Strategy & MarketingChristian Media

Giving to Get: A Prosperity Update

Many TV pastors and evangelists are rich because of greed. But not their greed. It’s our greed. An earlier generation donated money to help those in need. Growing up, my mother taught us about those “less fortunate” and we gave because the Bible expressed great concern about the poor and suffering. But as I grew up, a concept came along that turned giving on its head.

“Seed faith” teaching transformed everything we knew about raising money. The original concept was actually Biblical – based on planting a seed and expecting a harvest. But it completely changed our attitudes toward giving. For the first time we weren’t giving money to help others, we were giving to help ourselves.

The idea caught on, and with the instant global reach of Christian radio and television, it spread like wildfire. Not since the days in the early 16th century when the Catholic Church sold indulgences (paying money for forgiveness of sins for you or your dead loved ones) has the cash rolled in and church leaders lived in such luxury. Johann Tetzel, the most aggressive of the Dominican friars selling indulgences had a saying. “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the rescued soul from purgatory springs.” It doesn’t sound that different from today’s “Plant a seed to meet your need.”

As the teaching grew, less trained pastors and leaders mixed in errors until some preachers created entire ministries around having a “financial anointing.” And they were in high demand during telethons for their ability to raise money on TV.

But that was OK. By then, we had all become trained to believe that giving wasn’t about helping others, it was about helping ourselves. So it didn’t really matter if the preacher spent the money on luxury living. God was going to bless us, and that was all that mattered.

But no matter what you believe about it, the question is, 40 years later, where does that leave us?

On the plus side, it’s built some massive outreaches. There’s little question that incredible influx of money created many of today’s major ministries, colleges, churches, and TV networks.   That’s a good thing.

On the downside, we created a generation addicted to the rush. This audience (and I use that word on purpose) now has to feed their addiction with gimmicks. They race to conferences looking for a “fresh anointing,” as ministries desperately create more and more “Jesus junk” fundraising offers. The cycle never stops.  Because when you give to get, you have to get something even greater next time around.

And now, something new is on the horizon. We’re facing a generation that isn’t so addicted.  Younger people today have seen the excesses of giving to get, and want nothing to do with it. They’d rather help a cause driven by U2’s Bono, than a TV evangelist. They just want to make a difference.

So major churches and ministries are caught in the middle. Right now, a significant group of givers are still looking for gimmicks like prayer cloths, anointing oil, and little packets of seeds. But that group is dying, and a new generation is coming.

In that light, from a very real perspective, giving to get has not served us well in the long term, and although many of these TV evangelists live in personal luxury, many of their churches and ministries are now deeply in debt.  And I won’t kid you – the transition to the next generation of givers will be painful.  And only if pastors and ministry leaders put their teaching in balance, and teach people the real purpose for giving, will they survive.

Let’s re-think giving to get, and start giving for the right reasons. Looking inward only feeds the addiction, but looking outward can actually change the world.

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  1. I'm not so sure about Bono's (RED) method. It's certainly still a "give to get" method, just not in the traditional sense. People are buying a (RED) product to give. Sort of a "Get to Give", to flip your words. The whole Campaign is built around buying cool products from cool people & companies. I think it would be on the track you're talking about if Bono's campaign got people to give, without anything in return. Think about how effective a campaign would be when they get $250, they don't have to send Apple $240 to cover the cost of the iPod, and only $10 goes to the non-profit.


    I am definitely a big fan of their ability to think outside the box (for full disclosure, I'm totally against the (RED) campaign) but I do not think their method is what you're shooting for when we're trying to figure out how we get the next generation (or even the current generations) to give freely without expecting something in return.


    We're still not there.

  2. Very well stated and this articulates several concerns I've had first as a Student in what could have been called (and may yet for all I know) Seed Faith University (Oral Roberts University) and continue to have from a distance today.

    If you'll forgive me for waxing academic, some of this ties into Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.  People generally tend to be motivated by the most basic need they have currently and once that need is satisified they move up to the next priority as long as that basic need remains met.

    Giving, as Christ taught and modelled it was to come from a sacrificial lifestyle that demonstrated love for God and one's neighbor.  It was a counter-culture and counter-self message that came from a life which elevated the spiritual over the material.

    From the practical point of ministry the problem with that is that there are relatively very few people who have the means and the motivation to give on that basis.

