As Jesus once said, “Blessed are rich pastors, for they deserve a private jet.”
Wait, no he didn’t. But that’s essentially the message Creflo Dollar, a prominent mega-pastor in College Park, Georgia, wants his congregants to believe.
In March, the website for World Changers Church International, Dollar’s church, launched Project G650, a campaign to purchase the 53-year-old pastor a Gulfstream G-650 luxury jet valued at roughly $65 million dollars. Dollar (yes, that’s his actual name) reportedly already owned a private plane, but encouraged members of his church — which claims around 30,000 congregants, not including thousands of online followers — to buy him a new one.
“The mission of Project G650 is to acquire a Gulfstream G650 airplane so that Pastors Creflo and Taffi [his wife] and World Changers Church International can continue to blanket the globe with the Gospel of grace,” the website read, according to the Christian Post. “We are believing for 200,000 people to give contributions of 300 US dollars or more to turn this dream into a reality — and allow us to retire the aircraft that served us well for many years.”
Unsurprisingly, the incident shocked many outsiders and received a flurry of negative coverage. Dollar, who was also arrested in 2012 after his 15-year-old daughter accused him of punching and choking her, responded to the criticism in a sermon, declaring “If I want to believe God for a $65 million plane, you cannot stop me. You cannot stop me from dreaming.”
Dollar eventually removed the request for donations from his website, presumably due to mounting pressure. But CBS News brought up the issue again this week, because Dollar is reportedly still seeking donations for the plane. Church officials continue to defend the campaign, arguing the jet will be used for ministry purposes.
“…[A]ll of the ministry’s revenues go to ‘charity’ and/or ministry, with the exception of the salaries and benefits for some 400 employees ministry-wide,” a representative told CBS.
Dollar’s request may sound bizarre, but it’s in line with an increasingly popular brand of theology that shores up his and other large churches across the country — namely, the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a peculiar school of Christian thought that has long been lambasted by conservatives and liberal Christians for its focus on individual wealth. The spiritual movement has proven to be wildly successful at winning converts, and is championed by an elite crew of prominent pastors such as Randy White, Kenneth Copeland, and Joel Osteen, whose Lakewood Church claims to be the largest Protestant church in the United States. But while the prosperity message is rooted in a smattering of biblical teachings, it shifts traditional concepts of tithing in ways that directly benefit the leader of a church: if someone believes hard enough, prosperity gospel preachers argue, God will enrich them, and since giving to the church is seen as a sign of piety, congregants should put as much money as possible into the collection plate on Sunday — money that usually goes directly to the pastor.
This partly explains why some of Dollar’s congregants are already coming to his defense, with one parishioner — who rides the bus to church every Sunday — telling CBS: “The work that he’s doing, where the Lord has him traveling, he doesn’t need a cheap airplane. He needs the best.”
But the movement’s obsession with affluence isn’t always convincing, and has set off alarm bells with both faith leaders and lawmakers. Dollar and five other prosperity gospel preachers were subject to a federal investigation led by Senator Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and the Senate Finance Committee in 2007, which sought to root out possible financial improprieties and tax violations in their churches. But the probe was abruptly halted in 2011, primarily because ministers refused to work with officials, who said Dollar was the “least cooperative” of the pastors under review.
Christians of all theological stripes have also blasted the movement. Progressive faith leaders such as Rachel Held Evans, Cornel West, and even Islam scholar Reza Aslan have long accused its leaders of using the Bible to exploit the poor. Meanwhile, Russell Moore, President of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has specifically criticized Dollar for his jet solicitation, saying his actions and teachings are “a barrier to racial reconciliation.” Moore is joined by other evangelical Christian leaders such as Rick Warren, Albert Mohler, Jerry Falwell, and influential thinker John Piper, who called prosperity preaching “deceitful and deadly.”
Yet despite this criticism, prosperity gospel preachers continue to attract massive crowds on Sundays, including some politicians. E.W. Jackson, onetime candidate for Lieutenant Governor of Virginia, regularly preaches prosperity gospel sermons and even wrote a religious book on the subject, saying “While giving to the poor is important, the most powerful giving for wealth building is upward giving.”