Prosperity Gospel: Missional Response

(This is the third part in a mini-series on the health and wealth gospel and what a missional response might be.  Here is part one [CLICK HERE], here is part two [CLICK HERE], and here is part three [CLICK HERE].  Be sure to check back for more!  Or just subscribe to my blog using the sign-up form on the right or at the bottom of the page if you’re using your mobile device.)

The prosperity gospel, AKA the health and wealth gospel, is a force to be reckoned with within Christian circles.  There are millions of people who believe in its principles in the United States, and many millions more in the rest of the world (especially in Latin America, Asia, and Africa).

It’s central claim is that if you believe just so, which you demonstrate in part by funding ministries financially, then God will bless you with material things, money, and health.  And while there seems to be some biblical support for this (see Jeremiah 29.11, Genesis 12, and Mark 1.29-30), upon closer investigation the basic claim of the prosperity gospel is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus and his kingdom.

Jesus and the Promise of Prosperity

This discontinuity can be seen plainly by the fact that Jesus consistently tells his closest followers to expect hardship, persecution, and the like.  Why?  Simply because they follow him!

Listen to a few of Jesus’ thoughts about this:

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9.23)

Taking up a cross and denying oneself certainly doesn’t sound like getting blessed financially or with health!

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. (Mark 10.25)

Why would God bless his people primarily through money, stuff, and health if in so doing he was making it harder for them to live under his kingship?  That doesn’t make sense!

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (Luke 6.20)

Notice here that Jesus explicitly says that the poor are blessed.  How would that work if God only blessed folks with stuff, money, and a clean bill of health?

I could go on.  There are many, many, many more examples.  But let these three stand as chief examples of the fact that the gospel that Jesus preached and lived was not about giving people money or ensuring that they were always going to be healthy.

Sure, Jesus fed some folks and he healed some too.  But Jesus didn’t always do either of these things.

But he did make a promise to us, a promise of blessing.  In Matthew 28.20 Jesus promises to always be with us, until the very, very end.  That’s his primary blessing.  That’s his ultimate promise.  Anything that would distract us from that promise should not be a a chief pursuit for a follower of Jesus.

In my estimation, proponents of the prosperity gospel engage in abhorrent and manipulative practices which often target the poor and they also seem to be theologically distant from what we see in the life and teachings of Jesus.

 

Being Missional and the Prosperity Gospel

But there’s an important twist to this story.

It’s really easy for me to wag my finger at the prosperity gospel people, but I should be careful.  Jesus has a thought or two about this: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” (Matthew 7.3).

So what is the plank in my eye with regard to the issues that make me angry about the prosperity gospel?  I think there are two and I’m sure that I’m not alone in this struggle:

  1. I struggle with entitlement.  At it’s core the prosperity gospel sounds an awful lot like a kid screaming in the aisle of the supermarket about how he’s been a good boy and deserves to get the sugary cereal he sees on the commercials and that all of his friends have.  So when I hear someone saying things like “name your prosperity and claim it in faith,” all I hear is someone telling people that they are entitled to riches and health from God.  And this bothers me.  A lot.  But when I get really honest with myself, don’t I do the same thing?  When I pray I often say things like “But God, we’ve done X, Y, and Z for you; couldn’t you do this one thing for us?”  I struggle with entitlement too.
  2. I struggle with desiring health and wealth.  The prosperity gospel draws its power from simple human urges: the urge to have stuff and the urge to be healthy.  These urges are biological, that is, they’re about survival.  It’s hard to survive in the world (especially the modern world) without stuff and money.  And any health problems are direct challenges to our survival.  And I’m just like everyone else — I want comfort, and having stuff, money, and health can provide that for me.  I want to own a home with a big backyard.  I want to have clothes that I like.  I want to drive a fancy car.  I’d like a nice watch.  I want to be healthy from now until the day I die.  I struggle with desiring health and wealth too.

And when I think about it, most of the churches that I’ve been a part of have demonstrated that they struggle with these things too, both individual congregants and the churches and their leaders too (myself included, of course).

I think this shows up most clearly when people in church contexts talk about what the will of God is.  What we typically mean when we want to know God’s will goes something like this: Which college will I go to, what will I major in, what kind of job will I get, who will I marry, how many kids will we have, how big of a house can we get, should we move to a bigger house, when and how should I retire, etc.

Now it may just be the churches that I’ve been in, the people I’m friends with, or my own makeup and struggles, but in America is seems to me that we’ve made God’s will look a lot like the average pursuits of a middle-class family.  God’s will has to be more than that.  And it is!  In 2 Corinthians 5.18-19 we see with some clarity that God’s will is to reconcile all things to himself through Jesus.  Our health and wealth would only play a small part in that, surely.

 

So when we go to great lengths to criticize the prosperity gospel and its proponents, are we also going to great lengths to see if we struggle with the same desires ourselves?

