The Pull of the Prosperity "Gospel" and the Subtlety of Evil

The Pull of the Prosperity "Gospel" and the Subtlety of Evil June 10, 2015

The Pied Peiper by Edmund Evans
The Pied Piper by Edmund Evans [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Did you know that the Lord’s Prayer can be read as “Hey, Jesus, can teach us to pray that way you do so we can get the same stuff from God that you do?”

This, among other things, is what I learned when visiting a church in Frisco in June of 2015. The newspaper article ran in the Friday, June 12, 2015. edition of the Denton Record-Chronicle is in italics below. I’ve inserted my editorial comments here, things I can’t say in the print edition.

How can I resist a place that calls itself “The Cathedral of Frisco?” The massive structure of the Elevate Life Church dominates an upper-class neighborhood in far eastern Denton County. The church website indicates a non-denominational church, founded in January 2000.

Keith and Sheila Craft are the pastors. Their clergy credentials are unknown. Keith Craft’s primary profession is a motivational speaker and CEO Coach. The Crafts’ three grown children all work on the church staff and run key ministry areas.

So we start here: Craft’s personal website indicates that he has shared the stage with the likes of Bill Clinton, Mikhail Gorbachev, Margaret Thatcher, Jerry Lewis, Bill Cosby and Goldie Hawn.  He also founded “Leadershipology” an online quote service.

So, if he is this successful as a motivational speaker and coach, why does he need to establish a church? Does he want access to all those non-taxable dollars? And who or what audits the church funds, particularly when it appears to run as a family business?

Control is the game from the moment of entry. We pull into the spot the many parking lot attendants select for us. Doors fling open as we approach the building. Trained and smiling greeters quickly establish some physical contact with all entering. I experience numerous upper arm touches before and after the performance, uhhh . . . worship.

Electronic kiosks check the children into the fanciful children’s wings, decked in rustic castle style. Adult areas reflect the same decorative scheme. The coffee shop is such a perfect knock-off of Starbucks that I am shocked to discover it is not an actual franchise. The bookstore specializes in make-up and bling jewelry for women along with a good selection of self-help books for all ages.

The center of the cavernous lobby features a roped-off area with specified entry and exit areas. Here those who seek the privilege of greeting Keith and Sheila Craft line up for a handshake and conversation after services.

As one of my companions for the day said, “It was a slick operation–and nearly perfectly done.” People are trained and ready.

We could all take lessons from this. Every message reinforced the main image: this is a good place to be. Friendly faces everywhere, all dressed in recognizable clothes and with name tags clearly identifying them.

The Starbucks knock-off blew me away. We were welcome to take any food or drink items we purchased in there into the auditorium for the service.  Everything said, “We are a highly successful place–and you want to be a part of this.”

At 8:58, the massive tiered-seating performance hall boasts several hundred people. Touchy ushers herd people into seats in the lower central sections. Side and upper areas remain darkened and unoccupied.

This seating technique results in a sense of critical mass even when the audience is too small for the space available. Church building with worship centers bigger than their current congregations would do well to adopt this technique.  Rope off the back and far side areas.

The smoke light-filled stage bursts into life at 9 am. A female vocalist dressed in sparkly-spangled tights and rock-band t-shirt prances around the stage. The camera operators ensure the worship leaders plenty of close-up screen time.

I have been wrestling for some time to differentiate between a service that is dedicated to worshiping God and one that is more like a rock concert. I’m coining the word “christiantainment” here to describe it.

Both can make extensive use of technology, cameras, expert musicians and current, heavy beat music. I’ve finally decided that it is what shows on the screens that matters.

If the screens are used to highlight the musicians, then it is probably christiantainment. If they are used to draw the worshipers into the words of the song that point to God, then we are in worship. It’s not the style; it’s the focus.

Pastor Whitney, a Craft daughter, calls a prayer team to the front. They come to stand in the gap with those who have prayer requests. Together they will come to complete agreement. That agreement compels God to give them the desires of their hearts.

OK, this is typical health/wealth/prosperity teaching. It comes from Matthew 18:19: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven [ESV].” The idea is that we can “bind” God to our agreement, and God has no choice but to grant the request. Pretty powerful stuff.

Another worship leader quotes several Bible verses. He announces that Paul, author of numerous books in the New Testament, said, “I look to Jesus the author and finisher of my faith.” That quotation is from the Book of Hebrews, Chapter 12, a book not authored by Paul.

The same person notes that it is our job to believe and God’s job to do the impossible. The speaker went to prayer.  He reminds God that His word says, “The best is yet to come.” As he prays, one of my worship companions leans over and whispers, “That is quite a list of instructions for God.” Although the words “The best is yet to come” are not to be found in the Holy Scriptures, the audience offers hearty applause at the end of the prayer.

Here is where I start getting pretty upset about the lack of an educated clergy.  I know one of the questions people are asking of mainline and shrinking denominations is whether our educational requirements are just too stringent.

