I am convinced that the single greatest threat to the historical legacy and core values of the contemporary black church tradition is posed by what is known as the “prosperity gospel” movement. That movement, however, is only symptomatic of a larger mission crisis or “mission drift” that has placed the black church in the posture of assimilating into a culture that is hostile to people living on the margins of society, such as people living in poverty, people living with AIDS, homosexuals, and immigrants.
This is not a new challenge. Christians have grappled with their relationship to material goods and opportunities in this world since the first century. But in our era something new and different has emerged. Today, prominent, influential, and attractive preachers and representatives of the church now are advocates for prosperity. Perhaps this could only occur at a time and in a place where two conditions exist. First, Christianity is the dominant faith tradition; second, the nation permits and rewards extraordinary inequalities of wealth and power.
The gospel of assimilation provides sacred sanction for personal greed, obsessive materialism, and unchecked narcissism. That distorted gospel dares not risk a critique of the culture and systems that thrive in the presence of a morally anemic church. This is more than a concern about the encroachment of the prosperity gospel movement that receives so much negative attention. Rather, this is a more thorough and comprehensive distortion of the religion of Jesus.
To be a successful (different from faithful) pastor in today’s world is to confront the ever-present temptation to sell one’s soul, compromising one’s vocation and ethical responsibilities, in exchange for or access to wealth. One Houston-based minister observed that when the church gets a mortgage, “poor people” become just another church program. Poor people were central to Jesus’ own self-definition, but they are often relegated to one of many service programs of today’s corporate church, simply another item on the services menu.
The tragedy is that one-fourth of the black community lives in poverty while many clergy and churches are distracted and seduced by the lure of material wealth. When churches devote more time to building their local kingdoms and less time to nurturing and uplifting poor people, they are struggling with a mission crisis.
A prosperity field trip. One Sunday, I visited the church of my Atlanta neighbor, the Rev. Creflo Dollar. I had heard about the burgeoning ministry of the World Changers Church and felt I should see for myself.
I found a parking space three blocks from the sanctuary. The hike to the sanctuary was so far that I momentarily forgot where I was headed and began to window shop the stores en route to the church, perhaps unconsciously getting into prosperity mode. I finally arrived and entered the enormous domed sanctuary, taking a seat near the front. Everything was neat and comfortable. The blue carpet and plush pew covers were welcoming. The huge rotating globe and other props on stage subtly reminded one that what happens here is intended for a global television audience.
After the choir sang, Rev. Dollar entered the sanctuary dressed in a business power suit and took his seat. Most black preachers begin their sermons in a conversational way. They acknowledge the presence of special guests and familiar faces and invite people to relax and laugh before they begin the journey toward an encounter with the holy. But this was a bit different, perhaps because the stage lights and television cameras were operating. Dispensing with all of the “old school” black church conventions, he went right to the text for the day.
The first 15 minutes of his message were encouraging and impressive. I heard evidence of a critical thinker who had done his homework and given careful attention to various scholarly sources for the selected biblical text. Then, out of nowhere, he began to testify about a friend who had recently given him a second Rolls Royce. He continued, “Now, that’s not the Rolls that you all gave me years ago. See, so don’t get mad. This was a gift from a friend.” I wonder if anyone else wondered, “Why does he need one Rolls Royce? But, two?”
More amazing was that the congregation seemed to affirm this testimony of personal indulgence and excess. No one seemed to have the power to hold the preacher accountable for exceeding his proper allowance as a representative of Jesus. I do not know Rev. Dollar personally and I will reserve judgment about his motives and character, but it appears he has followed the script for how a successful and affluent corporate executive behaves. He does not seem to have entertained the possibility of rewriting that script and offering to other ministers and followers a new paradigm of socially responsible affluence.
If most black preachers—and other preachers for that matter—are preoccupied with pursuing the “bling-bling” life of conspicuous consumption, then poor people are in big trouble, because it indicates that the hearts of their chief advocates are “drunk with the wine of the world,” to use James Weldon Johnson’s phrase, and incapable of speaking truth to power.
GIVEN THE DISTORTING influence of the prosperity movement on authentic Christianity, I should say more about the phenomenon.
We should distinguish between three realities: First, the “gospel of prosperity.” Second, the “prosperity gospel.” And third, radical Christian stewardship that may include the ownership of material goods.
The gospel of prosperity: “Greed is good.”The “gospel of prosperity” refers to the cultural ideology that suggests that the accumulation of material possessions, wealth, and prosperity are morally neutral goods that are necessary for human happiness. I characterize it as an ideology rather than merely an idea because it functions like a powerful, unconscious force that does not revise its position in the face of counterevidence. For instance, its advocates would not admit that possessing material goods in excess may actually induce unhappiness. As an ideology, its believers insist upon its correctness, deny the legitimacy of other perspectives, and pursue wealth without concern for long-term consequences. Prosperity becomes an intrinsic good and an end in itself.
Most examples of this vulgar form of material worship do not pretend to be religious, certainly not Christian. Rather, they are elements of what might be called America’s largest quasi-religious tradition, namely the religion of capitalism. The gospel of prosperity has been a guiding ideology or myth embodied in the Horatio Alger story (among others), where people acquire wealth through the heroic exercise of risk-taking, ingenuity, high energy, inordinate self-confidence, and tireless effort. That’s the gospel of prosperity that underwrites American capitalism. The gospel of prosperity is a competitor to authentic Christianity (and other faith traditions) and ruthlessly seeks to establish its preeminence in the culture.