And are we leading the disciples we are making to care more about pursuing God’s kingdom no matter the cost or have we fallen prey to the prosperity gospel ourselves through our desires to look and act like a typical middle-class person in America?

 

I believe in a prosperity gospel too.  I try to hide it.  I try to push it down.  But my flesh cries out for health and wealth just like everyone else’s.

But as an active follower of Jesus who is sent into this world incarnationally to share and embody the good news, I must begin to cry out more for God and his righteousness!

 

What do you think?  Are we all tempted to pursue the prosperity gospel in our own ways?  What should we do about it?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

Diversity on TV

My friend Liz Lin just wrote a fantastic piece on The Salt Collective.

In it she responds to an article in which a “journalist” bemoans the fact that there are too many “ethnic shows” on TV these days and that “ethnic casting” is unfair to white actors.

I love the way Liz handles this sticky issue.  Here’s a little highlight to whet your appetite:

You know the feeling you get when you’re so dumbfounded by someone’s argument — at how poor the logic is, how absurd their points are — that words completely escape you? That you don’t even know how to respond, because doing so would require you to articulate facts so basic that you’ve long taken them for granted, like that the sky is blue or the sun is hot? That’s exactly how I felt by the end of Andreeva’s article. On a logical level, I was completely flabbergasted. But I was personally bothered, too.

Click here to read the rest for yourself!

 

 

#Community: New Wine Podcast #005

This is the fifth New Wine podcast and here’s what we’ll do this time: We’ll chat about what community has to do with being sent – that is, are we sent alone or with others and why does this matter?

 

Give the podcast a listen below or on iTunes.  Thanks so much!

 

Also, here are a list of links that you may find helpful after having listened to the podcast:

 

 

Butchering the Bible: Prosperity Gospel

(This is the third part in a mini-series on the health and wealth gospel and what a missional response might be.  Here is part one [CLICK HERE] and here is part two [CLICK HERE].  Be sure to check back for more!  Or just subscribe to my blog using the sign-up form on the right or at the bottom of the page if you’re using your mobile device.)

 

After spending more time than I’d like to admit listening to health and wealth preachers, like Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, and the like, I’m simply dumbfounded at the way these men and women twist the words of the Bible to fit their needs.

They’re butchering the Bible.  There’s really no other way of saying it.

And their butchering is always in full effect when they preach or teach on a certain passage from Mark.  Here it is:

 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. (Mark 10.29-30)

 

Butchering Exposed

I’d rather not make you wonder if I was being fair by paraphrasing these health and wealth preachers.  So I figured I’d let them speak for themselves, thus revealing their butchering ways totally on their own.

So, without further ado and in no particular order, here are some examples of the butchering Mark 10.29-30 by prosperity gospel preachers:

Robert Tilton (AKA the Farting Preacher):  Tilton cites Mark 10.30 and builds a principle on it called “God’s Law of Compensation,” which he writes about in God’s Laws of Success.  He says that God set this principle in motion back in the book of Genesis with Abraham and this “Law of Compensation” is “here in the earth” (page 142).  In other words, God will give back to us here on earth what we give him, and then some.  He has to.  It’s a law after all!

Kenneth Copeland (AKA the Godfather of the Prosperity Gospel): Copeland wrote a book entitled Laws of Prosperity.  In it he constantly refers to Mark 10:30 and its supposed hundredfold promised return on investment.  And on page 58 he says this: “Do you want a hundredfold return on your money? Give and let God multiply it back to you. No bank in the world offers this kind of return! Praise the Lord!”  Do you see that?  He guarantees that if you give, then you’ll get back 100 times what you gave!  That’s crazy!

Paula White: White is in same boat with Tilton and Copeland.  However, she at least admits that there’s something funny in Mark 10.30, namely the word “persecution.”  Here are her words describing what this persecution means:

Nobody said it would come easy. In fact, in Mark 10:28, Peter said, “We have left all.” And Jesus answered, “There is nothing you have left, not houses, not brothers, not sister, that you will not have a hundredfold return and eternal life in this life, with persecution.” That’ s the problem. God said, “You’re going to get it, but it’s going to come with persecution.” The enemy doesn’t want you to walk in it. That’s okay. Who cares about the giants in the land? Just go forth in grace. Go for your stuff. Go for your anointing. Go for your family. Go for your increase. Go for your supernatural abundance. [SOURCE]

So the persecution that Jesus promised would come is simply the enemy, AKA the devil, wanting us not to walk in God’s blessings.  What does that mean?  God will bless us with “stuff” and “increase” but the devil’s job is to prevent us from enjoying it?  Instead of letting the devil do that, White wants us to go for what’s ours.  That sounds pretty selfish to me.

