations of 10,000 to 25,000 members and are housed in spectacular buildings on large campuses.
The first of the Black megachurches profiled in the article is the Word of Faith International Christian Center in Southfield, Michigan. Founded in 1979 by Keith A. Butler and his wife, Deborah, this ministry was originally housed in a storefront building, which is how many urban churches began. Although the founding membership was only 60, today the church boasts an international outreach, with over 18,000 members and a 5,000-seat sanctuary on 110 acres of land just outside of Detroit. In addition to the church itself the campus includes the Bible Training Center, the Faith Christian Academy—enrolling children from preschool through high school—and the Kingdom Business Association, where Christian businesspeople learn to incorporate Christian principles in business operations. Also offered are specialized ministries for children, married couples, singles, men and women, and a music ministry. The international reach of the ministry is evident in the number of churches that have been founded overseas by Butler and his wife, Deborah L. Butler, who is a licensed, ordained minister in the church (their son is co-pastor with his father). They have founded 65 churches in Africa, 15 in Pakistan, and 2 in Bulgaria and Hungary, and they plan to open a new church in England. This (p.144) ministry is actually part of the Word of Faith Movement, as its name clearly indicates.
Another Black megachurch is located in Houston, Texas. Pastored by Ira V. Hilliard, the New Light Christian Center began with 23 members but now reports a membership of 20,000. This church has twin campuses at identical North and South locations. Both had 5,000-seat arenas under construction at the time of the article. Pastor Hilliard, as part of the new breed of evangelical minister, travels by helicopter to deliver sermons at both locations each Sunday. This ministry also maintains extension churches in two other Texas cities.
Probably the most widely recognized figure in the Word of Faith Movement is Frederick K. C. Price, the pastor and founder of the Crenshaw Christian Center in South Central Los Angeles. The church's sanctuary, the 10,000-seat geodesic dome known as the “Faith Dome,” is one of the largest church structures in the world, and street signs lead visitors to the church from the freeway to the impressive monument located on the campus formerly occupied by Pepperdine University. The Encyclopedia of African American Religions21 credits Price with being the man who brought the Faith Message to the African American Christian community, and his stature is underscored by some who refer to him as the “godfather” of the Prosperity movement among African Americans. Crenshaw Christian Center was founded in 1973 with about 300 members. At present the membership is being reported as between 16,000 and 20,000. The ministry includes television, radio, book publishing, and tape distribution divisions. To date, 116 television stations and 42 radio stations carry the broadcasts from Crenshaw Christian Center. The ministry also publishes the quarterly magazine Ever Increasing Faith Messenger. Other ministries under Price's leadership include the Crenshaw Christian Center Ministry Training Institute (opened in 1985), the Correspondence School Program (1994), a preschool and elementary, junior, and senior high schools, a prison outreach ministry, and over 17 helps ministry auxiliaries and organizations, with approximately 1,500 volunteer workers. The ministry has over 311 paid employees working within 14 divisions of this massive and extensive organizational structure.
At the time of this writing, Crenshaw Christian Center is poised to become one of the first Word of Faith Movement ministries with a bicoastal presence. On March 27, 2004, a New York Times article reported the pending negotiations in which the ministry planned to purchase the historic First Church of Christ, Scientist, for $14 million dollars (incidentally, the price paid for the church's current Los Angeles property in 1981).22 The new church building is located at the prestigious location of Central Park West and Ninety-Sixth Street in New York City, and it symbolizes the movement's emphasis on church growth, expansiveness, and the display of material prosperity. Since 2002, Price's min (p.145) istry has been renting the facility, and he has held weekly Bible studies at the location as part of the process of establishing a new sister congregation to the one in Los Angeles. The congregation, which already has more than 600 members, is led by one of Price's assistant pastors, installed in position in 2003. The move to purchase the 2,200-seat, turn-of-the-century landmark structure and establish a permanent presence in New York City represents a major development in the ongoing expansion of the Word of Faith Movement by a man and ministry that have come to be synonymous with the movement, especially among its African American members. This new congregation and its stately facility should be seen as signaling the ongoing expansion of the African American megachurch phenomenon in general and the bicoastal expansion of the Word of Faith Movement—both frequently proceeding unnoticed by mainstream media. These trends in African American religion bear close observation as they develop into the future.
The Black megachurches discussed here are providing services to their members as well as the surrounding community. Their activities extend beyond basic pastoral care or attending to the needs of the spirit and soul. They are also working for economic development and financial empowerment in the inner city, rather than relying solely on government programs and administration. Today's Black ministers are decidedly entrepreneurial and well educated, with a staff of well-trained specialists in finance, accounting, economics, and community development, and they have access to resources that half a century ago were uncommon for many churches, especially those in African American urban communities. They are well connected, and they are among the first generations to directly benefit from the political and economic gains won in the civil rights movement. Bishop Harold Ray's NCFBI is an example of the ways Black churches across the country are transcending traditional denominational boundaries and barriers to unite for the task of making social change through economic development in communities where large numbers of African Americans live.
