By Greg Forster
Churches should not only empower people to do their work well, but should help them to have a broader vision of economic flourishing and how communities can achieve it. As I talk to pastors and seminaries about this idea on behalf of The Kern Family Foundation, I am often asked how this is different from the so-called “prosperity gospel.” The question was a genuine surprise the first time I heard it, because to my mind, our approach to economics (which you can read more about in the vision paper of the Economic Wisdom Project) is the furthest thing in the world from the prosperity gospel. Yet people continue to ask me – and I think I know why.
First, let’s talk about the prosperity gospel and what kind of economics it teaches. In 2009, The Atlantic ran a cover story by Hanna Rosin with the provocative title, “Did Christianity Cause the Crash?” The story detailed how many churches teach a magical-thinking approach to money and possessions: If you have true faith, God wants you to have wealth and luxury. These churches love to circulate stories about people who prayed and did other religious works, then received money from unexpected sources. As a result, people spend themselves into oblivion subsidizing comfortable lifestyles and building up debt in the expectation that God will eventually drop the necessary money into their laps. The subtitle of Rosin’s story says it all: “How Preachers are Spreading a Gospel of Debt.”
To be fair, some prosperity gospel churches have tempered their message with reminders that we need to use money responsibly and avoid debt. Rosin’s article focuses on the worst offenders, and not all prosperity-gospel churches match the extreme image she depicts. Even so, the prosperity gospel stands in stark opposition to biblical wisdom and historic Christian theology on the subject of economics.
When her story came out, I was concerned that Rosin was using the destructive effects of the prosperity gospel to bring discredit upon Christianity itself. At the same time, I did think the church had some repenting to do. The failure of pastors and churches to speak to our culture about the economy has been a contributing factor in the country’s multi-generational slide toward economic dysfunction. If we don’t preach the need for an economy built on hard work, honesty, and virtue, we have no reason to complain if our communities turn toward debt, materialism, and dependency.
I published a lengthy response to Rosin in The American magazine. I laid out, in detail, how authentic Christian thinking about economics – grounded in scripture, theology, and Christian history – clearly stands apart from the prosperity gospel. Moreover, prosperity preachers do not have a wide enough influence to be a major cause of the recent crash. Bad decisions in the financial, legal, and regulatory sectors were the immediate problem.
I also acknowledged, however, that churches need to do better at helping our culture understand how to build an economy on diligence, honesty, self-control, service, and generosity, rather than greed, materialism, cronyism, and dependency. The only reason it was possible for people in positions of economic and political power to make all those bad decisions was our lack of a robust culture of economic virtue. If Christians don’t have a vision for how to put faith, hope, and love into practice economically, where else will such a vision come from?
The prosperity gospel is really a disguised form of entitlement thinking. It teaches people the same double falsehood that is at the root of all forms of entitlement mentality: The purpose of economics is to acquire wealth and comfort, and someone else is responsible for providing them. And like every other form of entitlement, it encourages the corruption of moral character by undermining the agency and responsibility of human beings; it severs the link between behavior and results.
“A Christian Vision for Flourishing Communities” clearly differentiates the Economic Wisdom Project from the prosperity gospel. This is illustrated most clearly on pages 8 and 11. On page 8, the document takes special care to emphasize that its statements about economic flourishing are intended to be taken as broad generalizations, not as absolute rules that apply to every case without exception:
At the core of the Economic Wisdom Project are 12 elements of economic wisdom. We have designed them in the form of proverbial declarations, or “wisdom statements.” They are generalizations that are broadly applicable, rather than absolute laws for all cases. Communities rely upon statements of this kind to teach their shared moral wisdom – a practice modeled throughout Scripture, especially in the book of Proverbs. The Elements of Economic Wisdom presented here apply biblical wisdom to the modern economy.
Communities cannot teach moral character unless they can make general statements about how the world works, and the faith community is no different. But such statements are not promises, and they do not create entitlements.
It is a fact – attested with great force by Scripture and theology, as well as by plain reason and the historical record – that in general, communities tend to prosper if the people in them practice virtue (honesty, diligence, service, etc.), and the public culture institutionalizes that behavior in its social systems. Likewise, lack of virtue at the individual or public level tends to bring disaster. If we do not teach these general truths, we cannot help people and cultures know how to behave rightly; nor can we reliably differentiate Christianity from gnostic philosophies that say the material world is evil or chaotic. In January, Dallas Willard spoke to our seminary network about these facts and why churches need to teach them.
But it is one thing to teach that these observations are true in general and quite another to set them up as promises of prosperity to individuals or communities. God does not owe us prosperity. The great irony is that treating these general observations as promises turns them into entitlements, which undermines the very moral character the observations were intended to instill (c.f. Job 35:1-8, Mark 8:35).
On page 11, “A Christian Vision for Flourishing Communities” describes the concept of value creation, and offers three wisdom statements (Economic Wisdom Elements 4-6) on this topic. The primary purpose of work is not to make money, but to create value for others. This means serving human needs and making the world a better place. So the purpose of the economy is not wealth and luxury, but people serving one another’s needs and helping God’s world to flourish as he designed it to.
Element 4 puts a sharp point on this teaching: “Real economic success is about how much value you create, not how much money you make.” If you ask me, that statement puts a stake through the heart of the prosperity gospel. Once we define “economic success” as contributing to the needs of others and making the world a better place, the prosperity gospel becomes nonsense. There is indeed a sense in which God wants all of his followers to be economically successful; he wants them to succeed at being servants and agents of flourishing. The one who does so has become wealthy and prosperous in the only sense that ultimately counts.
Why, then, do people so often ask me how this view is different from the prosperity gospel? I believe it’s because we have become so accustomed to the idea that churches are not supposed to care whether their communities flourish. Our thinking about the pastoral role excludes the good of the community so completely that any concern for flourishing is immediately categorized as “prosperity gospel,” simply because we have no other category for it.
This needs to change. As Willard emphasized in his lectures, Christianity cannot be what it claims to be if the “spokesperson for Christ,” the pastor, is not a source of knowledge and wisdom for the community about what is, what is good, and what is right. Thus “it is certainly the task of the Christian spokesperson to teach, train, and exemplify both the foundational traits [of the fruit of the Spirit] and the more specific traits required in the economic domain . . .we should put to rest once and for all the idea that these traits are ‘private’ and that public economic flourishing is independent of them. Public well-being and prosperity essentially depend upon them, properly understood and implemented.” Amen.
Adapted from the Kern Pastors Network. Image courtesy KPN.