Most Christian leaders condemn the “prosperity gospel,” the idea that God will reward the faithful with health and wealth. Yet observers say it is enjoying new popularity in this economically tenuous time, when many people are not prospering. What’s come to be known as the prosperity gospel began as a staple of fire-and-brimstone preaching in early 20th-century revival meetings. It surged in popularity with television preachers in the 1980s, until scandals revealed that some preachers used money donated for ministry to support their own lavish lifestyles.
Now observers say the prosperity gospel is spreading among churches large and small, denominational and independent, as well as through the ministries of televangelists such as Creflo Dollar, Joyce Meyer, Paul Couch and Kenneth Copeland. These pastors, critics say, encourage their followers to “sow a seed” of faith by spending money – often in the form of a donation to their ministries – in order to reap prosperity in the future.
Many Christian leaders have long condemned prosperity gospel as aberrant theology, but most did so quietly. No more. In the past year, African-American pastors met at a national conference to discuss a problem they see spreading in their denominations. Megapastor Rick Warren declared the prosperity gospel is wrong, and he challenged evangelical Christians to focus less on themselves and more on the poor and needy. Critics have even questioned the ministries of such nationally prominent megapastors as T.D. Jakes – whose Potter’s House does extensive outreach to the poor — and Joel Osteen — pastor of Lakewood Church, the largest megachurch in the country — saying their brand of divinely assisted self-improvement is just a vamped-up version of the prosperity gospel.
Why it matters
Much of the country’s philanthropic giving is funneled through religious organizations, and religious leaders exert heavy influence on how those dollars are spent.
Questions for reporters
How popular and influential is the prosperity gospel? Has the economy influenced its popularity? What changes do prosperity gospel teachings undergo when people are not so prosperous? Are more religious leaders condemning or supporting the prosperity gospel? All Christian clergy preach about the promises of the Gospel, so how do they explain why they differ so much on exactly what God promises? Where do Christian self-help movements fit in?
Prosperity gospel primer
“Prosperity gospel” is the teaching that God will reward signs of faith with health and wealth. It was popularized by a number of preachers during the 1950s, especially by Oral Roberts and his Expect a Miracle television broadcasts. It is also called “word faith,” “name-it-and-claim-it,” “health and wealth gospel” and “positive confession.” It is most often found among more fundamentalist and evangelical churches, but in the last decade or so has begun spreading among Hispanic and African-American congregations.
BIBLE CITATIONS OF SUPPORTERS
Supporters of prosperity gospel frequently refer to the following Bible passages to support their preaching:
• Malachi 3:10 — “And prove me now herewith, saith the Lord of hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall not be room enough to receive it.”
• Mark 11:24 – “Therefore I say unto you, what things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.”
• John 14:14 — “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.”
BIBLE CITATIONS OF CRITICS
Critics of prosperity gospel point to the following passages:
• 1 Timothy 6:7-10 — “For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and clothing, with these we shall be content. But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation and a snare, and into many foolish and harmful lusts which drown men in destruction and perdition. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, for which some have strayed from the faith in their greediness, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows.“
• Matthew 6:19-21 — “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven. … For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
• Luke 18:22-25 — “Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. … How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”
• Revelation 3:14-17 — “To the angel of the church in Laodicea write:
These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm – neither hot nor cold – I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.’ But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked.”
These are some of the people identified by scholars, journalists and watchdog organizations as proponents of the prosperity gospel:
• John Avanzini heads John Avanzini Ministries in Fort Worth, Texas. He is the author of several books that blend Christianity with finance management, including Rich God, Poor God: Your Perception Changes Everything (Abel Press, 2001).
• Juanita Bynum is founder and president of Juanita Bynum Ministries, based in Waycross, Ga. Her program, Weapons of Power, is seen worldwide on TBN; she holds conferences throughout the United States.
• Kenneth and Gloria Copeland are based in Fort Worth, Texas. Their television show, Believer’s Voice of Victory, reaches at least 76 million households in the United States and airs on 135 international stations.