Joyce Meyer: Meyer says that she wants us to know that “God wants us to manage our resources, not the other way around.”  I can get behind that.  Let’s see what managing our resources look like according to Meyer?  Well, she gives some pretty good advice, like work hard and save your money.  But then she also draws on the same idea that there’s some sort of a law forcing God’s hand when you give:

Whatever you give up now will come back to you one-hundred-fold in this lifetime (see Mark 10:29-30). If you want to have an abundant life, then I encourage you to ask God to help you live generously. [SOURCE]

So two things: 1) It looks like she ignores the persecution part of Mark 10.30 altogether.  Instead she focuses on the hundredfold blessing that is activated by giving and is repaid financially.  2) She seems to be encouraging people’s natural propensity for wanting more and more and more — “If you want to have the abundant life…”  Who doesn’t?  Meyer is simply picking the low-hanging fruit of human sinfulness here.

Creflo Dollar (AKA The $60 Million Dollar Jet Man): According to the hundredfold math, I wonder what Dollar gave in order to think he was going to get that jet.  Let’s see, $60 million divided by 100 equals…$600 thousand.  Now if there were investments this successful, then we’d all be living it up the Scrooge McDuck!  (Did he actually live it up?  I don’t remember…)  In a study note entitled “The Law that Governs Abundance,” Dollar claims that in order to live the abundant life we must obey God.  Obeying connects us to God’s blessings and disobedience does the opposite.  He ends this particular study note with these two lines:

It is okay to have riches, but we should never trust in them (Psalm 52:7).

Anything we give up for Jesus will be returned to us a hundredfold in this lifetime (Mark 10:29, 30).   [SOURCE]

So being rich if fine but don’t trust in it.  But just in case you need to be tempted to trust in riches, give up lots of stuff for Jesus so that it will be returned to you times 100.  Then you’ll find out first hand if it’s hard to never trust in riches!  Again, notice that there’s no mention of the persecution in Mark 10.30.

 

After looking at each example of butchering of Mark 10:30, what do we see?  What do each of these readings have in common?

Well, giving apparently forces God to multiply what we gave up for him by 100.  It appears that he must do it!  And apparently we all should be seeking after the abundant life, meaning a life full of stuff and increase.  And the way to get there, to that abundant life, is to manipulate God by taking advantage of his law of compensation.

Ugh.  All this butchering makes me want to explore the text from Mark 10 myself.

 

Hopefully Not Butchering the Bible

So the five preachers that I pointed out above put their thoughts about things out there.  So I guess I should do the same.  Whether or not I’m guilty of butchering the Bible too is up to you to decide!

Here we go.

What is the context of Mark 10.29-30.  Well, it appears in a larger section in which Jesus was teaching.  At the beginning of chapter 10 he’s teaching about divorce (such an easy topic these days!).  And, as he’s teaching, people are bringing him their children.  Even though the disciples are annoyed by this, Jesus welcomes it, even saying that folks must receive the kingdom of God like a child in order to enter it.

After chillin’ with the kiddos for a bit, Jesus starts on his way, presumably to leave, when a man runs up, falls on his knees before Jesus, and begins a conversation.  He asks “What do I have to do to really live, to have eternal life?”  Jesus tells him that he needs to keep the commands from the Old Testament.  The man says he’s done so since he was a child.

Then Jesus looked at him and loved him.  I love that line.  What would it have meant for this man to be loved in this way?  And then think about what Jesus is about to ask of this man!  Jesus asks something hard, but does so in love.

And what is that hard thing that Jesus asks of this man?  It’s simply this: Sell all your stuff, give the proceeds to the poor, and follow me.

The man got really sad and left.  It should be noted that we don’t know what he actually did next.  Did this man go back to his previous way of life?  Or did he actually sell it all in obedience to Jesus?  We don’t know!

Whatever the case, Jesus uses this interaction as a teaching moment for his disciples.  He says to them “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

Now we should pause here for a moment.  This idea flies in the face of a lot of what we read earlier by the health and wealth preachers.  If it’s hard to enter the kingdom for the rich, why would we follow the advice of the prosperity preachers by giving in faith so that we can get 100 times back?  Would all that money make it harder for us to follow God well?

In any case, Jesus continues.  He says again how entering the kingdom of God is hard and follows that up with this doozy: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

Wow!  Again, why would I want to pursue being rich if it might prevent me from living under the rule of God?  I’ll take not-rich instead!

The disciples are shocked and wonder among themselves who could be saved then if the rich can’t.  Jesus answers by saying that what seems impossible to us humans, is no big deal to God.  All things are possible for God.

So the disciples are hearing all of this and they must be thinking that Jesus is calling them to sacrifice more, which seems a bit unfair.  So Peter says, paraphrasing, “Jesus, no thanks. We’ve left everything to follow you.  What’s in it for us?”

Jesus’ answer is perfect:

“Truly I tell you,” Jesus replied, “no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in this present age: homes, brothers, sisters, mothers, children and fields—along with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life.” (Mark 10.29-30)

So within the larger story, these two verses begin to make more sense.  The disciples have literally left their families behind for the sake of following Jesus and they’ve left the land where they grew food for their families.  Now what?  Jesus must surely be aware that they’re feeling this way, because this is exactly where he goes.

