A common critique of the prosperity gospel, and one I’ve been delving into a bit this week, is that it presents the gospel in a human-centric way: have faith in God and get all this great stuff. Someone once said, never has so much been offered for so little!
There’s a discussion among scholars about whether this is a fair representation of the prosperity gospel or a caricature. Maybe it offers all the great stuff as a byproduct of the gospel but the main message is still that you’re a sinner and your greatest need is forgiveness. Maybe it’s a correction (or over-correction) to an anaemic gospel which offers a ticket to heaven or forgiveness of sins and nothing else. Maybe it’s not actually making such an outlandish promise: “rich” in America might mean expensive holidays and multiple cars; in Africa it might mean enough food to feed your family and money to educate your children. And so on.
I think there also ought to be questions about whether there is a place for this kind of approach. In patronage cultures, you expect to receive benefits from your patron and you reciprocate this with loyalty. Reciprocity and obligation both in these cultures and in the Bible, are part of the relational fabric of society, acting as an adhesive rather than threatening the authenticity of a relationship. Similarly, the Tanzanian conviction that ‘there is no god like our God‘ needs to have evidence, as it did when Yahweh went up against Pharaoh, or when Elijah fronted up to the prophets of Baal. In a power oriented culture, it is reasonable to ask for evidence about the power of the God to whom you are being asked to give your allegiance. This is not only about self-interest but also about doing due diligence so that the loyalty you pledge will endure.
All that aside, I realised today that an assumption behind this critique is that the prosperity gospel is essentially evangelistic. That is, it assumes that the people listening to prosperity teaching are either religiously unaffiliated or from another religion. The idea is then to dangle the carrot as an incentive to get them to switch sides. It’s aimed at the classic evangelical conversion experience: come to Jesus, change teams, move from being unsaved to saved. (Note: these often also have significant elements of self-interest to them such as save your soul, get forgiveness of sins, find freedom from guilt, etc.)
However, while I don’t doubt that this kind of teaching is used in an evangelistic context, that’s not the context in which I have experienced it. Take Stretch Women’s Summit for example. We, the participants, were addressed as Christian women. Likewise at our church, the emphasis is not on conversion but on how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. You’ll see advertisements for a Mwakasege rally mention healing and there’ll definitely be an altar call but he is primarily spoken of as a teacher not an evangelist. It’s Christians who attend his events.
But consider how evangelism often works in Tanzania. Arthur remembers going door-knocking in student dorms with a TAFES student. They were invited into a room shared by two young men. The TAFES student asked them for their religious identity: one said he was a Muslim, the other said he was a Christian. The TAFES student basically ignored the Muslim guy and went on to ask the Christian guy if we was born again, explaining to him the gospel of forgiveness of sins.
In Tanzania, Muslims and Christians are both about 50% of the population and have, by and large, existed in peace. There are occasional complications in some hotspots though these are probably more politically motivated than anything else. On a university campus though, it’s not at all unusual to see a girl in skinny jeans and a blouse walking arm in arm with a girl in a long skirt and a hijab. Muslims and Christians generally let each other be: they can be friends but rarely exchange religious views. This harmony might come at the cost of ignorance about each others’ religious beliefs but it also has tremendous benefits in terms of Tanzania’s stability. So it’s understandable that when faced with a Muslim and a Christian in a university dorm room, the TAFES student left the Muslim guy alone.
On the other hand, there are plenty of people who consider themselves Christian because this is their family identity. It may not make much of a different in their day-to-day life, much like their tribal identity. If they have lived in a city or town or away from their ancestral village, the language and practices of being, say, Mgogo or Mhaya may not have much of an impact on their everyday. But if you ask them what tribe they’re from, they still have an answer. Same with asking someone their religion; there’s still a group they belong to even if it is somewhat distant from their everyday experience. It’s incorrect to say that they’re not Christian, but there’s definitely more for them to discover and live into.
This is where teaching about prosperity can be powerful because in a world where everyone is struggling it says that there’s a resource which is yours by right but of which you may not have been availing yourself. That might be because you’ve been more a nominal Christian or perhaps you’ve heard this message but have become discouraged. You are a Christian, a child of God, a prince or a princess and yet you have been living like a slave or a pauper in your Father’s world. The good news is, you can embrace this identity and experience its full benefits. This is good not only for you but also puts something right something that was wrong in the world.
My experience of prosperity teaching is that it functions more as educating Christians about what is theirs than it does as an evangelistic tool. You can disagree with the theology that what prosperity teaching promises is the right of the Christian. You might think that Tanzanians ought to do more evangelism of Muslims (and we would love to chat with you about the amazing Tanzanian Christians who are engaging our Muslim cousins!) It also might be that my experience in Tanzania has been too urban or too narrow to have seen prosperity teaching as an evangelistic tool. But I thought it was worth asking the question.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.