Prosperity theology and its inherit pitfalls: an introduction.
I’ve on several occasions wrote about the need for discipleship in Africa in the years I’ve been here. Actually it’s a need the world over but my heart is currently captured by this beautiful continent and it’s need is quite palpable. One of the problems we face living, working and discipling in Africa is what’s often exported as discipleship or “the way” from the west. Because it’s the west who seemingly has “it” put together that a developing world looks up to, for better or worse.
It’s in circumstances like I recently found myself in that I’m unsure if our influence really does make things better or worse as all too often our worst is exported as it makes the most outlandish promises requiring the least amount of work. Actually it’s those things that reduce life and it’s accompanying joys and sorrows to a series of economic transactions. Rather than a journey to be made hand-in-hand, intentionally, taking into account all of life, discipleship is reduced to a simple consumeristic transaction; transformation is linked directly to our economic ability to pay for it. And if you want to consider things materially, what is quite sad about this, when reduced to an economic transaction, discipleship can’t break through a poverty mindset; instead it simply perpetuates it.
If we are willing to walk the journey intentionally, in good and bad and ugly, the power that poverty has over the empoverished breaks as individuals step into a hope filled tomorrow. I’ve seen it happen. I remember the first budgeting session I did with a friend in a local community. After a Bible study, we talked about what budgeting is and why someone would do it. Together we made a plan and I helped keep him accountable to it. Several months later I was visiting with him and he grabbed my hand and pulled me into his home and said, “Look!” pointing at a new fridge. With a smile on his face he explained how he had made a fridge envelope, and over several months had saved for it and purchased it in cash without going into debt. With joy, he shared the difference it had made and the excitement starting small gave him for the future. But this is a rabbit trail from what I’m wanting to share; just know that intentional, holistic discipleship changes hearts and lives in substantial ways.
Back to the topic at hand. As Americans, it’s often our worst that’s exported. The excesses of the prosperity gospel have reached these far shores and we have a generation of churches pastored by individuals that use their position to manipulate their congregants out of all they have for the financial gain of those in power. Bankrupt theology is producing bankrupt churches made of literally bankrupted individuals who really had not much to start with anyways. The prosperity gospel is best summed as the notion that we can buy God’s blessing/favor/annointing/miracle through giving to an individual rather than relationship with Him who already gave all for us. It’s a marketing and manipulation technique to make a small group of individuals quite wealthy at the expense of a large group of “others” (generally the already impoverished and least educated within a society). It’s a gospel of economic transactions rather than grace through faith in Christ. And as such it’s not good news to the poor, or anyone (other than those getting rich off of its machinations). It’s not gospel in any sense of the word. Not when it’s causing people to give away 3 months of living expenses they don’t have to pay for a miracle that won’t come through that financial transaction. And it’s downright anti-Christ when a woman spends all her money, can’t afford her AIDs treatment and dies in the background of everyday life.
It’s come to Africa and much of the developing world in a large part due to big crusades and revivals held by the big names you’ve probably heard of. I had never attended one as frankly, they aren’t my style and theologically I find them to be quite lacking (especially considering what I hear people who go come back saying). Rather than preaching on a stage to people I don’t know and will not see again after the “revival” is over, I find much more value in on-the-ground work and that’s where I’ve focused my attentions.
But as I’ve known more people to go and come back with tragic stories I knew I needed to see first hand what I was perceiving as a train wreck. I needed to understand and judge with my own eyes rather than through the stories of others. And when an opportunity came up, I joined three of my colleagues to attend one of these “Miracle & Healing Revivals”.
The events of the evening
I should preface this by saying we went with open hearts and open minds. I knew going in that I’d likely have some theological quibbles. We really hoped though to see something miraculous that ran counter to what we’ve always heard. That’s the eternal optimist in us, perhaps? At the very least we knew we’d get a better understanding of the crowd and the ins and outs of the operation. ”Know thine enemy” as the saying goes.
It all started with pre-buying tickets. According to the marketing material the event was going to be a sell out. We got our tickets and a notice to be in our seats two hours before the event was to start (so at 5:30pm). We left at 3:30 to get some grub, expecting a long night. Unfortunately though the place we were going to eat at was closed for remodeling: the first bummer of the evening. We headed on down the highway to an older mall 1km from the church and experienced our first (and unfortunately only) miracle of the evening: the place we were wanting to eat had a branch at this old mall that none of us knew about.