So those who have lost relationships and property will receive one hundred times what they have lost.  How?  How does this work?  We know for a fact that the disciples didn’t receive 100 times what they gave up. They all died horrifically, while being more or less impoverished.    This can’t be a literal a literal tit-for-(100)-tats, or we would have know about it.  There’d be stories of Thomas living it up in India and Peter building a palace to rival Caesar’s in Rome.  But we don’t have stories like that.  Instead we have stories of faithful men dying for their faith.

So something else must be in play here — namely, community.  Jesus seems to be saying, at least the way I read it, that the relationships and securit,y which are sometimes given up as the cost of following Jesus, are expertly replaced by members of the community that God is creating.

But just in case anyone thought all of this shared community and security would bring peace of mind and assurance with it, Jesus tells his disciples that persecution is on the way.  This is no get-rich-quick scheme.  No!  Instead this is Jesus giving his closest followers a glimpse into the reality that they’ll be facing.

 

The picture Jesus paints here is nothing like that which is drawn by the health and wealth gospel people.  Jesus seems to be saying this: Being rich can be a major hindrance to following Jesus.  So instead of pursuing that, let’s follow Jesus despite the cost, trusting that he’ll take care of our needs for relationship and relative security.

There is no explicit formula in play here.  This isn’t a “give a seed offering of 100 dollars and watch God give you 10,000 bucks back!”  Quite the opposite.  What Jesus has in mind in this passage is a deep trust that whatever God wants to give us through the community he is creating is enough.  Nothing else is needed.

 

 Butchering the Bible: Why?

I’m going to presume some things in this section.  If you don’t like that, move right along.

Here’s my method: I’m going to try to think like a prosperity gospel proponent for a moment and decipher why they may be so into this “Law of Compensation” as Robert Tilton calls it.  Here we go:

 

So I just read in Mark 10.29-30 that if you give stuff up to follow Jesus then he’ll return it to you one hundred fold.  Now I know this isn’t true in my life because I’ve never really seen it.  But I bet if I used just the right preaching tactics and invested enough time building my brand and image that I could convince other people that this was true.  

Bingo!  That’s it!  I’ll start trying to convince folks that if they give then they’ll get back what they’ve given times 100!  But I don’t want to encourage them to give anywhere or to anyone.  No.  I want them to give to my ministry, especially since I am its sole proprietor my board is made up of my spouse, my first lieutenant, and me.

But hold on, this get-back-100-times thing doesn’t really work.  How will I convince people to keep at it, even when it isn’t happening for them?  I know, I’ll tell them that they have to believe, REALLY believe, that God will do what he promises in Mark 10.30.  I’ll say, “You have to believe for the return or God won’t give it!”  That’s right; I’ll make belief a type of magic that people will try to use to get what they want from God.  But since this 100-times thing doesn’t really work, people will just keep giving, hoping that this time they are believing just right so that God has to bless them.

Perfect!  Now off to the studio to record my next sermon!

 

Now I’m not going to pretend for a second that I actually know what is going on in the minds of the people who preach this non-sense, but I can definitely see the logic in my little pretend scenario above.  Can’t you?  Can’t you see the ease with which this line of thinking, namely that God will give you a hundredfold what you give up for him if you really believe it, can be used to manipulate people into giving more money?  Can’t you see the temptation here?

 

Butchering a Conclusion

Here’s my point: In a quick and dirty reading of some health and wealth preachers like Robert Tilton, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, Joyce Meyer, and Creflo Dollar it is obvious that they are misusing Mark 10.29-30.  They ignore the context, or misappropriate it, and they tend to ignore the presence of the word “persecution,” or they interpret it really strangely.

So the loosey-goosey way they handle this text makes me wonder what they do with passages like Jeremiah 29.11 or the covenant with Abraham in Genesis 12 or other passages that can, on the surface at least, be bent into a prosperity matrix?  My guess, which is a really-well-informed guess by the way, is that they do the same things there that they do here in Mark 10.

Who cares though?  What’s the problem with this?  I already talked about this in a previous post so I’ll just repeat the basic idea here: We should care about the prosperity Gospel because it is used to exploit the poor here in North America and all across the world, including some of the poorest places in South America, Africa, and Asia.  That’s why this matters.  That’s why we should care.

 

What do you think?  Are these preachers onto something with their you’ll-get-back-100-times-what-you-give-up teaching?  Or are they way off base?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

And if you liked this post, then please share it with your friends!  Just use the little buttons below!  Thanks!

#Purpose: New Wine Podcast #004

What is the goal or the purpose of following Jesus?  What are we supposed to be about?

 

In this podcast I explore these questions by looking at Matthew 28.18-20 and Acts 1.7-8.

 

Listen to it on iTunes (search for J. Matthew Barnes) or you can simply listen to it here on the player below.

 

Thanks!

