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What would Jesus do. . . with a billion dollars?
January 13th, 2010

Has mixing big business with religion made a simple, personal faith obsolete?
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by Jacob Hodgen

Mecca is traditionally a holy place where Islamic pilgrims go to renew their faith. However, sometime next year, Muslim devotees may be able to do more than just ceremonially kissing the Black Stone Hajr Al Aswad. . .

. . .like get a spa treatment in a luxury hotel suite.

Mecca super hotel
The new mega hotel complex at Mecca

The Saudi Binladin1 construction company wants to bring Mecca into the 21st-century and is spearheading a movement that is currently investing around $15 billion to build an array of skyscrapers, hotels, shopping malls, and conventions centers around the holy site

Many Muslims are concerned by the abrupt modernization of Mecca, and the fact that numerous, if not all, of the adjacent historic buildings are being bulldozed. One Islamic architect, Sami Angawi, refers to Mecca as being "blown into pieces." Whatever you want to call it, there's no denying that Mecca is now big business.

But this trend of mixing religion with big business is certainly not relegated to Saudi Arabia. And in all fairness, neither is it new. Whether it's levying a federal tax in some countries to support a state-run church, selling indulgences, passing around a hat, or offering aid to hurricane victims, money is no stranger inside the walls of a chapel.

Religion in the U.S. is Big Business

The United States has seen its own explosive growth in so called "Mega Churches." According to Forbes Magazine, the current number of mega churches in the U.S. has leaped to more than 1,300 from just 50 in 1970, and they come at a cost of about $8 billion to the Christian faithful.

St. Paul
The First Baptist Church of Dallas is one of many new mega churches

Long gone are the days of the small town chapel that could barely afford a pipe organ. Today's big box purveyors of spirituality often come equipped with arena-style jumbo tron screens, rock bands, or sometimes even a 360 member choir.

In Dallas, the First Baptist Church has recently announced plans to build a 1.5 million square foot campus, in the heart of the city. Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Dallas congregation, writes, "As I look around downtown Dallas, I see spectacular temples of commerce, of culture and of government - many new, some restored to former glory, and all intended to stand for generations. The Kingdom of God needs a home to equal them - a spiritual oasis in the middle of downtown."

The complex will include a 3,000-seat worship center, a six-floor education building, and a sky bridge made of glass that connects to the church's current sanctuary.

What is it with churches and sky bridges these days?

Mega Churches in Utah

Of course, Salt Lake City has its own version of the mega church in the form of the LDS Conference Center. With 1.4 million square feet of room and seating for 21,200, it is the largest theater-style auditorium built in human history.

Conference Center
The LDS Conference Center seats 21,000

Right next door, the corporate arm of the LDS Church is currently in the process of building the mammoth City Creek Center, a 20-acre shopping center development and 35 story luxury condominium tower. For better or for worse, at a staggering price tag of three billion dollars, the Mormons are giving Salt Lake City a major face lift. Local officials are quick to point out two facts: 1) No tithing money is being used, and 2) it will be the largest "green-certified" project ever to be built in Utah.

Take that Solomon!

While the new shopping center will undoubtedly look great and be a boon for the city's tourism industry, much like their Islamic and other Christian colleagues, many people are asking the same questions to local religious authorities: whence the need for a religious organization to devote billions of dollars to for-profit, commercial ventures?

City Creek Center
Condos in the new City Creek Center Center
will go for over a millions dollars each

Do bigger chapels and brassier pipe organs produce bigger spirituality, is this phenomenon merely the simple solution to the logistical concerns of running churches with vast growing populations, or did prosperity doctrine get appended to Christianity--like Christmas or a Sunday Sabbath did--as a pragmatic consideration and social adaptation?

Whether you believe in a higher power or not, I present to you the following intellectual exercise:

Based on historical, literary, or whatever spiritual evidence you feel confident you can muster, consider the following quandary:

What would Jesus really do. . . with a billion dollars?

If you answered, "build a luxury condo tower and mega mall," then chances are you are in luck!