After quickly chowing down on some peri-peri grilled chicken we headed to the place, arriving by 5:20, and walked to the gate where we were informed to get in the long line that would be letting people in “soon”. And an hour later, it started moving and we were in our seats by 6:30. Unfortunately though at 7:30 when the revival started, the venue was still 1/3 empty (actually — not really a bad thing considering the content of the evening; there were about 600 in attendance though by my rough estimates). It was however annoying to us as we could have taken more time to fellowship together over dinner rather waiting outside in the hot sun.
Anyways — back to the event. At about 6:30 the ministries marketing director took the stage to advertise the brand new prayer shawl they were selling, as well as the books and DVDs and other trinkets and knick knacks. Really, nothing too wrong at this point. It finally started on time with a few worship songs led by a guy, a band and a choir. Nothing out of the ordinary here.
Sidebar: It was interesting watching what was going on at the back of the hall. This is where they put all of the unsightly people: wheelchairs, crutches — that sort of thing. There was at least one well dressed staffer scoping them out and doing some initial interactions. They were praying and picking people out of wheelchairs to see if they could stand at all. I didn’t really think anything about it until after the event in reading about these sorts of things. Apparantly this is a routine practice to make sure that certain types of people stay off the stage. This is tragic. These are the types that Jesus would love dearly. Anyways. More about them later.
Then, about 15 minutes later, the evangelist/healer/miracle worker/whatever he calls himself took the stage by grabbing the mic and leading a rendition of “How Great Thou Art”. This was actually probably my favorite part of the evening. He voice wasn’t that great but he wasn’t afraid to belt it out, and that hymn is a favorite. If only the rest of the evening went this well.
After the singing, the first in a string of events was the man himself promoting all of his wares: ”Oh this book is so powerful,” “Oh this is the most powerful thing I’ve written,” “Oh you’ll never hear a more powerful teaching.” This was quite uncomfortable. One of my friends leaned over to me and whispered, ”if I ever get this arrogant about anything I produce you have permission to punch me in the face. Please.” It’s one thing to advertise before a service but after it starts, in such an arrogant manner, seemed a bit tacky.
But it was to only get worse from here. He immediately moved into a 45 minute advert for a commemorative DVD from his remarriage service, that just had happened 10 days prior to the event. He “guaranteed” that it would “heal any broken marriages” if you bought it and watched. We got to see the advert with all of the big names and faces, etc, etc. It didn’t convince us but seemed to convince a large portion of the audience. Unfortunately.
Sidebar: having a baby has greatly turned me on to the blessing that children are. I love that Jesus was always open to children and specifically rebuked his disciples for turning them away. In the midst of this push to buy his wedding video, the fellow stopped and yelled at a woman and child for being unruly, asking them to leave if things didn’t change. This did not sit well with me. We couldn’t see anything worthy of this outburst.
Back to the main event though.
Wedding video sales lead into the main offering. And the lead up to it was another 45 minutes to an hour. This is where the prosperity nonsense mentioned at the beginning came into play. He went into full blown audience manipulation mode. The kicker was when it was time to pass the buckets and he said, ”Who is willing to give R1000 or more (~$120)? Raise your hands! Why don’t you stand up. Everyone else, look at them. They are willing to give at least R1000 right now. All of you come to the front! I will pray for you and guarantee you a miracle if you are willing to give R1000 or more.” They make their way to the front with a crowd watching and slowly more rise to come to the front, the guilt and desire to buy their guarantee taking root. In all somewhere around 100 people went to the front to pay for their miracle. Truly tragic.
The tragedy is compounded by the fact that the majority of the audience came likely from disadvantaged communities around Cape Town. To these people this is an incredibly significant amount. Actually the cultural insensitivity was kind of staggering. To stand on stage discussing how legal fees close to $800,000 was hell on earth just seemed a little out of place in Africa.
