Pastor Paul Crouch calls it "God's economy of giving," and here is how it works:
People who donate to Crouch's Trinity Broadcasting Network will reap financial blessings from a grateful God. The more they give TBN, the more he will give them.
Being broke or in debt is no excuse not to write a check. In fact, it's an ideal opportunity. For God is especially generous to those who give when they can least afford it.
"He'll give you thousands, hundreds of thousands," Crouch told his viewers during a telethon last November. "He'll give millions and billions of dollars."
Preachers who pass the hat while praising the Lord have long been the stuff of ridicule in film and fiction. But for Crouch and his Orange County-based television ministry, God's economy of giving is no laughing matter. It brings a rich bounty, year after year.
Crouch has used a doctrine called the "prosperity gospel" to underwrite a worldwide broadcasting network and a life of luxury for himself and his family.
For at least a century, preachers have plied the notion that dropping money in the collection plate will bring blessings from God -- material as well as spiritual. But Crouch, through inspired salesmanship and advanced telecommunications technology, has converted this timeworn creed into a potent financial engine.
TBN collects more than $120 million a year from viewers of its Christian programming -- more than any other TV ministry. Those donations have fueled its rise from a rented studio in Santa Ana to a global broadcasting system whose programs appear on thousands of channels -- via satellite, cable and over-the-air broadcasts -- in a dozen languages.
The network's donors also help fund generous salaries for Crouch ($403,700 a year) and his wife, Jan ($361,000), and an array of perks, including a TBN-owned jet and 30 homes across the country, among them a pair of Newport Beach mansions and a ranch in Texas.
The prosperity gospel is rooted in the idea that God wants Christians to prosper and that believers have the right to ask him for financial gifts. TBN has woven this notion into its round-the-clock programming as well as the thousands of fund-raising letters it mails every day.
During one telethon, Crouch, 70, told viewers that if they did their part to advance the Kingdom of God -- such as by donating money to TBN -- they should not be shy about asking God for a reward.
"If my heart really, honestly desires a nice Cadillac ... would there be something terribly wrong with me saying, 'Lord, it is the desire of my heart to have a nice car ... and I'll use it for your glory?' " Crouch asked. "I think I could do that and in time, as I walked in obedience with God, I believe I'd have it."
Other preachers who appear on the network offer variations on the theme that God appreciates wealth and likes to share it. One of them, John Avanzini, once told viewers that Jesus, despite his humble image, was a man of means.
"John 19 tells us that Jesus wore designer clothes," Avanzini said, referring to the purple robe that Christ's tormentors wrapped around him before the Crucifixion. "I mean, you didn't get the stuff he wore off the rack.... No, this was custom stuff. It was the kind of garment that kings and rich merchants wore."
TBN viewers are told that if they don't reap a windfall despite their donations, they must be doing something to "block God's blessing" -- most likely, not giving enough.
Crouch has particularly stern words for those who are not giving at all.
"If you have been healed or saved or blessed through TBN and have not contributed ... you are robbing God and will lose your reward in heaven," he said during a 1997 telecast.
A central element of the prosperity gospel is that no one is too poor or too indebted to donate. Bishop Clarence McClendon, a preacher whose show "Take It By Force" appears on TBN, told viewers in March that God had asked him to deliver a message to those in financial difficulty:
They should "sow a seed" by using their credit cards to make donations. In return, the Lord would see to it that the balances would be paid off within 30 days.
"Get Jesus on that credit card!" McClendon said.
Ask and Receive
Proponents of the prosperity gospel -- also known as the "name it and claim it" gospel and the "health and wealth" gospel -- point to a verse in the Hebrew Scriptures in which the Lord warns the faithful not to "rob" him by withholding their tithes:
" 'Test me in this,' says the Lord Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it.' "
E.W. Kenyon, an evangelical pastor in the first half of the 20th century, was an early and influential advocate of the idea that God would grant material wishes.
Kenyon wrote about the "power of faith" to bring health and wealth. He depicted an Almighty who not only protected his followers and forgave their sins, but handed out gifts if asked. The important thing was to ask.