The problem is that hardly anyone reads the Bible, so when someone in authority makes a pronouncement about it, most will just assume it is true. Those who teach and preach have the ability to do so very much harm by the misuse of the Scriptures. It also appears to me that many US citizens, in particular, are becoming far less literate. More and more information sources, or misinformation sources as the case may be, are video based and done in short snippets without time for nuance or alternate views.

The fact that a large percentage of Americans hold to a young earth theory boggles the mind. Many will believe what people who appear to have authority say. If those in authority also hold people tightly in their charismatic webs pretty well whatever they pronounce as true will stay unquestioned.

Too much information comes at us too fast to spend adequate time sorting it. Also, fewer people have developed the critical thinking skills to do so.

Pastor Craft roars up on a motorcycle in a video. He announces that he is believing God for a $600,000 one-time offering to build an additional parking lot. Craft has such assurance that this is the right direction that he personally guarantees the $600,000, just as he guaranteed the several million dollars needed for a previous building project. Later in his message Craft reminds those present along with his extensive TV and Internet audience that people who attend church take up parking and seat space and need to contribute to those privileges.

We then see a video of a young couple who were blessed beyond their wildest dreams by sending a lot of money that they couldn’t afford to the church.

We now may text our donations to Elevate Life Church. Instructions: enter a keyword and an amount. Suggested amount: $500. For those choosing not to text, gray plastic buckets pass from hand to hand. Ushers collect them efficiently.

I presume by now it is clear what this church is all about: getting money into the coffers, apparently all controlled by the Craft family. The pressure on the congregation to give grows exponentially during the message later.

A missions report informs the church that they have just spent $3000 to completely rebuild a house in a remote village in Mexico, elevating one family to an enviable position in the community. Mission team members also poured the concrete floor of a church.

This mission trip epitomizes the worst practices of religious tourism. These well-meaning people displace local craftsmen, leave behind shoddily done work that very well may be redone by the next religious tour group, and disrupt local social stability, possibly causing permanent damage. To learn more, read Toxic Charity.

Craft sprinkles his sermon with stand-up comedy highlights. He repeatedly emphasizes the need for every single person to step up as a giving participant at Elevate Life. He also reminds the audience that he had announced some months ago that in 2015 the Texas drought would be over. In addition, he prophesies that it is now going to start raining in California and that there will also be a spiritual revival there.

After a while, I had to stop trying to take notes during the sermon. The sermon notes contained quotes from his work, Leadershipology, with scattered references to various scripture verses, all yanked from context and reinterpreted through the lenses of “name it/claim it” and “health/wealth/prosperity” theology.

Here’s what frightened me most: there was just enough scripture, just enough “god-talk,” just enough skating near the truth to pretty well deceive anyone and particularly those without a decent biblical background and understanding of more orthodox theology. It also sounds attractive to those in the Frisco demographic: mostly house poor and possibly up to their ears in consumer debt, upwardly striving, bred on easy answers and instant solutions.

It all looks so good, so very possible. Just follow the formula. It will all be OK.

I am also aware that I’ve said something similar when I’ve also taught about giving. Everyone is capable of giving something, although money may not be an option.

I’ve taught that as we give, it frees us to receive. Now, I would mainly focus on the freedom of giving unwarranted forgiveness, relinquishing grudges and resentments.

But certainly, I know and have taught, that when I give money, it also frees me. It frees me from the love of money, it frees me to move into deep gratefulness for what I do have, for the abundance that surrounds me.

Craft touched on none of those ideas. It was all about money and all about massive volunteer hours at the church. I again got the impression that there are no staff there except the Craft family–everything else is done by volunteers. So much unaccountable money.

But again, it all looks so good and successful and so . . . American, apple pie and patriotism.

We are treated to another round of offering buckets/text our money to Elevate Life church. One of Craft’s sons gives the benediction so Craft himself can head to the roped off area to greet his many admirers.

Multiple ushers touchfully wish us a good day as we exit the building. We drive from the parking lot under the watchful eyes of the friendly attendants. The same parking lot shall soon fill to capacity in preparation for the next service.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been shocked by the second offering, but I was. This place is all about the money. But people come in droves.

After a quick lunch, I drove back to the campus before the next service was over and wandered through the vast parking lot. There were five empty spaces, and some cars were in an overflow lot.

People are eating this stuff up. They think it is truth.

I think it is the most evil place I have ever seen. I say that because the amount of deception going on there boggles the mind. And it is extraordinarily difficult to see.

Several years ago, I preached a series of sermons using characters from the Harry Potter books as case studies in seeking to discern the difference between good and evil. Rarely it is black and white.

Far, far more often, evil expertly masquerades itself into something that looks good and desirable. More, it will be tangibly achievable. Ultimately, it will quietly and fully replace the call to be holy as God is holy and finally devour the soul in its unquenchable hunger.

C.S. Lewis in his book The Screwtape Letters describes the exquisite subtlety of evil better than I am able. But this church, this so-called “Cathedral of Frisco” lives it out.

And it is successful by any human count of numbers and noses.

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