By Philip Sherwell, New York9:00PM BST 26 Oct 2013
They live in opulent mansions, enjoy the company of beautiful women, drive flashy sports cars, proudly sport their clunky gold jewellery and heavy tattoos and revel in their celebrity status.
They also happen to be the pastors of six evangelical Californian so-called ‘mega-churches’ who deliver their charismatic messages to tens of thousands from the pulpit each Sunday.
And they are now the stars of Preachers of LA, a new hit reality television show chronicling the lavish lifestyles, emotional dust-ups, entrepreneurial flair and of course spiritual zeal of these men of the designer cloth and their wives and admirers.
Among their ranks are a one-time Los Angeles gang member, a former professional skateboarder and drug addict, the brother of Grace Jones and a chart-topping contemporary gospel music singer.
What unites them is an interpretation of Christianity that is dramatically at odds with the “church of the poor” frugality espoused by Pope Francis since arriving in Rome.
Just last week, the Pontiff suspended the so-called “bishop of bling” Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst from his German diocese of Limburg after he racked up a 30 million euro bill for new church headquarters.
The bishop would encounter no criticism of such apparently conspicuous consumption from these celebrity ministers who champion the gospel of “prosperity theology”.
This doctrine, an offshoot of Pentecostalism and one of the fastest-growing in the US, holds that financial wealth and physical health are the blessings of God, a material reward in this life for a faith that alleviates the curses of poverty and sickness.
So it is that Bishop Ron Gibson, who joined the Crips street gang at 16 but now ministers to 4,500 people each week at Life Church of God in Christ, is shown cruising the streets of Los Angeles in his red Cadillac, one of his fleet of luxury vehicles.
“P Diddy and Jay-Z – they’re not the only ones who should be driving Ferraris and living in large houses,” he says to the camera as he compares himself to secular celebrities. To whoops from his congregation, he notes: “You see my bling, you see my Bentley, you see my glory but you don’t see my story.”
For Noel Jones, the brother of Grace who has a spa session before delivering his Sunday sermon to a 15,000-strong congregation and lives in a hilltop Malibu mansion with sweeping Pacific views, life as a unmarried rock star of the evangelical movement brings other attractions.
“Of course, women throw themselves at you in this business,” he notes. “When you get to be my age, then you think ‘why can’t you have some fun’.”
And viewers follow the personal and religious struggle to emerge from scandal of Deitrick Haddon, who started preaching at 11 and is a also a famous gospel singer. He is now forging a new life with Dominique, the attractive second wife with whom he had a child out of wedlock while divorcing his spouse of 15 years.
It is hardly surprising the show has been prompted controversy and condemnation, even from others within the prosperity theology movement, such as Bishop TD Jakes, senior pastor at a Dallas mega-church, so-called because they attract more than 2,000 worshippers to a service.
“Now, I know you been watching that junk on TV,” he told his congregation recently. “I want to tell you right now, not one dime of what you’re sowing right now will buy my suit. I want you to know my car is paid for. I want you to know I got my house on my own.
“I want you to know I’m not bling-blinging….I don’t need your offering to pay for this little slimy suit. So I rebuke that spirit in the name of Jesus Christ.”
The show has, unsurprisingly, been denounced by prominent figures in the African-American church – five of the six preachers are black – for the example set by its participants. “If you watch on mute, you can’t tell if these are preachers or rap stars,” lamented Jacob Samuels, who leads an Orlando church.
At Harlem’s New Horizon Church. Michael Faulkner was just as scathing.
“These guys are so off the wall they give the church a bad name, they give preachers a bad name, they give TV a bad name,” he said.
But the stars of Preachers of LA are unapologetic. Mr Haddon said that he was “humbled to be able to be a part of such a groundbreaking, history-making product”, referring to the series’ popularity, and that God had told him he should take part in a reality show about preachers.
“Never before have you ever seen the name of Jesus on a reality show like this proclaimed throughout the entire show,” he told The Christian Post.
“The men on this show, are men of integrity, established men who have been working hard down through the years, and they should have something to show for it. When you work hard, especially working for the kingdom of God, sacrificing your life for the kingdom, He rewards those that are diligent about what they do for Him.”
He said that the programme would win souls in an unorthodox way, a message echoed by Jay Haizlip, the former professional skateboarder-turned-pastor.
“They’re not going to come listen to a preacher, they’re not gonna turn on Christian television,” he said. “This is not a preaching TV show. This is a show where millions of people will get to watch us do life, and what it’s really like to live in our shoes.”
Indeed, the cameras follow Mr Haizlip as he returns to the crack-cocaine dens he once frequented as a drug user to minister to addicts and Mr Gibson as he drives into the hard-knock district of Compton to encourage “gang-bangers” to follow his path away from street crime.
But this new breed of preacher is as at home in the language of the entrepreneur as the minister, referring to their “brands” and income streams, describing off-shoot churches as franchises and terming themselves as chief executives.
It is from the for-profit arms of their operations that they fund their lifestyles — and according to the tenets of prosperity theology, set an example for others.
“The prosperity gospel is one of the most popular theologies of modern Christianity in American,” Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity School who has written a book about the doctrine, told The Sunday Telegraph. “It is about faith, health, wealth and victory in this life, with an emphasis on the wallet and the body as in part of the contract with God.
“Even many believers in the prosperity gospel will hate The Preachers of LA as it seems to distill certain excesses, but others will love it because of their belief that the high life might actually be divine.”