Author: Danny McCain
Category: Prosperity Gospel
This morning I received an email from a good friend in the US who asked me two or three questions about the way the prosperity gospel is presented and perceived here in Africa. I am American who has lived and worked in Nigeria for the past 22 years. For the last 19 years I have lectured in the Department of Religious Studies of the University of Jos where I serve as a professor of Biblical theology. Being part of a public university and not a church or denominational institution I have been invited frequently to minister in both Pentecostal and non-Pentecostal circles. I have had many opportunities to speak in churches and conferences where I have interacted with those who preach and teach what is commonly called the “prosperity gospel.” I am also participating in a global study of Pentecostal at the present time. Therefore, I assume it is because of this background that my theologian friend wanted my opinion about the prosperity gospel in Africa.
When I first moved to Nigeria and heard the heavy concentration of prosperity preaching, it would make me angry. How could these preachers so casually overlook the teachings of Jesus on simplicity and sacrifice and self-denial? How could they take a greeting from 3 John and turn it into doctrine? How dare they stand in the pulpit week after week, addressing people who live in humiliating poverty, and promise them that they would be rich? How could those people sit in the pews (or more often sit on low backless benches) and hear these glorious promises of prosperity sermon after sermon and see little if anything change in their lives? How could they continue to attend these churches and continue to respect the “man of God” who was promising so much when they were experiencing so little?
I have not changed my theology. I still think that the prosperity gospel preachers are often sloppy with their exegesis, exaggerate the promises of the Bible and fail to balance their teachings with the warnings about wealth in the Bible. However, I have lived 20 years longer in Africa and, though I am not an African, I have been forced to see life through African eyes. In addition, I have learned a whole lot more about African culture and communication. And it is this growing understanding of Africa and Christianity in Africa that shaped my early morning email to my friend’s questions. The following was my response:
We must understand the statements from our pulpits about prosperity against a background of poverty in Africa. Think about it this way: Those who are sick or have loved ones who are sick will focus on the verses and teachings in the Bible related to sickness. Those who are engaged in politics will seek out every verse that is related to government or civil servants because these are things that have direct relevance to them. Interestingly, I have discovered here in Jos, where we have recently passed through several violent crises, that Christians in this part of the world have sought out and emphasized every imprecatory psalm and every other verse in scripture that deals with God overcoming enemies. This is understandable. People will gravitate toward the parts of the Bible that address their needs. Therefore, it is only natural that people who live in poverty or even who perceive themselves as being less prosperous than other parts of the world will focus on those verses that talk about prosperity and health and other things that they do not have or feel they need. So, to me, it is quite understandable why the prosperity gospel is attractive in Africa and other places where poverty is endemic.
In line with the growing understanding in evangelical circles to a more holistic understanding of the gospel that touches every part of our lives, it is also natural to try to balance the “spiritual” part of the gospel with the physical and material parts. Since poverty and sickness are two of the biggest problems in Africa, it is quite understandable why pastors and other preachers focus on those parts of the holistic gospel. Personally, I do not think that it is stepping across the theological line too far to allow our fellow believers to focus on such relevant issues. Jesus did indeed come to meet the needs of the whole man. When he sent his disciples out on their short term mission project he told them “to preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:2). We is the West have all our medical needs provided through insurance or government programs and a social safety net that will not allow us to fall too far into poverty. We, therefore, must not complain too much about our Christian brothers and sisters in Africa who seek to have these basic needs met directly by God when they cannot be met some other way. However, we do have a responsibility to caution them not to take this too far and promise that which God has not promised. Certainly there is room for a shift of emphasis from one place to another or one person to another but truth never changes.
Sacrifice and Self-Denial
I have found that many Nigerians resent the emphasis by western missionaries on sacrifice and self-denial. After all, the sacrifices that the missionaries make still usually enable them to live on a higher socio-economic level than the average Nigerian so that particular emphasis rings a bit hollow. In fact, I once heard a university professor whom I highly respect say that the western missionaries were the primary promoters of the prosperity gospel in Africa. That really got my attention. Most western missionaries I know would be appalled to think that they were encouraging the prosperity gospel. In later interactions with my friend, it became clear that ever since missionaries came to Africa, the missionary consistently had a better education, a bigger and more secure compound, a better vehicle, more financial resources and more of just about everything. Therefore, it was easy to associate Christianity with “better” and “more” and prosperity even in those early days before “prosperity preaching” came to Africa.
Here is a related thought: Africans recognize the theological concept of sacrifice and self-denial like western Christians recognize the theological concept of the demons and the supernatural. Most evangelical Christians in the western world would accept the fact that demons exist and that God is an all powerful God who can still do the miraculous. However, since these things are not a part of the western worldview demons and the supernatural have little impact on their lives. Certainly most African Christians accept the verses that talk about self-denial and sacrifice. However, because they already have far less than most western Christians, those teachings have less relevance to them and therefore less impact on their world. Their reality is poverty and it is the struggle to overcome poverty that has more influence on shaping their worldview. Since these experiences are not part nearly as much a part of the western world, the typical western Christian cannot understand the emphasis on prosperity in Africa.
