Mega Churches, Mutual Funds, and the Sin of Omission
Recently I visited a mega-church. Not that the church my family and I regularly attend is small, with 1800 members, but I had heard this really big church was really on fire and the happenin’ place to be. I’d also heard it had a reputation for espousing the “prosperity gospel” which says, in essence, “God wants you to be rich,” so thought I’d check it out.
Upon arriving I discovered a couple of things right away. First, the church was quite large. It seemed to cover an entire city block. Second, the feeling there was energetic and upbeat — some of the energy might be attributable to caffeine output from the latte stand in the lobby, but mostly it came from the combination of cheerful people, bright colors and upbeat music.
Speaking of music, when the worship band began playing I was astounded not only by the number of musicians and singers, but by the incredible talent displayed. It reminded me of hearing the band “Chicago” in concert; a full rhythm section, horn section, auxiliary percussion and eight vocalists all performing flawlessly. Being a musician, this alone was almost enough to make me join the church, but I figured I’d better hear what the preacher had to say, first.
After a lot of great music and singing, and following various announcements, the pastor ascended the podium and began his sermon. Actually, “conversation” would be a more accurate description. He is an excellent speaker and it almost felt as if he were talking directly to me — just having an informal, one-on-one chat. I was very impressed with how he spoke. Using humor and anecdotes, he was eminently engaging and his points were crystal clear. He is perhaps one of the best communicators I’ve ever heard.
As he continued, however, I became aware of his using what can only be described as sales techniques. Years ago when I began my working career, I worked on straight commission so one of the first things I had to learn was how to overcome objections. One effective method is to anticipate objections a client might raise and address them first. By dealing with the objection before the client does, it’s possible to frame the conversation in a way to help achieve the desired outcome. If a salesperson is ethical, this does nothing more than help the client fully understand what he or she is buying. However, this technique can also be used to manipulate.
For example, the preacher opined to the congregation,
“So many people think all we talk about here is money; money, money, money.”
He then went on to say the word “money” is used more times in the Bible than any other word, and if people don’t understand that they must not be reading their Bible enough!
I analyzed what was said and realized what had happened. He had raised the objection: Too much emphasis on money. He had overcome the objection: Money is mentioned a lot in the Bible so it’s OK to talk a lot about it. Then, and here’s the interesting part, he effectively silenced anyone who might want to raise that objection by subtly inferring it would only be a problem for uneducated, Biblically-illiterate fools. Subconsciously, the listeners think to themselves, “He’s right; money is mentioned a lot in the Bible and I read my Bible and am not a fool, so therefore, he must be correct.”
I heard other sales techniques as well, such as what salespeople call “tie downs.” A tie down is an affirming question at the end of a statement which leads the recipient to agree. For example, you enjoy reading this article, don’t you? The points I’m making are valid, aren’t they? This is the best article you’ve ever read, isn’t it? You find yourself wanting to agree with these statements, right?
It’s common knowledge that in order to get someone to buy something, you should get them to say “yes” at least three times before asking for the sale. By loading the sermon with tie-downs the pastor had everyone nodding in unison by the end of the hour — just in time to pass the offering plate. After all, God loves a cheerful giver, doesn’t He?
I was also bothered by some of the questionable financial habits suggested. For example, the pastor told his flock he was going to take out a second mortgage so he could give more to help the church’s new building fund. I’ve read the Bible many times, and nowhere do I remember seeing debt characterized as a good thing. I do recall seeing a lot about stewardship. Somehow, giving more of one’s house to the bank instead of one’s family doesn’t seem to be a prudent way of managing the property God has entrusted to us.
Again with the objection overcoming: The pastor said people might find it strange to go into debt to give to the church, but that since God honors giving and can reciprocate with unlimited resources, who are we to think we can out-give God? I respond to this skewed logic with a quote from a friend of mine, who also is a pastor,
“God doesn’t bless stupidity.”
It’s not that the entire sermon was wrong. In fact, I figure about 70% of what was said was absolutely true, uplifting and helpful. 20% was debatable, but not necessarily harmful, but 10% was questionable, at best.
The overall message that day in church was “Serving the Lord will result in material wealth.” This is a feel-good message for sure, but unfortunately it doesn’t square with scripture. There are certainly examples of wealthy Bible characters, but some led good lives while others were evil. The bigger problem with the premise is there are a number of prominent, God-serving individuals in the Bible who were poor. Oops!
And yet, this church is growing. It’s huge. It’s single-Sunday Easter offering was expected to be one MILLION dollars. That’s right; a million bucks in one plate passing. If the theology was so problematic, how could the church continue to be so successful?
Here is where mutual funds come in. In the world of mutual fund analysis there is a phenomenon called “survivorship bias.” Over time, mutual funds that under-perform are often liquidated or merged with other, more successful funds. When a universe of funds is rated over long periods of time, the overall performance tends to look better than it should, because the underperforming funds are no longer being considered — they’re omitted! This may lead investors to have an overly-optimistic view of investing.
In the same way, churchgoers who attend the prosperity-gospel-preaching churches can only experience three changes once they begin hearing the message. 1) Their financial situation can improve, 2) their financial situation can stay the same, or 3) their financial situation can worsen.
Much like the under-performing mutual funds, those who experience financial decline while hearing the message that good Christians will be wealthy will surely get discouraged and/or angry and leave the church. I would argue the same is probably true for many of the ones whose situation stays the same. After all, if they were really doing the right thing wouldn’t their financial situation improve?
That leaves the people whose wealth does begin to increase. For them, the prosperity message rings true, regardless of why they might actually be seeing financial improvement. This group of congregants continues to reinforce the same message over and over by sharing all the wonderful material blessings they are receiving since attending the church. The survivorship bias analogy works — only the successful remain. The underperformers gradually disappear.
The bottom line? Paul said it best; “I have learned to be content in plenty and in want…” The trick isn’t to do right so you can make loads of money. The trick is to do right no matter what and be thankful, whether or not money is the result.