How the Prosperity Gospel Works


Joel Osteen
Pastor Joel Osteen appears on NBC News' 'Today' show, promoting one of his books, which carries a typical prosperity gospel message. Peter Kramer/NBC/NBC NewsWire via Getty Images

When Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States of America on Jan. 20, 2017, he asked six different members of the clergy to offer prayers. Among those invited were the first two "prosperity preachers" to ever pray at an inauguration.

Both Paula White, a televangelist and founder of the non-denominational megachurch New Destiny Christian Center in Apopka, Florida, and Bishop Wayne T. Jackson of Great Faith Ministries International in Detroit, preach what's known as the prosperity gospel, an increasingly popular flavor of Christianity that's built on the promise that God grants health and wealth to those who exercise the "right kind of faith" [source: Associated Press].

The message of the prosperity gospel is deeply attractive. God wants you to be happy. He wants you to be blessed. He wants you to live abundantly — spiritually, physically and financially. The way to receive the fullness of God's blessings is to actualize them through faith. Through spiritual power, you can accumulate material wealth.

It's not surprising that Trump, a wealthy businessman with a taste for showy luxury, would take spiritual solace in a gospel that equates financial success with spiritual greatness. The prosperity gospel is, in some ways, the "deification" of the American Dream [source: Bowler]. It presents a God who blesses hard work and upwardly mobile "positive thinking" with financial rewards.

In the New Testament, Jesus said to his disciples, "Ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matthew 7:7). According to the prosperity gospel, that promise goes for wisdom, peace, and maybe if you're faithful enough, a yacht.

As a religious movement, the prosperity gospel is one of the fastest-growing in the world. In the U.S. alone, 40 percent of the 1,650 megachurches in America preach a prosperity message, even if relatively few of them would openly call themselves prosperity churches [source: Bowler]. Prosperity preachers lead weekly church services in converted sports stadiums that hold 40,000 worshippers and command social media audiences in the millions.

Outside of the U.S., the prosperity gospel has exploded in countries like Nigeria and Singapore, where the capitalist-friendly form of Christianity has captured the hearts and minds of an entrepreneurial middle class. Interestingly, migrants from Africa and Asia are now taking the prosperity gospel back to majority Christian nations in Europe, where some of the biggest and fastest-growing churches are founded by foreigners [source: Lenora Brown].

Despite its popularity — or because of it — the prosperity gospel has its share of critics, mostly mainstream Christian denominations that claim the core messages of Christianity are being twisted to sanction selfishness and greed. And since many prosperity preachers require generous tithes and other donations as demonstrations of faith, they are also accused of duping their followers for illicit financial gain.

Before we jump into the criticisms and controversies surrounding the prosperity gospel, let's start by defining exactly what it is, which is harder than you might think.

What Is the Prosperity Gospel?

The Potter's House, Dallas
Worshippers come together for a service at the Potter's House megachurch in Dallas, July 10, 2016. Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

The prosperity gospel is tricky to pin down. That's because unlike other Christians like Catholics or mainline Protestants, prosperity churches are independent and largely unaffiliated with any ecclesiastical organization. They don't share a common creed or statement of beliefs. Each prosperity preacher develops his or her unique gospel message based on personal inspiration drawn from their own reading of the Bible and life experiences. Most of them would say, though, that they believe the Bible is without error and inspired by God.

On a whole, the prosperity gospel includes any Bible-based teaching that divinely sanctions the accumulation of money and material goods. It also includes the core belief that thoughts, prayers and other spiritual decrees can change your material circumstances [source: Sinitiere]. Kate Bowler, an historian of American Christianity at the Duke University Divinity School and the foremost scholar of the prosperity gospel, says that four common themes define prosperity preaching: faith, health, wealth and victory.

Faith, to a prosperity preacher and follower, isn't merely belief in God or a vague hope that things will turn out all right. They see faith as a spiritual force by which human beings can put the power of God to work in their lives. And the strength of an individual's faith can be measured by real-world outcomes. Among the chief fruits of faith, according to the prosperity gospel, are health and money.

Before there was such a thing as the prosperity gospel, there were faith healers. We'll get into the historical roots of the prosperity gospel later, but it's important to understand that physical healing was and still is a critical manifestation of spiritual power through faith. Healing and good health is a real-world outcome produced by focused positive thinking, prayer, faith and gifts of the spirit.

