It’s become quite the fashion to dismiss the so-called “prosperity gospel.” And I agree, if by “prosperity gospel” we mean the notion that by virtue of being a Christian God will reign wealth down on us. I don’t believe that.
In fact, I remember years ago making a donation to brothers and sisters in Christ in Ethiopia who were starving due to drought. Good Christians. Starvation. I’m not willing to pretend that their problem was a lack of prayer or faith. Indeed, the scriptures plainly teach —
(Rom 5:3-4) Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope.
The scriptures expect that Christian will endure suffering.
And the scriptures speak of the blessings of poverty —
(Luke 6:20) Looking at his disciples, he said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.
(James 2:5) Listen, my dear brothers: Has not God chosen those who are poor in the eyes of the world to be rich in faith and to inherit the kingdom he promised those who love him?
The wealth promised the poor is faith and the kingdom.
Now, yes, God does sometime shower wealth down upon his children, but there’s no such promise to be found in the scriptures — and building a theology on the pursuit of wealth is very wrong indeed.
However … there is a prosperity gospel that’s real and true and that we should be very conscious of. This is well summarized in an article by Peter Berger quoted by Scot McKnight at the Jesus Creed blog.
He describes the work of the Pentecostal churches in Africa, whose members are in fact escaping poverty thanks to their Christianity —
The aforementioned package also comes with a moral component—the one that Max Weber long ago called “the Protestant ethic.” It is an ethic of hard work, soberness, frugality, and a generally disciplined lifestyle. If it is observed by poor people over a generation or so, it is very likely to lead to social mobility—that is, to an escape from grinding poverty. To be sure, there will be many people who attend prosperity-gospel churches and think of their transaction with God in quasi-magical terms—they will sing, pray, give money, and without any further effort on their part God will shower material blessings upon them. In other words, Tetzel can indeed reappear in a Protestant guise. But it is also clear from the empirical data that those people who do adhere to the Protestant ethic will indeed be materially rewarded, or at least their children will. “Betterment” follows if people work hard, save from their paycheck rather than spend it on liquor and lavish entertainment, educate their children rather than invest energy in sexual adventures. Individuals who live by the Protestant ethic have a better chance to undergo social mobility, and a society in which this ethic is diffused has a better chance at economic growth. And that is very good indeed for the poor.
Weber believed (correctly, I think) that the socio-economic consequences of Protestantism were unintended. Luther, Calvin, and Wesley did not intend their moral teachings to make their followers rich (though at least the last of the three noticed, with considerable discomfort, that many of his followers did become rich—the “method” of Methodism turned out to have an economic result along with its religious one). The purveyors of the prosperity gospel are, as it were, intentional Weberians: They consciously intend the consequences that earlier Protestants brought about unintentionally. Sociologists will have a hard time quarreling with this program, whatever the qualms of theologians.
Interesting, isn’t it? You see, there are many reasons for financial poverty. And a failure to live by Christian values is often a major contributor, if not the cause. Marriage, a good day’s work for a day’s pay, simplicity, moderate use of alcohol, avoiding divorce, deferring gratification, reluctance to incur debt, living within your means, caring about your community, working so that your children have it better than you, valuing education, being an honest government official or corporate employee … all these things dramatically impact the likelihood of living in poverty.
Sometimes these attributes impact the individual personally. Sometimes they impact the ability of a society to produce prosperity. But values associated with Christianity can change people’s lives for the better and can even transform societies.
Therefore, one of the things I appreciate about the Floresta work is their insistence that the people benefited work hard themselves and their emphasis on creating ways that allow the people they serve to earn their own living — even to make enough to send their children to college — and their desire not only to serve but to convert.
You see, evangelism and benevolence are synergistic. The amount of financial relief you can provide people is greatly limited if they don’t adopt a Christian worldview. And yet it’s hard to convert people when they can’t feed themselves.
I’ve seen too many aid programs where the rich Westerners just drop in, paint a house or dig a well, and leave, but do nothing to truly make a change. Well, there are severe limits to what you can do in two-weeks a year. You can’t really form friendships. You can’t really teach Christianity. You can’t change attitudes and worldviews. But you can paint a house.
However, where we insert fulltime missionaries and support them with smart short-term mission efforts, we can bring not only water, mosquito netting, and paint, we can take major steps toward complete salvation — personal, community, and cosmic, that is, saving souls, repairing society, and bringing a healthy balance between using and protecting the Creation.
In short, a better understanding of salvation should lead to a better kind of missionary work. It’ll take time, money, and a lot of work to develop methods that work in the many fields that need the gospel, but if we do it right, the places where we take the gospel will soon become our partners in sending the gospel to other places. And that’s a much better model than how we do it now in most places