The Business of Church Music: Examining the Legal Structure of Worship Ministries and Practice of Pastors Operating as Music Producers

(Photo: Pastor Steven Furtick singing Psalm 121.)

Church music has become big business.

Ultimate Guitar reports that almost $600 million is spent annually on audio equipment and instruments for performing church music.”

Churches have become one of the most common venues for hearing live music.

In six years, Bethel Music, the music ministry of Bill Johnson’s megachurch Bethel Redding, generated $80 million in revenue.

Bethel Music is one of the four most popular church music ministries in America, according to a recent academic study being published at Worship Leader Research.

The researchers identified 38 of the most popular church worship songs from 2010 to 2020. Almost all the songs were written by or performed by Bethel, Elevation Church (pastored by Steven Furtick), Hillsong (founded by Australian pastor Brian Houston) and Passion City Church (pastored by Louie Giglio).

Church performances, concert tours and radio airplay have boosted worship band awareness. Hillsong has reportedly sold more than 20 million albums.

Business Legal Structure

Most American Christians have never heard of the term integrated auxiliary, but it is the key to understanding how most megachurches and televangelists operate financially successful worship ministries.

The IRS describes integrated auxiliaries as “a class of organizations that are related to a church or convention or association of churches, but are not such organizations themselves.”

For example, Elevation Church registered a trademark for the name Elevation Worship, the name of the worship band. This allows the church to create a bank account and do business in the name of Elevation Worship.

Continue reading “The Business of Church Music: Examining the Legal Structure of Worship Ministries and Practice of Pastors Operating as Music Producers”

Televangelist Jesse Duplantis: $500 Million Is Not Enough

Jesse Duplantis has stage presence. Before he became a preacher, Jesse Duplantis performed in a touring rock band. By combining the prosperity gospel and comedy, televangelist Jesse Duplantis has built a large following.

Early this month Duplantis preached at the annual Southwest Believers Convention hosted in Fort Worth, Texas, by televangelist Kenneth Copeland.

Duplantis has a knack for saying controversial things and telling wild stories. In his sermon Vision Creates Direction, Duplantis preached, “I never ask God for a need. What a waste of spiritual energy. That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life.”

Duplantis uses a mafia character voice to say, “I know how to get rid of people… You do what you gotta do.” Duplantis would later tell the audience that a mafia boss offered to make him “a made-man”—a fully initiated member of the mafia.

Duplantis enjoys talking about his wealth. “You are looking at one rich puppy here. I’m not being arrogant. I’m telling you one thing. You have no idea.”

During its 43 years of operation, donors have contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to Jesse Duplantis Ministries. Duplantis claims his ministry received $500 million in response to prayers.

“I thought I could save the world with a hundred million dollars. So, I went to the throne of God. He said, ‘What do you want, Jesse?’ He didn’t ask what I need. He’s never asked what I need… ‘I said, Lord, I need a hundred million dollars.’ I said, ‘I can touch the world for a hundred million dollars.’ He said, ‘Done.’ Gave me a hundred million dollars… Well, I ran out of money, so I went back to the throne. I said, ‘Jesus.’ He said, ‘You need another hundred million. I said, ‘Yeah.’ He gave me another hundred million.”

Duplantis says that a third time God gave Duplantis’ ministry $100 million, and it was all spent in nine months. Eventually he would ask five times and God would give his ministry $500 million. It still was “not enough to touch the world.”

The first century Church could teach Duplantis some valuable lessons. With limited financial means and no modern technology, they “turned the world upside down.”  – Acts 17:6 KJV

This amazing church growth happened without the prosperity gospel.

Bible Verses Prosperity Gospel Preachers Ignore

The prosperity gospel has created a distorted view of what the Bible teaches about money, resulting in many church goers being misled to believe that God wants His people to be financially wealthy.

Instead, the Bible presents a balanced view: Times of abundance and times of scarcity both come from God. This principle is shown in Genesis 41, as God gives Pharaoh, the leader of Egypt, a prophetic dream, revealing the land would have seven years of abundance followed by seven years of famine.

This balance is clearly taught in Ecclesiastes 7:14 which says, In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him.”