Wealth is another outward sign of faith and another way by which adherents to the prosperity gospel can measure their spiritual power. Although the Bible includes some pretty strong statements about the dangers of wealth and riches — "For the love of money is the root of all kinds of evil" (1 Timothy 6:10) and "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:25) — prosperity preachers cite other scriptures that appear to sanction the accumulation of money.

For instance, in John 10:10, Jesus says, "I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it abundantly." The word "abundance," say prosperity preachers, can be interpreted to include an abundance of joy and spiritual gifts, but also worldly goods. Prosperity preachers like Joel Osteen of the 40,000-member Lakewood Church (the largest church in America) in Houston, Texas, have written books and countless sermons about "living an abundant life" with God's help. You'll also find the word "abundant" or "abundance" in the names of many prosperity churches.

Victory is the sense among prosperity gospel believers that any challenge in life can be conquered through faith in Jesus Christ. God wants you to win. And winning can include anything from overcoming a physical ailment or disease to graduating from college to getting that new high-paying job. The "Winners Chapel" in Nigeria is one of many prosperity megachurches that explicitly links Christian faith with winning in life [source: Bowler].

The prosperity gospel is a modern phenomenon, but its roots stretch back to the 19th-century. Next, we'll look at how a blend of positive thinking and Pentecostalism spawned a global religious movement.

History and Evolution of the Prosperity Gospel

Dr. Norman Vincent Peale
Minister and author Dr Norman Vincent Peale works at his desk in New York City, 1966. His book "The Power of Positive Thinking" put a modern and religious spin on New Thought philosophy. Roger Higgins/Underwood Archives/Getty Images

The prosperity gospel didn't come out of thin air. It's the result of more than a century of self-help movements and spiritual revivals coalescing into a shiny new form of American-made Christianity.

Its roots go back to the "New Thought" movement of mid-19th century America popular with non-religious thinkers like Ralph Waldo Emerson, which taught that the individual could exercise power over the material world with his thoughts. One popular New Thought writer taught his followers to "See yourself in a prosperous condition. Affirm that you will before long be in a prosperous condition" [source: Burton].

Around the end of that century, a pastor named E.W. Kenyon put a Christian spin on New Thought and taught that people should avoid thinking or saying things associated with sickness or poverty. Instead, they should say, "God's strength is mine. God's health is mine. His success is mine" [source: Bowler].

Another key ingredient in the prosperity gospel is the Protestant work ethic, a term coined by Max Weber in 1905, which introduced the idea that financial success could be tied to a certain type of hardworking Christian faith. Calvinists, who believed that some people were predestined to be saved, pointed to outward signs like wealth to justify their "elect" status [source: Burton].

But the two clearest influences on the prosperity gospel were two unrelated movements born after World War II. The first is the rise of Pentecostal tent revivals, charismatic roadshows of faith healing that spread out across the U.S. and Canada. This firebrand form of Pentecostalism placed a strong emphasis on outward manifestations of spiritual gifts. First and foremost was speaking in tongues, in which the spirit poured out of individuals in the form of a divine language.

The second influential post-war movement was spawned by Norman Vincent Peale's 1952 bestseller "The Power of Positive Thinking," which introduced a modern update to the occult practices of New Thought. Peale taught that when a person thinks positively, they "set in motion positive forces which bring positive results to pass." Interestingly, Peale was also the pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in New York, where a young Donald Trump and his parents attended church.

The first true prosperity preachers like Oral Roberts blended all of these ingredients together to create a new religious worldview that combined the focused positive thinking of Peale with the Pentecostal belief in physical manifestations of faith. It was a short trip from speaking in tongues, to receiving gifts of physical healing through faith, to receiving gifts of all kinds, including material wealth.

Roberts became one of America's first televangelists in the 1960s, spawning a succession of prosperity preachers who used the medium to connect with growing audiences of believers who were eager to donate money to the church in return for God delivering a "seven-fold" return on the investment.

