In a TIME magazine poll conducted in 2006, 17% of the Christians surveyed claimed that they are part of the prosperity Gospel movement in America. A staggering 61% believes that God wants people, particularly Christians, to be prosperous, while 31% are convinced that if you give generously to God, he will bless you with even more wealth.
It would be a mistake to think that this is the exclusive predilection of affluent Christians in America, saturated by prosperity teaching. In a survey conducted in the African continent in the same year by the Pew Research Centre, 9 out of 10 participants replied ‘Yes’ to the question whether God would make those with enough faith wealthy.
The prosperity gospel movement, as Stephen Hunt saw so clearly in 1998 is ‘one of the fastest growing religious movements on a global scale’.
The movement rose to prominence in America in the 1980s, with well-known personalities like Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, Robert Tilton, Frederick Price, John Avanzini, Jerry Savalle, Morris Cerullo, etc. Prosperity teaching during this period is distinctively more metaphysical as it blended together the theosophical elements of New Thought Metaphysics and pseudo-Christian cults like Religious Science, Christian Science and the Unity School of Christianity with mainstream Christianity.
The cultic influences mostly came from the work of Essek William Kenyon, from whom the modern apostles of the movement like Kenneth Hagin borrowed heavily. The metaphysics is then translated into practical spiritual laws that can be manipulated by anyone to get what he wants. It is this correlation of the ‘spiritual’ laws with the right technique that lies behind the most basic prosperity dogmas like ‘have faith in faith’ and positive confession (‘What I confess, I possess’).
‘Classical’ prosperity teaching of the Hagin-Copeland variety declined after the much-publicised Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggert scandals. In recent years, however, prosperity doctrine has resurfaced once again in America, albeit in a different garb.
Its most sensational celebrity is without doubt Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. Joel’s father, John Osteen, was a prosperity preacher (and former Baptist) who experimented with a cocktail of Pentecostalism and classical prosperity doctrine in the church he founded in Houston.
When Joel Osteen took over as senior pastor of Lakewood after the death of his father in 1999, church attendance exploded to 44,000, making it the largest church in America. Osteen’s book, Your Best Life Now sold millions of copies and made it to the New York Times’ best-sellers list.
Osteen, who has no theological training, promotes a new ‘less muscular’ version of prosperity teaching (compared to the classical account) with his uncomplicated message of pure positivism. His entire message can be summarised in these words: ‘You were born to win; you were born for greatness, you were created to be a champion in life’.
As the above quotation suggests, Osteen’s ‘gospel’ bears significant and worrying family resemblances to its more ‘New Agey’ predecessor. What seems to be emerging is that this brand of prosperity gospel is just as assuredly self-centred as the Hagin-Copeland version.
‘God wants us to have healthy, positive self-images, to see ourselves as priceless treasures’, Osteen writes. ‘He wants us to feel good about ourselves … God sees you as a champion … he regards you as a strong, courageous, successful, overcoming person’. Put differently, Osteen’s religion asks what God can do for us, instead of what we should do for God and his glory.
This subtle twist introduces serious distortions to our relationship with God because it no longer sees that relationship as an end in itself, but simply as a means to an end. We worship God not because of who he is, but because of what he could do for us. We no longer give out of a grateful heart. We give because the promised return of a hundredfold is simply irresistible. Plainly put, the perverse consequence of prosperity teaching is that worship is morphed into a narcissistic and self-indulgent activity.
But Osteen’s ‘gospel’ is man-centred in yet another way. Although Osteen does speak of God as provider and enabler, much of his exhortations centre on what we can do for ourselves, and how our thinking can change our circumstances. For instance in Your Best Life Now, he writes: ‘If you develop an image of victory, success, health, abundance, joy, peace, and happiness, nothing on earth will be able to hold these things from you’.
He tells the story of how his mother was healed of cancer by positive confession. And he declares axiomatically that ‘Thoughts determine destiny … If you don’t think your body can be healed, it never will be … When you think positive, excellent thoughts, you will be propelled towards greatness, inevitably bound for increase, promotion, and God’s supernatural blessings’.
All this appears banefully similar to Hagin’s teachings (‘Have faith in faith’) and the old-fashioned positive thinking of the Norman Vincent Peale fame. But all this also means that prosperity doctrine is really about having faith in man (i.e., in oneself), not in God. Charles Farah has poignantly and correctly described prosperity teaching as a form of ‘charismatic humanism’.
Prosperity gospel has led some segments of the Church to descend into the very materialism that it should expose and challenge. By portraying God as the celestial ATM, prosperity teachers have promoted a false gospel that panders to that almost universal insatiable desire for wealth – the poor no doubt wants to be rich, but the rich wants to be even richer!
Rick Warren, the pastor of Saddleback has hit the nail on the head when he accuses prosperity teachers of promoting an idol: ‘This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?’
In his book on the Health and Wealth Gospel, Gordon Fee describes this teaching as a disease. And the best antidote, according to the New Testament scholar, is ‘a good healthy dose of biblical theology’.
In many ways the prevalence of prosperity teaching alerts us to the serious theological illiteracy among Christians. It therefore challenges the Church to continue to preach, without compromise or dilution, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to form its members according to sound biblical doctrines. For it is only when Christians are deeply grounded in Scripture that they are able to discern truth from error, orthodoxy from heresy.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in The Bible Speaks Today (July 2013).