Rev. Kleyn is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.
Does God want you to be rich?
Perhaps you’ve heard of the Prosperity theology, or heard your pastor speak of the Health and Wealth gospel, or run across a televangelist with a two-story hairdo, a thousand-dollar suit, and the message that “if you just accept Jesus tonight and give us your money, God will make you rich.”
And maybe you’ve wondered to yourself, “Is this for real? Can it really be true that someone who calls himself Christian, and reads the Bible, thinks such a thing about the gospel? Is it fair for me to pass a biblical judgment on these people and their message?”
Well, a recent lengthy article from Time magazine (September 18, 2006), packed with interesting interviews and analysis of both the advocates and opponents of Prosperity theology, helps one to see that the Health and Wealth gospel is a reality.
When George Adams lost his job at an Ohio tile factory last October, the most practical thing he did, he thinks, was go to a new church, even though he had to move his wife and four preteen boys to Conroe, a suburb of Houston, to do it. Conroe, you see, is not far from Lakewood, the home church of mega pastor and bestselling author Joel Osteen.
Osteen’s relentlessly upbeat television sermons had helped Adams, 49, get through the hard times, and now Adams was expecting the smiling, Texas twanged 43-year-old to help boost him back toward success. And Osteen did. Inspired by the preacher’s insistence that one of God’s top priorities is to shower blessings on Christians in this lifetime— and by the corollary assumption that one of the worst things a person can do is to expect anything less—Adams marched into Gullo Ford in Conroe looking for work. He didn’t have entry-level aspirations: “God has showed me that he doesn’t want me to be a run-of-the-mill person,” he explains. He demanded to know what the dealership’s top salesmen made— and got the job. Banishing all doubt—”You can’t sell a $40,000- to-$50,000 car with menial thoughts”—Adams took four days to retail his first vehicle, a Ford F- 150 Lariat with leather interior. He knew that many fellow salesmen don’t notch their first score until their second week. “Right now, I’m above average!” he exclaims. “It’s a new day God has given me! I’m on my way to a six-figure income!” The sales commission will help with this month’s rent, but Adams hates renting. Once that six-figure income has been rolling in for a while, he will buy his dream house: “Twenty-five acres,” he says. “And three bedrooms. We’re going to have a schoolhouse (his children are home schooled). We want horses and ponies for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond. And maybe some cattle.”
“I’m dreaming big—because all of heaven is dreaming big,” Adams continues. “Jesus died for our sins. That was the best gift God could give us,” he says. “But we have something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do what he ordained, God wants to support us. It’s Joel Osteen’s ministry that told me. Why would an awesome and mighty God want anything less for his children?”
Who is this Joel Osteen?
Osteen is a second-generation Prosperity teacher. His father John Osteen started out Baptist but in 1959 withdrew from that fellowship to found a church in one of Houston’s poorer neighborhoods and explore a new philosophy developing among Pentecostals. If the rest of Protestantism ignored finances, Prosperity placed them center stage, marrying Pentecostalism’s ebullient notion of God’s gifts with an older tradition that stressed the power of positive thinking. Practically, it emphasized hard work and good home economics. But the real heat was in its spiritual premise: that if a believer could establish, through word and deed (usually donation), that he or she was “in Jesus Christ,” then Jesus’ father would respond with paternal gifts of health and wealth in this life.
And what influence do he and his cohorts have?
Of the four biggest mega churches in the country, three—Osteen’s Lakewood in Houston; T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House in south Dallas; and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers near Atlanta—are Prosperity or Prosperity Lite pulpits (although Jakes’ ministry has many more facets). While they don’t exclusively teach that God’s riches want to be in believers’ wallets, it is a key part of their doctrine. And propelled by Osteen’s 4 million- selling book, Your Best Life Now, the belief has swept beyond its Pentecostal base into more buttoned-down evangelical churches, and even into congregations in the more liberal Mainline. It is taught in hundreds of non-Pentecostal Bible studies. One Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor even made it the basis for a sermon series for Lent, when Christians usually meditate on why Jesus was having His Worst Life Then. Says the Rev. Chappell Temple, a Methodist minister with the dubious distinction of pastoring Houston’s other Lakewood Church (Lakewood United Methodist), an hour north of Osteen’s: “Prosperity Lite is everywhere in Christian culture. Go into any Christian bookstore, and see what they’re offering.”
In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%—a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America—agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money.
We might ask, “Well, what does this Osteen and his Prosperity theology actually teach and why do people believe it and follow it?” From Time we learn that this is the old Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker repackaged in a language that touches real life and that appeals to real people. After Time describes Osteen’s book Your Best Life Now as “an extraordinarily accessible exhortation to this-world empowerment through God,” it says this.
“To live your best life now,” it opens, to see “your business taking off. See your marriage restored. See your family prospering. See your dreams come to pass…” you must “start looking at life through eyes of faith.” Jesus is front and center but not his Crucifixion, Resurrection or Atonement. There are chapters on overcoming trauma and a late chapter on emulating God’s generosity. But there are many more illustrations of how the Prosperity doctrine has produced personal gain, most memorably, perhaps, for the Osteen family: how Victoria’s “speaking words of faith and victory” eventually brought the couple their dream house; how Joel discerned God’s favor in being bumped from economy to business class.
The Time author also shows some perception, recognizing that even though Osteen and others say “rich Christianity” is not their message, it really is.
A recent Sunday at Lakewood gives some idea of the emphasis on worldly gain that disturbs Warren. Several hundred stage lights flash on, and Osteen, his gigawatt smile matching them, strides onto the stage of what used to be the Compaq Center sports arena but is now his church. “Let’s just celebrate the goodness of the Lord!” Osteen yells. His wife Victoria says, “Our Daddy God is the strongest! He’s the mightiest!”
