The so-called prosperity gospel has been a matter of concern in certain Christian circles for some time. The phenomenon doesn’t look like abating any time soon, and American evangelicals have renewed their opposition, with 9 Marks covering it at the beginning of 2014, and the Gospel Coalition posting throughout the year just gone.
As far as the Gospel Coalition goes, evangelical treatments to date have involved theological exposés and refutation, rather than right teaching about prosperity. In amongst the rebuttals, there’s little sense of appreciation of what prosperity teaching might actually be doing: what questions it answers, what needs it meets, what issues it addresses.
At one post in particular, 5 errors of the prosperity gospel, it struck me that some of the commenters saw right through the piece. A commenter called Mike Ndlovu left the following message:
Perhaps the brother would be kind and smart to teach us what’s right. Should we just choose to be silent on prosperity and leave it to the world to explain it. Is prosperity not validated in scripture and if it is, which are those scriptures? People have heard a lot about what’s wrong and there are many ‘bible scholars’ who are good in that. When are we going to hear from those who know what’s right? I don’t think you have done justice to the matter as you’re pointing out errors and not bringing light to the ignorant – You have raised more questions than answers.
(Note: I can’t get the comments working in my Firefox browser, but it’s okay with Safari.)
The question is, what does the gospel mean in the physical, material stuff of everyday life? In what ways is Jesus tangibly good news in our communities? Where is the full life of which he speaks?
This is the space that prosperity teaching inhabits. No, it may not have the answers straight, but it has understood the weight of that particular set of questions.
And this is the point at which we evangelicals need to pause for some honest self-reflection. Speaking into that temporal domain is not really our strong suit, and we have not been in the habit of addressing those questions.
More to the point, we are tempted to downplay temporal things altogether. In our reiteration of traditional evangelical teachings, we are often liable to emphasise the ‘spiritual’ at the expense of the material — which is to answer the questions that have long animated evangelical spirituality, but ignore the matters on the hearts of Africans.
This dogs our efforts to make a legitimate response to prosperity teaching, but in one TGC interview, Conrad Mbewe appears to demand exactly that. It’s also worth asking whether God can indeed answer African questions, or must Africans first adopt a Western outlook?
‘So heavenly minded, no earthly good,’ the saying goes, and if it applies to us, it is specifically in this area. A worthy evangelical response to the prosperity gospel will develop as we turn our attention to ‘earthly’ things, not otherwise.
The thing is, our tradition is not without resources to offer.
About 18 months ago I noted an intriguing overlap between Tanzanian Christians using a famous self-help book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, and Australian Christians using a more recent self-help book, Getting Things Done. In America, this interest has resulted in a book by Matt Perman, What’s Best Next: How the gospel transforms the way you get things done. It comes from TGC’s own theological stable, complete with gushing endorsement from John Piper.
The book aims ‘to reshape the way you think about productivity and then present a practical approach to help you become more effective in your life with less stress and frustration, whatever you are doing.’ It is about ‘gospel-driven productivity’. Dare I rephrase that as gospel-driven prosperity? After all, productiveness and prospering are surely related concepts. TGC’s interview with the author provides more detail.
I reckon this marks a step towards an evangelical practical theology of prosperity. It is here, and not in abstract theologising or ‘spiritual’ promises, that we can see the beginnings of an evangelical response to prosperity teaching.
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.