I think I am beginning to understand that one of the fundamental components of the typical African worldview (there is obviously no single African worldview) is “the good life.” Although the standard of living may not be as high and would certainly be characterized by different criteria, Africans want to live the good life. This involves having good relationships with family and others; this means having a good name and being respected by the community; this means robustly celebrating the key events in life; this means dressing well and eating well and having a nice house and a good vehicle and other things that make life to be more comfortable and enjoyable. It even involves having a “good death” and being buried with dignity and honor. Therefore the statement that Jesus ministered so “the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (Matthew 11:5) and similar statements resonate well with Africans. I am sure that everyone in the world wants to enjoy a good life. However, I think the typical African has a more precise understanding of this and, whether right or wrong, the prosperity gospel message is simply the African way of describing the good life that Christians should expect from their commitment to God.
Greed and Materialism
I am personally convinced that in many cases, the enemy has taken advantage of the normal desire for a good life and perverted it and fanned the flames of materialism and greed. Jesus seriously warned about the abuses of wealth and the apostle Paul declared, “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10). In fact, there are ten times more negative references to the Greek word for wealth (plousios) than there are positive references. Unfortunately, I am afraid that at least some if not the majority of the TV preaching on prosperity in Nigeria are appealing to old-fashioned greed and cannot be justified by any culture difference.
Borrowing a metaphor from Greek grammar, I have said over the years, “Nigerians often speak in the indicative when they live in the subjunctive.” (Whether this is true all over Africa, I cannot say.) In other words, Nigerians tend to state things that are possibilities in terms of reality. They describe things that might be as though they are. I doubt whether this is purely a religious issue. I suspect it is more of a cultural characteristic. That which I hope for, I describe in terms of reality. Therefore, declarations that a man is rich when he only has two shirts, is consistent with this kind worldview. Somehow Nigerians are able to project these optimistic “possibility” or “faith” statements as reality and this gives them a certain amount of satisfaction and hope and even joy. Thus, it becomes a thing of blessing for preachers to proclaim that everyone is going to be prosperous or healed even if it does not become a reality.
We in the western world are very precise with our words and with communication in general. Therefore, when we hear these statements with our western ears, our immediate reaction is: “That is not true.” “That is misleading.” “That is deceptive.” “This will ultimately do more harm than good.” However, it is my observation that the Africans I know tend to be much more imprecise and metaphorical in their communication.
This may be an over simplification but as a general rule, it seems to me that traditionally Africans were not very precise in communicating certain concepts. The easiest concepts to illustrate are those related to time and number and distance. In fact, Some African languages do not even have numbers above a certain number. After that, it is just “many” or it is “far”. For example, I have been with one of my colleagues in two meetings during the last three days in which he described a peace rally we conducted as having “five or six thousand young people” present. In actual fact, my western trained senses and precise view of communication had determined that there were only five or six hundred youth present. Was this man deliberately exaggerating or trying to be deceptive? No, I do not think so. He is a person of impeccable integrity. He was simply trying to describe a meeting to other Africans that made a significant impact on peace in that community. He attempted to stress the success of the meeting with a numerical estimate in a situation where precision in numbers is not important. The large estimate was no doubt an unconscious attempt to stress the success of that meeting. As a person with a western worldview, I would not have expressed it that way but his African audience got the point he was making perfectly well.
Thus, I suspect that there may be a significant difference between what Western and African preachers mean when they talk about prosperity. Western people hear prosperity and look for the results and measure them in a precise, objective, verifiable manner. However, when Africans hear prosperity, they are hearing a message of possibility and hope and the message itself is part of the blessing. Many African Christians continue to live in debilitating poverty and they are certainly not ignorant of that fact. However, the prosperity message they hear when they go to church is a brightly shining star that gives them hope of a better future. And, I think that the typical person in our prosperity-oriented churches would say to us, “Please don’t take that hope away from us.”
Subtle Shift in Prosperity Emphasis
Over the last six or eight years, I think I have noted a subtle shift in the emphasis on prosperity preaching in Nigeria. I think it is partially a natural result of many honest prosperity preachers who have allowed the Word of God to slowly correct their thinking. What I think I am observing is a shift from a prosperity based upon a personal Christian right and implemented by faith through some kind of supernatural gift from God to a prosperity based upon the natural outcome of Christian living. In other words, we become prosperous because we work harder; we are more honest; we provide our customers a better service; we produce a better product. Because we do these things, our employers notice and promote us and our customers appreciate us and give us more of their business. Interestingly, this is not too far from the Protestant work ethic which helped to create the prosperity of America. I am quite certain that this revised emphasis is true in some Pentecostal and Charismatic circles. Time will tell whether it is a genuine trend.
Some of us have shouted so loudly against the prosperity gospel, we have failed to hear what is being said or why it is being said. That is my personal confession. James’ admonition may be appropriate here. “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). This does not mean that we should refrain from pointing out faulty exegesis or correcting the misleading promises or condemning the extravagant lifestyles of the prosperity preachers. However, this very practical passage from James does suggest that even in the issue of the prosperity gospel, we should listen more carefully before we speak too loudly.