The Theology of Prosperity

The Lausanne Global Conversation (LGC) is an opportunity for Christians around the globe to wrestle with important issues related to world evangelization, in connection with Cape Town 2010, the Third Lausanne Congress on World Evangelization. One of these issues is surely the prosperity gospel. Termed pejoratively as the gospel of health and wealth by its critics, it has surely been controversial for various reasons.

Of course, this gospel of prosperity is not a new phenomenon. One of its most direct antecedents especially in North America, and certainly its most influential genealogical stream, can be traced through the charismatic renewal and the Latter Rain revival movements of the mid-twentieth century back to the teachings of popular writers like Essek W. Kenyon, among others. Particularly in this broad tradition, prosperity was considered not just in financial terms but also in relationship to bodily health (hence the label “health and wealth”). Kenyon’s teachings, as mediated through Latter Rain personalities like William Marion Branham and charismatic leaders like Oral Roberts, Kathryn Kuhlman, Kenneth Hagin, and Kenneth Copeland, among many others, have not only informed the scope of discursive practices that have fueled the spreading of the prosperity message across the global south in the last generation, but also been the source of many critical assessments of the theology of prosperity.

The pervasiveness of the prosperity theme around the world is also surely another reason for its contemporary notoriety. Yet because the notion of prosperity has been especially prevalent among churches associated with the global renewal movement, it is very difficult to make reliable generalizations. One the one hand, prosperity features prominently in fairly traditional Pentecostal churches like the Redeemed Christian Church of God which is based in Nigeria but has missionary congregation practically around the world; on the other hand, prosperity is also central to new and independent churches emergent from out of the charismatic renewal movement like the Brazilian based but also globally present Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Reign of God). And if things weren’t already complicated enough, there is also the phenomenon of prosperity among groups like El Shaddai Ministries, a major aspect of the burgeoning Roman Catholic charismatic renewal in the Philippines. As representative of the diversity of the global renewal movements, these churches and organizations also illuminate the pluralistic shades of prosperity embraced by Christians around the world. But cumulatively, they represent an irreducibly complex mix of sociological, economic, political, and historical factors, all interwoven with the ongoing task of meaning-making that is central to spiritual pursuit and the religious life.

Back in the North American context, the prosperity gospel continues to thrive, although simultaneously morphing according to the shape of its carriers. The emergence of mega-churches – most of which cut across racial and ethnic lines – that provide for middle and upper-middle class respectability means that prosperity preaching is now much more subtly communicated and received. To be sure, there remain televangelistic ministries which promulgate blatant forms of especially the wealth message as well to their followers. Inevitably exposés and scandals following well-known personalities inflame public opinion, and rightly so.

Over the next few months, I would like to invite readers into a theological conversation about these many faces of prosperity. To do so, I will present and develop a typology of theological responses. I will present these sequentially and allow the discussion to go where it may. Toward the end of the year, perhaps on the eve of the Cape Town meeting, we will step back to take theological stock of our options. Welcome to the conversation.