GAINESVILLE, Ga., Jan. 24, 2008 -- Howard Dayton, a self-described former "greedy" businessman, underwent a transformation before becoming a self-proclaimed guru on how to spend money God's way.
He believes that if people handle money according to scripture, it's possible to have "a greater relationship with Christ." But he navigated a rocky path to arrive at that realization.
Today, his empire includes a radio show, dozens of books and a financial organization.
More than 1,000 radio stations broadcast his program, which reaches about 2 million people each week.
His courses on how to manage personal and business finances, according to the Bible, are taught in tens of thousands of churches in the U.S., and 49 countries around the globe. His Atlanta-based organization, Crown Financial Ministries, is one of the leaders in what's become a cottage industry of evangelical financial advice.
Dayton said on his financial DVD, "Business By The Book," that "the principles you're about to learn have changed my life."
"First, we open and close each class in prayer," Dayton said on the DVD. "And we actually recommend that people pray on their knees as a visual way to honor God."
Financial Advice Straight from the Bible
The Bible may have been written long before the IRS, mortgages or IRAs came into existence, but Dayton said it's still "incredibly practical."
"Obviously, it doesn't deal with home mortgages and Roth IRAs, and that sort of thing. But the basic fundamental principles are there," he said.
One of those principles: Debt is bad. As it says in Proverbs 22:7, "The borrower is the servant to the lender."
Debt is not a sin, according to Dayton, although he notes that it is discouraged in scripture.
"It's not a 'Thou shalt not be in debt, or else,'" Dayton said. "But it's a principle of life that [you] should seek to get out of debt as quickly as you can."
Dayton understands families must take out loans for big ticket items such as a home, but he tells people like Kristen and Jason Pruitt to save aggressively to pay off that debt early.
"Our spending before Crown [Financial Ministries], there was no rhyme or reason," Kristen said. "If we wanted something, we'd go out and get it."
Before they took Dayton's course, the Pruitts said they were in credit card debt and financial disarray. Following Dayton's tough-love, tighten-the-belt advice, made them financially secure enough to adopt three young children ... expanding their family to seven people.
Dayton asked them to keep cash in envelopes meant for specific expenses, such as groceries.
"And when the money's gone, you know we wait for pay day, eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches!" Kristin said.
Combating Impulse Spending
"I think prayer is part of it. I really do," Dayton said.
He claims to practice what he preaches. Dayton and his wife Bev have paid off their home and cars. They keep one credit card, and pay it off immediately after using it.
But Dayton hasn't always been this way — certainly not when he was an aggressive young deal-maker in the restaurant and real estate businesses.
At one point, he said, money was his God.
"It was my total focus in life," he said. "I literally didn't care about people. I just wanted to make as much money as I could."
Dayton got himself into some serious debt before he found God. That's when he started to comb through the Bible for financial wisdom.
He found more than 2,350 mentions of money and possessions, and typed them up. He and his wife started to live by what those passages had to say.
You're Not the Owner: God Is
"Bev drove the same car for 17 years. We used to call it Puff because of the smoke that would come out of the exhaust when it took off," he said. "One of the things that the Bible teaches is that of contentment ... not that we are to be lazy and not try to improve our lives. But what you have at the moment, be content with it. And that was a huge concept for me, particularly coming from a place where I had just wanted to get filthy rich."
The basics of Dayton's message sound similar to that of a secular person: Live within your means, and stay out of debt. But Dayton said his message is different.
"Not many folks are going to say ... you're not the owner of what you have," he said. "God's the manager, and this is the way He wants to manage the resources. It really gets the focus off yourself and onto the Lord."
This is where his teachings about how to manage your personal and business finances stray from your average CPA.
Another big difference: Dayton said people should give 10 percent of their money to their local church.
"We serve a big God, and I think the Lord recognizes that for all of us, particularly if money is tight, giving is a step of faith," Dayton said. "He's not saying that I'll make you rich, but he is saying, I'll meet your needs."
Some Christians are squeamish about finance ministries, because they suspect that, perhaps these churches are simply trying to get more money out of their followers. Others say that, using the Bible as a financial how-to, trivializes it.
"I think there's often a kind of a naive, literalist view of scripture that operates here," said Emory University professor of theology Thomas Long. "The assumption is, that if you read scripture well, embedded in it is a kind of divine plan for financial management. It's sort of in there, like the Da Vinci code, that if you read it right, you can get it to come to the surface, very specific instructions about how to invest, and how to allocate resources. It's one thing to say, 'What would Jesus do?' but it gets a little silly when [it's], 'Would Jesus diversify his portfolio? Or take a no-loan mutual fund?'"
Long pointed out that debt in the Biblical world is not exactly the same as debt in our world.
For example, remember that scripture about the borrower being the servant of the lender? Long said, in biblical times, borrowers were literally slaves to their lenders. That's obviously not true today.
"My problem with it is, just the whole idea that you can pick and choose verses out of scripture, lace them together, and create some divinely inspired plan for financial management," Long said. "As one theologian said, that's sort of like reading 'Moby Dick' as a whaling manual."
'We'd Like To Teach 300 Million People'
"That's the huge mistake that most people make, that they don't see handling money as a spiritual issue. It's intensely spiritual," Dayton said. "How we use money tells an awful lot about us. I tell people, let me see your check book and your credit card statement, and I can really tell you what's important to you."
Dayton said learning how to manage your money according to the Bible can bring families like the Pruitts closer together ... and closer to God. And, as he has illustrated in his own life, it can also free people up to serve God. He and his wife saved enough for both of them to have been unpaid volunteers at Crown Financial Ministries for 22 years ... and they have some lofty spiritual goals.
"This is going to sound a little off the world, but by the year 2015, we'd like to teach 300 million people how to handle money God's way," Dayton said.
Dayton's classes teach that, if millions of Christians are freed up financially to spend their time and money serving God, it could cause a planetary, spiritual revolution. And with a possible recession coming on, Dayton is fully expecting many more students very soon.