God desires our faithfulness rather than financial success. These difficult times test our faith so that it may grow.

The Bible also teaches that sometimes people will “sow, but not reap.” In Micah chapter 6, God is upset with criminals committing fraud and condemns the merchants using dishonest scales. When dishonesty is used for financial gain, God will refuse to bless the evildoer.

Micah 6:15 says, “You shall sow, but not reap; you shall tread olives, but not anoint yourselves with oil; you shall tread grapes, but not drink wine.”

When people pray with selfish motives, God will reject their prayers as James 4:3 shows, “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.”

Another relatively unknown Bible verse that challenges the prosperity gospel is found in Proverbs 22:16.  “One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth and one who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.”

Numerous churchgoers and viewers of religious television have sacrificially given to preachers misusing donations for personal gain. If Christians would stop financially supporting rich televangelists and pastors living extravagantly, there would be less poverty and Christianity would have more credibility in a broken world.

NOTE: These verses come from multiple translations (ESV and NIV)

Whistleblowers, Thank You for Your Service

Today is National Whistleblower Day.

Whistleblowers perform a valuable, but poorly understood, service for humanity by exposing crimes and misconduct in multiple ways:

  1. Privately and publicly confronting business, religious and political leaders who’ve abused their power.
  2. Filing criminal charges.
  3. Providing tips to law enforcement.
  4. Providing tips or interviews to journalists.
  5. Suing the perpetrators.
  6. Writing first-hand accounts in blog posts and books telling the story of their experiences of abuse and eye-witness accounts of fraud.
  7. Telling their stories in podcasts and documentaries.
  8. Helping other victims recover from similar experiences.

The whistleblowers’ actions expose sin, demand justice and educate the public.

Ephesians 5:11 provides a biblical mandate for whistleblowing and investigative reporting: “Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them.”

On this National Whistleblower Day, Trinity Foundation would like to thank every public whistleblower and anonymous informant that has contacted us. Your tips help us investigate church and ministry corruption.

According to Stephen Martin Kohn, founder of the National Whistleblower Center, and author of The New Whistleblower’s Handbook, tipsters uncover more fraud than professional auditors and law enforcement combined.

We would also like to thank our donors for your support. You’ve equipped us to serve the public for more than three decades as a religious watchdog and third-party whistleblower.

We are currently working on several big investigations and look forward to sharing them with you when the time is right.

How Religious TV Networks and Magazine Publishers Report Taxable Advertising Revenue

American tax laws require advertising revenue exceeding $1,000 to be reported by non-profit ministries and churches. However, some organizations fail to report unrelated business income because of either not knowing the law or purposefully restructuring themselves to avoid disclosure.

In recent years some religious TV broadcasters have begun to distance themselves from the high pressure beg-a-thon fundraisers of the past and are adopting the new business model of Free Ad Supported Television (often identified by the acronym FAST.)

The Inspirational Network, a non-profit organization operating the INSP cable network, is the leader in this transformation, having generated hundreds of millions of dollars or more in advertising revenue that has been unreported since 2014 on its Form 990s.

The Inspirational Network was the recent subject of a Trinity Foundation investigation into unreported advertising revenue and excessive compensation.

Which raises the question, how do other religious non-profits report  advertising?

In 2021, Christianity Today International reported almost $2.9 million in advertising revenue of which $637,199 was unrelated business revenue.

(Screenshot: Christianity Today International 2021 Form 990, page 9.)

Meanwhile, God’s World Publications (the publisher of World Magazine) reported all its advertising revenue ($1,543,326 for fiscal year ending June 30, 2021) as unrelated business income.

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Secular in the Daytime, Prosperity Gospel at Night; How Religious Non-Profit Network INSP Became a TV Ratings Phenomenon

Barry Bowen and Pete Evans

(Time to read: 20+ minutes)

(Photo: INSP logo appearing in network promo.)
After many years of investigating The Inspirational Network and its CEO David Cerullo, reviewing 21 years of the non-profit’s Form 990 filings with the IRS, conducting numerous corporation searches for related entities, watching INSP cable TV programming, and monitoring private jets used by the Cerullo family, we still have more questions than answers.