The prosperity gospel of the spiritual entrepreneurs. The “prosperity gospel” asserts that Christian faith is an investment that yields material abundance. Rev. Dollar fits in this category, along with scores of other televangelists who live and instruct others on how to “think and grow rich.” Wealth is outward proof of an inner grace and righteousness. Salvation is both spiritual and material. And although the “prosperity gospel” may not be as vulgar an expression of greed as the “gospel of prosperity,” both are corrosive and threatening to American churches, which are constantly tempted to focus on their own institutional well-being at the expense of serving the vulnerable.
The prosperity gospel may be even more insidious and dangerous because it subverts particular elements of the Jesus story and of classical biblical Christianity in order to instill a new attitude toward capitalism and riches. It often deliberately suppresses, ignores, and/or deletes language about radical sacrifice for the sake of God’s kingdom. In other words, it excludes a core message of the Jesus story, namely that which is symbolized by the cross. That symbol is an enemy to the underlying confidence people invest in material prosperity at the expense of trusting God. “Cross talk” insists that believers share their material prosperity rather than hoard it. At times the call to share wealth may be so radical that a person is compelled to give it all away in order to serve and please God.
I refer to the clergy who operate from this orientation as “spiritual entrepreneurs” who know how to produce, package, market, and distribute user-friendly spirituality for the masses. The spiritual product lines they market rarely make stringent ethical demands upon their listeners. Instead, they proffer a gospel of health, wealth, and success designed to help others become more affluent. When these leaders serve as pastors of congregations, they function like “entrepreneurial ecclesiastical executives” at the helm of corporate organizations. Such congregations and leaders may be changing who they are and are called to be, distorting the meaning of church as a community of holy awareness, care, interdependence, sharing, moral deliberation, and action.
Prophetic stewardship.A third view of faith and money is “prophetic stewardship.” I use the word prophetic to emphasize that this model represents something of a negative judgment on its alternatives, the secular gospel of prosperity and the pseudo-religious prosperity gospel. It seeks to displace them with a more radical version of stewardship and shared prosperity. Here it is understood that the Christian gospel includes many goods—spiritual, social, psychological, physical, and material. But none of them, apart from the spiritual good of salvation, is promised without qualification. Again, the cross and a disciple’s faithful embrace of it may require one to practice what theologian Jacquelyn Grant has called an “ethic of renunciation,” in which we may have to sacrifice physical well-being, psychological comfort, social support, and material goods for the sake of saving our souls. Is this the meaning of Matthew 6:33, “But, seek ye first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you”?
Prophetic stewardship invites reflection upon the meaning of the values found in passages such as Matthew 6:19-20. There, Jesus engages in “cross talk” as he declares “do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven.” Acts 2:44-45 indicates that “All the believers were together and had everything in common; selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need.” When people had a life-changing encounter with Jesus, it also reshaped their attitude toward their possessions.
Prophetic stewardship is the most adequate and authentic expression of a Christian orientation to money. Consequently, Christians should aspire to understand, accept, and practice prophetic stewardship. Such stewardship both encourages Christians to live in a simple but comfortable manner (leaving a small footprint on the earth) and publicly works to change the culture’s prevailing habits of greed. This public move is what makes it prophetic. That is, prosperity per se should never become a prominent theme or mark of the faithful Christian life. It should never compete with the cross for center stage. Material acquisition should always be incidental to one’s vocation and one must always be prepared to make radical sacrifices for the sake of one’s soul and/or the good of the reign of God.
AGAINST THE BACKGROUND of the prosperity gospel movement and the seductions of spiritual leaders is the more chilling report that many churches located in high poverty neighborhoods are not responding to local needs effectively. R. Drew Smith, a senior fellow at the Leadership Center of Morehouse College, undertook research in four cities on the relationship between churches and low-income residents. His 2003 report, Beyond the Boundaries: Low-Income Residents, Faith-Based Organizations and Neighborhood Coalition Building, states the following conclusions:
Two-thirds of the housing complex residents surveyed report having little or no contact with faith-based organizations in the previous year; many congregations report having programs of potential value to neighborhood residents but indicate that church members take advantage of these programs more frequently than non-members; and, roughly two-thirds of the congregations report that most of their members live more than one mile from their place of worship.
Smith and others underscore the social isolation of low-income, urban residents from the jobs, social services, and poverty-alleviating networks in their metro areas. And he points to the potential of churches to bridge that distance and help to connect people and their communities.
I hope that the disconnect between churches and their local neighborhoods will become an issue that evokes conversation about how congregations that do little for local residents can revise their ministries to serve them more effectively. And I hope that the same community that criticizes inactive churches will acknowledge and reward those that are active and faithful to their mission.
Why are churches so susceptible to misreading or misplacing their moral compasses? The work that Jesus left for the church is clearly set forth in the New Testament, and the people he wanted us to assist and empower are clearly identified. Moreover, Jesus provided the means for doing effective ministry before he departed. So what’s the problem? I would submit that leadership, its quality, performance, and education, are essential.
The irony is that many black preachers stylistically present themselves to the world as large, powerful, and accomplished individuals. How many of today’s denominational leaders, local pastors, or founders of the new megachurches have risked their access to important people or revenue streams in order to achieve goals in the arena of social justice, such as dismantling penalties against the working poor, expanding health-care coverage, or dramatically improving the well-being of children?
We must invite and challenge leaders to do the right things, to do them more effectively, and in a collaborative manner. Further, we should reward institutions and leaders that meet our expectations and ignore those who are unresponsive or deliberately clueless. Moreover, we should actively isolate, stigmatize, and discourage those who are harmful to our communities. This must never be done in a mean-spirited way, but we must not permit leaders who exploit people to think that the community approves of such poor stewardship. The community deserves prophetic stewards.
Robert M. Franklin is the presidential distinguished professor of social ethics at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University and former president of the Interdenominational Theological Center. He is currently president of the Regional Council of Churches of Atlanta. This article is adapted from Crisis in the Village: Restoring Hope in African-American Communities (Fortress Press).