WWJD with $1,000,000,000?

I think this is a tough but fair question. While writing this piece, I invited Utahns everywhere to weigh in and share their thoughts. Whatever your background is, and whatever your opinion might be, Utah Stories would love to have you be part of this important discussion. Here are some of the replies we have already received:

Pamela is a self-described Evangelical from Salt Lake City who has been a member of a suburban church for years and has traveled to poor countries such as Rwanda on mission trips. She writes,

What would Jesus do with a billion dollars? I think He would say "No thanks, don't need it, don't care." He said, "The poor you will always have with you." He was less impressed with hefty donations to the local synagogue than He was with the widow's mite. He told soldiers to "be content with your pay." He shrugged off the Adversary's ideas for greater power and publicity after 40 days of desert impoverishment. I think He would say that buildings, programs, comforts, luxuries, media might seem like tools to draw people to Him, but that coming to Him for forgiveness of sin and the changing of our lives is always an internal, simple and unadorned process, seldom aided by anything outside ourselves. Even His own "evangelistic" efforts were accomplished by merely standing on an open hillside and calling out to passersby. And the day He provided refreshments, the bread and the fish somehow just took care of themselves.

Charles is also from the Salt Lake area, and he wrote me offering the following thoughts:

I am a member of the "dominant" religion of Utah. I am troubled by my Faith's fascination with the appearance of wealth all in the name of the Lord. We seem to worship the works of our own hands, i.e. buildings, rather than worship God. However, my religion does do a considerable amount of good with its wealth. None of the leaders are paid. Most are left to rely on proceeds from books they have "authored", or better said, caused to be "authored". Look at what the LDS Church does with its Welfare Square operation and the Deseret Industries program. My rather callous view is that it takes money to attract people with money. In turn, people with money donate money to the Church. This money is turned into more money. Some of that money goes to help the poor and disadvantaged of our Faith and many other faiths around the world. It's not a perfect system, but it works.

The writers of the New Testament tell us what Jesus would do with the $1 billion.

  1. Jesus might pay his taxes then pay his donations to his religion, "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's and unto God that which is God's" Matthew 22:21.
  2. Jesus might sell all and give some of the money to the poor. See Matthew 19:21.
  3. Jesus might invest some of the money. See Matthew 25:15-28.
  4. There is even an argument that Jesus may not give any of the money to the poor. Matthew 26:7-11.

Aaron is humanist from Seattle. He wrote in with the following comments:

I think there might be an undercurrent of discussion about this waiting to get out, but there doesn't seem to be a good venue. Coming from the perspective of a relatively non-religious person, who can best categorize his shifting beliefs as agnostic/humanist, I see Jesus as an important historical figure whose life and teachings have inspired both those who believe in his divinity and those who don't. Aspects that have drawn me to his story are his humility, his respect for and kindness to those outcast from society (lepers, prostitutes and the poor), and that he took a position outside of the established hierarchies of his time be they Roman or Jewish while respecting the rules such establishments placed upon him.

What would a man who took this route do with a billion dollars?

I don't think his goal would be to build temples, stadiums or malls. His message seemed to be about what awaited in the afterlife. I think he would fund missionaries. Not for the establishment of churches, but for preaching the word as he understood it, and to demonstrate his message of charity and peace.

I think he would give large portions of it away to those who seek to cure disease and ease suffering. I think he would be frustrated by the amount of overhead many charitable organizations have.

On a more joking note, the scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade pops into my head. Being raised as the son of a carpenter the grail was represented as a normal man of the times cup. So maybe he would have bought a new cup.

From a political perspective, it seems as if some religious people see money and a financially successful portfolio as evidence of God's favor, which seems odd, as my understanding was the reward for living a faithful life was waiting in the afterlife, no matter the size of one's bank account. . .

1Yes, it's the same Bin Laden family.

This is a tricky subject that unfortunately other media outlets are too scared to address, and we want your honest opinion. Tell us your thoughts about the City Creek Center and the pros and cons of mixing big business with religion via the comments section below.

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