Friday, 20 March 2015

The Prosperity Gospel Light

Photo: Sarah King
 Anyone who lives in South London can see them. I mean the churches which offer transformation of life style. "Dream bigger!" say the posters outside the House of Praise in Camberwell. They show beautiful people dreaming of larger homes and better jobs - my dad's first reaction to them was that "dream bigger" referred to "thinking bigger and longer term than worldly goods". The true explanation rather shocked him.  

Anyone who has lived in sub-Saharan Africa or Latin America has seen the same thing on a far larger scale. Massive churches promise health and prosperity to the faithful - the faithful being those who give sacrificially into church funds. Some churches operate on a franchise basis: the planter/pastor will get rich, so why shouldn't he pay for the right to use the organisation's branding and support? Money coming into a local church pays the pastor, but a significant proportion goes to the area bishop, and so on up a chain. At the top of the tree of these pyramidal churches the fat cat pastors swan it in their palaces, often living outside the countries where their money is collected. Those who pay for their luxury are the poorest of the poor, sold a dream of miraculous wealth, and fleeced of the little they have in the process.  

In order to keep people and money coming in, there have to be believable testimonies about sudden cash windfalls and the like. Money must appear in a bank account; a new car has to be left outside a member's home; a medical bill is mysteriously paid. Some such "miracles" are needed, and the testimonies will be duly milked in the church's meetings and on its TV shows. (In Brazil the country's second largest national TV network is wholly owned by its largest prosperity church.)

Engineering miracles (let alone producing TV shows!) represents a drain on resources, of course, but then, once a church has parted company with integrity in smaller matters, why not go the whole way? In countries full of corruption and organised crime, what better way is there of money laundering than the offering box of a church? Handling drug money and even running guns become less talked-about aspects of "ministry" that keep the whole ship afloat. 

"Solomon's Temple"
The Universal Church of the Kingdom of God in São Paulo, Brazil
In many countries such "prosperity" churches are inextricably linked with corrupt politics and organised crime. That mixing and interconnectedness is one of the greatest evils in the world today. It used to be an embarrassment to see the great gilt edifices of the Roman church towering over the slums of Latin America; nowadays the image of Latin Catholicism is often of the hard working priest or lay worker identifying with the poor, while the disgrace is all "evangelical".
The history of the prosperity gospel is not totally straightforward to trace. From the Christian side, the man-centredness of post-Finney and post-Sunday Arminianism have been mixed into a cocktail with the hyper-realised eschatology of some kinds of Pentecostalism. But there are also elements which come from outside any kind of Christian tradition - African animism in Africa and Brazil, or folk Buddhism in SE Asia. 

Most people in mainstream church traditions in the UK would distance themselves from the worst manifestations of such teaching. In the Salvation Army, a tradition of hands-on concern for the poor makes the abuse of the marginalised especially distressing. (Although I understand that in parts of Africa, the SA is not totally free of Prosperity teaching.) 

But some of the roots of the problem may be with us nonetheless. We are a church where rescue and transformation of life has always been at the heart of our ministry and of our joy. The Salvation Army has aimed to reach people mired in the worst economic, social and moral difficulties with the gospel of eternal life, and has rejoiced to see believers receive not only hope of life for eternity but also significant social and economic transformation as the outworking of a new life in Jesus. 

That kind of transformation has been celebrated in our tradition of meetings through opportunity for testimony. We encourage believers to say what God has done for them, and in the process hear not only of forgiveness of sin and eternal hope, but of liberation from all kinds of slavery and misery.

God's gospel changes people. Turning from sin to Christ has repercussions on so many levels. The drinker suddenly has more resources and better health. The wife beater regains a marriage and begins to see his children respect him. The addict is able to hold down her job. Iliterate people learn and are helped to read - firstly for the book of God, but then find themselves more employable as a result. How many thousands of people in the history of Salvationism have walked such a road? It is the glory of the movement!

But there is a peril in that, and especially given our tradition of testimonies. There is a distinction between the gospel itself and the results of the gospel which can all too easily be lost. The testimony "I came to Jesus and my life got so much better" seems only inches away from a proclamation, "Come to Jesus and your life will get so much better." 

Many churches around the world would recoil from a message which is in effect, "give us your money and you will get rich". But in these same churches, the message "come to Jesus and your life will get better" is actually the standard gospel. It is not preached as crassly, it is not linked to the lifestyle of fat cat pastors, it isn't tied in with political corruption, but in its own way it is a prosperity gospel. I call it the Prosperity Gospel Light. We can say a number of things about it:

·         It is not biblical. The apostolic preaching never invites people to meet Jesus. The book of Acts has repeated examples of sermons where, in effect, the hearers are told that they will meet Jesus. The challenge is to respond now in a way which demonstrates seriousness about that future meeting. In that response - repentance and faith - transformations begin, and they go on as the new believer begins to work out their new life in the Spirit. 

·         It limits the audience for the gospel. A message which constantly focuses on "your life is tough - come to Jesus and your problems will be solved" can never reach anyone who actually has an enjoyable or easy life at the present. Sure, all of us have difficulties from time to time, but dare we risk limiting our message to the troubled? Paul in Acts 14 effectively preaches to the happy: "You have sun and rain and harvest and food and joy and family and fun - but are you giving thanks for all that good stuff where thanks are due?" That is a point of entry to people's hearts which seems natural to the apostle - but is not often heard in our evangelism today. 

·         It promises what it can't deliver. The New Testament never promised freedom from problems for believers. For sure, some problems that arise from specific sins will go. If you drink a bottle of spirits a day and then stop, lots of stuff will certainly improve. But other problems may not be related to such bad habits or sins at all. Illness, accident, injustice, persecution, unemployment - Christians suffer these things too. We dare not promise what the gospel cannot and does not set out to deliver. I am convinced that the enormous numbers of people who have left the churches on the basis that "Christianity doesn't work" have done so principally because the "christianity" that they have been exposed to was never going to work as its promises and premise were false. 

·         It detracts from Jesus. When "coming to Jesus" has become all about the various material and present-era benefits that flow from knowing him, it does cast doubt on the nature of knowing him at all. That would be true even of other human relationships: since I married Sarah my life has been transformed in so many ways - amazing cooking for one! This was quite predictable - and yet if I had said to myself before marriage, "I should marry Sarah because my life will be changed by her amazing cooking" then I would have had a problem. I married her for her, herself, and other benefits are a byproduct. That has to be the same for Jesus, or Christianity has ceased to be about a relationship with him and has become a self-help exercise with his name attached. 

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The Salvation Army, more than any other church I have known, has a glorious history of reaching people who are on the fringe, on the margins, in the mire, and helping them put their feet on the Rock. This is its glory, but also its Achilles heel IF that tradition draws the church away from preaching the Bible's Jesus and towards any kind of prosperity gospel. As ever, survival, growth and revival have to start with rediscovery of our roots - in this case roots in the apostolic preaching itself. 

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