The case for prosperity

November 19, 2010
Faith Tabernacle, David Oyedepo's megachurch in Nigeria. Some rights reserved by Flickr user josidaniel

Prosperity can be a real problem. As new Chris­tian churches have flourished in the non-Western world in recent decades, their conservative attitudes on theological and moral issues have caused some discomfort for liberal-minded Euro-Ameri­cans. In one specific area though, namely, the prosperity gospel, criticisms cross partisan boundaries. Even ob­servers deeply sympathetic to the rising churches of Africa or Latin America are troubled by the astonishing success of U.S.-inspired megachurch preachers who present health, wealth and material success as the essential promises of the Christian faith.

If that is indeed the core message of emerging Chris­tianity, should we not be concerned about the future of the faith? Comprehending the prosperity gospel might be the most pressing task for anyone trying to study the changing shape of global Christianity.

In West Africa especially, it is hard to avoid churches with a strong prosperity theme. They find their most ostentatious expression in the wildly successful ministries of preachers like Ghana's Nic­holas Duncan-Williams or Nigeria's David Oyedepo. Across Africa, prosperity teachings are central to the ubiquitous culture of revivals and miracle crusades, so much so that they overwhelm more traditional charismatic or Pentecostal doctrines. As distinguished scholars like Paul Gifford, J. Kwabena Asamoah-Gyadu and David Maxwell have shown, the prosperity message has come to dominate the teaching of many new churches, which draw as much on American ideas of positive thinking and perky self-help manuals as on any familiar Christian theology.

In its most alarming manifestations—and the superstar ministries are by no means the worst offenders—prosperity teachings so exalt success as to pour scorn on the poor as stubborn infidels who have evidently refused to seek God's aid. In this version of the gospel, faith leads to tithing, and tithing ignites prosperity. A gratified Almighty will respond by opening the windows of heaven, pouring out blessings so rich that believers will not have room to store them all. You have to pay to play—and to win. And if the church's pastor follows a dazzlingly sumptuous lifestyle, that is just his way of exhibiting God's munificence to the world. These days, Elmer Gantry is a very familiar spiritual type around the world.

Anyone not alarmed by these trends is not paying attention.

The good news is that the prosperity message is nothing like the whole story. If we just take Africa, then Christians are hearing a great diversity of voices and opinions. While believers may well be hearing prosperity preachers, many will on other Sundays be attending more mainline churches with traditional theologies, groups very dubious indeed about prosperity teachings. Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Luth­eran and other denominations all flourish, alongside purely African churches rooted in those traditions. Most ordinary Chris­tians, like other believers, tend not to absorb the entire message that they are taught in a particular church, but draw selectively on what seems relevant to them.

For all the excesses of some preachers, moreover, most prosperity churches also contribute practically to improving the material lot of their flocks. Their actions belie their simplistic message of "Just tithe, have faith, and stand back!" Matthew Ash­imolowo, for instance, heads a potent transnational ministry headquartered in London, with a strong health-and-wealth com­ponent. His church teaches that poverty and unemployment are manifestations of sin, against which Christians must struggle. In practice, this means that the faithful should help other members of the congregation by giving them jobs and that the church sternly teaches habits of thrift and sobriety.

Most prosperity churches not only condemn poverty but teach invaluable ways of avoiding it, like actually saving up in order to buy material goods. Debt is a demon to be defeated. Few communities in the world could fail to benefit from such a lesson, but it is vital for people moving suddenly from a rural setting into an overwhelming metropolis, with all the consumerist blandishments of­fered to the poor. In such a setting, being a member of a church offers life-saving access to social networks of mutual aid and support, which teach essential survival skills. Meanwhile, peer pressure helps believers avoid the snares of substance abuse.

If the faithful do not actually receive blessings too rich to count, at least their membership in a church vastly enriches their life chances. David Oyedepo has said that the prosperity promise makes sense only in the context of enriching the wider community far beyond the narrow confines of the church.

Whatever their undoubted problems, prosperity churches do not represent a negation of Christian faith. Con­troversies over their teachings also raise one perennial question for Christians of all persuasions: how seriously do we believe that prayer can actually affect conditions in the material world?


???live long & prosper

its not even christian to amass wealth

they used it

to help everyone

kind of like



Actually, its quite unlike of socialism. No government forces someone to give up money so that it can be redistributed as an anonymous government bureaucracy sees fit. This is willing generosity carried out in response to the teachings of Scripture within local networks of people. The differing power equations and personal/local component make the two approaches quite different.


Thank you, Philip Jenkins, for reporting accurately how the false teachings of a few American evangelicals have permeated the world scene over the past 30 years. I say false teachings, because they are not the teachings of Jesus nor the apostles as we have in Scripture.

I just published today a Biblical look at these teachers in my blog: The Narrow Gate. It is fruit from the tree of wrong evangelical teaching over the past century at least. Teachers within Christendom have ignored the seeds of this teaching, and have encouraged it by ignoring it. We have contributed within the Body of Christ to this travesty of the true gospel of Christ by accepting and promoting our own affluent versions of Christianity, and by allowing the professional traditional church structure to take the place of vibrant, Spirit-empowered, righteous living taught by Paul, Peter, James, John and the early disciples.

However, why are we surprised? The earliest false teachers centered their deceptions around money and its charms. (2 Peter, Jude, and various passages in the Pauline epistles talk of this problem). So our own apostasy and easy-modern-affluent Christianity has promoted these men into positions where they can purvey the message of greed disguised as spiritual pursuit.

Keep up the posting of good, strong articles like this. And feel free to access my website, where I hit hard at these deceptions, and call out the ekklesia of God from churchianity and easy religion to a true, narrow road experience with Christ.

A. Brother