• Paul and Jan Crouch are based in Costa Mesa, Calif. Their Trinity Broadcasting Network collects more than $120 million a year from viewers of its Christian programming — more than any other TV ministry. Crouch calls his version of the prosperity gospel “God’s economy of giving.”
• Creflo Dollar is the founder and president of Creflo Dollar Ministries and pastor of World Changers Church International in College Park, Ga., which claims 25,000 members. His television show, Changing Your World, reaches 1 billion people, according to the WCCI web site.
• Marilyn Hickey is the head of Marilyn Hickey Ministries, based in Denver. Her television show, Today With Marilyn and Sarah, airs on the Trinity Broadcasting Network and Black Entertainment Television network and reaches around the world.
• Benny Hinn is the leader of Benny Hinn Ministries in Grapevine, Texas. His This Is Your Day program is seen throughout the United States and in nearly 200 foreign countries. His ministry took in $60 million in 2001 and now exceeds $90 million annually, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.
• T.D. Jakes leads T.D. Jakes Ministries and The Potter’s House, a church and ministry based in Dallas. His The Potter’s House TV program is seen throughout the world on TBN and Black Entertainment Television. His ministry boasts more than 26,000 members. In 2001, Time magazine named him the best preacher in America. Wall Watchers’ Ministry Watch has criticized him for preaching a prosperity theology.
• Bishop Eddie Long is pastor of New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in suburban Atlanta. In August, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Long received more than $3 million in salary, benefits and perks – including the use of a $350,000 Bentley – between 1997 and 2000 from a charity he founded. In response, Long told the newspaper that “Jesus wasn’t poor.” Long’s weekly ministry program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network, Taking Authority, is seen nationwide.
• Joyce Meyer heads Joyce Meyer Ministries and was selected by Time magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. Her program Enjoying Everyday Life is carried on television and radio stations around the world.
• Clarence McClendon is a preacher whose show Take It by Force appears on TBN and CET. Two programs titled No More Lack and Coming Into a Wealthy Place are among his most popular broadcasts, according to his web site. He is based in Gardena, Calif.
• Joel Osteen preaches that faith leads to health, prosperity and happiness. He is the author of the best-selling Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential (Warner Faith, 2004). He is based in Houston, where his Lakewood Church is ranked as the largest megachurch in the United States by Church Growth Today.
• Nasir Siddiki is a convert to Christianity from Islam. He is based in Tulsa, Okla., where he runs his Wisdom Ministries. He is the author of Kingdom Principles of Financial Increase (Wisdom Ministries, 1998) and speaks frequently to businesspeople.
• Robert Tilton is based in Miami. His Word of Faith Family Church in Farmers Branch, a suburb of Dallas, and its attendant ministries and television shows collapsed after a financial scandal in the early 1990s. His new show now airs on Black Entertainment Television and has a potential audience of 74 million homes.
• Randy and Paula White are leaders of Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla. The Paula White Today TV show can be seen worldwide on Trinity Broadcasting Network and Black Entertainment Television.
• Johnnie Colemon is pastor of Christ Universal Temple in Chicago, where the first statement of belief is “We believe that it is God’s will that every individual on the face of this earth should live a healthy, happy and prosperous life.” She blends traditional prosperity gospel with New Thought theology – the belief that one’s mind creates one’s reality. Her church bills itself as the largest New Thought Christian church.
• According to the 1998 National Congregations Study, more than one-third of mainline Protestants and one-fifth of Catholics attended a church in which personal finances had been discussed in the previous 12 months.
• Read John R. Schneider’s description of his ideas about religion and affluence. It’s posted by the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty.
• Read a Jan. 15, 2006, New York Times story about how more prosperity gospel preachers are bringing their message to New York City. It’s posted by Theocracy Watch.
• Read a 2006 Los Angeles Times story about some people complaining about Coretta Scott King’s funeral being held at the church of Bishop Eddie L. Long, who preaches the prosperity gospel, instead of at Ebenezer Baptist Church, where her husband was pastor.
