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