    Enter seed faith.  Through butchering many Biblical passages (3 John 2 for example) the idea is promoted that giving is a means for personal gain and blessing which will be financial first and the spiritual element is downplayed.  Now there's a hook for those who feel financial need (which is practically universal and frankly the more people acquire the more they feel they need) and the good old deadly sin of greed is dressed up in holy robes and trotted out to people who want to believe that God is glorified by their having a fat bank account and the latest model car in their driveway. 

    "American Dream, meet pop theology."

    Generational values swing on roughly 40 year cycles.  It's encouraging to me on the one hand that materialism and greed is being seen more clearly for what it is.  What is not clear however is that this Christian value is going to be identified clearly with the message of Christ in this post-modern culture.  In some ways, the church that many in our culture know and see, is represented by the media image that has been utilized for the seed faith message.  So, the messages going counter-culture to that are landing in New Age movements, rock stars and secular humanism.

    The more I observe and learn from tracking this blog and reconciling my own reading and past experiences, the more I'm becoming convinced that it's not enough just to be successful in the media by latching onto the gimmicks and tools of the trade, there has to be a grounding and value system tied to the message and the organization presenting it to maintain balance and to guard against compromising the long term message for short term success.

    The more I see, the more I'm becoming convinced that it's a mistake to have too far a degree of separation between the media ministries and the local church.

    That might make me something of a radical in the eyes of some.

  3.  As a fundraiser in this marketplace, this movement makes my job harder each year.

    I disagree that it is a large segment of Christians, even the older ones, who go for the wild up front prayer cloths, oil, etc. anymore.   (My personal favorite was a shower cap with a hand traced on it–place it on your head, place your hand thus…)

    More it is transaction giving.  "Here is $35, I want $35 worth of tapes, books, etc. " "Here is $20," like PBS, "I want to watch, so I give."

    It's still "me" focused.  The segment of people who care about the lost, the dying, etc…those are a small crowd and like Phil, I fear will get smaller.

    Today's ministries need to be working to teach and move their donors to a place of caring and compassion, a place beyond themselves.

    It starts with the database and knowing who is who…moving people as people (not a mass) from a vague understanding to a being a vital part of what Jesus called us to do.

  4. Good comment, but don't get distracted by the "Red" campaign.  I have some issues with it as well, but mostly because of advertising and distribution choices.  It might have been a poor choice on my part, but did give an example of the many good things Bono's doing out there and that young people identify with. 

  5. I agree with Mary's point to an extent.  Yes most of the 40 under generation would rather purchase materials that we can listen to or read that will help change our lives instead of a trinket to look at.

    Today's ministries need to focus on what they produce that will change the life of the donor and help them "finish the race"

    Direct mail has lost it's flavor.  I don't even open direct mail pieces.  Even from some of the best ministries that I receive mail from.  I would rather read their magazine than the mail.  I can donate online or set up a monthly draft straight out of my checking account because checks are a concept that is soon to be forgotten. Besides the stamps are going up yet again in May, why because the volume of mail is dropping.

    I use to work for a very large television ministry that started out as a great teaching ministry but after years in the direct mail business went from a fresh Word for the body to a monthly marketing meeting on how to generate the most out of your mailing list.  When you walk in to church on Sunday morning and the Word that comes forth was directed in a meeting, so it goes along with a monthly campaign, there is something wrong. 

    Serve the people by providing for them, have their hearts in mind.  That is what Jesus did.  He didn't hang with the religious folks, he went to the people.  When Branding your ministry take into consideration the culture.  If you will notice the large ministries coming into place now are doing just that.  They are building with the old generation but are growing with the new generations.  The older televangelist, if you will notice are stuck within a certain age group.  What will happen as that generation goes on to be with the Lord.

     The culture of today is going to money transactions with plastic & through the world- wide web.  Direct mail is being replaced with the web.  Obama is pulling most of his support from the web and his donors are the generation I am talking about.  What is he preaching "Change" – 

  6. I'm a missionary in El Salvador and let me take a contrarian view. What I believe happened was that ministers began to teach something that they'd learned in their walk with God, and that is whatever it is you need, you need to give it away. Works for money, material things, but also for friendship, encouragement and anything else. It works both positively and negatively, as in Jesus saying you will be judged with the judgement you give away. Our experience with God has been that He asks us to give sacrificially in love and usually sometime later we find that we need that very same  thing in our lives and it comes back to us. 

    It is a biblical principle, he who sows sparingly reaps sparingly and he who sows generously reaps generously. That is then followed by each man should decide in his own heart what he should give. Somehow that part falls through the cracks. 

