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The Lost Cause of the Prosperity Gospel

The Lost Cause of the Prosperity Gospel October 5, 2015

While it’s not surprising that a who’s who of prosperity gospel televangelists held a prayer meeting with Donald Trump at the Trump Tower, it is at least striking that a group of Christian leaders would so readily discredit both themselves and the gospel they claim to believe.

Truly, the prosperity gospel itself discredits everyone and everything associated with it, but this was just like, “Hey, gross abuse of the gospel for personal gain, I’m gonna see your 60 million dollar Gulfstream fundraising campaign and raise you a greedy, racist real estate tycoon trying to occupy the most powerful position in the free world!”

This was, in a word, the polar opposite of anything Jesus himself believed or taught; it was, in a shorter word, antichrist:

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I recently worked through an interesting book written by jKonrad Hölé called The Cause Church. jKonrad comes from a Pentecostal/charismatic background like I do, though I suspect his background is a little more on the Pentecostal side than mine was. Regardless, I was intrigued from the moment I saw David Wilkerson listed in the Acknowledgments – Wilkerson has had a profound impact on me too, despite the very “different” place I’ve ended up.

jKonrad’s basic premise complements a lot of the current material on Nones and Dones by identifying the major flaw of the modern American church as its lack of a cause. Or more precisely, it’s individual American Christians who lack a cause, and thus end up supporting ineffective churches as a cause unto themselves (while they are really no worthy cause at all). Hölé is pushing for an American Christianity that leverages its resources to build up communities and populations and address the major areas of suffering in our society, rather than simply support bloated church buildings, programs, and leaders.

And with this general premise, I heartily agree.

jKonrad takes direct aim at the prosperity gospel in Chapter 5:

When God becomes the pass-the-buck person who is going to do for people what the church should be teaching people how to do for themselves, now we have a gospel Ponzi scheme. Guys like Bernie Madoff and Tom Petters went to jail for this type of thinking. In church, however, we call it “prosperity.”

When guys like Madoff and others are convicted of their money crimes, their assets that were purchased by the people’s money are seized and sold off to recoup loss; when preachers do it, they are heralded as “blessed” and described as the example of what their followers can only hope to attain to.

Again, completely agree.

Where I find myself somewhat at odds with Hölé is in his overly simplistic differentiation between prosperity and “wealth.” The latter, he says, is the key to living out a cause and truly meeting the deepest needs in the world. The former is only about raising one’s standard of living. I can’t tell, in this dichotomy, whether jKonrad is really renouncing the heart of the prosperity gospel which is the greedy and selfish hoarding of material possessions, at the expense of the poor and working poor, all in the name of God’s favor, or if he is trying to hold onto some of that “give to get” spirituality. Further, I’m not at all convinced that the church teaching people to become “wealth creators” is ever going to solve the horrible malady of economic inequality that plagues our country. It feels too much like typical trickle-down thinking that ignores the severe deficit with which the poor are forced to begin their economic journey.

It feels too much like the gospel of Trump and his prosperity preaching cronies.

Instead, I would use the word “flourishing” as the opposite of prosperity gospel thinking. Flourishing is about we, not me – it always has a view towards empowering and lifting up those who are oppressed economically. It makes use of all tools at its disposal – including taxation – to provide the resources that underprivileged people and communities lack, so that the possibility of flourishing might become a reality for them.

Yes, economic flourishing (having all that you need and enough to give to others, with the ability to sustain self and community generationally) is the goal, and is a much better position from which to live with a “cause” of serving the world. But no, simply learning how to be wealthy will not in itself address the broader realities of poverty.

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Yet, I resonate strongly with the larger point about the current state of the church: we are, so much of the time, rebels without a cause. (We are probably not even rebels, but you get my point.) By urging individuals to locate the cause, calling, and purpose for their lives that connects to the world’s deepest need is a wonderful way to begin discerning the future of the church. The church, in jKonrad’s estimation, becomes a community of individuals who are committed to their cause, and thus will avoid becoming the bloated, self-serving, ineffective corporation it too often is.

In my upcoming book, I’m actually going to take a slightly different, but related, tack: to view the church as an “open circle” that is positioned to address the “post-apocalyptic” realities we find ourselves in. In the midst of drastic religious decline, this will be our only hope for sustaining worship and witness well into the next millennium.

And the economics of that picture are stated well here by Hölé:

The church pews of America are sitting on billions of cold hard cash…and spending 65 to 85 percent of it on internalized ministry that is incapable of altering the way society functions. Another way to look at it is…when Jesus is affordable but life isn’t, then we are likely solving the wrong problem.

The prosperity gospel is a lost cause. So is much of the way we do economics in the church in general.

For God and the gospel’s sake, it’s time we shifted our priorities once and for all.

Read an excerpt from The Cause Church, and an interview with the author, at the Patheos Book Club here.


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