I watched American Gospel: Christ Alone this week after hearing a bit of chatter about it. It profiles the American prosperity gospel as a heresy and mentions that it is being exported overseas where it also damages vulnerable people. The only evidence given for the exporting is this famous assertion from John Piper and one pastor’s few years spent in Peru as a missionary. I thought it might be worthwhile bringing some of the key issues raised in the documentary into conversation with some Tanzanian teachers of prosperity to ask, is the prosperity theology here of the same nature as the American prosperity gospel as presented in the documentary? Of course, the sources I am using here are by no means representative of all Tanzanians. They are representative of the Tanzanian teachers of prosperity whom I have heard.
American prosperity gospel says that God has a good plan for your life for abundance. He wants to bless you and give you good things. It extrapolates from how we feel about our children, that is, that we want their lives to be happy and comfortable so God must want the same for us. The documentary responds that Peter, Paul and Stephen’s lives ended in pain and disgrace for the glory of God. God’s desire is to grow us in holiness, not make us more comfortable. Talking about life now trivialises the gospel so it’s not a rescue plan from heaven.
Tanzanian prosperity theology agrees that God wants you to have a good life. Pastor Yared Dondo of City Harvest Church said, “Basically God wants us to prosper in all areas of our lives. It is not God’s desire to see his children suffering.” I wrote a blog post interpreting these comments. In her podcast life coach Luphurise Mawere teaches that poverty leads people to conflict and poor relationships which do not honour God. God hates the oppression that causes poverty and those who are wealthy and oppress others are not walking in the biblical way. Business woman and author of ‘The Bible and Wealth’, Ufoo George, tells of how she used to think that life now did not matter because we just wait for heaven – in her current view, this is a trivializing of the gospel, as if it has nothing to do with how we live now. Luphurise agrees: the gospel does not teach us to be lazy; we must live well in God’s way.
American prosperity gospel says God wants to heal everyone of every malady. Suffering has no part in the Christian life and it has no role in growing you to maturity. Sickness and death are because you do not have enough faith.
Tanzanian prosperity theology accepts suffering as part of life and encourages perseverance through trials. I asked Pastor Stanley Makoloma from Kampala International University Dar chapel what he would do if asked to pray for the resurrection of a loved one from the dead, he replied, “Death is biblical” citing the ‘from dust to dust’ verse. He asks what is a person’s focus for wanting such a thing – is it the glory of God? Pastor Ranwell Mwenisongole comforted his church, Christian City Church, that trials are a sign of God’s presence, not his abandonment and he empowers us to persevere through them. The founder of the big Women’s Prayer Breakfast in Dar Grace Masalakulangwa says those who teach that the gospel removes suffering are superficial. Those who say it is because you do not have enough faith have not looked at the life of Christ. Yet, she also gave a very strong personal testimony of God answering her prayers for marriage at the age of 38, holding this up as a fairly normative example. Pastor Dondo reminded his congregation that Abraham had to wait 25 years before the first sign of God’s fulfilment of his promise, urging them to be patient instead of straying to the path of destruction: “Ask yourself who is first in your heart – are you seeking your own glory and stardom, or are you willing to … live a more humble life, in order to follow God?”
American prosperity gospel teaches that God is not in control or sovereign. Therefore you have to manipulate him.
Tanzanian prosperity theology says God can only give you what you ask for because he is in control and sovereign. Ufoo asks, “How can it be that a person can provide wealth if they have none?” (my translation) Jesus’ examples of God are of one who is kind, wealthy and having many possessions. The reason you must not look to Satan and his ways for wealth is that he has none; he is not the creator or the one to whom God entrusted the earth. God is the source fo wealth and the given of good things. Pastor Huruma Nkone of Victory Christian Centre Tabernacle warns that any wealth you have has come from God; do not credit yourself but only Jesus’ name. Luphurise concurs: the source of success is God because he owns everything.
American prosperity gospel says that you are not sinful. You are powerful, good, beautiful. The documentary responds to say that we are nothing but wickedness and corruption and that to suggest otherwise in evangelism distorts the gospel.
The Tanzanian prosperity teachers I know agree with positive messaging but locate it differently on the timeline. Pastor Matilda, also from City Harvest Church taught in a seminar on Christian maturity that abundant life is only available to those who are already living. Salvation is a free gift which you receive by faith. Once you were a child of darkness and sin but no more. You now have a different story to live into. You are not identified with sin but with Christ, which is why you can talk about victory and power. A guest preacher at our church spoke on the pursuit of holiness as a key Christian discipline, contending with sin.
American prosperity gospel tells you that you can speak truth into existence, for example, that you can say I am rich and it will become true. But if you just say that you are poor that will also be true.
Tanzanian prosperity theology largely agrees that words are powerful and have creative capacity. Ufoo tells of repeating phrases like “God, give me respectable work” over and over again while cooking. At our church, we sing “I am rich, I am prosperous”. At a TAFES staff Bible study the other day there was a spirited discussion about whether you could call yourself a sinner – by doing so, are you giving the title you wish for your life or are you naming the current reality of your life? I once asked Pastor Dondo if there is ever a point when you stop being a sinner. He said definitely, when you are born again. Yet, he also strongly acknowledged that we continue to sin and to contend with sin. Luphurise applies this thinking to social media: if you use it to complain and talk about hardships, it is like you are saying that’s what you want to continue. Instead, use it to declare a different intention.
American prosperity preachers grow wealthy by preying on people. Costi Hinn tells of being at his uncle Benny Hinn’s rallies and seeing people who were in wheel chairs whom they would not heal, knowing that their money was making his family rich and he was living large off it. Justin Peters who has cerebral palsy and walks with crutches tells of going forward and being told to stand to the side and pray for his healing while people with less severe maladies were brought up onto stage.
The Tanzanian prosperity teachers I know acknowledge this tendency and are careful to caution against the love of money. Luphurise devotes a whole episode of her podcast to this theme. Ufoo says: “It is not sin to want wealth but it is a sin and a problem if a person is willing to do anything even the things that God rebukes, in order to get wealth’ (my translation). Pastor Dondo said that choosing money over faith is bad, citing preachers who have millions and billions of shillings. Pastor Nkone condemned churches that ask people to give beyond their means.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.