My Bleak Day at the Star-Studded, Get-Rich-Quick Jesus Jamboree
Around 4,000 Christians flocked to a suburban megachurch to hear from Tim Tebow, a 'Duck Dynasty' guy, and a parade of godly salesmen.
6:42 AM CDT on July 19, 2023
The first speaker at Life Surge, “America’s #1 Christian Wealth Creation Event,” wasn’t a preacher or a certified financial planner, as you might expect. Turns out we wouldn’t hear from either of those professions this past Saturday. It wasn’t ex-NFLer Tim Tebow, Duck Dynasty scion Willie Robertson, or mall pretzel magnate “Auntie” Anne Beiler, though all three of them would address the 4,000+ folks seeking His financial guidance inside an Eden Prairie megachurch.
Instead, after a rousing set of introductory praise music by singer/keyboardist Donnie Bolden Jr., faux-hawked host/former MTV Road Rules contestant Chris Graebe appeared onstage to introduce David and Jason Benham. (Graebe first put a photo of his “off-the-charts smokin’ hot wife” on the Jumbotron, a crowd-pleasing allusion to marital sex that others would later mimic.)
The identical Benham twins once played minor league baseball, but now they speak at events like Life Surge, veering between puzzling money metaphors (“would you rather have a bucket or a river?”), clumsy pandering (“we’re workplace guys just like you”), brotherly chop-busting, and the day’s most pointed chumming of culture war paranoias.
“There’s a radical agenda right now to make you generationally dependent on the government,” said one strapping blonde brother, eliciting knowing murmurs and loud claps of agreement. Unprompted and chest puffed, the other brother later offered “I am a dude, and my pronoun [sic] is My Hero,” spurring even louder applause.
Why were thousands of Christians spending a prime summertime Saturday at this “one-day life-changing event” featuring the likes of the Benham twins? Because Life Surge—a traveling prosperity gospel seminar launched by a Florida real estate executive in 2021— offered attendees the opportunity to become “inspired, transformed, and equipped to SURGE their lives God's way.” As part of a major ad blitz, that promise was plastered all over Twin Cities buses, TV stations, and social media feeds with the style of glossy graphics usually reserved for blockbuster movie posters. We felt compelled to dispatch an agnostic, fly-on-the-wall reporter to cover this otherwise un-covered spectacle.
In practice, the Benhams’ scraps of right-wing red meat appeared infrequently during Life Surge, though most speakers tossed out a few. The celebrities only spoke briefly, boosting the concept of holy entrepreneurship in broad, perfunctory terms. (Life Surge travels the U.S. with a core lineup that doesn’t deviate much from Saturday’s.) Mostly, the evangelical attendees were subjected to presentations from businessmen upselling them on “Impact Classes” with the zeal of TV pitchman Ron Popeil.
Wanna become a real estate speculator? How about an online stock trader? Or maybe a professional public speaker, just like the parade of ones you saw today?
You might expect upcoming three-day courses to learn all three skill sets at the airport Hilton to cost $1,495—or much, much more. But wait! With Life Surge, the trio of courses is available now for the low, low price of $195. At the conclusion of each pitch, streams of black-clad clipboard carriers were deployed around the cavernous, triple-level house of worship to collect thousands of eager signatures.
“We’re not trying to get something from you, we’re trying to give something to you!” Jeff Rutkowski, a self-dubbed “Christian wealth creator,” promised before literally praying for folks to sign up for classes. “This is a mission, this isn’t a show.”
The relentless drumbeat of hucksterism thudded away like that for 10 hours at Grace Church, but its steady rhythm began weeks earlier.
I never engaged with Tyler, the Life Surge employee who texted me moments after I purchased the cheapest available ticket ($27, including free box lunch) to Saturday’s event. That didn’t stop him from texting me over. And over. And over. My “guide to all things LIFE SURGE” urged me to save his contact info to my phone, letting me know that I was free to call or text him during business hours Monday through Friday. Ya know, like a friend.
In total, my text app and email inbox were firehosed with 20+ messages from Life Surge after securing a ticket whose sale page never lost this level of urgency:
One day after buying my pass—one that lacked the superior setting, increased access, and better chow of the $47, $87, and $247 tiers—Tyler texted again, this time offering an “AMAZING opportunity” to loop in friends and family with my “UNIQUE CODE JAY9347.” They’d get 10% off, and I’d recoup $10 of my purchase price with every use. Tyler later pushed the “EXCITING news” of a Father’s Day Sale, followed by the “EXCITING NEWS” of a raffle that could upgrade my lowly nose-bleed ticket. On June 29, having received zero responses, Tyler delivered the hard news that he’d be going out of town and, thus, would be unreachable. “It’s been such an honor being your guide, Jay,” he wrote before delivering that blow.
