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”

Two Overlords and Two Gospels… American Churches Headed the Wrong Way

…with apologies to our friend Joseph Michael Bennett, who wrote a book we recommend, “Two Masters and Two Gospels” (2019).

Last week, multiple news sources reported a Lifeway Research study of 1,002 Protestant Christians strongly indicating that the “Prosperity Gospel” is rapidly rising in America.  These two beliefs go hand in hand to spread this heresy: 1) God wants Christians to prosper, attaining wealth and health and 2) God requires a gift from us humans before he will answer our prayers.

According to the well-crafted study, “Those who say their church teaches that God will bless them if they give more increased from 38% in 2017 to 52% in 2022.”—a huge increase over a short amount of time—and “76% believe that God wants them to prosper financially”, up from 69% in 2017—another rapid increase.

Lifeway Research’s methodology was an “online survey of 1,002 American Protestant churchgoers was conducted September 19-29, 2022, using a national pre-recruited panel.”  Comparisons were made to a 2017 online survey of 1,010 Protestants who attended religious services at least once a month.  They estimate that the “sample provides 95% confidence that the sampling error from the panel does not exceed +3.3%”

Prosperity Gospel Parallels the American Dream

If you believe in and think you deserve a share in the American Dream, then your beliefs are probably shared with a large segment of the U.S. public.  If you believe in the prosperity gospel—that God will multiply blessings upon those who richly bless Him with money, it appears you share that belief with a large majority of American Protestant Christians.

“The American dream is the belief that anyone, regardless of where they were born or what class they were born into, can attain their own version of success in a society in which upward mobility is possible for everyone. …(It’s) believed to be achieved through sacrifice, risk-taking, and hard work, rather than by chance.”—Investopedia

God helps those who help themselves” is a phrase that’s often mistaken as a scriptural quote.  More on Wikipedia

In some ways, the two beliefs have merged.

The only problem is that neither the Prosperity Gospel nor the American Dream “work”, especially for poor and disadvantaged people.  Both those lies wreak havoc with desperate people who are grasping at something, anything that might alleviate their suffering, even lottery tickets.  Some will be blessed by God materially, but most won’t be.

The “prosperity gospel” message panders to the sensual desire for riches but is the opposite of the message of the cross.  It’s a pious, pleasing message that avoids repentance from self-seeking.  Regarding piety… “The curse of a godless man can sound more pleasant in God’s ear than the Hallelujah of the pious”—Martin Luther (repeated by Dietrich Bonhoffer)

Consider Joel Osteen’s book, “Your Best Life Now” and other similar religious self-help books that ignore or cheapen the grace of Christ.

Jesus said, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall save it.”

The cross of Christ means the death of self.  For those of us who call ourselves believers, we prayerfully abandon control of our lives to God.

Signs that your church has embraced the lie of the prosperity gospel, sometimes ever so subtly:  the preacher’s mansions, luxury cars, private jets, and expensive clothing; the lack of transparency (read our article here) regarding the finances of the church; the lack of accountability (he or she answers to no one), i.e., nobody can hire or fire the pastor (read here).

The sin of greed thrives in a climate of secrecy. Therefore, we believe that churches should be required to make their finances available publicly—read about “dark money” in the church here.

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.

Word Network Airs Dead Convicted Statutory Rapist Tony Alamo and Other Ex-Cons, Jim Whittington, and WV Grant

Three ex-con televangelists, including one now deceased, all have compared themselves to the Apostle Paul of the early church… you be the judge.

Tony Alamo AP Photo, Evan Lewis, November 13, 2009

Tony Alamo is dead

Tony Alamo’s boring half hour program currently is broadcast three times weekly on the Word Network: Tuesday’s at 7:30 pm and Thursdays at 3:30 am and 11:30 pm.

Alamo once lived in a lavish, 13,064-square foot mansion with a heart-shaped swimming pool; his ministry once had thousands of followers; and he operated many for-profit businesses.  One of his businesses sold custom-made sequined jackets to celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, and Mr. T., but that was before he was convicted of income tax evasion and “marrying” underage girls.

He was sentenced to prison twice—175 years the second time in November 2009.

