I have no love for the so-called “prosperity gospel.” Not even a little bit. But I do love the many thousands and thousands of people who belong to churches that preach the “prosperity gospel.”
We can so easily mistake opposition to an idea with opposition to people. Nevertheless, we can oppose a person’s deeply held ideas or beliefs while at the same time wishing only good for the person. In fact, opposing someone’s false or wrong ideas is itself an act of love that works for their…well…prosperity. If we leave people in error then we’re at least guilty of benign neglect. We may even be guilty of a kind of hatred.
I suspect I’ll oppose prosperity theology my entire life. But I hope with all I am to love people in those churches until Jesus calls me home. And, though folks in my camp rarely admit these things, there’s a lot we can learn from and admire in people who belong to prosperity preaching churches. Since we comment a lot on the negative aspects of this aberrant theology, I thought it might be good to say a couple of things about the people we appreciate.
They Believe God
First, it seems to me that many people in prosperity churches seek to believe God. They don’t just believe in God; they believe God. They take him at his word. They expect that God will do what he says he will do. They exhort one another and push themselves to put their trust in the God who speaks and never lies. I admire that. Especially since it’s so easy to see that many in our camp believe a lot of things about God but sometimes fall short of believing God.
“We can so easily mistake opposition to an idea with opposition to people.”
Second, my friends in prosperity circles are filled with ambition. They want to do things. They want to achieve. They dream dreams and they believe God for their fulfillment. Whether it’s a desire to own a business, grow wealth or succeed in ministry, they train themselves to ask great things of God. They lay their desires open before the Lord and expect things to come to pass. There’s an entrepreneurial spirit among them that leads them to take risks or try new things in the Christian life. Again, my camp can learn something from this. We’re “reasonable” and careful not to mistake certain texts for promises. Sometimes it seems we whittle the generosity and greatness of God right down to our level, where we feel safe and where we can “reasonably” expect to see “results.”
Third, the brothers and sisters I know who attend prosperity churches are steadfast in their belief. They don’t toy around with people who lack faith. They refuse to be distracted by naysayers. They resolve to continue in the doctrines they’ve been taught despite all odds and circumstances. They’re unmovable. They believe what they believe and they see themselves in a fight to remain true to their teaching. The innovations that happen in their theology all work to confirm and deepen theology. My camp plays around with core doctrines, speculates unhelpfully about key issues, and too often welcomes folks who depart from our convictions.
Fourth, I find a great deal of joy among my friends in prosperity churches. They’re glad to be Christians and it shows. They look for the best in life and they enjoy it. They refuse to be glum and dour. Even when they’re not happy, they fight for joy by faith. By contrast, lots of people in my camp seem to be happy only when they’re arguing. We claim to hold the deep truths of the faith but it doesn’t excite us. Some even come close to treating unhappiness as a badge of faithfulness.
Fifth, my friends at prosperity churches tend to excel at encouragement. I don’t find them critical or negative. They seek to build people up. They believe their words matter. They look to impart grace and life to their hearers. And usually it works. When I leave the company of my friends in prosperity churches I feel built up, helped, and refreshed. That’s not always the case when I leave the company of my friends who share my theological convictions.
As I said, I’m no friend of the so-called “prosperity gospel.” I believe it does harm to a great number of people. I believe it distorts the true gospel in critical ways. And I fully realize that the virtues I listed above can be misguided, built on bad interpretation of biblical texts, and manipulated by false teachers. Yet, the truth needs to be told. There are Christ-loving, joy-seeking, biblically-thoughtful persons in these churches from whom we can and should learn a lot. I know I’d be a far more compelling Christian if I could more consistently marry the virtues above with what I think is a better reading of the Scripture. After all, what’s a better reading of the scripture if it’s not matched with a better living of the Scripture?