by Ron Holland
I’ll begin with the premise that there’s almost NOTHING distinguishable between the so-called church and the “world.” Across the landscape of America are multimillion dollar corporate behemoths built by titans of industry – a spectacle of wealth, power and corporate prowess in the business world. Mirroring Corporate America’s girth and power is the Mega-Church. These Multimillion dollar mega facilities loom large in communities where median incomes intersect with above poverty level living standards; where smaller ministries struggle to stay technologically current and hermeneutically relevant. Distinguishing between the church and the world in this instance is a daunting task, especially when demarcation lines are blurred.
Indicative of both large and small ministries is an insatiable desire for things. The want of things is just as pronounced in the church as it is in the “world.” A celebrity preacher’s ‘$3,000 suit is similar in cost and value as the CEO of a major law firm or the hottest rapper turned business mogul. The celebrity preacher’s expensive Bentley is similarly valued in style and cost as the corporate Exec’s limited edition luxury vehicle. The multimillion dollar homes, gated communities, jet aircrafts and the bevy of other symbols of wealth are not exclusive to corporate giants, music moguls, superstar athletes and entertainers. Today’s Televangelists and celebrity preachers proudly flaunt their lavish lifestyle.
The desire for stuff is now an intrinsic part of ministry – especially where celebrity exponents of the gospel are concerned. Apologists for celebrity preachers will quickly suggest that the “Man of God” deserves to live well, prosper and enjoy similar financial trappings as Jay-Z, and P Diddy. This is an interesting defense when you consider the fact that the majority of his or her congregation will not enjoy a similar lifestyle. These apologists will scour the scriptures to affirm their position. Unfortunately what usually follows are convoluted hermeneutics that not only blur the lines between the church and the world, but there’s a cynical juxtaposition that creates scriptural confusion.
Take for example the new “reality” show, ‘Preachers of LA.’ The show is a fascinating display of vanity, materialism and self-aggrandizement. And if upcoming episodes are an indication, it won’t be long before sex and carnality filters through the religiosity. And let me be frank, the show is NO different than other so-called reality shows where drama and conflict are a staple and is used to tease viewers for upcoming episodes.
I’m willing to bet that if the main thrust of the show was ministry and the work of Christ, it would be relegated to a cable channel that caters to a strictly religious audience. What towers over the pretense of ministry in ‘Preachers of LA’ is drama, conflict and the incessant showcase of stuff; the Mansions, cars, money; multimillion dollar edifice and celebrity. And for those of you not familiar with the intricacies of television production, the slick use of the Final Cut Pro television production software; where B-Roll footage is slowed and sped up at certain points during filming is a cynical, yet sloppy attempt to glamorize cast members. And each of the ministers are willing participants in their own glamorization.
Now, let me suggest that there’s nothing inherently wrong with being wealthy. However, when the glamorization of wealth intersects with ministry, what emerge is a cynical justification of why preachers live well and the majority of the congregation struggle with basic needs. During the first episode of ‘Preachers of LA,’ the cast tried mightily to justify their lifestyle by castigating people whose critique of the Prosperity Gospel conflicts with their perspective.
Cast member, Jay Haizlip cited Abraham’s wealth and business acumen to support the notion that God desires for his preachers to have material and financial wealth. As expected, there was consensus among the group of ministers that Haizlip’s example affirms their position. What these ministers conveniently neglect to mention are the bevy of biblical passages that excoriates the rich. They also neglected to provide Jesus’ perspective on this issue. “And again I say unto you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”
Admittedly, the biblical passages that don’t speak fondly of the rich relates to issues of the heart, personal motivation and how the poor are treated. When Jesus speaks of the poor, there’s a clear preference for people that are on the periphery of society. This is reflected in Jesus’ telling of the story of the rich man and Lazarus found in the Book of Luke. In the story, the rich man’s wealth and selfish-individualism is rejected. When both he and Lazarus die, it’s Lazarus that is resting comfortably in Abraham’s bosom while the rich man is languishing in eternal torment begging for a drop of water. The scriptures are replete with examples of negative and positive aspects of wealth and poverty. This is an inconvenient truth the ‘Preachers of LA’ and other proponents of the Prosperity Gospel intentionally ignore.