 

Exploiting the Poor: Health and Wealth Gospel

(This is the second part in a mini-series on the health and wealth gospel and what a missional response might be.  Here is part one [CLICK HERE] and here is part three [CLICK HERE].  Be sure to check back for more!  Or just subscribe to my blog using the sign-up form on the right or at the bottom of the page if you’re using your mobile device.)

 

Why does the health and wealth gospel matter?  Who cares if some folks distort the message of Jesus?  The adherents to the prosperity gospel are consenting, thinking people, so why should anyone say anything about what they are doing?

These are all good questions.  And the answer to them is simple: the health and wealth gospel is famous for exploiting the poor.  And exploiting the poor is terrible.  Therefore, those who engage in the exploiting, whether purposefully or not, should be called out.

 

Exploiting the Poor with the Prosperity Gospel

Admitting that more demographic and ethnographic research needs to be undertaken, the roots of the health and wealth gospel are found in the soil of poor evangelicals in America.

Sociologist Peter L. Berger from Boston University says this:

The prosperity gospel probably originated among the poorer elements of the evangelical community in America. It is now a global phenomenon, especially among the rapidly spreading Pentecostal churches in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

He also claims that…

Far more attractive to poor people, who are a majority of its adherents, is the “prosperity gospel,” a version of Christianity asserting that material benefits will come to those who have faith, live a morally upright life and, not so incidentally, give money to the church.

[SOURCE for both quotes]

 

Putting those quotes into my own language would look like this: The health and wealth gospel started among under-resourced Americans in the past.  Its theology, hopes, and values are attractive to poor people.  And this distortion of the Christian message, namely that blessing = material possession and/or money, has very successfully been exported to Africa, Latin America, and Asia.

In other words, the health and wealth gospel has been built upon the backs of the poor.  Prosperity gospel preachers, who very often brag about their wealth openly, seem to be guilty of exploiting the poor.  And even if the demographics of a particular prosperity gospel church or people who seem to adhere to prosperity principles include a mix of folks, rich and poor, the fact that money is taken from any who are poor with the unenforceable promise of a fabulous return on investment is insidious.

You can see this in action in the video below.  Paula White is the speaker.  She is a famous health and wealth preacher.

She calls for every single person to “sew a seed” of $126 dollars, which she admits is a sacrifice for many.  Sacrifice?  Who is $126 a sacrifice for?  It’s a sacrifice for the poor!  And did you notice how many times she continues to ask people to pass their offering (AKA, their seed) down down the aisle?  Did you hear her say several times “Has everybody given?”  Then when she mentions that someone may not have yet she says “Oh no.”  Her little speech is patently manipulative.

And Paula White’s brand of begging is typical of many of the prosperity gospel preachers.  Speeches like these are one of the tools used to exploit the poor.

And don’t get me started on the blatant misinterpretation of passages in the Bible about sewing and reaping harvests, especially the Parable of the Sower!  That will have to be for another time…

 

Exploiting the Poor: What’s Wrong with That?

This question shouldn’t need answering.  Every person, whether a follower of Jesus or not, knows that taking advantage of the poor is wrong.  Exploiting those without access to resources is horrible.

We all know that taking the little bit someone has and adding it to our huge pile is selfish, immoral, and just plain despicable.

Not only does exploiting those with little feel wrong to almost everyone, it is called out as wrong all over the place in the Bible.  From beginning to end, the Bible is full of calls to care for the poor and denouncements of the abuse of the poor.

Here are some examples:

  • Leviticus 19.10 Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am theLord your God.
  • Deuteronomy 15.11: There will always be poor people in the land. Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your fellow Israelites who are poor and needy in your land.
  • Psalm 12.5: “Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the Lord. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”
  • Psalm 35.10 My whole being will exclaim, “Who is like you,Lord? You rescue the poor from those too strong for them, the poor and needy from those who rob them.”
  • Psalm 82.3: Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
  • Proverbs 14.31: Whoever oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.
  • Proverbs 29.7: The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern.
  • Isaiah 3.14 The Lord enters into judgment against the elders and leaders of his people: “It is you who have ruined my vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses.”
  • Isaiah 32.7 Scoundrels use wicked methods, they make up evil schemes to destroy the poor with lies, even when the plea of the needy is just.
  • Ezekiel 16.49: Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.
  • Luke 4.18: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free
  • James 2.5-6: Listen, my dear brothers and sisters: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who are exploiting you? Are they not the ones who are dragging you into court?

Normally I wouldn’t engage in Bible bludgeoning like this.  But there is a time and a place for it.

Now is the time and this is the place!

It is obvious that a central message found in the Bible is that God cares for the poor and calls his people to do the same.

 

Exporting the Exploiting of the Poor

Now if the exploiting of the poor that goes on in some health and wealth circles was only happening in the US or in North America, that would be bad but perhaps it would be somewhat manageable.  Folks in North America can be connected to decent social services that can help, etc., etc.

But when the exploiting of the poor by the prosperity gospel has been exported into very impoverished parts of the world, then a new low has been found.