And yet, generic messages from people who may or may not have been Tyler began blowing up my phone in the days preceding the conference. (These ones, unlike Tyler’s, provided opt-out language.)
Still Tyler-less, I made the 30-minute pilgrimage from south Minneapolis to Eden Prairie starting at 7 a.m. the day of the conference. Apocalyptic air quality alerts flashed across MnDOT’s highway signage during my drive and, I shit you not, “Sympathy for the Devil” began playing via KQRS the moment I approached the two-block traffic logjam snaking from Grace Church’s sprawling 62-acre campus. Parking lot attendees guided SUVs and pickups as capital-hungry worshipers milled in, creating a scene reminiscent of any busy weekend outside of the Minnesota Zoo.
Built in 2002, the 340-000-square-foot Grace Church feels part airport, part shopping mall, part college lecture hall. It forms a hulking tan brick presence in a quiet, grassy, almost country-like stretch of the 63,000-resident suburb. There’s a café, bookstore, and on Saturday, special concession stands selling coffee and snacks. GIVING STATION lockboxes are embedded into the walls throughout:
The auditorium’s 4,200 seats were mostly filled by 8 a.m., thwarting my plan to isolate in a faraway corner to observe—God famously laughs when man makes plans. Initial worries that my constant notetaking would blow my cover quickly dissipated; most of the folks around me were also scribbling away in notepads, determined to record the wisdom of the Benhams. Setting the table, the brothers addressed the elephant in the chapel: “Is it Biblical to create wealth?”
Yes, we soon learned. Very much so.
“God teaches you how to bring value to the marketplace, which brings profit,” explained one Benham, adding that free markets are currently under attack from forces at home as well as from communist China. Wealth-seeking is your Christian duty, they said, considering God loaded the ground with valuable minerals for us to discover; Genesis 2:10-12 validates that claim.
“God created the heavens and the…” one Benham prompted, floating a ball over the plate.
“Earth!” responded the crowd.
“You guys are smart!”
The principles of Monopoly are baked into the Bible, according to the Benhams. “You have to buy the board,” they said, citing Proverbs 27:26: “The lambs are for thy clothing, and the goats are the price of the field.” By Benham logic, that passage presents a choice for Christians: Would you rather be the shepherd, toiling away in the field? Or would you rather “be the land owner creating grazing rights?” they asked. The answer seemed obvious to Life Surgers.
Taking something of a sharp turn, the Benhams began their slow-build closer by saying the “sizzle clip” for their house-flipping reality TV pilot was the talk of the industry in the early ’10s—“flipping homes God’s way!” But they claim cancel culture and political correctness got in the way of Flip it Forward, which was set to debut on HGTV in 2014 but got axed ahead of its premiere.
The website Right Wing Watch had sifted through David Benham’s past activism, and discovered nuggets like his saying "Islam takes life and enslaves it" and “we have a homosexuality and agenda that is attacking the nation," as well as likening abortion clinics to “the gates of hell." (In the aftermath, the Benhams told CNN “we love homosexuals and we love Muslims.”) Or, to hear the Benhams tell it last week, those direct quotes were wielded as “lies, smears, and slander” by the mainstream media to serve its “narrative.”
In any case, they emerged “spiritually bulletproof” and, in a herculean twist of logic, spun that obvious career L as something resembling a triumph over godless Hollywood.
“They couldn’t do anything about that river of wealth—suckers!” a Benham sneered through his grin.
Next up was Australian evangelist Nick Vujicic, whose extremely rare case of tetra-amelia syndrome caused him to be born without limbs. “We are family… I’m your half-brother,” he told the crowd, one riff in a collection of solid ones about his physical appearance.
But a certain darkness pervaded Vujicic’s remarks. He, too, had become a victim of cancel culture it seems, alluding vaguely to a “grenade”-like online article that resulted in his bank accounts being frozen around 2019. “Jesus Christ is the most offensive thing to the world,” he reasoned. Two years later, he’d launch ProLifeBank, whose website boasts of 40,000+ “future customers.”
Vujicic, 40, bragged about his friendship with Viktor Orbán, Hungary's strongman prime minister, lambasted the soft youth of today (he’s happy his parents lashed him with a belt), and alluded to a doctor who, apparently, apologized to his mother for not presenting abortion as an alternative to her. His speech was most effective when it zeroed in on his legit inspiring personal story of overcoming physical challenges to make his first million at age 27; he says his wealth will be used to build orphanages.
But those touching anecdotes kept getting derailed by head-scratching observations on the eroding American family like “You haven't had sex in five months? Something’s going on,” and boasts about his six-figure speaking fee. Shouts of “I love stocks! I love real estate!” were about as granular as the financial wisdom got.
