Type to search


EDITOR’S NOTEBOOK: Christian Ponzi Schemes, and Elevation Worship Ticket Prices

Editor’s Note:  Most Saturdays we will feature this “Editor’s Notebook” column. MinistryWatch President Warren Smith will comment on one or more stories in the week’s news, adding an additional perspective or, sometimes, a behind-the-scenes look at how the story came to be.

When The Tide Goes Out.  You may have read our story this week about Brad Heinrichs, who has been accused of committing a massive financial fraud aimed at Christians.

Heinrichs quoted scripture as he targeted Christian investors, telling them that his real estate deals were done to help build God’s Kingdom and help “the little guy” have the same opportunities as high rollers. But after taking in $82 million between 2005 to 2014, his massive and complex Ponzi scheme finally blew up.

Ponzi schemes are not new.  In fact, they’ve been around for at least a hundred years, when Charles Ponzi’s huge fraud became national news in the 1920s and gave this particular fraud its name.  (Read his story, and how he initially targeted the Italian Catholic community, in my book Faith-Based Fraud.)  

A Ponzi scheme is an investment scam in which the money taken from new investors is used to pay the returns promised to old investors.  It’s sometimes referred to as “robbing Peter to pay Paul.”  Of course, eventually you run out of new investors, and that’s when the scheme falls apart.

These unravelings often occur during an economic downturn.  As billionaire investor Warren Buffett famously said, “When the tide goes out, you find out who’s been swimming naked.”  That’s why we saw the collapse of two of the largest Ponzi schemes in history (Bernie Madoff and Allen Stanford) during the last downturn.  Both Madoff and Stanford used their connections in faith communities to fuel their frauds.  (Read my account of Allen Stanford here.)

The bottom line:  Beware.  If a deal seems too good to be true, it probably is.  And if someone tries to appeal to your faith to make a financial investment, be doubly wary.  With the stock market correction, and the slowdown of the economy, we’re seeing more of these “faith-based frauds.”  Don’t be a victim.

Charges Dropped.  Here at MinistryWatch we often report on stories of pastors and ministry leaders who are charged with crimes.  But what about when the charges are dropped?  


Access to MinistryWatch content is free.  However, we hope you will support our work with your prayers and financial gifts.  To make a donation, click here.


Our policy here at MinistryWatch is to report that news, too, and this week we did that twice, here and here. 

Elevation of Ticket Prices.  You also may have read the news of a controversy generated by Elevation Church’s worship group, Elevation Worship.

They’re going on a West Coast tour, which includes stops in San Diego, Las Vegas, Oakland, Sacramento, Seattle, and Los Angeles. Called “Elevation Nights,” the tour will feature appearances from Elevation Church senior pastor Steven Furtick.

The controversy involves the ticket prices, some of which top $1,000.  Furtick’s defenders blame re-sellers who buy in bulk.  Whatever the cause, $1,000 tickets are not a good look for Elevation or – for that matter – the entire Evangelical Industrial Complex.  

As a journalist, I couldn’t help but notice that neither Furtick nor the church commented except in their highly curated social media feeds.  Indeed, one of the most troubling aspects of Furtick and Elevation Church has been the stonewalling of the media.  I have made many requests for interviews over the years (including at least one face-to-face request when I happened to be on an airplane with Furtick and the Elevation leadership team).  So far, my requests have been to no avail.

The second thing that jumped out at me was Furtick’s reported net worth:  $60-million, according to several sources.  It’s impossible to know if this number is accurate without Furtick himself either confirming or denying it, but it shows up on a number of online sources, and Furtick has so far not disputed it.  

Warren Cole Smith

Warren previously served as Vice President of WORLD News Group, publisher of WORLD Magazine, and Vice President of The Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He has more than 30 years of experience as a writer, editor, marketing professional, and entrepreneur. Before launching a career in Christian journalism 25 years ago, Smith spent more than seven years as the Marketing Director at PricewaterhouseCoopers.