• Read a Philip Yancey commentary about the “myth” of the prosperity gospel, including an analysis of why some Americans prefer a God of health and wealth instead of hardship and suffering. It ran in the May/June 2005 Christianity Today.
• Read a June 2000 Christianity Today story about African Christian leaders warning about the dangers of a “false gospel of prosperity.”
• Listen to a July 31, 2005, All Things Considered story on National Public Radio about African-American churches debating the prosperity gospel.
• Read an Aug. 17, 2005, Voice of America report on African-Americans questioning the prosperity gospel.
• Read a Beliefnet interview with Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.
• Craig Blomberg is a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado and author of Neither Poverty Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions (InterVarsity Press, 2001), a study of prosperity theology. He traces the origin of the prosperity gospel to the post-World War II ministry of Oral Roberts. Blomberg says the popularity of the prosperity gospel may fluctuate, but as long as there are enough wealthy people who can be held up as examples of its efficacy, it is likely here to stay. Contact 303-762-6897, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Tony Campolo has long been critical of evangelicals and money. He is the author of Speaking My Mind: The Radical Evangelical Prophet Tackles the Tough Issues Christians Are Afraid to Face (W Publishing Group, 2004). One of the tough issues is the compatibility of affluence with faith. He is a professor emeritus at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pa. Contact via his assistant, Christin Fenton, 610-341-1722, email@example.com.
• James Cone is Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and one of the country’s most prominent African-American theologians. He has said that megachurches that preach prosperity gospel help people feel good about their financial success but fail to help those in need. He teaches a seminar on suffering that attempts to answer why, if God loves us, he allows suffering. Contact 212-280-1369, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Craig M. Gay is an associate professor of interdisciplinary studies at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C., Canada. He has written about evangelical Christianity and its relation to money. Contact 604-224-3245.
Douglas John Hall is author of The Cross in Our Context: Jesus and the Suffering World (Augsburg Fortress Press, 2003), in which he examines whether Christianity teaches some a love of consumption and waste. He is emeritus professor of theology at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. Contact via Cynthia Lee in the university’s media office, 514-398-6754, or Jeff Roberts, 514-398-1385.
• David Edwin Harrell is an Eminent Scholar in the history department at Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.. He has written biographies of many pastors who espoused the prosperity gospel, including Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart. Contact 334-844-4008, email@example.com.
• Milmon F. Harrison is the author of Righteous Riches: The Word of Faith Movement in Contemporary African American Religion (Oxford University Press, 2005). He is an associate professor of African-American and African studies at the University of California, Davis. Contact 530-754-6622, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gerald Iversen is national coordinator of Alternatives for Simple Living, a nonprofit educational organization based in Sergeant Bluff, Iowa. He has written of the tension between the “gospel of prosperity” and the “gospel of the cross” for the United Methodist Church’s General Board of Global Ministries. Contact 712-943-6153, Alternatives@SimpleLiving.org.
• Sam Pollard is an associate professor of film and television at New York University in New York, N.Y. He has produced and directed several documentaries, including one about black preachers for the History Channel. Contact 212-998-1487, email@example.com.
• Margaret Poloma is a sociology professor, a Pentecostal Christian and the author of Main Street Mystics: The Toronto Blessing and Reviving Pentecostalism (AltaMira Press, 2003). She is a professor of religion at the University of Akron and can discuss the role prosperity gospel has played in American Christian history. Contact 330-972-6837 (work), 330-328-7860 (cell), firstname.lastname@example.org.
• John R. Schneider is professor of theology at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and author of The Good of Affluence: Seeking God in a Culture of Wealth (Eerdmans, 2002). In his book, he says that there is a biblical precedent for the responsible ownership of wealth, but he cautions that affluence must be tempered with careful Christian reflection. Contact 616-526-6718, email@example.com.
• Ronald Sider is the author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity (revised, W Publishing Group, 2005) and president of Evangelicals for Social Action. He is also a professor of theology and culture at Eastern University in Wynnewood, Pa., where he is director of the Sider Center on Ministry and Public Policy. Contact 610-645-9354, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.
