Friday, May 17, 2013

Internet journalism and the Black Church's $420 billion.

This post is in response to an article at Urban Intellectuals, titled "Black Churches Have Collected $420 Billion?"

It opens with these assertions:

"LiveSteez research shows that Black churches, in aggregate, have collected more than $420 billion in tithes and donations since 1980. With a Senate investigation into the finances of several mega churches underway, the “Prosperity Movement” has been the target of mounting criticism from inside and outside the Black Church."

I learned of this article via a friend's Facebook posting, which linked to it, and which generated a somewhat heated thread of discussion. Comments below the article itself exhibit a similar heat, as the piece seems to validate many people's worst suspicions about Black pastors pimping their congregations. In a typical response, one commenter wrote, "They are leeches that starve our communities... Woe to them."

After all, $420 billion is a lot of money. It's an eye-popping amount of money. It's so much, that I tried to verify the article's information.

Please read the entire thing, so that you will know what I'm talking about from this point on (it's shorter than this!).

In trying to verify this article, I learned that:

1) The article itself was lifted word-for-word from a piece published by Harlem World on July 1, 2009. (I guess that's what it means at the bottom when it says "Source.") So it's nearly four years old. The investigation by Sen. Chuck Grassley, which it refers to as "ongoing," concluded in January 2011, so in that regard it is now inaccurate (the investigation concluded "with no definitive findings of wrongdoing."). (ADDED June 5, 2013: The original article also contains an inconsistency that Urban Intellectuals does not correct - the $420 billion in the headline mysteriously changes to $350 billion further down.)

2) The research that it cites, by LiveSteez, seems impossible to verify. Every reference I have found to the $420 billion leads back to LiveSteez - whose website,, no longer exists.

3) The promised investigative series was apparently not done, as searches for it prove fruitless.

4) A Google search for the Tyler Media Services study cited also comes up empty-handed; the Harlem World article is the sole source for all mentions, not only of the study, but of Tyler Media Services itself.

5) Henry E. Felder's "study of Black donation habits" is not to be found. He did a paper on "Black Seventh-Day Adventists and Church Economics," but obviously that is a much narrower scope. And its numbers don't match the "$508 per person" cited, anyway.

I'm not defending televangelists or anybody else; I'm just pointing out that I haven't found any way to verify that the article is accurate. The ease of transmitting and re-transmitting information via the Internet places upon every user the obligation to think more carefully about what we read, how we respond to it, and especially what we pass on to others. Each of can add light to others' understanding, or merely stir up passions in the dark.

In that regard, Urban Intellectuals has not done anyone a favor by anonymously re-posting a four-year-old article that may not have been accurate when first published.

Having said all that, I will say this: Even if the $420 billion figure is correct, it is not inherently a cause for outrage. Here's why:

If LiveSteez (whoever or whatever they were) did their research well, with 1980 as their starting point, they likely covered at least 25 years (some references to the article say 30 years, but that seems unlikely, since the original article was published in 2009).

Dividing $420 billion by 25 years gives you $16.8 billion a year collected by Black churches. That's $323,076,923 a week. We'll come back to that.

According the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, a 2007 survey showed that 59 percent of African-Americans are affiliated with "historically Black Protestant churches." Combine that with the U.S. Census Bureau's estimate of the country's black population in 2007 - 38,756,452 - and you get 22,866,307 Black folk affiliated with Black churches. Let's call them members.

Take the $323,076,923 that Black churches collect each week, divide it by the 22,866,307 Black church members, and you have an average weekly donation of $14.13 per member.

If the time period under consideration is longer that 25 years, that weekly average will be smaller.

Thoughts about that:

  1. $14.13 is a relatively small amount.
  2. The money is being given voluntarily. It is not coerced under threat of impoverishment, imprisonment or worse (I'm looking at you, IRS).
  3. The people giving it must, ultimately, be satisfied with how it is being used, or they would stop giving.

So, to people who are pitching fits about the $420 billion, I say: Exhale. Chill. Take a break. If you want to rail against something, there are larger targets available than how people choose to spend their own $14.13 a week.

Are some pastors gaining unjust enrichment from the pulpit? No doubt. But most churches, especially Black churches, are not nearly as large as the ones on TV, and most Black pastors not nearly as well off as Eddie Long or Cashflow - er, Creflo - Dollar. If you are committed to opposing the outliers, at least acknowledge them as such. Black communities still contain multitudes of small churches, some of whose pastors need to have other jobs to make a living. In those churches, a member's $14.13 a week might keep the lights on.

As for that eye-popping $420 billion figure, the most important thing that it illustrates is not how pastors are pimps, but how small amounts of money can grow into very large amounts of money - especially when the small amount comes from a lot of people, over a long period of time. That is how McDonald's became a $100 billion company - one Big Mac, one Happy Meal, at a time. And that is how anyone else who decides to could build a $100 billion company over time. The math will work for anybody who does it.

MEMO TO SELF: In that light, a $1 billion company is super-doable, with time and smart work.

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