Rethinking the prosperity gospel?

With all the news and commentary this week about the Anglican Covenant or the Ordinariate, it's probably worth reminding ourselves that the bigger conflicts within Christendom have little to do with Historic Episcopate or human sexuality. It has to do with the loss of members of the Anglican churches in the third world to the preachers focusing on what is called the "Prosperity Gospel". (Details of the situation can be found here.)

Phillip Jenkins, the well-known Humanities professor at Penn State who has written extensively about History and Religious Studies, sees some things worth commending in the Prosperity Gospel movement, especially in the particulars of the praxis:

"In West Africa especially, it is hard to avoid churches with a strong prosperity theme. They find their most ostentatious expression in the wildly successful ministries of preachers like Ghana's Nic holas Duncan-Williams or Nigeria's David Oyedepo. Across Africa, prosperity teachings are central to the ubiquitous culture of revivals and miracle crusades, so much so that they overwhelm more traditional charismatic or Pentecostal doctrines. As distinguished scholars like Paul Gifford, J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu and David Maxwell have shown, the prosperity message has come to dominate the teaching of many new churches, which draw as much on American ideas of positive thinking and perky self-help manuals as on any familiar Christian theology.

In its most alarming manifestations—and the superstar ministries are by no means the worst offenders—prosperity teachings so exalt success as to pour scorn on the poor as stubborn infidels who have evidently refused to seek God's aid. In this version of the gospel, faith leads to tithing, and tithing ignites prosperity. A gratified Almighty will respond by opening the windows of heaven, pouring out blessings so rich that believers will not have room to store them all. You have to pay to play—and to win. And if the church's pastor follows a dazzlingly sumptuous lifestyle, that is just his way of exhibiting God's munificence to the world. These days, Elmer Gantry is a very familiar spiritual type around the world.

And given that, Jenkins points us to the practical consequences of the Prosperity message as it's preached in Africa:

For all the excesses of some preachers, moreover, most prosperity churches also contribute practically to improving the material lot of their flocks. Their actions belie their simplistic message of 'Just tithe, have faith, and stand back!' Matthew Ash imolowo, for instance, heads a potent transnational ministry headquartered in London, with a strong health-and-wealth com ponent. His church teaches that poverty and unemployment are manifestations of sin, against which Christians must struggle. In practice, this means that the faithful should help other members of the congregation by giving them jobs and that the church sternly teaches habits of thrift and sobriety.

Most prosperity churches not only condemn poverty but teach invaluable ways of avoiding it, like actually saving up in order to buy material goods. Debt is a demon to be defeated. Few communities in the world could fail to benefit from such a lesson, but it is vital for people moving suddenly from a rural setting into an overwhelming metropolis, with all the consumerist blandishments offered to the poor. In such a setting, being a member of a church offers life-saving access to social networks of mutual aid and support, which teach essential survival skills. Meanwhile, peer pressure helps believers avoid the snares of substance abuse."

Full essay here.

If Jenkins has this right, then it's probably not all that surprising that people living out the Prosperity Gospel in their lives tend to be more successful than the people in their community who are not. Sobriety, thriftiness, community support are all powerful tools for eradicating poverty.

Comments (5)

Hardly new. It was this same emphasis on sobriety, thrift, hard work, honesty in business and community that lead to the success of early Methodism.

I'm all for keeping a positive, healthy attitude toward life; however, we must be careful of riches that lead to greed. When Jesus spent the time in the desert after his baptism, remember who it was that offered Him anything he wanted.

It's late 19th century America all over again!

Which is probably the closest match for where many African societies are right now, economically and politically.

Except now the snake oil salesmen travel in business jets. It would be interesting tom know whether the charismatic leaders of these ministries live an extravagant lifestyle or whether they reinvest most back in their flocks (which would make them a cut above the snake oil salesmen).

Done right, with integrity, it doesn't sound exactly like the predatory prosperity gospel peddlers here (send me lots of money and you'll get rich too). Maybe closer to the Alcoholics Anonymous mutual support and help model.

I think there are things pro and con we can pay attention to here. First, this seems like a somewhat different kind of prosperity gospel than we get a lot of in the states. As Dave says, there are ways prosperity gospel can be predatory, particularly when the logic is "God wants me to have a Mercedes so I'll give all my money to the church" or "God wants me to have a Mercedes, so I'll take out a loan I can't afford to buy one." The emphasis on hard work, thrift, and sobriety can be great things.

While we need to be careful (those of us who are preaching the Gospel; we can't make anyone else do anything) to remember the importance of God's out pouring and that when we follow Jesus we have to both take up our crosses and remember that a cross is exactly where Jesus wound up, I think that encouraging some of the things that Wesley encouraged (on oh so many levels) might not hurt The Episcopal Church, either.

One doesn't need even a muted "prosperity gospel" to inspire people to lead sober, thrifty, contented, fulfilling lives. One simply needs to listen to the New Testament, which tells us to live a quiet life, mind our own business and do our work to earn a living (1 Thessalonians 4:11); stay out of debt (Romans 13:8); be content with life's necessities (1 Timothy 6:8); forgo extravagance and luxury in clothing and grooming (1 Timothy 2:9-10, 1 Peter 3:3-4); keep our lives free from the love of money (Hebrews 13:5); and share what we have with others (Hebrews 13:16). That's just basic Christianity.

God is not a cosmic Santa Claus or ATM catering to our every whim, and Jesus did not come to eradicate poverty or show people a path to financial success. He came to right relationships: our relationship with God, our relationship with each other and our relationship with the material creation that God set up for us as a home. That naturally touches on our attitudes and behaviors concerning wealth and power, possession and consumption, and the Christian gospel calls for restraint in how we pursue and handle them. Jesus warns us that life is about more than food and clothes (Matthew 6:25), the rich have a hard time entering God's kingdom (Matthew 19:23), and we are not to store up treasures for ourselves on earth, which only rot or get stolen (Matthew 6:19-21). He says we can't serve both God and money (Luke 16:13). His apostles warn us that riches are not lasting (James 1:10-11), we are not to put our hope in wealth (1 Timothy 6:17), and pursuit of money is a danger leading to ruin and destruction, even loss of faith (1 Timothy 6:9-10).

It never seems to occur to preachers of the "prosperity gospel" that God may not want you to have that Mercedes-Benz or those Gucci threads, but rather to choose a cheaper vehicle or clothing and split the difference with the poor: "Anyone who has two shirts is to give one to someone who has none" (Luke 3:11). The real prosperity gospel the world needs to hear is the one preached by the likes of John Chrysostom, Basil of Caesarea, Dorothy Day and so many other faithful Christians: that if God blesses you with prosperity, it is not for your own sake, but for the sake of others, because he expects you to share your surplus with those who have less after you meet your needs (and the distinction between "need" and "want" is crucial here), imitating his own generous providence toward the word, as he makes sunlight shine and refreshing rain fall on sinner and saint alike (Matthew 5:44-45) -- for none are "undeserving" in his eyes. After all, nothing really ever "belongs" to us: "The earth belongs to the Lord, and everything in it" (Psalm 24:1) -- and during our short stay as his guests here, "we bring nothing into the world and we can take nothing out of it" (1 Timothy 6:7).

Pete Gdula's comment above hit the nail on the head: out in the desert after baptism, it wasn't God who offered Jesus all the wealth, power and fame in the world -- it was the devil (Luke 4:1-13). And God may have blessed the rich man with wealth and comfort, but it did him no good in the end, because the rich man ignored poor Lazarus lying in pain and need outside his gate, and didn't bother to share God's blessings with him (Luke 16:19-31).

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