Mr. Alamo was accused of taking young girls across state lines for sex and arrested in October 2008. Five women ranging from age 17 to 33 told jurors that Alamo “married” them in private ceremonies while they were minors, sometimes giving them wedding rings. Each described trips beyond Arkansas’ borders for Alamo’s sexual gratification.[1]

Alamo believed that young girls were fit for marriage. “Consent is puberty,” he told The Associated Press in 2008.[2]  A CNN news clip of his arrest includes audio of Alamo stating that women as young as twelve are ready for marriage as soon as they start their period.[3]

“I’m just another one of the prophets that went to jail for the Gospel,” Alamo called out to reporters afterward as he was escorted to a waiting U.S. marshal’s vehicle.[4]

A jury convicted Alamo in July 2009 of 10 counts spanning 11 years and on November 13, 2009, federal Judge Harry F. Barnes sentenced him to the maximum on each count, for a total of 175 years in prison.[5]

He died in a federal prison hospital in North Carolina in May 2017.

More of Alamo’s Legal Encounters

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that “Alamo was arrested on a felony child abuse charge in 1989, but it was dismissed six years later. The case involved an 11-year-old boy who was given 140 blows at Alamo’s directions for minor academic infractions. His family later filed suit and won a $1.4 million judgment against Alamo and his ministry.”[6]

Federal agents raided his properties in 1991 when he owed $7.9 million in taxes.  He was convicted in 1994 of income tax evasion, served four years in prison, was released in 1998, and went back to his Arkansas-based ministry.

In addition to the criminal convictions, Alamo was found liable in a federal civil trial and ordered to pay $30 million to two men who were raised in the controversial Tony Alamo Christian Ministries. A jury found that those two men were beaten, starved, and denied education and found Alamo liable for conspiracy, outrage and battery.[7]

Another civil judgement was even more telling.  Seven women who were victims of physical and sexual abuse brought civil suits, resulting in a $525 million judgment, the largest in Arkansas history.[8]

Continue reading “Word Network Airs Dead Convicted Statutory Rapist Tony Alamo and Other Ex-Cons, Jim Whittington, and WV Grant”

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”

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.”

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

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”

Church Defense Strategy: Hillsong Responds to Allegations and Government Investigation

Australian megachurch Hillsong, facing leadership scandals and allegations of financial misdeeds, has embraced a defense strategy remarkably like American televangelists facing investigations and court challenges.

Hillsong’s responses to allegations can be summarized as …

  1. Deny problems exist.
  2. Create churches as limited liability companies as part of a risk containment strategy. Individual churches are overseen by managers.
  3. Threaten to sue critics.
  4. After indisputable evidence emerges, confess, or admit that mistakes have been made.
  5. Request prayer for fallen leaders.
  6. Acquire expert legal advice.
  7. Make personnel and board changes.
  8. Experts release a report denying systemic problems exist.

Hillsong History

In 1983, Brian Houston founded Hills Christian Life Centre. The church would become Hillsong.

Actions taken by Houston more than twenty years ago still haunt the organization. In 1999, Houston learned his father Frank Houston had committed sexual abuse of children but failed to report the criminal behavior to law enforcement. Houston is currently on trial for the failure to report, with a decision expected this year.

In 2019, Hillsong threatened to sue news media for publishing articles critical of Houston:

“Much of this commentary is factually incorrect and highly defamatory, and we call on the media and others to immediately stop making these spurious claims. We have directed our lawyers to review several articles that have published untrue and defamatory claims that smear Pastor Brian’s reputation as a Christian leader. Furthermore, we remind those who seek to spread rumours and baseless information via social media that these comments may also be subject to a defamation action.”

Houston embraced the prosperity gospel and in 2000 he authored the book You Need More Money.

Hillsong began to expand internationally. In 2010, Hillsong Ministries USA, Inc. was incorporated. The articles of incorporation stated, “The Corporation shall have no members.”

On the advice of attorneys such as Stephen Lentz, the father of Carl Lentz, Hillsong would form affiliated churches in America as limited liability companies (LLCs).  Stephen Lentz is a leading advocate for churches to use LLCs as part of a risk containment strategy and describes this strategy in his book The Business of Church.