I remember the last time my wife and I were on a short-term mission assignment in Cambodia.  We met some local Christian workers and shared prayer times with them often.  In one of these prayer sessions they asked that we would pray about the Joyce Meyer event that was coming up.

exploiting the poor

Joyce Meyer “preaching”

Joyce Meyer is another famous prosperity gospel preacher.  I was a bit nervous.  Did my new friends want me to pray for the success of her event?  Or did they have something else in mind?

They then shared that she has been to Cambodia many times and that people will give all the money that they have to her ministry in response to her preaching and financial promises, leaving their families with no money for the necessities of life.

So we prayed and prayed and prayed!

But truth be told, Cambodia is not alone in this story.  The health and wealth gospel, and the exploiting of the poor that comes with it, has traveled all over the world.  It has found many places where it is popular, especially in Africa, Latin America, and Asia (Matthew Clarke’s overview in Handbook of Research on Development and Religion is helpful [pages 170-174]).

Similar stories to the one I told about Cambodia have proliferated all over the world now.

While there are plenty of detractors out there, it seems to me that most people either don’t really know the reality of the problems caused by the health and wealth gospel or they simply choose to look the other way.

 

Brothers and sisters, it’s time that we stopped looking the other way and started confronting this distortion of God’s message of unconditional love!

It’s time that we remember that Jesus himself was a homeless preacher.  His first followers lived lives of deep sacrifice and poverty, and everyone of them died in some non-prosperous way (e.g., crucified upside down, boiled alive, etc.).  And every true follower of Jesus has a deep and abiding concern for the poor because they see it in the life that Jesus lived and they want to do the things he did in his human life in their human lives.

 

Exploiting the poor is wrong.  And exploiting the poor in the name of Jesus takes wrongness to the next level!

 

What do you think?  Is the apparent exploiting of the poor that goes on in prosperity gospel circles as bad as I (and others) make it seem?  What should we do if it is?  Let me know in the comments below!

Health and Wealth: Selling Garbage

(This is the first part in a mini-series on the health and wealth gospel and what a missional response might be.  Be sure to check back for more!  Or just subscribe to my blog using the sign-up form on the right or at the bottom of the page if you’re using your mobile device.  Here are part two and part three if you’re interested!)

 

In America (and in other parts of the world too!) there’s a cancerous growth on the body of Christ.  It’s called the health and wealth gospel (or the prosperity gospel).  Most proponents of this movement don’t consider themselves part of it and certainly wouldn’t call what they teach and preach the health and wealth gospel.

But the truth is that this health and wealth gospel needs to go away and fast!

Why?  Because it distorts the truth of the true gospel, it tarnishes the witness of the rest of us who are trying to follow Jesus, and it often is used to pump money and resources out of the least of these in our midst.

But where is all of this coming from?  You may wonder if there’s some back story here.  Well, there is.  And the goal of this post is to tell that story.

 

Health and Wealth: A Personal Journey

For some of my childhood, especially from ages 13-18, I was given great freedom when it came to the entertainment that I consumed.  And, strangely enough, I spent an inordinate amount of time doing two things: playing video games and watching the freaky Jesus channel on TV.

I won’t get into video games here (though it should be noted that the Sega Genesis was and is WAY better than the SNES!) but I will share just a bit about my experience with televangelists.

My family and I attended a great church during these years of my life.  I sat under the teaching of a great senior pastor and had loads of fantastic Sunday School teachers.  I knew what I was supposed to believe.

And it was this knowledge of Christian orthodoxy (a fancy word which simply means the standard, generally agreed-upon set of beliefs that most people who consider themselves Christian adhere to) that led to me being enthralled with TV preachers.

I would watch Benny Hinn, Rod Parsley, and the like and be utterly shocked that people believed the things they were saying!  Benny Hinn had a strange view of the the Trinity, instead teaching that each member of the Trinity was an internal trinity!  And watching Rod Parsely tell his congregation to go crazy and speak in tongues flew right in the face of what I knew Paul said about the gift of tongues in 1 Corinthians!

But the part that I always found most amusing was the “name it, claim it” stuff that Benny Hinn, Rod Parsley, and the others like them did.  They all consistently taught that if you named something you wanted (anything at all) and then believed with all your heart (and in just the right way), then God would give it to you.  In fact, they way that they made me feel was that if you did those things then God had to give it to you; he had no choice.

And the things that people were naming and claiming weren’t cures for various diseases, worldwide evangelization, justice for the oppressed, or food for the hungry.  No.  Normally it seemed to me that people named and claimed big houses, magical debt reduction, fancy cars, and other flashy things.

 

Health and Wealth: Things Get a Bit More Real

This tendency of certain kinds of preachers to teach their listeners to name and claim things in their own lives, no matter how selfish or ungodly, really irks me when health and healing are added to the equation.

I had always seen this on programs like those by Benny Hinn and Rod Parsley.  They would “heal” people who came to their meetings and they would send people holy trinkets (like prayer cloths or blessed water) which they promised would bring healing.

