Continuing discussion of Philip Jenkins’ fascinating book, The New Faces of Christianity: believing the Bible in the Global South.
I’m returnning to chapter 4 ‘Poor and Rich’ and specifically the topic of the Prosperity Gospel.The message of this gospel is that Christians have ‘the right and duty to seek prosperity in this world, to obtain health and wealth now.’
Of course, as Jenkins says, it is far from just a ‘Global South’ issue. We have prosperity churches in Ireland. Jenkins refers to the aptly named Creflo A Dollar in Atlanta who calls poverty a curse that the gospel liberates Christians from. He could have mentioned Joel Osteen and Benny Hinn. He does throw in Bruce Wilkinson’s phenomenally successful The Prayer of Jabez as a book that teaches God will bless with personal success and prosperity.
A couple of examples Jenkins gives are the Central Full Gospel Church in Seoul which has half a million members and preaches health, prosperity and salvation as the threefold blessings of Christ. David Oyedepo from Nigeria has a hugely successful evangelistic ministry based around the message of ‘Make my people rich.’
Many leaders in Africa and Asia are deeply troubled by the damage been done to the integrity of the gospel and to the exploited poor. Jenkins quotes the Catholic archbishop of Lagos, ‘The quickest and easiest way to make money in Nigeria is to carry a Bible on Sunday and start preaching.’ At its worst, Jenkins says, this gospel permits corrupt clergy to get away with just about anything.
Jenkins closes with a couple of big challenges to western Christians: What do you make of what he says here?
In contexts of extreme poverty, hopelessness, violence and injustice in places like Lagos, churches that promise a better life are powerfully attractive. It represents a faith that believes that faith in God will make a visible real difference in everyday life.
We westerners are so used to comfort, security and high expectatations of long and healthy lives that we forget that such expectations are very recent.
For a Northern world that enjoys health and wealth to a degree scarcely imagined by any previous society, it is perilously easy to despise believers who associate divine favor with full stomachs or access to the most meager forms of schooling or health care; who seek miracles in order to flourish, or even survive.
Health-and-wealth churches assuredly the potential role of prayer and godly behaviour in securing material prosperity, but they might well respond by asking if Euro-American mainline churches allow any serious belief whatever that prayer can shape one’s material conditions. Are Christian critics of “prosperity” arguing that faith and prayer are absolutely unconnected from material realities? Why then do most or all incorporate prayers for well-being into their services and liturgies?