My biggest concern about the prosperity movement is that it diminishes Christ by making him less central and less satisfying than his gifts. Christ is not magnified most by being the giver of wealth. He is magnified most by satisfying the souls of those who sacrifice to love others in the ministry of the gospel.
In recent decades, scholars and missiologists have observed a massive ongoing shift in global Christianity. Lamin Sanneh, late professor of history and world Christianity at Yale University, used the word “breathtaking” to describe the new situation in his 2008 book, Disciples of All Nations.
Among the many breathtaking developments in the post–World War II and the subsequent colonial eras, few are more striking than the worldwide Christian resurgence. With unflagging momentum, Christianity has become, or is fast becoming, the principal religion of the peoples of the world. Primal societies that once stood well outside the main orbit of the faith have become major centers of Christian impact, while Europe and North America, once considered the religion’s heartland, are in noticeable recession. We seem to be in the middle of massive cultural shifts and realignments whose implications are only now beginning to become clear. (xix)
Europe and America are not the center of gravity in world Christianity any longer. The center is shifting south and east. The churches of Latin America, Africa, and Asia are experiencing phenomenal growth and are becoming the great sending churches.
Introducing the Global South
The new terminology that has been introduced into our vocabulary is the term Global South, a reference to the astonishing growth of the Christian church in Africa, Latin America, and Asia while the formerly dominant centers of Christian influence in Europe are weakening. For example:
- At the beginning of the twentieth century, Professor Dana Robert writes, Europeans dominated the world church, with approximately 70.6 percent of the world’s Christian population. By 1938, on the eve of World War II, the apparent European domination of Protestantism and Catholicism remained strong. Yet by the end of the twentieth century, the European percentage of world Christianity had shrunk to 28 percent of the total; Latin America and Africa combined provided 43 percent of the world’s Christians. (“Shifting Southward: Global Christianity Since 1945,” 50)
- Professor Philip Jenkins writes that, in 1900, Africa had 10 million Christians representing about 10 percent of the population; by 2000, this figure had grown to 360 million, representing about half the population. Quantitatively, this may well be the largest shift in religious affiliation that has ever occurred, anywhere. (“Believing in the Global South,” 13)
- By 2050, Christianity will be chiefly the religion of Africa and the African diaspora, Jenkins goes on to note. By then, there will be about three billion Christians in the world, and the population of those who will be white and non-Latino will be between one-fifth and one-sixth the total. (12)
In the words of historian Mark Noll (writing in 2013), “The Christian church has experienced a larger geographical redistribution in the last fifty years than in any comparable period in its history, with the exception of the very earliest years of church history” (The New Shape of World Christianity, 21).
Global South and Prosperity Gospel
As many have recognized, however, there is a major ambiguity in the present magnificent expansion of Christianity: not all the forms of this faith are based on what the apostle Paul calls “sound doctrine” (Titus 1:9; 2:1). Michael Horton makes this sobering observation:
Celebration of the much-advertised expansion of Christianity in the two-thirds world (most notably in recent years in Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom) should at least be tempered by the fact that the prosperity gospel is the most explosive version of this phenomenon. (Christless Christianity, 45)
The “prosperity gospel” is a teaching that emphasizes God’s aim to make believers healthy and wealthy in this life, while it overlooks or minimizes the dangers of wealth, the biblical call to a wartime mindset, and the necessity and purposes of suffering.
The prosperity gospel would be represented by one leading African prosperity preacher, quoted in an article by Isaac Phiri and Joe Maxwell, who says, “Many are ignorant of the fact that God has already made provision for his children to be wealthy here on earth. When I say wealthy, I mean very, very rich. . . . Break loose! It is not a sin to desire to be wealthy” (“Gospel Riches,” 23).
I am deeply concerned when a preacher encourages a crowd to give $200 to “open themselves to the blessing” in a culture where a schoolteacher earns $150 a month. Yet more than 300 people come forward to receive the speaker’s oil and “within minutes, the church nets tax-free $60,000” (23).
The extent of the teaching in Africa is remarkable. In a 2006 survey, Pew asked participants if God would “grant material prosperity to all believers who have enough faith.” About 85 percent of Kenyan Pentecostals, 90 percent of South African Pentecostals, and 95 percent of Nigerian Pentecostals said yes (24).
“The worst brand of African prosperity teaching is, perhaps unsurprisingly, an American export,” write Phiri and Maxwell (24). Television has become a religious classroom for many in Africa. “People turn it on and assume that TBN is American Christianity, and Americans know everything, so why not listen to it?” (25). And of course, prosperity teaching is not unique to America and Africa. It has its Latino and Asian forms and can be found throughout the Global South from Seoul to São Paulo.
Ten Appeals to Prosperity Preachers
What shall we say about the prosperity gospel? The first thing we should say about the prosperity gospel is that wealthy Westerners are probably as guilty of its excesses as are the poor in the Global South. The difference is that the poor don’t have wealth and want it, while the rich have it, expect to keep it, and get angry if God takes it. Both have their hearts set on prosperity. It’s just more subtle in the West because we can take prosperity for granted. This is why, when I was a pastor, I spent more time calling our church to live differently than I did calling the Global South to think differently. I am more responsible for the sins at home.
But what we think about money and possessions is profoundly important in the way we do missions and the way we disciple converts. So I would like to provide a biblical response to the prosperity gospel. As I point out some of its weaknesses, I aim to keep in mind my own sins, and I hope to remember that it is not a monolithic movement and that prosperity is a relative term.
Prosperity in one part of the world would mean a roof over your head, nourishing food on the table a couple times a day, and clean drinking water. “Currently, about 315 million sub-Saharan Africans live on less than a dollar a day” (“Gospel Riches,” 27). And what we would call a modest lifestyle in America (with a home, a car, electricity, refrigeration, indoor plumbing, clean drinking water, central heating, a computer, a phone, several changes of clothes, and unheard of choices in groceries) would be wildly opulent in most of the world. This is one reason why criticisms of the prosperity preachers must be nuanced and cautious.
Another caution for critics is that there are different ways to think about how Christianity brings prosperity. Few would disagree that a gospel-driven movement of honesty, hard work, patience, generosity, perseverance, and love for excellence would, over time, lift a culture from the dysfunction of corruption and bring more stable and prosperous times. If that is what the prosperity preachers were saying, there would be little controversy.