But seeing these shenanigans firsthand is a different story altogether.

When I was in college, I was dating a woman who had a close friend whose mother had advanced multiple sclerosis (MS), which caused her to need to use a wheelchair.  In an effort to seek healing, the mom with MS decided that she wanted to go to a faith healer that was growing in popularity in certain Christian circles in Texas.  The rumors that were circulating were that this preacher was healing people and that people’s teeth were turning gold!

I literally couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

So we drove five hours from our hometown to a suburb of Dallas.  We entered a tiny church building that could probably seat 100 or so people but there was easily three times that many people squeezed in.  The service was very typical of a more Charismatic/Pentecostal church — high-energy music, hand raising, dancing, clapping, speaking in tongues, at least two offerings, and the like.

No big issues yet.

Then the preacher got up to “preach.”  I used apostrophes in the previous sentence because what this man did can most certainly not be considered preaching!

He read a passage from 2 Chronicles from the King James Version.  He latched onto a single English phrase from that verse and then went on and on for the next 35 minutes repeating the phrase, followed by asking for amens and hallelujahs, followed by shouting the phrase into the mic, followed by some sweat wiping, and repeat.

It was a joke.

But the joke had only just begun.  When he finished his maniacal rant, I mean  sermon, one of his lieutenants took the mic and announced that the healing part of the service was about to begin.  He directed all the sick and ailing to make their way to the right side of the room, and many people did just that.

In short order this line was processed by a team of people who were sending some toward the front to be “healed” and they were sending others further off to the right to a waiting area.

The woman I was with, the woman with MS, she was sent off to the far right.  She was told that her illness required more praying and that they’d get to her if they had time.

They didn’t have time, at least not during the main service.

After things had died down and most of the people had left, those who had been relegated to the corner for more prayer were finally seen by the preacher.   He talked quietly with some of the folks, prayed with a few, and finally approached my acquaintance with MS.

He prayed for her very forcefully and then asked her if she believed she could be healed.  She very convincingly said, “YES!”  The pastor laid his hand on the top of her head, prayed even more loudly, and then commanded her to stand.

As you probably guessed, she could not stand.

The preacher then said five words I’ll never forget: “You don’t have enough faith.”

And not only did he say those five words, but he said them in a non-nonchalant, matter-of-fact way.  He was dismissive.

Who was he to serve as her faith barometer?  Was he aware of the years and years she had been faithfully praying to be healed?  Was he aware of the many hundreds of miles she had traveled on various occasions to visit charlatans like him? Was he aware that not only had she been praying, but that at least four separate congregations in my hometown had been praying for her?

Not enough faith!  What a bunch of malarkey!

He should have just admitted the truth: I’m a fake who is in it for a sense of power and some money.

This was the day in which the last nail in the health and wealth coffin was hammered in for me.

I saw it’s ugly underbelly and was disgusted.

But seeing the health and wealth gospel in this particular light helped me better see the TV preachers who said and did the exact same things.

The gig was up for me.

 

Health and Wealth: This Week

Two things happened this week that led me to write this post.

 Number 1

iTunes told me that my newly-minted podcast was most related to one of Joel Osteen’s podcasts.  No lie.  See for yourself:

Health and Wealth

Tim Keller — that’s cool!  But Joel Osteen!  Yuck!

You may be thinking: Why are you hating on Joel Osteen Matt?  Can’t you see his wonderful smile?

And I’ll answer with four words that best describe his teaching in my estimation: health and wealth gospel.

Joel Osteen says all the time that God wants us to be happy and healthy and that if we believe something we can achieve it.  To be honest, he sounds an awful lot like the author of The Secret but he just uses the word “Jesus” more.

But Joel Osteen is an influential figure in American Christianity (and beyond).  He has books that are New York Times bestsellers.  He has a TV show that millions watch each week.  And he pastors the largest or second largest Protestant church in America, with over 43,000 weekly attenders.

And it’s because of this influence that his brand of the health and wealth gospel is particularly dangerous.  People are clearly buying into it!

But Joel Osteen’s not the only one.

Number 2

Aptly- or ironically-named Creflo Dollar wants the people who support him to donate funds so that he can by a 60 million dollar luxury private airplane!  Even CNN has gotten in on this one!

Here’s the plan: Creflo Dollar will inspire 20,000 people to donate 300 dollars or more, and then he’ll have enough money to buy the Gulfstream G650.  When you do the math you see that he’s asking for at least 60 million dollars!

That’s crazy.

And why does he need this plane?  Well, according to the CNN article linked above, he needs it so he and his wife can use it to spread the gospel around the world.  In an effort to continue to justify such a ridiculous purchase, Creflo Dollar went on to explain that his previous private jet was having some issues and that it needed to be replaced.  So he said that he “knew that it was time to begin to believe God for a new airplane.”

There you have it: name it, claim it.  The hallmark of the health and wealth gospel!

