Jan. 17, 2007 -- Creflo Dollar sits atop a religious empire. He has a congregation of nearly 40,000 people with offices on six continents, a series of successful books, and a daily television show that reaches a billion households worldwide.
It's an empire built in part on the following message: God does not want you to be poor.
"If you don't know better, you'll stay in the ghetto all your life," Dollar preached just last Sunday. "But once you realize, I am not ghetto-bound."
This "Prosperity Gospel" has earned Dollar a fervent following. "I have prospered under his ministry," said one follower. "You can't stay up under the word of God and not prosper."
Some have viewed Dollar's take on Christianity as an inversion of the gospel, but he disagrees.
"You have to really talk to people who read the Bible. We've made financial prosperity like it's a wicked thing," he said. "We automatically assume that Jesus was poor, that he was homeless."
Jets for Jesus?
Nobody can accuse Creflo Dollar of not practicing what he preaches. The son of a policeman and a school cafeteria worker, he now owns a $2.4 million dollar apartment in New York and a mansion in Atlanta.
He also travels by private plane -- a Lear jet.
"The planes are owned by the ministry. We see it as equipment to accomplish the work of the ministry. Like a carpenter has to have a hammer to do his job, I've got to have a plane to fly around this world and be back here to pastor two churches, one here and one in New York," Dollar said in an interview with ABC affiliate WSB-TV in Atlanta.
"Nightline" caught up with Pastor Dollar on a publicity tour for his latest book. He says his ironic name is not a farce, like many think.
"That's one of those urban legends that has been attached to our ministry," he said. "Dollar's my real name. My father was a Dollar, my grandfather was a Dollar. All I can say is God had a sense of humor to call me into ministry and name me Dollar at the same time."
But Dollar's success has also now landed him -- along with his wife and co-pastor, Taffi Dollar -- in the cross-hairs of Sen. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.
"Jesus came into the city on a simple donkey," the senator said. "What are disciples of his doing flying in jets?"
Grassley is investigating whether the Dollars are using tax-free donations from their followers to fund their lavish lifestyle. Dollar has refused to hand over his financial records, saying he's standing up for the privacy rights of all churches. He strenuously denies any financial improprieties.
"We've got to make sure that we don't judge a man, and say you know what, he's misusing the church funds to finance a lavish lifestyle." Dollar said. "What I have, I get through my businesses and investments that I have separately, that I keep separate from the church.
"It's the principle of the thing," he said. "If you don't stand up for something, you'll fall for anything... If I were to turn over [the records] and you could see it, the only thing you would see is what a great guy, he gives millions of dollars to his ministry. Wow."
Dollar's is one of six large televangelist ministries under investigation. In Dollar's case, Grassley is interested in a Rolls Royce given to him by his congregation.
"Black churches love to honor their pastors," Dollar explained. "So how did we get a Rolls Royce? Ten dollars times 28,000 members. They decided to put their money in to surprise me with that car." Dollar says the car is actually the property of the Ministry.
But these televangelists are controversial not only because of their lavish lifestyles, but also because of their theology, which associates wealth with the blessings of God.
Prosperity: 'Not Just Your Finances'
Dollar's church actively solicits donations from its members as a show of their commitment to God. But what about people who can't afford to donate?
"I don't worry about it," Dollar said. "Again, I'm a Christian and I'm a believer and I believe that when people who are having hard times give, I believe that good things will start happening to them. I was one of those poor people that gave and couldn't afford it."
When "Nightline" visited Dollar's World Changers church in Atlanta this past Sunday, his followers defended their pastor's theology and lifestyle against the Senate investigation.
"Jesus said we were going to be persecuted. So you expect that to happen. It doesn't matter to us because whatever they find, they find. It doesn't matter because I know what he has done to my life and I know it has worked for me," churchgoer Tanya Hicks said.
"If you're deserving, you're deserving," congregation member Hervis Mitchell said. "If you do a good job, you expect to be rewarded, and it's not different for him, God rewards him."
"When I first came to this ministry, we're talking about 15 credit cards maxed out," Crystal Bennett said. "[He's] been able to show me exactly, step by step through the word of God, how to get out of debt and to be able to be financially independent, not having to feel the struggle and train of debt and then also being able to change my life in regards to my relationships with my family, my friends, how to just apply the word of God in a practical manner in my life without feeling like it was a complete struggle."
