On a recent Sunday morning, a crowd gathered inside a small office building on the outskirts of Marysville as Bishop Jason Martin Sr. prepared to start service at Abundant Faith International Christian Center.
Martin, dressed in a three-piece suit, stood at the pulpit. His gold and diamond cufflinks, heavy gold bracelet, and oversized gold ring glittered under the bright lights. To his left and right, the lectern was littered with $5, $10 and $20 bills.
Among those at the service was a 23-year-old girl who stood up to sing with the church's praise team. She had been a member of the congregation for several months, despite objections from family members who believe the bishop is bleeding her dry.
"She has had no groceries and she's had no fuel," said Doug, the girl's father. He contacted KIRO Radio after he said his daughter donated the entirely of her savings account to Bishop Martin and the church, convinced that God would repay her for her generosity with money for new clothes, cars, and a house.
"A 'sowing of seeds' is what they call it," said Doug, 50, of Stanwood. "They're vacuuming all the money out of the people."
Bishop Martin started Abundant Faith International Christian Center in 2009 based on the teachings of Dr. Leroy Thompson Sr., a Louisiana-based preacher who travels the county holding conferences entitled, "Money Cometh to You." His message is simple: If you give money to the church, God will bless you with money in return.
"You can have the gospel, but you not only get the gospel, you get to be rich," said James K. Wellman, associate professor and chair of the comparative religion program in the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle.
Wellman, an expert in American religious culture, history and politics, said so-called prosperity gospels saw a rise in popularity throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
"The prosperity gospel folks basically said, 'Let's create a revival, let's create excitement, and let's say to our people that if they sow seeds, that is if they give money, they will get more in return,'" he said.
Wellman said such churches are typically run by charismatic individuals who are capable of bringing in large sums of money.
"They are powerful personalities," he said. "And these powerful personalities have a deep insight into what people want and need. They suggest to them, 'What you really want and need, I can provide for you.'"
"When somebody hears that and begins to believe it, it's possible to encourage people to do almost anything. I hate to call it a scam, but I think in some cases it is a scam. Unfortunately, often these people are middle class, or lower-middle class people who are struggling financially."
Wellman compared such churches to a pyramid scheme, where those at the top are made wealthy by promising those at the bottom an unrealistic return on their investments.
"I think the primary focus of Jesus' ministry was to serve and love and sacrifice himself for others," Wellman said. "If the leader has that ethical core, I would follow him or her. If it clearly looks like they are serving themselves first and foremost, is that the spirit of Jesus? I would really doubt that."
Martin, a twice-married father of seven, lives in a half-a-million dollar home along the Gleneagle Golf Course in Arlington. On any given day, one might see his 2013 Mercedes CLS or 2012 Mercedes S550 parked in the driveway.
"4GOD" reads one license plate.
"SOWSEED," reads the other.
On a recent afternoon, Martin came to the door adorned in his typical jewels and dressed in a green suit, roughly the shade of money. He was on his way to service, but stepped outside to answer questions about his ministry and the young woman whose family would rather she not be a part of it.
Martin said his teachings are rooted in the bible. He referenced quotes from versus that appear on his website alongside a tab for giving.
Luke 6:38: "Give, and it will be given to you: good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over will be put into your bosom. For with the same measure that you use, it will be measured back to you."
Matthew 13:8: "But others fell on good ground and yielded a crop some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty."
"I used to be on welfare and I gave and gave and gave and over time, God gave back to me," said Martin, who said he has made money traveling around the country spreading his messages and through online music sales.
He said there is no one who has gone to his church for an extended period of time who has not been blessed financially.
"There are numerous people that have gotten new cars, new homes, promotions at their jobs," he said. "Things that are not really explainable and that you know only God could have done for them."
He declined to talk in detail about the young woman at his church, but said he knew she had been struggling financially due to her giving and "reached in his own pocket" to help her out on one occasion.
Bishop Martin said he declined requests from the young woman's father to meet with him because he "didn't see any reason for it."
Doug said his daughter, whom he used to be close with, has grown apart from the family and is in a dating relationship with another member of the church. Bishop Martin introduced the pair.
In September, he filed a complaint with the State Attorney General's Office about the church, which is registered as a non-profit.
"I think any church can be put under a microscope if it's a good church," said Doug, who asked to have his last name withheld to protect his daughter. "They should have nothing to hide."
Professor Wellman said it is unlikely the church is doing anything illegal, but offered a word of caution for those who attend prosperity gospels.
"I think the vast majority of religious leaders are trying to serve God with all that they have," Wellman said. "Most of them are good and kind-hearted and sincere people. But, there are bad apples in the bunch and in this case, I think you have to be really suspicious and ask questions before you give your life savings to these churches and to these ministers."
A spokesperson for the state attorney general declined to comment on whether there is an ongoing investigation into Bishop Martin or Abundant Faith International.
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