But this turn of events shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.  I mean Creflo Dollar is the same guy who is responsible for the School of Prosperity.  Here are some of the things you’ll find on the official website of this “school”:

  • The “millionaire login” for students
  • Why God wants you rich
  • How to use the Bible to manipulate “natural principles” for your benefit
  • How to get more out of your life, presumably financially.

Again, I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried!

 

Health and Wealth: An Initial Conclusion

You may be thinking: So what?  Who cares if some preachers go around preaching things that you don’t like Matt.  Who are they hurting?  What does it matter?

Well, they are hurting people and it absolutely matters (or at least it does if you take the Bible seriously).

The goal of this post was to give an anecdotal account of the state of the health and wealth gospel.  And I think I’ve done that!

So, for now, that’s all.

But in the next few days expect a few more posts about this: at least one on the impact of the health and wealth gospel and at least one on what the Bible may have to say about the health and wealth gospel and at least one on what a missional response to all of this might look like.

 

What do you think of the health and wealth gospel?  When and where have you experienced it?  Let me know in the comments below!

 

#Incarnational: New Wine Podcast #003

Here’s my latest podcast on following Jesus incarnationally.

 

Feel free to listen to it here or on iTunes.

 

Thanks!

 

 

Sent

For an assignment at work I’ve been re-reading all the Gospels, which has been great!  And just the other day I read the Gospel of John all in one setting and I noticed something striking: there is a ton of “sent” language in John!

Everywhere you look in John someone is being sent.  Usually it’s Jesus who is saying that he was sent by the Father.  But there are times when Jesus says that he will send the Holy Spirit and there are a few important instances of Jesus saying that he will send his disciples in the same manner in which he was sent.

As you [Father] sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world (John 17.18).

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20.21).

From a missional perspective, these are two of the most important verses in the entire Gospel of John.  Why?  What makes them so special?

5 Ways of Looking at Being Sent in the Gospel of John

    1. We are all sent.  Another way of saying this is that we’re all missional.  Jesus sent the disciples, whom he prayed for in John 17.  Then Jesus prayed for those who would follow in the footsteps of the disciples, those who would believe in their message.  Those people are us, followers of Jesus who came after the disciples.  Thus, we are sent like they were sent.  Honestly though, not all of us live into our sentness.  We all have some work to do!
    2. We are sent by Jesus.  This one is huge.  Jesus sends us out and we go with his blessing and authority.  In fact, in one of the craziest passages in all of the Bible, Jesus tells his disciples that they will do greater things than he did while he was on earth (John 14.12).  But Jesus did some amazing things!  He stood up to religious authorities, turned water into wine, and raised a dead guy from the grave!  But his following didn’t expand very far.  It was the first followers of Jesus that expanded Jesus’ influence and we continue to do that today!  And, if I do say so myself, that’s pretty great!
    3. We are sent into the world.  John 17.18 is clear, followers of Jesus are sent into the world.  Why is this important to point out?  Isn’t this a no-brainer?  Well, you’d think so.  But if you examine the behavior of Christians these days, then you’d probably deduce that they think they’re sent to church campuses, christian schools, christian stores, etc., etc.  But we aren’t!  We’re sent into the world!  Do church campuses and explicitly christian things have a place in the life of a follower of Jesus?  Of course — as places to be trained up and be equipped in order to live out our sentness in the world!  Derwin Gray says it best, “Sunday is the huddle to equip us to play the game of life!”  So the world isn’t something to be avoided; it’s something to be sent into!
    4. We are sent with a purpose.  All throughout John Jesus makes his basic message clear: he has a new command for his followers: love people (John 13.34, 13.35, 15.12, etc.).  And what is love?  Love is putting the interests of others first no matter the cost (Phil 2.3-4).  Love is doing for others what you’d have them do for you (Matthew 7.12).  Love is laying down your life for others (John 15.13).  So that’s our purpose!  If you’ve ever wondered about what you should be doing as a follower of Jesus…well, here are our standing orders: Love the heck out of people!
    5. We are sent as Jesus was sent.  John 17.18 and 20.21 say this very thing explicitly.  But what does this idea mean?  How was Jesus sent?  He was sent in humility — born in a stable, placed in a feeding trough, part of a poor family, became a homeless preacher, and constantly put the interests of others before his own.  He was sent incarnationally — Jesus put on flesh and became one of us.  He poured himself into our stinky, difficult, and sometimes sad world.  Jesus didn’t do love at a distance (get in, get out, and no one notices you were there). In community — Jesus was born into a family, lived in a community, and formed a band of disciples. He generally never went at it alone, so neither should we! In power — Jesus had power and authority in his earthly ministry and he has made the same power and authority available to those who follow him through the Spirit. Followers of Jesus have nothing to fear!

What do you think about the idea of being sent? Are we all sent?

Let me know in the comments below!

#Missional: New Wine Podcast #002

Here’s my latest podcast!

 

In it I define the word “missional.”

 

Give it a listen here or on iTunes.

 

Thanks!