Dear Thoughtful Pastor: My family and I have broken free from a Prosperity Gospel Church.I’m curious why so many people: A) Don’t see Prosperity Gospel for what it is, a money making business? B) How society or media is not making a bigger deal on Prosperity Gospel pastors misusing the Word of God to make money off of people that are in a vulnerable state of mind during service?
First, let me say, “Congratulations!” for getting out. The pull of a church that preaches riches, happiness, good health and get everything you want is strong.
Many “prosperity gospel” preachers are superb motivational speakers. We listen and walk away thinking, “I can do anything!!! Just anything–if I put my mind to it.” Seen in that sense, particularly in our entrepreneurial North American context, the basic message can help move people off dead center.
But as you and your family discovered, there is a disturbingly dark side to implying God’s approval to a motivational talk. The concept of tithing, giving one-tenth away, has turned into “Give as much as you can to me, i.e., the pastor/leader/hands-in-your-pocket speaker and see how rich, successful, etc. you will become. In fact, someday you may even be as rich as I, with my jets, expensive houses and world travels.”
Nothing in the Bible that supports such an interpretation. Nada. Simply not there. The tithe was to provide for a group of people, the tribe of Levites, from which the priests and religious teachers came.
They were allotted land, although originally everyone else was. Without land, they had no way in their agrarian world to provide for themselves and their families. By setting aside adequate resources, this particular group could serve the rest of the community by making sure the religious, ethical and moral parts of their lives were given proper attention.
The tithe did not guarantee riches or comfort or health. It was intended as a spiritual discipline that would help the nation as a whole prosper. How? A nation operating off of common moral and ethical principles will be far stronger than one built on lying, cheating, stealing, murder and general mayhem.
Why then don’t more people speak out against prosperity gospel preachers? Among other things, as despicable as such predators are, it is perfectly legal. Plus, the profitability of being able to clothe such a money-making scheme in the tax-exempt wrappings of a church means lots of people would like to do the same. What’s to criticize? After all, there is a sucker born every minute, isn’t there?
Nonetheless, a lot of preachers do speak against it, but here is the problem: the words of Jesus are just not popular. He spoke of stuff like loving our enemies, and taking up our crosses, and offering forgiveness when not deserved. Prosperity-type messages have far more broad appeal.
How can the unwary spot a prosperity gospel church? A few insights:
- A heavy emphasis on giving, and especially if the large givers are given unusual access to the leader while smaller givers are relegated to outer circles.
- Repeated suggestions that giving well beyond one’s means will inevitably result in financial blessings.
- Insufficient or impossible to access information or accountability about how monies received are allocated and spent.
- Large numbers of people in the congregation involved in multi-level marketing programs.
- Minimal or no messages at all upon suffering or sacrifice for the greater good.
- A “blame the victim” mentality, i.e., if you are having financial troubles, health issues, etc., it is because you are not being faithful and giving enough.
Dear Thoughtful Pastor: Why do some, perhaps most, pastors fail to talk from the pulpit about political issues although the poor, the uninsured, and the disabled are too often negatively affected by legislation? Is this, from my perspective, harmful approach justified by “the separation of church and state?”
The separation of church and state is not the issue here. The issue is that people just don’t like those messages. Since we in the US don’t have an enforced tithe (see above), most pastors are dependent upon their congregations to keep adequate money flowing in the offering plates to pay the bills and provide for their families.
In our consumerist world, people can and do pick the churches where they want to go. Most would prefer not to hear things that make them uncomfortable or demand an action of some sort in response.
Instead, the masses flock to churches that have one of two main messages. One: “Come here and get rich.” Two: “Come here and you’ll be one of the saved and won’t have to suffer the torments of hell.”
Both have essentially self-centered messages: come here and you are going to be just fine.
Caring sacrificially for the outsiders doesn’t figure in. Those kinds of messages that you rightly see as badly needed simply don’t preach. They don’t fill pews and they don’t fill offering plates. That’s what happens when consumer choice drives religious practice.
All questions are welcome. You can email your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, “like” her Facebook Page, use this form to send them or message her on Twitter. You can also send a question through conventional mail to the following address: Thoughtful Pastor, 314 E. Hickory St., Denton, TX, 76202.
[Note: a version of this column will appear in the Friday, October 30, 2015 print and online editions of The Denton Record Chronicle.]