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.