The cynical hard selling kicked off with Roman Andrus. A 6-foot-7 speaker with the aura of a game show host, he came prepackaged with a grabby origin story: Andrus enjoyed a professional hoops career overseas in his 20s, though he was reportedly duped by his financial advisor and lost everything. (Curiously, Andrus has professionally billed himself as Alan Andrus for most of his career; one of his Life Surge colleagues briefly appeared to forget his new name.)
Andrus began his set by leading the audience in stretches, and having us rub one another’s backs. “With all the tools of the internet,” he suggested, stock investing has become almost failsafe with his proprietary program where green = good stock and red = bad stock. “Does this look hard, you guys?”
Jesus talk was in short supply with Andrus, but condescension was not. At one point he questioned whether attendees were familiar with the word “parameter.” At another, he rattled off the make and model of a hyper-obscure sports car, and asked whether we would like to get behind the wheel of something like that. Confused, scattered applause. “Maybe that’s a bad example for this group…” he said with a smirk before pivoting his example to “a brand-new pickup truck!” Wild applause. Andrus, after boiling down the intricacies of the global stock trade to color-coded squares on a computer screen, at one point asked his students, “How many of you can read and write?”
Then came his aggressive push of the “Impact Classes,” followed by the rushing troops of registration clipboard carriers.
The Q&A cameos from “Auntie” Anne Beiler and Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson were brief and inconsequential.
Beiler’s history—Amish woman with a grade-school education who survived sexual assault and built a snack empire—is fascinating, yet she told us we’d have to buy her biography, 2010’s Twist of Fate, to hear it all. She tossed exactly 12 pretzels to the grasping arms wearing “Ultimate” seating wristbands. “God had Auntie Anne’s on his mind all along,” she said. “Can you imagine a world without Auntie Anne’s?”
We’d then break for lunch, which was delivered to each row in large cardboard containers. They contained turkey sandwich box lunches from Jason’s Deli—a 245-location Texas chain with no footprint in Minnesota—that were actually delicious, provided you can set aside questions of how they got to Eden Prairie.
Robertson, rocking an American flag bandana and trademark flowing beard, later yukked it up with our host and threw autographed duck calls to the crowd. He told a story about Masked Singer executives who couldn’t fathom that a mallard is different from a wood duck. “Yeah, like there is between a man and a woman,” he said to thunderous approval. Robertson led the church in prayer, though he seemed more excited to set up the trailer for The Blind, a forthcoming biopic about his father, founder of the hunting company Duck Commander that would serve as the basis of their TV show.
Hustling the “Impact Classes” resumed post-lunch with James Smith. Sporting slicked back hair, sunken eyes, and an ill-fitting suit, he paced and snorted across the stage for over an hour and name-dropped with casual aplomb. (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak is a “weird little dude,” we were told.)
Smith’s energy is impossible to encapsulate, equal parts funny, sinister, charming, and befuddling. He shit on athletes and reality TV with abandon, seemingly indifferent to the fact Tim Tebow and Willie Robertson were waiting in the wings. Watching The View is akin to “eating out of the toilet,” he said, adding that “normal people are disgusting.” He warned that other countries are working to destroy the U.S., which earned a confident holler of “Yup, they are!” from a woman near me. (Another had dozed off into a post-lunch slumber.) One of his few religious reference came when he explained that his red tie was meant to evoke the blood of Christ.
Smith was there to push the real estate classes, and he did just that by making property flipping seem like a low-risk activity we couldn’t afford not to try. He claimed that acquiring properties that could be repurposed into housing for Section 8 voucher holders, homeless vets, special needs individuals, and assisted living facilities allows the owner to draw on vast reserves of government money to subsidize their purchases. The irony of top-down welfare wielded by a presumed welfare skeptic? That was left unexplored.
I’d grow to miss Smith’s snakelike spark when the afternoon’s final “Impact Class” pusher, James Malinchak, took the stage. Over the course of the day each speaker was introduced by flashy videos that touted their bona fides, yet Malinchak’s hype reel was as low-rent as his presentation; at one point the video screamed that he’s perfect to hire for any speaking engagement—you already got hired, dude! The most compelling bullet point on his CV: appearing on ABC’s Secret Millionaire a dozen years ago.
I’d like to tell you that Malinchak didn’t begin by leading the church in a singalong of “If You're Happy and You Know It (Clap Your Hands).” It would bring me great joy to pretend that he didn’t ask “Who would like a smiley fun ball?” before hucking rubber balls at adult attendees. I wish like hell I could report that, at no point during his presentation, did he roll through slides featuring amusing bumper stickers and the phrase “If you like to have FUN say… YES.” Yet I’m duty-bound by my profession to admit that, yes, all of that happened.