In 2009, the Charlotte Observer reported, “With compensation exceeding $1.5 million a year, Cerullo is the best-paid leader of any religious charity tracked by watchdog groups.”

Fourteen years later, Cerullo retains the position of highest paid executive in MinistryWatch’s 100 Highly Paid Ministry Executives list.

Over the past decade, Trinity Foundation, Inc. (TFI) investigators have examined hundreds of Form 990 informational returns of religious non-profits and have found no one that received more compensation in one year than Cerullo in 2019: $7 million.

The staggering compensation motivated TFI to dig deeper to attempt to follow the advertising revenue money but were thwarted by a confusing web of financial disclosures, Delaware corporations, LLC’s with scant information, etc.

To be fair, the highly successful TV network says it does in fact report and pay its share of corporate taxes on its TV ad revenue.

Yet for almost ten years, The Inspirational Network, Inc. has declined to report advertising revenue on 990s earned by its for-profit subsidiaries and in fact claims it is not required to.

Why this would matter if they weren’t paying corporate taxes: Non-profit organizations are required to report unrelated business income over $1,000 on a Form 990-T and pay taxes on this income. Before 2018, the tax on unrelated business income ranged from 15 to 35 percent. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 changed the new tax rate to 21 percent.

A for-profit subsidiary of The Inspirational Network, Inc. can separately pay taxes on advertising revenue, but these subsidiaries must be listed as a related organization on The Inspirational Network 990s—and Cerullo’s non-profit currently fails to disclose that INSP, LLC is a related organization.

Continue reading “Secular in the Daytime, Prosperity Gospel at Night; How Religious Non-Profit Network INSP Became a TV Ratings Phenomenon”

The Legacy of Pat Robertson

Televangelist Pat Robertson has died, leaving behind a complicated legacy.

The Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN), the TV network Robertson founded in 1960, broke the news this morning.

Robertson also helped found the international disaster relief agency Operation Blessing, Regent University and the American Center for Law and Justice.

According to the Associated Press, “One of Robertson’s innovations was to use the secular talk-show format on the network’s flagship show, the ‘700 Club,’ which grew out of a telethon when Robertson asked 700 viewers for monthly $10 contributions.” His talk show format “His guests eventually included several U.S. presidents — Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump.”

The 700 Club helped mainstream the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement in America.

As host of the 700 Club, Robertson gave so-called words of knowledge and spoke prophecies that went unfulfilled. Robertson told his viewers, “I guarantee you by the fall of 1982 there is going to be a judgment on the world.”

For 2007, Robertson prophesied, “There will be some very serious terrorist attacks.” Robertson, elaborated, “The Lord didn’t say nuclear, but I do believe it’ll be something like that – that’ll be a mass killing, possibly millions of people, major cities injured.”

Robertson promoted political positions and politicians associated with the Religious Right, culminating in his founding the Christian Coalition in 1987 and 1988 political campaign.

Non-profit funds were misused to advance Roberton’s political ambitions.

The New York Times reported, “During 1985 and 1986, the network gave $250,000 a month or more to the tax-exempt Freedom Council to mobilize Christian voters behind Mr. Robertson’s candidacy for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1988. By some estimates, as much as $8.5 million was funneled to the Freedom Council in this fashion.”

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Growing Rich from Ministry: Apostle Chuck Pierce and Family Receive $4 Million Compensation

On Friday, ProPublica published a large batch of Form 990s, the informational return non-profits file with the IRS. Some of the latest 990s show a disturbing trend of excessive compensation at large media ministries. For example, Glory of Zion International’s 990 reveals more than $4 million were paid to the Pierce family. Trinity Foundation will disclose more examples in future articles.

During Covid, the IRS fell far behind in processing the 990s which disclose total revenue, total expenses, compensation for non-profit executives, and other information helpful for donors analyzing the effectiveness of American charities.

When MinistryWatch published its latest Highly Compensated Ministry Executives list in January, Apostle Chuck Pierce was ranked 4th due to receiving $1,774,051 in compensation during the fiscal year ending March 31, 2021. Pierce would rank 3rd based on the new 990 which discloses $2,084,437 in compensation.

(Screenshot: Charles “Chuck” Pierce preaching.)