The good that could have emerged from the first show, i.e. “salvation” of the gang members, was obscured by the narcissistic celebrity that not on plagues the so-called Black Church, but is infecting ministries of all stripes and sizes. I was especially fascinated with the contentious exchange between Deitrick Haddon and Clarence McClendon.
Although Deitrick Haddon has to iron out his own contradictions, it’s fundamentally clear that the argument between Haddon and McClendon reflects the kind of convoluted hermeneutics that confuse and confound the larger body of Christians. How easy it is to twist scripture to fit an agenda and justify an action. Haddon’s criticism of McClendon and his ilk is on target. Does the so-called anointing stop at churches that can afford McClendon’s presence? While McClendon’s defensive posture and condescension of Haddon made for good TV drama, it simply highlights why folks are turned off by the church.
The dispute between Haddon and McClendon centers on a few essential questions that McClendon and the other preachers danced around: Does the anointing stop at churches that can afford McClendon’s presence? Should there be a fee for the gospel? Would Jesus have charged a fee for his presence?
I certainly wouldn’t suggest that preachers not be paid. Many of them have dedicated their lives to ministry. It’s their life’s work. And of course, when they travel around the country, they’re leaving their families. They most certainly deserve something for their time and effort. But in the case of celebrity preachers, these fees can be exorbitant at least for smaller ministries that would most certainly welcome their presence.
This boils down to character. And McClendon’s smug attitude toward Haddon’s inquiry demonstrates why people are so turned off by church. Are McClendon and other celebrity preachers sending a message to smaller ministries that unless they meet some expensive honorarium, they will not be blessed with their “anointing” or presence? McClendon’s reaction revealed a lot. HERE’S AN EXCERPT OF THE EXCHANGE BETWEEN HADDON, MCCLENDON AND BISHOP RON GIBSON:
“So if someone says we don’t have any budget, we just want you to come Bishop,” asked Haddon. “Why don’t you come alone, we don’t want your musician we don’t want your other people,” asked Gibson. McClendon’s response: “Well, you don’t want me. If you want MY ministry, you need what I bring.”
Yep, McClendon’s response speaks volumes. What we’re expected to see from upcoming episodes of ‘Preachers of LA are a lot more drama, a huge dose of conflict and a sharper focus on the glitz, glamour and the lucrative career of ministry. Without delving too deeply into the second episode, it’s safe to say that each of the Ministers continue to vacillate between ministry and their strong yearning for stuff.
While McClendon complains that his critics don’t know him personally, it’s his actions, attitude and arrogance that’s on full display. Some of the show’s defenders suggest that we’re getting a peek into the humanity of people that are all too often put on a high perch. My hang up has never been a lack of recognition of their humanity; it’s their slick use of scripture that offends me. They are undermining the message of Christ by blurring the lines between ministry and the carnal nature of reality television.
It’s instructive to know that the Producers of ‘Preachers of LA’ are not interested in the Gospel of Christ, their interest lies solely in ratings. And if that means exploiting Deitrick Haddon’s contradictions or stoking conflict between cast members, the Producers are going to do their job.
If the thrust of the show is simply about the humanity of each of these preachers, the question we must ask ourselves is why is it important to know about their foibles, proclivities and contradictions? Is it really about their humanity? Or is there something about their money, material possessions and the drama in each of their lives?
Jesus is said to have been both human and divine. Is it necessary that we know that Jesus blew his nose, scratched himself and used the bathroom? Is it necessary to know that Jesus trimmed his finger nails, brushed his teeth and wiped himself? Is it necessary to know that Jesus may have had an eye for Mary Magdalene? How did Jesus really feel about meeting Nicodemus in the middle of the night instead of during the day for all to see? HERE’S THE POINT: There’s a reverence for the office each of these guys hold. Each of these Ministers has a responsibility to maintain the integrity of their office. What we’ve seen thus far is an abdication of that responsibility and it’s quite a shame.
Ron Holland is the host of the Public Affairs show, ‘COMMUNITY VOICES’ on WPZS -100.9 & 92.7 FM, Charlotte. He’s also a Producer and Board Operator for WOSF – Old School 105.3 FM. Ron is also a Production Assistant with all three stations.