• R. Drew Smith is director of the Public Influences of African-American Churches Project and scholar-in-residence at the Leadership Center at Morehouse College in Atlanta. In a 1999-2000 survey among black ministers conducted by the project, more than half said they “strongly agreed” that biblical teachings on economic prosperity are stressed within their congregations. Similarly, almost half – 49 percent – said an emphasis on personal initiative among African-Americans was stressed as a remedy for economic inequality. Contact 404-681-2800 ext. 2186, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Stephen Winzenburg a is a professor of communications at Grand View College in Des Moines, Iowa, where he has studied the fund-raising activities of televangelists, some of whom avow the prosperity gospel. Contact 515-263-2997, email@example.com.
• Kirbyjon Caldwell is senior pastor of Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston. He is the co-author of Entrepreneurial Faith: Launching Bold Initiatives to Expand God’s Kingdom (WaterBrook Press, 2004) and author of The Gospel of Good Success: A Road Map to Spiritual, Emotional and Financial Wholeness (Fireside, 2000). He is a spiritual adviser to President George W. Bush. Contact 713-723-8187.
• David Demola is the pastor and founder of Faith Fellowship Ministries World Outreach Center in Sayreville, N.J. Financial prosperity is listed among the church’s fundamental beliefs. Contact 732-727-9500.
• Bishop T.D. Jakes is pastor of The Potter’s House, a Dallas-area nondenominational church with 28,000 members and dozens of outreach ministries. Jakes has produced best-selling books, CDs, plays, and movies and regularly holds stadium-size conferences catering to men’s and women’s spiritual needs. Contact 214-331-0954.
• Rick Warren is the pastor of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, Calif. He calls prosperity gospel teachings wrong, and he has recently taken evangelicals to task for not giving enough care and money to the poor and underprivileged. Warren, the author of the best seller The Purpose Driven Life: What on Earth Am I Here For? (Zondervan, 2002), said in 2005 that he was living on 10 percent of his income and giving away 90 percent. He takes no salary from Saddleback and repaid 25 years of paychecks. Contact via A. Larry Ross Communications, 972-267-1111.
• Randy White is the pastor of Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla. Services are broadcast on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. White preaches a “reap what you sow” theology but warns that success is nothing without “significance.” Contact 813-879-4673.
• Jeremiah A. Wright Jr. is pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ, a predominantly African-American megachurch in Chicago. He participated in a conference of African-American pastors concerned with the effect of prosperity gospel in their churches. Trinity’s mission statement includes a “disavowal of the pursuit of middleclassness” and commitment to work toward economic parity. Contact via Janet Moore, 773-962-5650, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Ole Anthony is founder of the Trinity Foundation, a televangelist watchdog organization that has helped uncover questionable, and sometimes criminal, financial practices of television preachers. Trinity maintains a web page that reports on the activities of various prosperity gospel preachers. Contact via Harry Guetzlaff, 214-827-2625, email@example.com.
• Jack Gibbs is media coordinator for Crown Financial Ministries, a global ministry based in Gainesville, Ga., that teaches a Christian and Bible-based money management system. The group does not stress personal wealth and prosperity but focuses on responsible stewardship. Contact 800-722-1976 ext. 281, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• David Wayne Machacek is a resident fellow and visiting assistant professor of public policy at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He has written about the prosperity gospel for Contemporary American Religion (Macmillan, 2000). Contact 860-297-4233, email@example.com.
• Scott Thumma is a professor of sociology and religion at the Hartford Seminary in Hartford, Conn. He is an expert on megachurches and can discuss how widespread the prosperity gospel is among their congregations. Contact 860-509-9571, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Bishop C. Milton Grannum is the founder and senior pastor of the New Covenant Church of Philadelphia. He has been critical of prosperity gospel, saying God blesses people with prosperity not so they can buy cars, but so they can share with others. Contact 215-247-7500.
• Maria Luisa Tucker is a staff writer at AlterNet, a blog site, and associate editor of the Columbia Journal of American Studies. In January 2006, she posted a blog entry linking the rise and fall of prosperity gospel to national politics. Contact her in New York City, email@example.com.
