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How I Left the Prosperity Gospel
A Deconstruction of a Different Kind
When I was in my early twenties, I attended a megachurch in Southern California. I sang on the worship team and enjoyed meeting the special guests in private greenrooms backstage. Some of them were “big names.”
This was standard fare. And to be honest, it was exciting and even a little heady. I felt like I was part of something bigger. Something God-sized.
One time, my church advertised that a well-known “prophet” was going to be the next guest speaker. Nearly 3,000 people crammed into the sanctuary to hear this special guest.
After the message — which included many shouts of “Hallelujah!” — the guest speaker called the senior pastor onto the stage. Our pastor had just released his first book, and we could purchase a copy on book tables in the foyer. The guest speaker announced that God had “a special word” for the pastor. Then he laid his hand on the pastor’s forehead and proclaimed in a loud, booming voice, “Books! Books! And more books!”
Apparently, God was promising to bring more book deals and book sales into this pastor’s life.
I sat straight up and listened closely. Even back then I had a desire to write and someday publish, but in all my growing up years of hearing people receive “a special word” in church settings, I had never heard one quite so aimed at human desire. It sounded like the speaker was saying what the pastor would want to hear, or what the congregation might want to think about their pastor as a rising star.
It didn’t sit right with me. I was fairly certain God was more concerned with the condition of our hearts than the status of our careers. But this kind of thing was so normal in the churches I grew up attending. It was the water I swam in.
I never heard anyone combine the word “prosperity” with the word “gospel.” Most people who attend Prosperity Gospel churches don’t know what that phrase means, if they’ve even heard it at all. It’s just their normal weekend church experience, especially if they’ve never encountered any other protestant traditions.
So how did I finally figure out that much of what I was taught growing up was, sadly, false teaching?
I began reading the Bible.
By his tender grace, God wooed me to his Word. As I read the four gospel accounts, something in the biblical text struck me as odd. In Luke 2, Mary and Joseph bring baby Jesus to the temple, and the prophet Simeon has “a word from the Lord” for Mary. Now, in my church context, it was very common for “prophets” to give “a word from the Lord.” I was used to that. These “words from the Lord” were generally proclamations of good things to come. But in the Bible, Simeon spoke directly to Mary and said, “a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
A sword will pierce through your soul?
What kind of “word from the Lord” is that?
From that verse on, I looked at the crucifixion with different eyes. I pictured a forty-something mom, weeping on the ground of Golgotha. Surely for Mary a sword pierced her soul on that dark Friday, and yet, even her suffering fell — quite literally — in the shadow of the cross.
The more I studied the four gospel accounts of the mock trials, the beatings, and the crucifixion, the more I saw Jesus through different eyes. He was more than a baby in a manger with angels singing overhead. He was more than a 12-year-old boy who hung out at the temple. He was more than a good teacher. More than a healer. More than a humanitarian.
Jesus was — and is — God.
I knew that in my head already. But the more I read Scripture and the more I meditated on the cross, the more in awe of Christ I became, and the more at odds I felt in my spirit with the teaching I was hearing on Sundays. Eventually, I found a new church that was very different from the ones I grew up attending.
Back then I couldn’t articulate why I felt so much dissonance inside me. It seemed improbable to me that the highly revered preachers on stage could be purporting something that wasn’t true. At the same time, I knew so many people in the pews who genuinely loved the Lord.
Was everything I learned a lie?
Was there some truth mixed in with the falsehood?
How was I to sort it all out?
I asked God to teach me the truth of his Word. I asked him to grip my heart with grief whenever I heard something that wasn’t in alignment with his Word. And I chose to make his Word the ultimate authority on all matters.
Over at The Gospel Coalition, Joe Carter recently shared 9 Things You Should Know About the Prosperity Gospel. I encourage you to read it.
In a Prosperity Gospel church, the Sunday morning services are characterized by an exuberant tone, full of expectation for the many blessings God will presumably bestow. And there is a lot of encouragement “to live from victory to victory” and “to live an abundant life.”
Churches that promote the Prosperity Gospel share the following characteristics:
Lack of focus on Christ and the cross.
Lack of focus on the centrality of God’s Word.
Lack of teaching on suffering and biblical lament.
Strong emphasis on giving to get.
Strong emphasis on receiving blessings and favor — especially in the form of wealth, status, and opportunity. (This is often referred to as receiving your own “Promised Land.”)
Strong emphasis on health. (Illness and weakness equal a lack of faith.)
Strong emphasis on having victory in every area of life. (Problems equal a lack of faith.)
Strong emphasis on emotional experiences (a.k.a. “supernatural” or “holy” experiences).
More than twenty years have passed since the last time I was inside a Prosperity Gospel church. I wholeheartedly denounce its teachings, and I regret the years I spent in those spaces. And yet, even though I reject it intellectually, I wonder sometimes if remnants of it remain lodged somewhere inside me.
When God doesn’t come through on something I have been fervently praying for, the thought will slip through my mind: Maybe I didn’t pray hard enough, or maybe I wasn’t good enough to earn that particular blessing.
I know this is wrong thinking, so I take these thoughts captive and reject them. But the feelings of disappointment over unanswered prayer can linger.
Perhaps you can relate. Even if you’ve never been a part of a Prosperity Gospel church, sometimes it’s natural to feel disappointed when God doesn’t come through in the way we had hoped. Or, if you’re going through a difficult season, sometimes we are prone to think that our suffering is somehow a punishment.
This is why I appreciated the words of Jared C. Wilson in his article You Believe the Prosperity Gospel. He wrote it several years ago at For the Church, and I think it speaks to something universally felt by us all: an inherent inclination toward wondering at times if we have somehow failed to earn God’s blessing in a particular area.
The truth is that God is far more concerned with our souls. God takes the long view, which includes eternity.
Yes, we are to embrace the good gifts God gives in this world here and now, but we cannot focus on these gifts to the exclusion of keeping our eye on eternity. The things we experience here are but a foretaste of the things to come.
True victory is not attained by our efforts; Christ’s blood on the cross purchased our victory. It is his gift of grace.
These days, my deepest desire is not so much to be a part of something bigger, but to be a part of something smaller. Smaller churches. Smaller groups. Where accountability is more likely. And where the gospel prevails over glamor.
Every once in a while, I will think back to that night when I heard a “prophet” declare, “Books! Books! And more books!” over the senior pastor of that megachurch in Southern California. Interestingly, that pastor never wrote another book and is now well into retirement.
It is a good reminder to me, as someone who did end up working with books and publishers, that God is always more concerned with the condition of our souls than the status of our careers.
To God be all the glory.
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