Pastor Seeks To Debunk Prosperity Gospel

Critics of prosperity gospel say it can have a sinister undertone of greed and materialism. The Rev. DeForest Soaries, Jr. is such a critic of prosperity gospel. Host Michel Martin speaks with Soaries, who pastors the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, NJ, about ways prosperity gospel can be helpful and harmful to spiritual life.

NPR/October 15, 2010

We're going to talk for a few more minutes about this so-called prosperity gospel. And part of the reason that the issue is in the spotlight is that megachurch pastor, Bishop Eddie Long, who's associated with that tradition, has been in the news because of lawsuits alleging inappropriate personal conduct with members of his congregation.

But long before that happened, he was known for his opulent lifestyle and for a message that strong faith leads to material wealth. And here's just a short clip of Bishop Long.

Bishop EDDIE LONG: God said, well, let me tell you something, we're in Las Vegas now because I want you to take a risk with me. Matter of fact, the deal is good on the front side, because I am the one that gives you the ability to get wealth. I give you 100 percent and only ask for 10 percent back. And then I'm gonna take your 10 percent and protect your 90 percent, and then if you're (unintelligible) tithe or offering, I'm going to give you 30-, 60-, 100-fold over that. I think that's a good deal.

MARTIN: Now as we've said earlier, many people have criticized this theological perspective and practice from outside of the church. But now a prominent critic has come forward from inside the church.

In a recent op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, DeForest Soaries, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey, takes on prosperity gospel as dysfunctional and leading people into habits that are not going to lead to success in the rest of their lives. We caught up with him yesterday to talk more about what he has to say.

Reverend DeFOREST SOARIES JR. (First Baptist Church): I have been concerned about this for a long time. My church is involved in helping about 400 people who are losing their homes for foreclosure. In some instances, we've bought houses that people were losing and let them stay in the house and pay us rent.

We've seen the way people live. We've seen people with high interest rates, low credit scores. And it doesn't help when people who are struggling and drowning financially have a minister that they hold in high esteem convince them to send him $1,000, and then God will send them $3,000.

And this prosperity gospel has taken advantage of cable television and radio now to the extent that it looks mainstream. Many people, because they're desperate, are now flocking to ministries like these, and we think it's religious poison.

And so rather than simply talk about it among ourselves, a few of us have decided that it's prudent to say something out loud. Our silence gives tacit approval to that kind of ministry.

MARTIN: Well, you know, to that point, your church, the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens, is the focus of the newest CNN "Black in America" special, "Almighty Debt," and the program follows three families from your church who've fallen on hard times financially.

Was it a difficult decision to kind of open up the conversation? You know, there are those who are, you know, often very sensitive about what they perceive as airing dirty laundry to the larger society.

Rev. SOARIES: Well, it was difficult primarily because I just don't like that much attention. We have enough work to do without attention, and attention just brings more work.

Having said that, our dirty laundry is quite public already. And I think silence in the face of injustice is worse than the injustice itself. And it is unfortunate that much of the injustice is perpetrated by people with robes on.

MARTIN: You know, this has always been a very interesting tension, but I think a lot of people have always been, you know, puzzled by how it is that you can have these religious figures who profess the gospel and yet live these extremely opulent lifestyles.

The question I have for you because you write in your op-ed, to their credit, some prosperity ministers like Bishop T.D. Jakes of the Potter's House in Dallas and Dr. I.V. Hilliard of the New Light Christian Center in Houston have motivated many people to avoid the traps of thinking of themselves as permanent victims and to defy conventional stereotypes.

The prosperity gospel says that everyone can succeed financially, regardless of race or gender or class. And the prosperity movement has effectively changed life expectations for millions of people.

So the question I have for you is, well, what crosses the line then, between something that encourages people to think of themselves as people of efficacy? And then what crosses the line to what you consider exploitative behavior, which sells people a bill of goods, which they're never going to be able to actually pay.

Mr. SOARIES: Well in the Bible some fellows approached Jesus and asked Jesus if he was the real thing, and Jesus said come walk with me. And he showed them the fruit of his labor, the result of his work. And then said, you decide for yourself. What crosses the line is the fruit of our labor.

T.D. Jakes happens to have more assistance available for people in prison and when they get out of prison than most denominations and so when you look at the fruit of his labor you see that prosperity which is not a bad thing. It's just a part of a larger package. But when an entire ministry is dedicated to raising more money so that it can raise more money and the only person benefitting is the person at the top, that's what I call an ecclesiastical pyramid scheme.

You know when I was coming along Michel if someone called me Reverend Ike, those were fighting words. The whole idea that a preacher would be labeled Reverend Ike suggested that he cared about himself only. Reverend Ike's mantra was that his contribution to poverty was eliminating one person from it and that person was himself. There are guys today on television that make Reverend Ike look moderate.

MARTIN: Go on, name one.

Mr. SOARIES: Robert Tilton, Robert Tilton is a so-called televangelist who was discovered to have gotten prayer requests accompanied by money and then when an investigative reporter went behind his church he found all of those prayer requests dumped unopened. The checks were cashed but the prayer requests weren't opened.


Mr. SOARIES: I just think we have got to be clear about the difference between prosperity as a holistic concept and prosperity which is essentially an ATM machine for preachers who know how to capitalize on people's pain.

MARTIN: But how would they know who is authentically interested in their well-being and who is just enriching himself, particularly people who have no financial literacy. How are they to judge?

Mr. SOARIES: You can watch certain people on television and for the entire time all they do is ask for money. You can go to some churches and they'll ask you to line up based on how much you give. And when you hear a preacher or any leader say to you, if you can't afford to pay your rent Friday you give us $1,000 today on Sunday and by Friday, God will bring all the money to your house if you need. Common sense says there's something wrong with this picture.

The fact is I'm not against prosperity ministry if by prosperity we mean teaching people the value of education, helping people live on a budget. I mean 80 percent of the American people don't live on a budget, 52 percent of black people admit that they are regularly late on paying their bills. And so when I've got people in my church driving $75,000 cars, paying 29 percent interest and they make $35,000 a year that is a fundamental problem. And rather than focus on how they can help me make more money I believe my calling is to focus on how to help them better manage their money.

MARTIN: DeForest Soaries, Jr. is senior pastor of the First Baptist Church of Lincoln Gardens in Somerset, New Jersey. And he was kind enough to kind us from his home office. Paster Soaries, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SOARIES: Thank you Michel.

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