A headline caught my eye this morning: "Indiana's Largest Megachurch Faces New Foreclosure Proceedings." It made me think of Steve Munsey, an Indiana prosperity preacher I watched in a Decatur, Georgia television studio in 2007, pleading for audience members and viewers to give their money to the Trinity Broadcasting Network.
As it turns out, the story is about Munsey's church, Family Christian Center, which claims to have a weekly attendance of 15,000, making it one of the largest churches in the country. According to an investigation by the NWITimes.com, a paper covering northwestern Indiana, the judge presiding over the foreclosure proceedings told attorneys in court, "When I saw some of the expenditures being made in this church when there was a mortgage not being paid, I was astounded." NWITimes reports that even as the church owed close to $100,000 a month in mortgage payments (not to mention mortgage payments on condos the church claimed to use for visiting clergy, and other unspecified bills in excess of half a million dollars), Munsey and his wife Melodye raked in "$2.9 million in total compensation from 2008 through 2011 from organizations connected to Family Christian Center, IRS records show." In all, "The church annually spent $3.5 million in leadership compensation and had a $900,000 budget for travel and meals, a $500,000 housing allowance and $500,000 for jet fuel and other expenditures, according to the transcript. In 2010, the church paid $1 million for property in Illinois, the transcript states." There's more: an IRS investigation and tax liens, for starters. You can read the whole investigative story, for which Munsey declined to be interviewed, here.
Count me as not astounded—well, not surprised, anyway. This is an old story in the prosperity gospel world. Lavish spending, compensation through a web of for-profit and non-profit entities connected with a church—these are only some of the factors that provoked a Senate Finance Committee investigation, launched by Sen. Chuck Grassley, in 2007. The investigation took more than three years but ultimately produced nothing in terms of government oversight. Instead, after pressure from the religious right, the Committee opted for "self-reform" within churches. How has that worked out?
I first became acquainted with Munsey's shtick in that little Georgia studio when I was working on my book, when he was the opening act for another later-fallen prosperity preacher, Eddie Long. It was the TBN "Praise-A-Thon," and Munsey was playing a prominent role in trying to rake in the bucks for network, which, along with its founders Paul and Jan Crouch, has been embroiled in its own controversies. Here's an excerpt:
Munsey, a middle-aged man (an "empty suit," as described to me later by someone disenchanted with the movement) with a flop of a hairpiece that looks like straw, is imploring the audience not just to make a donation but to make a "Passover offering." Seven is a biblically significant number, the number of completion and perfection, and in this spring of 2007 the Praise-a-thon began on Easter Sunday, the seventh day of Passover. If you make the Passover offering, Munsey claims, God will give you seven blessings: God will dispatch an angel to lead miracles; rid you of your enemies; bless you with prosperity; heal you; give you longevity; give you an inheritance you knew nothing about; and give you back everything the devil has stolen from you. In other words, these are the ways in which the TBN Praise-a-thon is about you and not about Paul and Jan Crouch or Steve Munsey or Benny Hinn or Eddie Long or anybody else making more money. Instead, if you give, you will be blessed in miraculous ways.
Passover has nothing to do with money, but in Munsey's hands it is about little else. Gone is the biblical story of freedom from slavery, the journey through the desert with only the unleavened bread, or the parting of the Red Sea. Instead, a donation to TBN is like the blood Jews placed on the doors of their homes so that God would "pass over" and spare their first-born sons from death. Lucretia, the woman sitting next to me, grabs my arm. "Jesus was the Passover offering," she says. "His blood." Munsey is getting more and more animated while he preaches; the audience also is animated—almost agitated—over the possibility of the blessings. Munsey takes off running up the fake stairs on the set, but they don't go anywhere. "Oh!" he exclaims, surprised. "This is a dead end!" There is some uncomfortable laughter; it's hard to imagine anyone not questioning Munsey's brainpower in thinking the stairs went somewhere. Anyone in the room can see the stairs on the set are pretend, but Munsey was clearly hoping they led somewhere from which he could make a dramatic reentry onto the stage. Instead, he trots back down and resumes preaching, undeterred.
Munsey continues to implore the audience to part with its money. "God said, don't come empty-handed," he warns. In other words, give. The audience is shouting out praise, and people are filling out their envelopes. This seems far-fetched on television, but in person, many people are having genuine spiritual experiences. Munsey is working them up, and they are being milked for their money while in a euphoric state. Suggested donation for the Passover offering: $70 a month for ten months. Phone it in, and tell the operator it's the Passover offering, and "prosperity is going to come into your life, . . . and everything that has been stolen from you will be given back."
In TBN's world, God is not compassionate to the poor, only to the faithful, and their faithfulness is measured by their offering. It doesn't matter if the audience might need their money for the rent, for medicine, for food. Munsey says—to nods and murmurs of affirmation—that God is not merciful to the needy. "God is not moved by need," he insists. "If he was, there wouldn't be any poverty. What moves God is your faith," as evidenced by your donation to TBN. If you're poor and make the Passover offering anyway, Munsey promises, God will dispatch an angel to give your boss a nightmare in the middle of the night that will make him give you a raise. "God takes your offering and magnifies it in the devil's face."
The Passover offering opens up sensational, awe-inspiring occurrences, wonders and miracles, which the revelation knowledge of a Word of Faith believer tells them can really happen. Munsey regales the crowd with a story of a woman in his church who gave the Passover offering. Her husband later needed a kidney transplant. She agreed to donate one of hers, and when the doctors opened her up, it turned out she had three kidneys. "You can speak it into existence," says Munsey. "Life and death is on our tongue." People are walking up to the stage and placing their offering envelopes on it. "TBN is an altar," says Munsey, as if people are making offerings in a biblical temple. "And when you give on this altar, God will meet you there, bless you there. . ."
How many people believed Munsey, and believed that giving him money—for his family's salaries, the car, the jet, the other excesses—would "bless" them? How many dollars did he collect by telling people that God would bless them for giving him money, that their own poverty was caused by a lack of faith and a lack of giving to him, and that God would not be merciful to them unless they demonstrated their faithfulness by giving their money to him?