    Where heresy creeps in is that somewhere along the line the preacher/teacher changes his position in the teaching from a giver to a receiver. What he learned  from God was how to give and be generous. When he inserted himself into the receiver slot, he crossed over into manipulation. No teacher should ever set himself up to take advantage of those he is teaching. That is the biggest problem with the teaching of seed faith giving.

    We have seen time and time again the grace of God manifested in our lives on the mission field as we respond to the prompting of the Holy Spirit to sow into the lives of others. We also are asked to exert our faith that this is a seed of faith and it will produce. The other option of giving just to give sounds pious but also requires no faith. It maybe says that my sacrifice is enough God, I don't need anything from you. In the end He's the hero of the story and not us. We give in this manner because He asks us to, in His word and in our hearts, and He is the faithful one to meet our needs after we give away something that normally would not make sense to do so.   


  7. As one Southern Belle to another, I am sorry to say you missed the point.

    I was remarking that people want SOMETHING in their hand for their gift–and that is not a gift, it is a transaction.  And it is sad to see how few people will give simply to see evangelism happen.

    As to your point about direct mail, actual results for many ministries show direct mail is still the method of giving/buying of choice for the majority of donors.  That said,  the right approach is to give people both–eblast opportunities as well as direct mail.  Then study what the donor responds to.  Build the communication program based on a person's desires.  Again, only a good database can allow you to do that.

     Remember, it's still the old folks (north of 50) giving to ministries by in large.  These trends will change every year in favor of web, but for now, direct mail still has a place in the mix–a very important one.


  8. My dear fellow SFU alumnus: I could not agree with you more on your thoughts.  I will work in reversing my believes and seek thruth objectively on this issue by re-visiting the Scriptures again.  Thank you. 

  9. If you live in the Houston area, watch the current telethon for the local TBN affiliate station.  If you happen to see the blondish guy with glasses asking for money, then you could get a feeling of what Phil wrote on today's blog.

  10. Dear Mr. Cooke,  I have been concerned about the shallowness of the prosperity gospel for many years.  My husband and I have been in fulltime ministry for over 20 years and have seen God so faithful to us.  We have recently been reading some books by the late Jack Frost of Shiloh Place (  They deal with our relationship with the Heavenly Father.  You just have to read them to see how they relate to this topic–yet they do, because they point to many of the problems that have been in ministry and they offer solutions–livable, real ones at that–to overcoming the shallowness and fakery that can creep into any of our lives when we try to share the gospel of the Lord Jesus.  Thank you for your time.  Sincerely, Mrs. D.J.

  11. it is not a matter of agree or disagree with the statment, but what are people’s motivation? what God is calling them to do and why they are giving.
    giving is a blessing and build our character, but no one is suppossed to waste resources, people should verify the impact of their giving in building God’s kingdom. giving to most vulnerable or supporting preaching ministries- all of them is okay. and only God rewards our works not people we are giving too.
    my point would be to see you motivation, and where God directs you.



  12. in regards to "giving to get"  i have to take issue with the statement that catholics sold indulgences implying this is similar to the give and get ministries so widespread in the christian church today especially among protestant tv personalities.  first of all indulgences were never sold…for a period of about 200 years one could give a donation to some cause  with an indulgence given…but after the council of trent the church forbade charitable giving as a way of obtaining indulgences.  There is great confusion over this issue indulgences have nothingto do with time in purgatory, it was understood as a way of shortening a penitential period on earth…pope benedict XVI once wrote that purgatory may involve "existential" rather than "temporal" duration perhaps experiencing in a moment .  As a graduate of oral roberts university this teaching or doctrine of giving out of your need to meet your greed is unfortunately a reality…to somehow equate this misguided theology with catholic doctrine is a cheap shot….are we really so blind in this country?  how can we sit and wonder why this country is in such a mess with so much confusion and corruption?  because the church in america has lost its way….protestants fighting each other over doctrine….taking pot shots at the catholic church…..meanwhile our people are losing hope, lacking joy in their lives and wanting the government to bail us out….listen OBAMA is not our source nor the democrats or for that matter the republicans….when americans finally repent of our greedy, feelgood, waterdowned theology especially in these megachurchs which offer feelgood music, sermons, and programs….maybe god will hear our prayers and bring this country to true repentance….america wakeup while we attend feelgood churches and battle amongst ourselves islam is growing stronger and stronger influencing millions when we should be reaching the world for christ not worrying how good our cars look when we drive up to church or how pretty our kids look!  where much is given much is expected in return….

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