• Sondra Ely Wheeler is a professor of Christian ethics at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C. She has written about what the New Testament says about money and possessions and can discuss the theological background and implications of prosperity gospel. Contact 202-885-8757, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Clint Brown is the pastor of Faith World Outreach Center in Orlando, Fla. He has urged members to give sacrificially so that their “blessings increase” and bring them more material wealth. Contact 407-292-8888.
• Mike Macdonald is pastor of Broad Street United Methodist Church in Mooresville, N.C. He has written newspaper columns critical of prosperity gospel. Contact 704-663-2161, email@example.com.
• Leo Sandon is an emeritus professor of religion and American studies at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He has described prosperity gospel as more “magic” than traditional Christian theology. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
• John Sullivan is executive director and treasurer of the Florida Baptist Convention in Jacksonville. He has written about prosperity gospel as deviant from true biblical teaching. Contact 800-226-8584 ext. 3015.
• Walter L. Woodrick is a certified financial planner and author of Family, Finances … and Faith: An Understandable Guide to Life’s Priorities (Priority Pubishing, 2004). He lives in Lynn Haven, Fla. Contact via Priority Publishing, 850-832-9663, or his web site.
• Stephanie Mitchem is a professor of womanist theology and African-American spirituality at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. She is the author of Name It and Claim It? Prosperity Preaching in the Black Church (Pilgrim Press, 2006). Contact 803-777-3627, email@example.com.
• Forrest Harris is director of the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on African-American Church Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School in Nashville, Tenn. He teaches courses on the theology of ministry in the black church tradition. Contact 615-343-3981, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Shayne Lee is an assistant professor of sociology at Tulane University in New Orleans. He is the author of T.D. Jakes: America’s New Preacher (New York University Press, 2005). Contact 504-862-3088, email@example.com.
• Alan Branch is a professor of Christian ethics at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. He wrote an article for The Baptist Messenger about prosperity gospel and Joel Osteen’s relation to it. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
• David G. Myers is a professor of psychology at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He has written about the pursuit of happiness and consumerism. Contact 616-395-7730, email@example.com.
• Rod Parsley is the pastor of World Harvest Church in Columbus, Ohio, and the author of God’s Answer to Insufficient Funds (Harrison House, 1992). He has said people have “sinned” by trying to make others ashamed of the wealth in their lives. Contact 614-837-1990.
• Jeremiah Wright is the pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He has been critical of megachurches that preach prosperity gospel. Contact 773-962-5650.
• Frederick Haynes III is the senior pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas. He helped organize a conference for African-American pastors concerned about the spread and use of prosperity gospel, especially among African-Americans. Contact 214-371-2029.
• Anthony B. Pinn is a professor of humanities and religious studies at Rice University in Houston. He has been critical of the prosperity gospel preached in some black megachurches for its lack of emphasis on community service and charity. Contact 713-348-2710, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Joerg Rieger is a professor of systematic theology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He is an expert on mainline Protestant denominations and says some of those churches, while they do not teach a prosperity gospel, share a “prosperity mentality” when they preach that “good things happen to good people.” Contact 214-768-2356, email@example.com.
• Nasir Siddiki is the founder of Wisdom Ministries in Tulsa, Okla. He is the author of Kingdom Principles of Financial Increase (Wisdom Ministries, 1998) and speaks frequently to businesspeople. Contact 918-712-7122.
• Michael Scott Horton is a professor of theology and apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, Calif. He has called prosperity gospel a “wild and wacky theology.” Contact 760-480-8474, firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Arlene Sanchez Walsh is an associate professor at Azusa Pacific University’s Haggard School of Theology in Azusa, Calif. She studies Hispanic Pentecostals and the influence of the prosperity gospel in America. She believes prosperity gospel is gaining in popularity. Contact 626-815-5439, Asanchezemail@example.com.
• Steven Leder is a Reform rabbi at the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles. He is the author of More Money Than God: Living a Rich Life Without Losing Your Soul (Bonus Books, 2004). Contact via Ruth Stoch, 213-388-2401, firstname.lastname@example.org.