Cackling, gasping, and sweaty, Malinchak didn’t lack for effort, though his class pitch presented the toughest sell.
“How many of you would like to do this?” he asked in his best Tony Robbins voice, referring to public speaking. Maybe a handful of people clapped because… what the hell are you talking about?! Malinchak assured us that public speakers are “the new rockstars,” and he attempted to dispel “The 3 Myths” that might dissuade people from “the world’s highest paid skill”: 1) not being famous; 2) not having credentials; 3) not being a great speaker. Well, in that case! If anyone had doubts about job prospects, Malinchak claimed that he had been paid to speak at half of the universities in “our local area.”
If the nakedness of the grift hadn’t been laid bare by this point, Jeff Rutkowski, the “Christian wealth creator,” followed our Secret Millionaire for a quick session to check on how many of the 4,000ish churchgoers had signed up for “Impact Classes” so far. At least 2/3rds rose to their feet. He informed us that Life Surge is “raising up an army” of Christian biz tycoons. Hoots. Hollers. More pens colliding with registration forms.
“The evangelical community has been one of the more susceptible groups that have been so infected by [pyramid scheme-adjacent practices], and still is today,” Robert FitzPatrick, author of Ponzinomics: The Untold Story of Multi-Level Marketing, told The Guardian last year. “It spreads through churches, and is presented with this moral authority: You are told not to argue with anybody who criticizes it, they are non-believers.”
By that point, any voyeuristic amusement in me had ceded to a deep, deep sadness. The idea that someone who couldn’t afford to lose $200 might be signing up for classes on how to become a paid public speaker, all because a man in a church who threw “smiley fun balls” at them said so? The bleakness of that thought sent me sinking into my padded church chair. (Life Surge did not respond to Racket’s request for comment.)
But before I could bolt like Asahel for the doors, I still had to hear from a certain two-time college football champion.
Looking swole in his blue silk button-up, Tim Tebow was greeted by the day’s loudest applause. The superstar college football player had washed out of the NFL and, later, MLB, yet his in-your-face brand of public faith had already cemented him as a folk hero among evangelicals. The fact that he (like all of us, when you really think about it…) is an abortion survivor made his athletic rise irresistible to the churchy crowd.
As a public speaker, Tebow might benefit from Life Surge “Impact Classes.” His tenor ranged from a whispered youth pastor earnestness to a forced and flat-sounding revivalist cry. As a stand-in for actual depth, he kept returning to a rhetorical trick others had used liberally during their speeches: deploying the Latin etymology of words to dubiously fortify their arguments. At multiple points I wondered: How was this guy convincing to teammates in the huddle?
Tebow told a long, meandering, made-up-sounding tale about a failing student who, “Wanted to quit school and wanted to quit life.” But he committed himself and scored a 1480 on his SAT, which meant matriculation to an elite school and, eventually, the honor of “Entrepreneur of the Year.” (That honorific sounds suspiciously like Donald Trump’s insistence he had won Michigan’s nonexistent “Man of the Year” award.) We then learn that, decades later as he’s happily enjoying a successful life, the man’s phone rings. It’s an auditor from his old school district with disturbing news: That 1480 was a mistake; he had actually scored a 740. All the man could do was laugh. The lesson, and we’re being generous by suggesting there is one, is that believing in yourself goes a long way… even if the entire basis for it is a lie.
Tebow’s next story was about bothering notoriously cranky New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick about whether he could star in a commercial for $1 million, after already being told to not be a distraction. Belichick reiterated that no, Tim, please do not do the ad spot, presumably one for a Christian-rooted company. Tebow complied, but now he understands that prioritizing football over his faith was a mistake. With a chuckle, he added that he was cut weeks later anyway.
“Being most passionate about eternal things” is the righteous path, he said, and also “choosing people’s best interests.” That latter one is pretty rich, considering the cavalcade of shilling that preceded him.
Tebow concluded by saying that, while already attending church three-plus times per week as a young man, he had somehow not formally accepted Jesus into heart at that point in life. He asked everyone to close their eyes, and instructed those who are willing to accept Christ for the first time to raise their hand. He seemed to register the smattering of hands that popped up as full-on conversations in his W column, prompting me to scribble: “Don’t they already believe in Jesus??” To his minor credit, Tebow was the first and only speaker that day who didn’t have anything to sell other than His word; his wide-eyed, fire ‘n’ brimstone-free flavor of wholesome evangelicalism felt at odds with everything else that had happened that day.
A smoke machine puffed away as Christian singer Taya Smith and her band played the smiling ex-quarterback off the stage. Her band sounded tight and her voice sounded crisp, but I beelined outta there midway through the first song. It’s likely all Smith had to sell was CDs, making her perhaps Life Surge’s most honest act—at least those are worth the plastic they’re printed on.
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