"If we [sic] gonna believe in prosperity and the truth of the word, we got to see it," said one congregant. "And we see it through him and we believe it can come to us." Another said, "God didn't bring us here in this world for us to be poor. I just don't believe that."
As for Dollar, he wants to make clear that when he talks about prosperity, he doesn't mean just money.
"Prosperity -- I define it as wholeness in every area of your life," he said. "Wholeness in your spirit, your soul, your body, your marriage, your family and your finances. But not just your finances."
But a quick search on YouTube might yield a different message from Dollar, including a rap video featuring the group Ziklag Boys called "Money Comin'."
"Sure, but that's just one incident, one video, one time," said Dollar, who says he focused on financial prosperity in "one season" of his ministry years ago, at a time when he was trying teach his followers about financial literacy.
"Of course I'm going to use everything available to try to get your attention to focus in on that message," he said. "Even sometimes going overboard to bring your attention here. You've got young blacks who don't even know how to balance a checkbook. We open a school up for entrepreneurship because we want to train and teach people how to do the everyday things that's going to make them successful in life.
"So at that time, you know, of course, but we've grown from that point and I would like to think that the human race wouldn't just limit you to that one season, that one point, that one sermon and then try to say that this represents your entire ministry," he said.
Dollar says that if he's perceived as going overboard, it's on purpose.
"Of course! [It is] because in the church, we'll put all the emphasis on peace, oh yes, we'll put the emphasis on love, yes, we'll put the emphasis on grace, yes, but now I'm trying to teach you about money and budgets and how to stay out of debt," he said.
Was Jesus Rich or Poor?
Dollar has broadened his focus to issues such as emotional, familial and physical prosperity. But he has not budged on his controversial assertion that Jesus Christ was actually a rich man.
"He had 80 staff people and more that traveled with him," Dollar said. "You'd better be able to take care of them. And I heard this comment the other day, even if Jesus was poor, the disciples were not so he could have borrowed from them. Doctors, tax collectors, fishermen."
However, many biblical scholars say the notion that the notion that Jesus was anything more than a poor carpenter, an itinerant preacher is, frankly, nonsense.
"And I feel so sorry for those guys... Because it's very clear," Dollar said. "The Bible's not a difficult book to read... If I were to take the Bible out and show you those scriptures and you read it, you'd say dear God, it's very clear. So rather than trusting what the scholars say, I say pick the Bible up and read it for yourself. And as you begin to read it, you'll go through the entire Bible and find out, that Abraham, the Bible says, was rich. Isaac and Jacob was rich. Joseph was rich. Solomon was one of the richest people in the world. These were all servants of God."
"This claim that Creflo Dollar makes that Jesus is rich is so ludicrous as to hardly bear examination," said Dr. Joseph Hough, president of the Union Theological Seminary in New York. "I mean, I could sit and quote scripture for scripture for him but the fact of the matter is that those examples just don't hold up. I mean all of the roving, the apocalyptic rabbis have followers. They obviously had to buy food, they obviously had to travel together, and somebody had to look after the money they had. They obviously didn't have very much. All the people who followed Jesus were poor people. Ninety-five percent of the people who lived in the culture Jesus was a part of were very poor people."
Critics say Dollar is misreading the gospel in order to justify a misguided theology -- one in which sacrifice is replaced by personal gain.
"It is wrong to make people believe that if they follow a certain formula, God somehow is going to transform their circumstances," Hough said. "That would be too much of a kind of reward and punishment model for the gift of the grace of God to allow me to be very enthusiastic about it."
Nobody can deny that Dollar and his church spend an enormous amount of time and money on charity.
"We do so much for our communities, so much for needy people," he said. "I personally have purchased a hundred cars for elderly and single mothers, bought houses for people... I couldn't do that if I was broke."
But wouldn't Dollar be able to help even more people if the Rolls Royce and the private jet were sold? p>
"Now, if you want good news, I sold the Rolls Royce and I put the money into our children's Rolls ministry," Dollar said. "But I want to make sure people understand I didn't sell the Royce to please everybody, because there was nothing wrong with receiving a Rolls Royce that my church gave me. Nothing wrong at all with that."
And despite all the skeptisicim directed at Creflo Dollar these days, he continues to give his followers an enormous amount of hope -- and they continue to give.