African American religion and religious institutions have always had to attend to the material conditions of life, as well as addressing spiritual issues. From the very beginning of the African presence in the Americas, they were circumscribed by the dictates of racism and discrimination and denied full and equal access to societal resources. Their religion spoke to that inequality and promised them resolution (or divine judgment in the future for the guilty). Some of the churches highlighted in this chapter are part of the Word of Faith Movement, and some are not. But they share certain characteristics: they are large ministries, offering a diverse and extensive array of services to their members and the surrounding community; economic development is an important (p.146) aspect of their work; they use the mass media and other less traditional means of spreading the gospel. Most important, these are all churches led by African Americans.
Today's Word of Faith Movement markets itself as both a new revelation and an improved form of Christianity relative to what its members claim is being taught in more doctrinally traditional denominational churches, especially those in the African American communities. But this movement draws upon previous movements, trends, traditions, and streams of thought that preceded it in African American religious history. Religion and the resources of religious organizations have always played a major role in the economic survival and development of the African American community. The Word of Faith movement draws upon a long tradition of self-help and mutual aid, undergirded by an unapologetic religious sensibility. It is not new to teach people that it is not God's will for them to suffer from the poverty and lack that result from being effectively cut off from access to societal resources. It is another thing altogether, however, to teach that every one of them is destined to become wealthy if he or she would only change his or her way of thinking. But even that doctrine has its antecedents, which many members of today's Word of Faith Movement seem unwilling to acknowledge.
(1.) The institutional centrality of the Black Church in the experience of African Americans has been well established and affirmed in the work of a number of scholars including the following: Arthur H. Fauset, Black Gods of the Metropolis (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1944); St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in an Urban City (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1945); Carter G. Woodson, The History of the Negro Church (Washington, DC: The Associated Publishers, 1945); E. Frazier Franklin, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1964); Benjamin E. Mays and Joseph W. Nicholson, The Negro's Church (New York: Russell and Russell, 1969); and C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence H. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham: Duke University Press, 1990).
(2.) Larry J. Murphy, J. Gordon Melton, and Gary Ward, eds., Encyclopedia of African American Religions (New York: Garland, 1993).
(3.) For more on Father Divine, see Robert Weisbrot, Father Divine (1983), and Arthur H. Fausett, Black Gods of the Metropolis (1944).
(4.) See Murphy, Melton, and Ward, Encyclopedia of African American Religions.
(5.) Dr. H. Lewis Johnson (b. 1890), a female minister and founder of Antioch Association of Metaphysical Science in Detroit in 1932, was one of the first African American religious leaders to appropriate New Thought teachings and is therefore a predecessor to Johnnie Colemon.
(6.) Murphy, Melton, and Ward, Encyclopedia of African American Religions.
(7.) It is possible and likely that Hagin heard of these teachings not directly from E. W. Kenyon but through some of these New Thought teachers who were more his contemporaries and who also broadcast their messages on the radio. Reverend Ike was one of the first Black ministers to be seen on a regular nationwide television show, and, according to Murphy, Melton, and Ward, Encyclopedia of African American Religions, “his work represents a major inroad of New Thought into the Black community” (247).
(8.) Today's Word of Faith Movement shares a variety of characteristics with the groups mentioned in this section, particularly with respect to its presence in the African American religious community. For a more thorough explanation and analysis of these prior movements, please see Hans A. Baer and Merrill Singer, African American Religion: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2002). In chapter 6 Baer and Singer situated the movements of Reverence Ike and of Jonnie Colemon (along with Black Spiritualists) in the category of the “thaumaturcial sect,” defined as those groups that “emphasize the reordering of one's present health or social condition through magico-religious rituals and esoteric knowledge” (p. 183). They go on to say “characteristically, thaumaturgical sects unabashedly (p.169) emphasize the acquisition of the “good life” along with its worldly pleasures” (p. 183). Certainly, the Word of Faith Movement of today fits this description and in the context of African American religious history is appropriately placed.
(9.) Tomika DePriest and Joyce Jones, “Economic Development through the Church,” Black Enterprise, February 1997, p. 195.
(10.) DePriest and Jones, “Economic Development,” p. 196.
(11.) DePriest and Jones, “Economic Development,” p. 196.
(12.) Harris, “Redefining Kingdom Business.”
(13.) Harris, “Redefining Kingdom Business,” p. 38.
(14.) Daniel B. Wood, “Black Churches as Big Players in Urban Renewal,” Christian Science Monitor, electronic ed., January 25, 2001.
(15.) Teresa E. Hairston, “One Nation United in Faith,” Gospel Today, July 2001.
(16.) Teresa E. Hairston, “Redefining Kingdom Business: Churches Possessing the Land,”Gospel Today, May/June 2000, p. 44.
(17.) Members of this 12-member Board of Governors include: Ray, T. D. Jakes, G. E. Patterson, Paul S. Morton, Eddie Long, Carlton Pearson, the late Mack Timberlake, J. Delano Ellis, Floyd Flake, and Charles Blake.
(18.) Harris, “Redefining.”
(20.) “The New Mega Churches,” Ebony, December 2001.
(21.) Murphy, Melton, and Ward, Encyclopedia of African American Religions.
(22.) Thomas J. Lueck, “Deal Is Close on Landmark Church Near Central Park,” New York Times, March 27, 2004.