THE BANKRUPT THEOLOGY OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL BY SHAYNA L. LEAR “Beloved, I pray that you may prosper in all things and be in health, just as your soul prospers” (3 John 1:2). This greeting to John's friend Gaius has been a foundational scripture for preachers of the prosperity gospel. According to prosperity teaching, it justifies the belief that God wants us to prosper both in our health and our personal economy and will reward us with these things according to our faith. To prosperity preachers, poverty is both a curse and a sign of weak faith. To many of us, equating financial success with faith sounds absurd or, at the very least, simplistic. Yet millions of believers around the world hear and subscribe to this belief in some way. The prosperity message is disseminated via churches, television, internet, iTunes, and bookstores. Regardless of the language or medium that delivers it, the message is the same: “God wants you to be healthy and rich. And all you need to do to get there is remain faithful to the commands of the Lord—especially in giving financially.” Prosperity teachings are, in fact, Christianized versions of the New Thought Movement, which has its roots in the 19th century.1 New Thought teachings encouraged adherents to see their external circumstances as manifestations of their thoughts. New Thought teachers widely publicized their teachings in print, yielding authors such as Napoleon Hill, who wrote the still-popular Think and Grow Rich in 1937. In 1954 Kenneth Hagin, known as the father of the modern prosperity movement, began preaching on how the faithful should handle money. “Don’t pray about money,” he said. “Claim it.”2 In 1974, he founded the RHEMA Bible Training College for those interested in learning the biblical path to a life of faith and prosperity. Since its inception, RHEMA has graduated 60,000 students worldwide, and its alumni preach, teach, and serve the message of “faith” and the power of the “spoken word” of God. Hagin and RHEMA represent just one segment of the prosperity gospel movement. Other early influencers include Asa A. Allen, E.W. Kenyon, and Oral Roberts. Each founded training schools that cumulatively send hundreds of thousands of students out to heal, teach, and preach prosperity as they know it. Today, the number of adherents to the prosperity gospel is hard to calculate with any precision.
Although they may not attend or affiliate with a known prosperity gospel ministry, many Christians in various denominations may believe some of its tenets. While 17 percent of all American Christians openly identify with the movement, “two-thirds of all Christian believers are convinced that God, ultimately, wants them to prosper.”3 DOUBLE STANDARD The most common seeker of the prosperity message in the United States is older, African American, less educated (associates level degree or less), and evangelical (or born-again).4 Yet the prosperity gospel has also become an export of America to the world. According to John Piper, “This distorted gospel is one of the largest and most tragic exports that America takes to the two-thirds world, especially Africa.”5 In communities where the prosperity gospel is accepted, we will find that the communities are often the marginalized of society. These groups seek out churches that proclaim a message of hope for life in this world that manifests in the form of material prosperity. The pastors who preach these messages present themselves as the embodiment of the success of their “system.” They often own private jets, drive expensive cars, wear expensive clothing, live in palatial mansions, and house their ministries in multi-million-dollar facilities. While their congregations rarely reflect such outward appearances of wealth, it is the contributions of their congregants and “partners” that build these ministers’ lifestyles. When we examine the incomes of the prosperity gospel preachers, we find income disparities similar to the secular corporate world. Fulton County, Ga., home to the ministry of Creflo Dollar, reported an average income of $62,682 in their 2008 census. Dollar’s salary, benefits, and other compensation from the ministry was $3,120,000, almost 50 times the average income of the people he serves in Fulton County. Median household income in Los Angeles County, Calif., the home of Frederick K. C. Price’s Ever Increasing Faith Ministry, is $55,452. Price’s salary, benefits and other compensation from the ministry was recently reported as $3,250,000—58 times that of the median income of his immediate community.6 One might argue that these ministries serve people all around the world and not just in their immediate community. However, when we consider that the majority of the world lives on less than $2 per day, or $730 per year, we see an even greater disparity between what these pastors earn and the median income of their overseas adherents. While earning a great deal of money in and of itself is neither sinful nor unethical, how that money is earned certainly can be. If it is earned through offerings elicited by unfounded promises from a vulnerable population, purveyors of deceit will have to deal with the divine wrath that is promised to “sons of disobedience” (Eph. 5:6). Not being willing to walk away from the money is also a problem. Jesus did not condemn the rich young ruler for having accumulated wealth; he simply said that if the young man wanted to follow him into eternal life, he needed to give it up (Mark 10:17-22). Preachers of the prosperity gospel cannot release their earnings, for to do so would be to call their own theology a lie. After all,
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