In 2020, Hillsong fired celebrity pastor Carl Lentz who led the church’s New York City congregation. After the firing, Houston responded, “I’m acknowledging that mistakes have been made and that there are things where we need to get far better, much better. I’m not shrinking back from that.”

Continue reading “Church Defense Strategy: Hillsong Responds to Allegations and Government Investigation”

Dead Televangelist Rapist Haunts Word Network Viewers

Trinity Foundation doesn’t normally report on the more salacious side of televangelism, be it Christianity, pseudo-Christianity, or Islam for that matter.  There is more than enough corruption stemming from dark money swishing around in religious organizations (see our “Dark Money…” article). We urge donors to follow the money, but when that’s not possible, follow the scandal.

A huge amount of sexual abuse and sex-trafficking is flying under the radar shielded by government agencies that fail to provide adequate oversight, abusive non-disclosure agreements and threats to fire employees that speak out, and by other means.

Church leaders operating with dictatorial powers, and not in humility, pressure followers for sexual favors. Consider the following examples:

Tony Alamo

Susan and Tony Alamo, PHOTO: GILBERT B. WEINGOURT/ZUMA PRESS/, From a Wall Street Journal article titled “‘Ministry of Evil: The Twisted Cult of Tony Alamo’ Review: Hell on Earth” by Dorothy Rabinowitz

Some televangelists never seem to go away, even after their death.  The late convicted serial statutory rapist and tax evader Tony Alamo is back on television here in the U.S. on media owner Kevin Adell’s religious TV channel “Word Network Church” up to four times weekly.

Alamo passed away on May 2, 2017, while in federal custody.

In 2009, Alamo began serving a 175-year prison sentence in Tucson after being convicted on 10 counts of sex trafficking minors—transporting underage girls across state lines for sex.

A little background:  Though many celebrities such as Johnny Cash, Black Sabbath, and the cast of TV’s Dallas wore jackets purchased from his Nashville country and western clothing store, his organization, Tony Alamo Christian Ministries, was widely regarded as a cult.

His followers worked in Alamo’s many businesses for almost nothing aside from the food they ate.  In 1982 Alamo, who was married at least six times, held a vigil over his wife Susan’s dead body for months, hoping to resurrect her from the dead.

In 1976, the US Department of Labor brought charges against Alamo for violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.  He lost the suit and an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985 and the IRS revoked the tax-exempt status of his church retroactively for a prior 4-year period.

However, Alamo’s lawyers fought the IRS ruling in the courts for seven years until 1992 when Special Trial Judge Larry L. Nameroff ruled that the organization during the period in question was essentially “operated for Tony’s and Susan’s private benefit.” From 1994 to 1998, Alamo served four years in prison for income-tax evasion. He later claimed he was imprisoned for preaching the gospel.

So now, the creepy dead guy is back… on a creepy religious TV network!!

Word Network Church—Kevin Adell’s purported “Christian” TV network has faced its own legal troubles. Its tax-exemption was revoked by the IRS in March 2015 retroactive to 2007.  Adell was paid an average yearly salary of $5.4 million from 2008 to 2011. When the TV network realized it was in trouble in 2013, they created a backup plan that went into effect as soon as the revocation took effect—they became a church… Church of the Word, a/k/a Word Network Church—the perfect vehicle to hide its profit motives.

Naasón Joaquín García

L.A. Times photo, from article titled “From An L.A. Prison Phone, La Luz Del Mundo Megachurch Leader Addresses Followers in MexicoBy Summer Lin and Libor Jany 

Convicted child-molester Naasón Joaquín García (N.J.G.) still leads the multi-million-member Mexico-based La Luz Del Mundo (LLDM) church from within prison walls here in the U.S.  N.J.G is believed to be the “Elect” one to connect church members to God.  He is facing sixteen more years in prison and a possibility of more federal charges—read our March article here

The U.S. is home to many dozens and perhaps hundreds of LLDM churches, with 35 in Texas alone.

Continue reading “Dead Televangelist Rapist Haunts Word Network Viewers”