The life of evangelical churches and their spiritual leaders has been portrayed in some recent films and series. Can they help us start conversations?
At first glance, it is difficult to understand the success of preachers of the prosperity gospel. Here, we present five reasons.
If we coldly analyse the tremendous success of the great promoters of the prosperity gospel, we are left a little disconcerted.
How is it possible that they deceive so many people with such ease? The phenomenon of preachers of success and financial prosperity turns out to be somewhat ambiguous. At least at first glance.
But if we dig a little deeper and analyse the reasons behind the success of their message, things become clearer. And on top of that, we also realise something else: this phenomenon has stopped being something typically North American and European.
In fact, we see the same pattern – with certain local touches – in Latin America, Africa (Nigeria, especially), and in Asia (China and South Korea, for example).
David Oyedepo and Shepherd Bushiri - the two most famous preachers in Nigeria and Malawi, respectively – have an estimated wealth of $300 million, and this in a continent where many of their followers live on less than a dollar a day.
This reality has extended so far, that the most important evangelical magazine in the world, Christianity Today, has dedicated its cover and a few articles to the topic in its 8th July edition of this year.
And one more figure for you: in this business of people who promise the moon and the stars, it is only these types of American televangelists – those who turn faith into blind faith and their followers’ lack of culture into their rich pickings – who earn some $3,000 million per year.
But before we open the Bible to see what kind of parameters we can find to guide us, I want to propose a question: how is it possible that these people deceive so many people with false promises? And in many cases, people with scarcely any income?
There could be many reasons, but I am going to go through the ones that appear most striking:
1. Human beings carry within them the desire to succeed, be healthy and enjoy economic independence. None of these aspirations is immoral, nor do they go against Christian ethics.
The problem arises when each of these prospects begin to occupy a place and an importance that doesn’t match up to it. Hence, the problem doesn’t really have to do with health or wealth, but rather our attitude towards these things.
The moment we put our trust in something other than Jesus Christ, we become idolaters. What we call the “prosperity gospel” turns these legitimate aspirations into goals in and of themselves, and they become independent of what we might call “Christian life”.
The human heart that doesn’t rest in Christ is pushed in the wrong direction by these desires. This reason is independent of the culture we live in because it is something common to all human beings.
2. This type of theology finds its origins in the more developed countries because it fits in with the philosophy of the time: everyone wants to own a flat or a house; if possible, have two cars in the garage; enjoy four weeks of paid vacation time; be allowed to take some trip or other on a whim; and always have plenty of good food.
It is only too well-known that we live beyond our means, and thus it isn’t so surprising the ease with which we “spiritualise” something that is, at its heart, simply selfishness and self-centredness.
We live in a society where consuming is fashionable, not saving or sacrificing. What’s more, spending and living beyond what we can afford has become our raison d’état. The people who triumph in life are young, healthy, rich and beautiful.
And being as how the gospel must triumph, it is better that its representatives fall into that category. At the end of the day, humanly speaking, who is going to listen to an ugly loser?!
However, phrases like, “you deserve the best because you are a child of the King”, “Jesus makes you happy”, “God wants you to be healthy”, have long ceased to be the exclusive message of North American churches.
In the same way that Hollywood has decisively influenced the secular world, these Christian pop stars have seized an important segment of the evangelical world. In the same way that the welfare state speaks to us of our rights to a happy life and freedom from danger and setbacks, the “gospel of wellbeing” projects this idea into the religious sphere.
Succeeding at a spiritual life therefore becomes a claim for a materialist gospel. This type of teaching tells us that it’s not necessary to follow the steps of simplicity, saving and sacrifice, but rather to enjoy everything that God gives us in abundance so that we can enjoy it without remorse.
And the more horsepower your car has, the more God is glorified in our lives, according to the saying, “and you will know them by their Lamborghinis”. Because in this way, everyone can see to what extent the Almighty is rewarding us for our loyalty and fidelity in lining the pockets of those who trade in “the god of success”.
3. Many people in evangelical churches are more influenced by the values of their own culture than those of the Bible. In this context, we can see a rather striking phenomenon: we usually evaluate concepts such as happiness, success and blessing not according to Biblical parameters (as we will see in another instalment of this series), but by the guidelines that mark the popular and secular culture that surrounds us.
Success is often measured in relation to one’s social status, while a person’s importance is measured by more spiritual factors.
4. In the same way as it is with the idols that attract the crowds in the worlds of music and sport, there are many people who seek their idols in the spiritual world.
Not only is it a matter of God blessing you with all possible material abundance, but rather that it is also highly desirable to belong to a church that looks like a real temple (look at Edir Macedo’s building in Brazil).
Many people are impressed that Benny Hinn and company travel the world in their private jets, with all of their luxuries, but in the same way that glamour magazines and programmes are able to assure their millionaire audience because we are simply fascinated by the life of the rich and beautiful.
It is a strange contradiction that on the one hand, we reject corrupt politicians who squander our money, but on the other we line the pockets of the Ronaldos, the Neymars and the Messis, buying their shirts and paying for their matches to be broadcast.
The same thing happens in the spiritual world: we reject the ostentation of power and wealth in established churches and at the same time we voluntarily finance the whims of evangelical pop stars. Would Jesus drive a Cadillac? Of course not! He would prefer a Lamborghini. Would he travel in business class? No! He’d have his own plane.
5. The idea of using faith for profit. The Romans already knew of the principle, “do ut des” (I give in order that you give to me). The gods are paid so that they, in turn, can show themselves to be generous.
What applies to human relationships (both parties benefit from a mutual commercial relationship) also applies to God: I pay God so that He, in turn, gives me things that I couldn’t get otherwise.
It is a universal phenomenon in many parts of the world and, of course, in many religions. And some apply it to Christianity as well: there are many people who don’t confess their faith because they are convinced of its historical and theological truth, but because they are able to find a solution to their earthly needs.
They preach that God is almighty, and if we respect the “rules”, He will give us all we ask of Him. This functional approach uses faith to achieve material gains.
That the Macedos, Hinns and Copelands turn the Christian faith into a parody for public opinion shouldn’t surprise anyone at this point. Matt Groening and The Simpsons haven’t had to exaggerate too much.
José Hutter is Pastor of a church in Madrid and Chair of the Theology Group of the Spanish Evangelical Alliance.