Most of the Methodist world gasped in horror at the news last week that a prominent TV evangelist, the surreally-named Creflo Dollar, had gone public with his desire to raise $65 million from his faithful flock for a new private jet. (That’s a lot of dough — you can build a substandard high school football stadium with that! Rim shot, please …)
People in the liberal Protestant tradition can’t really relate to the financial attitudes of a large segment of Pentecostals and evangelicals. I can, because I grew up in this subculture.
My high school years, in particular, were spent at a growing, suburban megachurch in Plano, Texas, which came out of the Word of Faith movement, based in the ministry of Kenneth Hagin and Rhema Bible College. Churches throughout the world have imbibed their ethos from Hagin’s influence, as well as his spiritual descendants, including Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, Benny Hinn, and others.
Since these are non-denominational churches, there is no direct link between them, except in the loose affiliation of friendly preachers and funders, as well as overarching themes and teachings, the primary one being something called “Prosperity Theology.”
The first, and fundamental, tenet of Prosperity Theology (PT) is that God desires that all Christians be, if not wealthy, then extraordinarily well-to-do, and completely healthy. According to this thinking, believing Christians should have no unmet material needs, nor should they be sick. Proponents of PT point to Abraham as the paradigm of the faithful believer; he was obviously a rich man by any ancient Middle Eastern standard. Much of the Old Testament supports the concept that the faithful will be blessed, while the wicked will be punished with poverty — even in this world, never mind that a whole lot of the Old Testament is also spent pushing back on this concept, including the books of Job and Ecclesiastes.
Financial blessing is a spiritual birthright, then, of the believer. There are a number of ways to tap into this windfall. The Word of Faith folks emphasize the words and speech of our mouth; what we say out loud determines what actually happens. You must constantly “confess with your mouth” that you are prosperous and blessed. You must not allow yourself to voice negative thoughts, worries, or concerns, because then those things just might come true.
Furthermore, you must constantly “believe” or “have faith” that what you want will happen. To “believe for something,” is PT code for “saying that something is going to happen, even though you don’t have any proof that it will.” It’s essentially positive thinking on steroids.
Another way to receive the financial blessings you deserve is to give out of your poverty. The best way to show your faith is to give money away that you can’t afford to give away. Like the widow who gave away her last two pennies, believers are encouraged to give sacrificially. These gifts are then, not simply offerings, they are “seeds” that are sown into fertile ground, and which will reap a substantial reward.
The best proof that this sowing and reaping dynamic works is to look at the preachers who practice it — the people who buy TV stations and broadcast their images throughout the world, while dressing like fashion stars, driving expensive cars, and, yes, buying private jets.
And this theology “works.” All you have to do is count the number of people in Dollar’s churches, or the numbers of people throughout the world who buy it. I was surprised to discover in Cameroon, that one of the handful of public TV stations that were available on every set, was a Christian station out of South Africa. Every program and preacher on the station promoted PT thinking. The Methodist pastors in our fledgling mission ate it up. They thought that’s what American Methodists believed, too.
And so, when I heard Creflo Dollar’s appeal, it didn’t shock or surprise me. It made a lot of sense:
“The mission of Project G650 is to acquire a Gulfstream G650 airplane so that Pastors Creflo and Taffi (his wife) and World Changers Church International can continue to blanket the globe with the Gospel of grace. We are believing for 200,000 people to give contributions of 300 US dollars or more to turn this dream into a reality—and allow us to retire the aircraft that served us well for many years.”
In my last year or two at this megachurch in Plano, I began to be troubled by the disconnect between what I heard from the pulpit and what I read in the Gospels. I notice that our pastor never preached on Jesus’ words, “If you want to be my disciple, take up your cross and follow me.” He never preached about Jesus’ words to the rich young ruler, nor did he address Jesus’ words about not having a place to lay his head.
Even worse was the disconnect between the message preached and the reality around me. I heard people in my church literally tell a man that if he had enough faith, his wife would not die of cancer. Three weeks later, when she died, I couldn’t help wonder if his faith had been damaged for good.
I understand the appeal of PT; it does seem to speak a word of hope and expectation to poor people. But it’s not the right word. It seriously distorts, not only Scripture, but also human experience.
I’ve tried to put that kind of theology far behind me. However, this morning, as I watch the furor around Dollar’s request, I wonder how much PT has seeped into our very own Methodist subculture.
I’ve been vocal in the last few years about how much I distrust numbers as a sign of fruitfulness. I’ve written here and there about the meaningless of statistics, particularly church membership and attendance. I recognize that this is partly due to my own experience in a PT church growing up.
But take a look at some of the largest churches in the world — Nigeria’s Living Faith World Outreach Ministry has a sanctuary that can seat 50,000. They have three services every Sunday. Pastor David Oyedepo is Nigeria’s wealthiest preacher, worth $150 million by some estimates. And he preaches the same prosperity BS that Dollar preaches. Is the size of his church a sign of God’s blessing on him?
I would argue, “Of course not.” It IS possible to build a megachurch which is built on a faulty theology.
This leads to the question, “Is the size of any church a sign of God’s blessing or curse AT ALL? Is it even a sign of doctrinal orthodoxy?”
The answer is, “No.” It’s simply not a direct correlation. Yet, we United Methodists continue to moan about our membership decline. We are worried that the numerical loss indicates something about our performance. This might be true, but it is not always true. Then we rush around trying to fix the numerical loss, assuming that it is performance-related. This causes us to create fundamentally-flawed, performance-based metrics. “Marks of fruitfulness” can never be expressed on a spreadsheet.
Let me say it clearly: the size and budgets of our churches do not matter, especially in terms of faithfulness, fidelity to the Gospel, and quality of ministry.
Let’s take that question a step further: “Is the size of one’s wallet, or salary, or savings, a sign of God’s blessing or curse AT ALL?”
Again, the answer is, “No, not at all.” Yet I fear that, subconsciously, there are a whole bunch of us Methodists who actually subscribe to the logic of Prosperity Theology, even if we would never articulate it in those terms, and are actually offended when we see it baldly expressed by the Creflo Dollars of the world.
John Wesley was absolutely right when, toward the end of his life, he lamented how wealthy the Methodists of England had become. He recognized that they never did really subscribe to the third of his famous trinity of financial maxims: “Earn all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” In his sermon, “The Danger of Riches,” he preached:
O ye Methodists, hear the word of the Lord! I have a message from God to all men; but to you above all. For above forty years I have been a servant to you and to your fathers. And I have not been as a reed shaken with the wind: I have not varied in my testimony. I have testified to you the very same thing from the first day even until now. But “who hath believed our report?” I fear, not many rich: I fear there is need to apply to some of you those terrible words of the Apostle: “Go to now, ye rich men! Weep and howl for the miseries which shall come upon you. Your gold and silver is cankered, and the rust of them shall witness against you and shall eat your flesh, as it were fire.” Certainly it will, unless ye both save all you can and give all you can. But who of you hath considered this since you first heard the will of the Lord concerning it? Who is now determined to consider and practice it? By the grace of God begin today!
How many of us actually preach it, or practice it?
I confess that I don’t, yet all the while, it convicts me, and gnaws away at my spirit, hoping that someday I might attain the practical holiness of Wesley.
I can sit here on my computer and take potshots at Creflo Dollar’s silly jet idea all I like, but perhaps I am just as silly, greedy, and deluded. I have succumbed to the same dream, the anti-Christian American Dream, the anti-Gospel Prosperity Theology, because I, too, simply want to be wealthy, healthy, and successful.
Lord, have mercy on me.