With houses of worship in Atlanta, New York City, Australia, Europe, Nigeria, South Africa, and Britain, World Changers Church International is one of the largest and fastest-growing churches in the nation. Led by Pastor Creflo A. Dollar, a flamboyant African-American preacher, WCCI has some 25,000 members and an annual budget of more than $70 million.
His message, known as "prosperity gospel," implores followers to enrich themselves in every way, spiritually and financially, through the teachings of his church. Indeed, Pastor Dollar, whom critics have dubbed Pass The Dollar and Cashflow Dollar for his ostentatious displays of wealth, is not shy about his success. He owns two Roll-Royces and flies the country in a Gulfstream-3 private jet.
Fellow Atlanta ministers, schooled in the humble tradition of Reverend Martin Luther King, have criticized the 43-year-old Dollar for putting money before ministry. WCCI members can tithe online by setting up automatic account withdrawals managed by the church.
But Dollar's message is resonating with many evangelicals, especially poor blacks drawn to the idea of pulling themselves out of poverty because the Bible willed it so. A new church in rented space in New York's Madison Square Garden has drawn 5,000 members in the last three months. WCCI is adding between 2,000 and 3,000 members per year. It will soon launch a Spanish-language church led by a Mexican priest, targeted at Atlanta's booming Hispanic immigrant population.
BusinessWeek correspondent Brian Grow sat down with Dollar in his Atlanta offices to find out what "prosperity gospel" means and how seeking wealth is part of the holy bargain.
Q: How did you decide that prosperity gospel was your calling?
A:I grew up poor. I came from the ghetto of College Park [a suburb on the south side of Atlanta]. When I became a born-again Christian, the Bible appeared to be the book that addressed every other problem. It addressed the problem of depression, marriage, family, character, integrity. I figured there has to be something in here about how to conduct yourself where money is concerned.
We teach people what the Bible has to say about the spirit, family, marriage. But now we have found all of these scriptures where the Bible talks about finances. The Bible talks more about money than it talks about heaven. I really believe with all my heart that it was my calling in life to teach people about total life prosperity -- including money.
I began to teach people on welfare and in ghettos. We have a mentoring program where we put people in low income areas, and they literally walk people out of their situation by changing the way they think. If you can change the way a man thinks, you can change a man.
If he is thinking according to the Word, then he will begin to prosper. We teach the Biblical principles of prosperity. Some of these people now own their own business, are making six-figure salaries.
Q: How do you measure the success of the Church?
A:Success is when you can accomplish the will of God for your life. If you're not doing what God called you to do but you've gained a lot of material things, that's not necessarily successful.
Q: Describe your faith-management philosophy.
A:You should have people who are professional, able, and faithful. We don't like to see things like the Little House on the Prairie Church where the preacher shows up and preaches a sermon, but when problems come up, all we want to do is pray for people. People are not just looking for a handout, but a hand-up.
Q: Is there any one segment that you have identified as key potential members to target?
A:Middle-aged black women. At the same time, as a predominantly black ministry, when we go on the road, we see a high incidence of whites in our ministry, too. We're getting ready to start a Spanish church, too. It has 60 members and will be led by a preacher from Mexico.
We interpret in Portuguese and French and Spanish on Sunday. We're going from being a predominantly black church to having more whites and ethnic groups.
Q: What's the racial breakdown?
A:It's probably 80% blacks and 5% to 6% whites, with the rest from other ethnic groups. Maybe at one point our society felt it wasn't comfortable or couldn't learn anything from a black man. I think maybe that is changing.
Q: What were revenues for the church in 2004?
A:They were a little more than $70 million.
Q: How much of the $70 million goes back to members in a year?
A:Most of it does. It takes money to pay staff, have services, to provide the 60 ministries that we have. Thirty million dollars goes into television each year. It takes money to impact lives.
Every year, we pay $57,000 to have this church audited by the largest audit firm around -- Grant Thornton. We give our members the opportunity to come to the accounting department to look at the books. If you're going to ask people to trust you, then you're going to have to do things that will make it easy for them to trust you.
Q: Catholic priests and other ministers have taken vows of poverty or vowed to live meekly. There is a model of your G3 jet in your office. Why are you so open about taking advantage of the wealth this church has given you?
A:Because the Bible says so. It's amazing the number of people who say they read the Bible, and I think, "What are you reading?" The Bible makes it so very clear: Preach the Gospel to the poor. What's the Gospel to the poor? You don't have to be poor anymore!
The Bible says in Psalms 35 and 37 that God takes pleasure in the prosperity of his servants. Poverty is a curse. We have tried to equate humility and poverty, but it's just not sound. It's a curse. Jesus came to set us free from the curse of the law. Sin, death, sickness, and poverty are parts of that curse.
One of the things that I want to do is make sure that I am practicing what I preach. It is so important. My church gave me a Rolls-Royce. I would never spend that much money on a Rolls-Royce for several reasons.
But when your church congregation -- 20,000 at that time -- come to you and say, "Pastor, we want you to drive the best," I'm not going to turn that down. It would be a dishonor to the people that gave it to me.
Edited by Patricia O'Connell