Congress created a tax penalty for non-profit organizations that provide excessive compensation to employees. Pierce exploits a loophole in the law which exempts clergy from the excise tax. Page 5 line 15 of the 990 shows the ministry is not subject to the 4960 excise tax on excessive compensation which is defined as compensation of more than $1 million.

(Spreadsheet: Pierce family compensation compiled from 990 for fiscal year ending March 31, 2022.)

Trinity Foundation encourages donors to boycott non-profit organizations paying exorbitant salaries to executives.

Lawsuit: Religious TV Executive Owes Almost $18 Million in Taxes; Media Misses Bigger Picture

(Photo: The Word Network appeals primarily to African American audiences.)

The United States has filed a lawsuit in federal court, attempting to seize  Word Network president Kevin Adell’s $4.4 million Bloomfield Hills, Michigan-home, alleging the radio and TV broadcaster owes almost $18 million in estate and gift taxes, following the death of his father, Franklin Adell in 2006.

The case has received little news coverage outside of Michigan. The Detroit Free Press and Crain’s Detroit Business have covered the story. Journalists reporting on Adell’s legal problems have missed a bigger story: Adell has exploited a loophole in the law, crafted for churches, to avoid disclosing millions of dollars in compensation.

Who is Kevin Adell?

(Screenshot: Kevin Adell being interviewed following Novi city council approval to build the Adell Center.)

Kevin Adell is a broadcaster and serial entrepreneur involved in commercial real estate development. In addition to operating The Word Network, Adell owns talk radio station WFDF and WADL-TV, but not for much longer, as the pending sale of the TV station was announced May 17th  and Wikipedia reports the sale price at $75 million.

Adell constructed the $125 million Adell Center, a business complex in Novi, Michigan, featuring restaurants, shops and indoor skydiving.

Adell also owns a massive car collection. In 2019, Hagerty Media revealed that Adell had a “fleet of 100 or so automobiles—plus one special tractor.”  Adell is reportedly the only American owner of a Lamborghini Nitro 130 T4i tractor.

Adell’s collection features iconic vehicles from TV shows and movies. According to Hagerty, Adell “owns one Batmobile, one Bat motorcycle, the General Lee Dodge Charger from ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ (minus its rebel flag), Burt Reynolds’ Trans Am from ‘Smokey and the Bandit,’ and the faux Ferrari 250GT California Spyder launched off a balcony in ‘Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.'”

The Lawsuit

The case United States of America v. Adell et al was filed on April 24th. According to the complaint, when Franklin Adell died, he left a “gross estate valued at $32,930,891.”

The lawsuit alleges that Kevin Adell owes $9,775,326.65 in unpaid estate taxes and $8,178,714.47 in unpaid gift taxes. The lawsuit claims, “Kevin Adell dissipated the Adell Estate’s assets and knowingly and willfully failed to pay the estate tax liabilities the Adell Estate owed to the United States.”

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The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Holy Land Theme Park Demolished After TBN Spent $130 Million on Pet Project

The Holy Land Experience, one of America’s largest biblical theme parks, lies in ruins, after Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN) spent more than $130 million on the project.

AdventHealth purchased the Orlando property from TBN in 2021 for $32 million. According to Orlando TV station WESH, AdventHealth submitted plans to build a hospital on the site.

(Photo: Theme Park before demolition began. Screenshot from video by Steve Ronin.)

Demolition is currently underway.  Adam, host of TheDailyWoo YouTube channel, recently visited Holy Land Experience, and documented the theme park’s destruction.

Expenses from Purchasing and Operating Holy Land Theme Park

Religion News Blog reported in 2007 that TBN spent $37 million to acquire Holy Land Experience. The purchase involved three financial transactions: TBN paid off an $8 million loan from Grace Foundation to Holy Land Ministries, spent $12 million to acquire land from Sola Scriptura and donated $17 million to Master’s Gate Foundation.

According to Trinity Foundation informants, The Holy Land Experience became TBN co-founder Jan Crouch’s pet project. Jan oversaw remodels and new exhibits as the theme park produced Broadway-style musicals.

Continue reading “The Walls Came Tumbling Down: Holy Land Theme Park Demolished After TBN Spent $130 Million on Pet Project”