Cult or Christianity? World Changers promises financial blessings to the faithful, but many leave disillusioned by Rick Sherrell
After many of her family members joined World Changers Church International under the charismatic leadership of the Rev. Creflo A. Dollar Jr., Florence Duncan decided to give it a try. But what Duncan says she found was closer to a cult than to Christianity.
“It’s horrible, just absolutely horrible. My whole nuclear family is in this thing except me,” says Duncan, a devout Christian whose distress and exasperation over the situation is evident in her tone. “I’m the only odd man out.”
World Changers is one of the fastest-growing churches in the nation. Founded in an elementary school 11 years ago, the church is now forced to hire shuttle bus drivers and police officers to accommodate its Sunday services crowd. The church’s $7 million dome on Burdette Road in College Park is the largest church building in the Atlanta area.
Many of its 15,000 members, among them Duncan’s family, have been caught up in the promise of prosperity. And the promise of worldly riches says Duncan, a graduate of Atlanta Christian College who is working on her masters at Southern Christian University in Montgomery, Alabama, is “just Humanism dressed up in Christian clothes.”
The message of the “Prosperity Gospel,” which World Changers teaches, is simple: “You can be rich, healthy and trouble free. Jesus was rich and God wants you to be rich.” One look at the church’s facility, called the World Dome, is enough to convince you that it works — for somebody.
Sunday morning at the cavernous dome can be a moving experience. An army of ushers direct you to your seat in a state-of-the-art auditorium that is devoid of traditional church pews and instead, sports 8,000 plush theater-style seats. White collection buckets can be found alongside each aisle. The church’s bookstore is filled with books touting prosperity such as, “Confession Brings Possession,” and “How To Bring Home The Wealth.”
Of course, the prosperity message is not just limited to World Changers. Two of the movement’s elder leaders, Fred Price and Kenneth Copeland, can be viewed on a total 420 television stations worldwide and have published 67 books.
But some religious observers say the Prosperity Gospel is out of sync with the substance of Jesus’ teachings, which emphasizes selflessness and spiritual virtue.
J.R. Hudson was a member of World Changers for five years and graduated from their school of ministry. But his quest for true knowledge of the scriptures caused him to stray from the fold and persuaded him that the teachings were anti-scriptural.
Hudson contends that the Prosperity Gospel takes advantage of people who are not grounded in Biblical teachings. It tells them they can be wealthy and always healthy and never have problems.
But Hudson says the only one prospering is Dollar, who wears expensive suits, drives a Rolls Royce and owns his own Lear jet to whisk him across the country spreading his message of prosperity. According to Dollar’s teachings, if he didn’t look prosperous, how could he gain more followers?
Such thinking is one of the reasons both Duncan and Hudson call the movement a cult.
“The leader of a cult is generally someone very charismatic,” says Duncan. She characterizes him as charismatic, manipulative and with so much personality that his word carries more than the Bible’s — although members would deny that.
The other sticky issue is the enormous pressure the church places on members to tithe, or give ten percent of their earnings to the church. Unlike traditional churches, many of which also encourage tithing, World Changers goes further by tracking its members’ tithing records through membership numbers and computer records. Those who don’t tithe in accordance with the pledge signed during new member orientation are ostracized from the church’s ministries. You can attend the church, but you can’t participate in any of its official business.
Hudson says members are also taught that failure to tithe will result in the devil wrecking your car or something else terrible happening to you. Everything bad — and good — that happens in a believer’s life is attributed to whether or not the believer tithed properly.
The Rev. Marque Payne, author of “Tithing: The Truth About It,” has conducted Christian Finance conferences throughout the South and studied over 1,000 scriptures involving Christian finances. He says that what World Changers teaches is not what the Bible teaches.
“It is literally another gospel,” he writes. “The Bible makes it clear that you cannot serve two Gods — God and Mammon. Mammon being greed and the desire for materialistic things above everything else.”
Hudson describes Dollar as a very sincere, compassionate, strong-willed man who loves his family. “If you knew him you’d like him,” he says. “I don’t have anything bad that I can say about him personally…. He’s very sincere. He thinks he’s right. There’s a whole lot of people who think that but the thing is you can be sincere and be sincerely wrong.”
Hudson says that Dollar leads a very insulated life surrounded by what’s called Personal Pastor’s Assistants, or PPAs. In laymen’s terms that’s bodyguards. Those PPAs train both physically and technically in the tactics used by the Secret Service.
“People can’t just readily walk up and talk to him,” says Hudson. “Especially on his way to the pulpit no one is allowed to touch him because they might disturb the anointedness on his life. He’s supposedly so Godly he can’t be touched.”
Dollar also teaches that his word is beyond reproof. “They even use scripture to support that they shouldn’t be corrected in any way,” says Hudson.
Payne says that the notion that church leaders shouldn’t be questioned or corrected is one of the key characteristics of cults.
“The foundations of a cult are don’t question, don’t speak out of turn, don’t go study for yourself outside of the guidelines that they give you,” Payne says.
Duncan agrees that the followers are brainwashed by Dollar’s teachings.
“When someone does criticize them they come out strong against them calling them devils and the like,” says Hudson. “Word of Faith ministers are not going to respond to media or critics or anything like that. They’re pretty much focused in on their own little deal and their teachings.”
The Rev. T.A. Body of One Accord Community Church also hosts a daily radio talk show on WGUN which addresses the issues of false doctrine. He says that people call in by the thousands who have left the teachings of World Changers.
“I’ve asked him [Dollar] for a public debate but he won’t give it to me,” says Body. “I’ve asked him to even call into my show and correct me if I’m wrong. He hasn’t ever asked me to call him and correct him. Because I certainly would.”
Body says that Dollar constantly teaches his congregation that they can be just like him. “The person who works at McDonalds cannot expect to be the president of a bank by that message,” he says. “He lives in a very high lifestyle and he tells the members you can acquire this kind of lifestyle if you have faith in God.”
Hudson says the emperor has no clothes. “He’s riding to church in a Rolls Royce and flying a Lear jet across the country and here these people are still riding buses. They’re not getting any wealthier. Look in the parking lot. There’s too many beat up cars.”
“I thought it could work,” says Demetrius King a former member. “It sounds good and you would want it to work. It’s as simple as one, two three — tithe and you will prosper.” King’s financial situation didn’t get any better and he left the church disillusioned.
“It leaves a person spiritually bankrupt and empty trying to use formulas that do not work,” says Payne. “It leaves a person wondering in a daze and having to reassess their whole belief in what Christianity is.”
“World Changers teaches a theology and doctrine that people want to hear,” says Duncan. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to prosper, but to present that as the central core of the teachings of Christianity is a deception and lie. I’d say that they would have just about as much chance of gaining abundant prosperity by purchasing a lottery ticket.”