And so it goes, before 14,000 attendees, a nonstop declaration of God’s love and his intent to show it in the here and now, sometimes verging on the language of an annual report. During prayer, Osteen thanks God for “your unprecedented favor. We believe that 2006 will be our best year so far. We declare it by faith.” Today’s sermon is about how gratitude can “save a marriage, save your job [and] get you a promotion.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon about money,” he says a few hours later. He and Victoria meet with TIME in their pastoral suite, once the Houston Rockets’ locker and shower area but now a zone of overstuffed sofas and imposing oak bookcases. “Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that word rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that everybody’s going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.” Rather, he explains, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives. I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?” The room’s warm lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes.
In the article ample space is given to Christian opponents of Prosperity theology.
Confronting such stories, certain more doctrinally traditional Christians go ballistic. Last March, Ben Witherington, an influential evangelical theologian at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky, thundered that “we need to renounce the false gospel of wealth and health—it is a disease of our American culture; it is not a solution or answer to life’s problems.” Respected blogger Michael Spencer—known as the Internet Monk—asked, “How many young people are going to be pointed to Osteen as a true shepherd of Jesus Christ? He’s not. He’s not one of us.” Osteen is an irresistible target for experts from right to left on the Christian spectrum who—beyond worrying that he is living too high or inflating the hopes of people with real money problems—think he is dragging people down with a heavy interlocked chain of theological and ethical errors that could amount to heresy.
Most start out by saying that Osteen and his ilk have it “half right”: that God’s goodness is biblical, as is the idea that he means us to enjoy the material world. But while Prosperity claims to be celebrating that goodness, the critics see it as treating God as a celestial ATM. “God becomes a means to an end, not the end in himself,” says Southwestern Baptist’s Phillips. Others are more upset about what it de-emphasizes. “[Prosperity] wants the positive but not the negative,” says another Southern Baptist, Alan Branch of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. “Problem is, we live on this side of Eden. We’re fallen.” That is, Prosperity softpedals the consequences of Adam’s fall—sin, pain and death—and their New Testament antidote: Jesus’ atoning sacrifice and the importance of repentance. And social liberals express a related frustration that preachers like Osteen show little interest in battling the ills of society at large. Perhaps appropriately so, since, as Prosperity scholar Harrison explains, “philosophically, their main way of helping the poor is encouraging people not to be one of them.”
Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable mega churches (like Osteen’s and Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,” says Boston University’s Prothero.
This is a modern-day form of simony. Rev. Ted Pike, director of the National Prayer Network (www.truthtellers.org), gives this analysis on his website.
In 1517, Martin Luther heard Tetzel, representative of the Pope, telling the German people that if they paid money to the church, the souls of their loved ones would be released from purgatory. He was outraged. He wrote 95 theses, which protested “simony”— the promise of spiritual and material benefit in exchange for giving money to the church.
Well, simony is back with a vengeance. Three times a year, Trinity Broadcasting Network, the globe spanning Pentecostal “Christian” TV network with an audience of billions worldwide, raises approximately 50 million dollars per “Praisethon” with the following message: “Give money to TBN and God will give back to you one hundred times as much money or material benefit. Jesus guarantees it!”
It’s working—at least for the bank account of Trinity broadcasting. Praisethon lights glow as believers, ranging from the elderly on Social Security and mothers on welfare to wealthy business people, swell TBN’s budget— funding 21 satellites and 2,117 TV stations internationally.
Yes, it brings in big bucks, as it did when Luther was outraged by it nearly 500 years ago. Yet it is still simony—a practice as wicked today as when Simon Magus, a Jewish magician in the Book of Acts, offered to pay money to the Apostle Peter in exchange for spiritual and material blessing, and barely escaped Peter’s curse by repenting on the spot.
Jesus, we should remember, although creator of all things, chose a life of such poverty that at times He was without the comfort which the foxes and birds enjoyed in their dens and nests.
He said: “Blessed are the poor”
and “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.”
As Protestant Reformed people we can agree with many of these sentiments opposed to Prosperity theology. We can also be sure that wherever Pentecostalism has influence, and wherever mega churches are springing up in our neighborhoods, they are not far from this kind of a gospel. And this is another nail in the coffin of the church; another indication of her utter apostasy and her feeding into the whole mentality of the coming Antichristian kingdom, the number of which will be the number of man, six-six-six. The cross as the center of the gospel is replaced with man as the center of religious exercise. Christianity is supposed to make you a happy person by giving you the things you want, and not giving the things every sinner needs. Blessings in Jesus Christ are to be found in material things, and there is no understanding anymore of the blessings that come from the cross through the atoning blood of Christ. Nobody needs to find joy in the forgiveness of sins, but being a Christian means smiling because your wallet is full, you are on a six-figure income, and you drive a new Lexus.
But also, there is a connection in this thinking to the whole idea of “common grace.” Common grace theology says God’s grace and goodness are to be found in material things, and, in its modern form, that the church’s duty is to redeem culture. The jump from this thinking, to Prosperity theology, is not a big one.
What can we learn from this? Certainly there are things to learn about materialism and about setting our hearts and sights on things above and not things here on the earth. Often a wrong theology is developed to keep up with a wrong lifestyle among church-goers. Prosperity and common-grace theology are in many ways a theological attempt to justify materialism in the lives of churchgoers. Our focus does need to be the cross and the biblical gospel message of sinners and redemption, of sin and satisfaction, and of Christ and spiritual blessings. And then our lives and all our religious service need to be God-centered worship and not man-worship. This was Jesus’ message. “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”