This part of the evening really significantly grieved me. I was done at this point. I’d seen all that I really cared to see. The worst had happened — that was that. It was also about 10:15 by the time the offering blasphemy ended. We’d been there for 4 1/2 hours, the service had been going on for 2 1/2 hours and still no miracles or healings: just a couple of schemes to get peoples money. But the guy decided to go ahead and preach so we decided to go ahead and wait it out to see if miracles would follow.
They didn’t. And the sermon wasn’t something to be proud. His Bible was never opened. It centered on a piece of a verse and stretched the Bible further than I’d ever heard it stretched before. It was no exegetical masterpiece. Actually the one thing I remember from it was the statement, “your spirit is never older than 33 1/2. Eternally you are 33 1/2. Because that’s how old Jesus was when He died.” Huh? It was 45 minutes of this stuff.
And then the final nail in the coffin: at 11:00 he says, “I don’t feel like healing anyone tonight. So we are going to go ahead and pray and close down.” The disappointment on one fellow’s face in a wheelchair that we saw leave was heartbreaking. It was the image I was left carrying as the evening ended. Remember those people they were "testing" before the night officially began? The ones in wheelchairs and with crutches? He was one of them, desperately seeking some sort of change.
A short conclusion
It was quite the night. I was so thankful to share it with a few close colleagues and friends. It was good to have people there to assess and process and debrief with when all was said and done. There were quite a few key takeaways for me personally.
On the somewhat lighter side, I’ve always wondered where some of the ridiculous things we hear passed off as facts come from (specifically in regards to the Bible & faith). I think I know now: events like tonite and leaders like this that tickle an audience with fancy and made-up words and facts and stories.
Getting a little deeper, and flowing from the last point, you can really see the power that words have to capitivate and manipulate people. They really can be akin to magic spells, if you know what you are doing. Actually I’d say that that is exactly what’s going on in the prosperity gospel nonsense: a kind of magic that promises endless rewards and change without any sort of work or lifestyle investment. The mantra brings the change rather than an investment in a relationship with Jesus. Coming to an event like this really goes lengths to show the power of our words and this type of “magic”.
Tagging onto that, I was (but shouldn’t have been maybe?) surprised at the lack of a clear Gospel presentation. Really no mention of Jesus and what He did that I can recall. Lots of what man can do, and where man can go with the right resources but not of what Jesus did, which was a shame. You'd think a place where people are searching for miracles would be a great place to make Jesus known loudly and clearly. You'd think when you think of miracles that His power would be at the center of discussions. Alas, though, this wasn't to be.
I can also see why people get sucked in: those folks on the stage really believe what they are selling; they are truly deceived themselves by it. Desperate people see this belief and latch on to it and give of all they have in the hopes that the spells will work for them as well. Unfortunately it’s a bit too much like a pyramid scheme: in order for it to work, you’ve got to have people underneath you buying into your ability to do miracles. If you lack that, you can only give the little you already have. And their situation all too often remains unchanged or, as we’ve seen in communities we’ve worked in, it worsens.
Here are my two biggest takeaways though: (1) prayer against this sort of deception is necessary and urgent and (2) it’s somewhat a race against time to get to where Jesus is opening doors before these “revivalists” so that disciples, and not purveyors of cheap tricks, are made.
For point 1, during the prayer offering I just felt such a strong urge to pray against the deception blanketing the air around us. To pray that in the midst of the disappointment that people were going to inevitably feel that they would know Jesus as comfort, provider and healer. To pray that they would turn their hearts resolutely towards Him and leave the schemes of man behind. To pray that this prosperity deception would be found out and sent away from this continent (and the developing world). To pray that Jesus would truly be Lord, and man not.
For point 2, we’ve had Christian leaders in countries beginning to open urge our friends and colleagues to come quickly before these dangerous revivalists get there because of how much harder discipleship becomes. Why take the hard road when you can try magic using common religious lingo? It makes the task of reaching the unreached, engaging the unengaged ever more urgent in our hearts and minds. Discipleship is key.
When all was said and done, this is what I was left with; this is how I plan to respond. I challenge anyone reading to join me. Get outside. Get into the lives of others. Join hands with them. Walk steadily towards Jesus and see if the world transforms in a way these magicians could never make so.