Some of today's most popular prosperity preachers like Lakewood's Joel Osteen made a conscious turn away from the crass methods of now-disgraced 1980s televangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and latched onto the therapeutic language popular in modern American life [source: Sinitiere]. In other words, they made a break with "hard prosperity" teaching, often derisively referred to as "name it and claim it" for what might be called "soft prosperity." Osteen's message is more about internal "blessings" and "living your best life" — which includes financial comforts, of course — but also having inner peace and joy. Osteen could be the poster child for this "best life" since he is said to be worth $60 million and lives in a 17,000-square-foot house [source: Finn]. His followers like the fact that his message is always positive, long on love and short on hellfire.

Of course, the prosperity gospel is much more than big-name preachers with millions of Twitter followers. It's a religious practice followed by faithful believers around the world. Let's find out what that looks like.

The Prosperity Gospel in Practice

Lakewood church, BET gospel
Guests attend the 'BET Presents Super Bowl Gospel Celebration' at Lakewood Church, which seats 16,800, on Feb. 3, 2017 in Houston, Texas. Rick Diamond/Getty Images for BET

To believers, the true power of the prosperity gospel is that it offers way of taking control of their lives and their destiny. It's interesting to note that the "Power of Positive Thinking" rose to prominence during the incredibly destabilizing geopolitical climate of the early Cold War, and that the prosperity gospel has gained traction during another era of economic and political instability [source: Sinitiere].

As we mentioned earlier, the prosperity gospel teaches that faith is much more than a passive belief. Faith is a type of spiritual "activator" that turns thoughts and prayers into reality [source: Bowler]. The key to putting the prosperity gospel into practice, therefore, is to make your desires known to God and have faith that He will deliver.

One way to do that is through something called "positive confession." Positive confession is like a combination of traditional spoken prayers, reciting verses from the Bible and the New Age practice of self-affirmation. At the beginning of each and every Sunday service at the Lakewood Church, for example, Osteen leads the massive congregation in a simultaneous positive confession. They each hold up their Bible and say:

"This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the word of God. I boldly confess that my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I will never be the same. In Jesus' name... Amen."

Positive confession is like a verbalized version of positive thinking. If you desire a specific blessing from God, you call out that blessing by name, quoting verses from the Bible in which God promises to deliver ("ask and ye shall receive"), reaffirming your faith that that He can do all things, and then repeat for as many days, weeks or years it takes for the blessing to arrive.

The expectation, though, is that with enough faith and enough positive persistence, God will indeed deliver. The individual is back in control of their destiny. What this means, though, says Duke scholar Kate Bowler, is that the prosperity gospel has no room for the concept of luck. Instead, she says, it provides a "pragmatic, results-based ... therapeutic set of beliefs that explain why some believers rise to the top and others plummet to the very bottom."

In this light, adherents learn to see even everyday actions as spiritual "work" leading them closer to receiving their desired blessings, or further away. They try to maintain a cheerful, positive, grateful and "blessed" attitude. They post relentlessly positive messages on social media. They buy books penned by their favorite preachers and dutifully donate to the church.

And how do they know if the practice is working? It's obvious — they will be blessed with health, wealth and victory over their trials. But what happens when those blessings don't materialize? We'll come back to that question later when we delve into the (many) criticisms of the prosperity gospel.

For now, let's look at the global reach of prosperity message.

Prosperity Gospel Around the Globe

Yoido Full Gospel Church, South Korea
Ushers bow to parishioners leaving Yoido Full Gospel Church in South Korea. It's the largest church in the world. Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

From Africa to Asia to South America, there is no greater force in global Christianity than the prosperity gospel. The phenomenon is fueled by exploding urban populations, social and political upheaval, and a growing middle class with aspirations for greater wealth.

Nigeria has been swept up by an old-school charismatic form of Pentecostalism — lots of speaking in tongues and ecstatic dancing — boosted by a prosperity message that caters to the nation's restless entrepreneurial spirit and disillusionment with government corruption. Lagos, with a population of 20 million, is home to four prosperity megachurches with average Sunday attendance in excess of 30,000 people each. One even has 75,000 attenders [source: Bird]. The megachurches are not only centers of worship, but they do provide essential social services for thousands of migrants who arrive in Lagos daily in search of work [source: Lenora Brown].

In Asia, Christianity is spreading 10 times faster than in Europe, and Singapore is home to several huge prosperity congregations, including the 30,000-member New Creation Church led by the charismatic pastor Joseph Prince. Unlike Nigeria, where the popularity of the prosperity gospel is fueled by upward mobility, the audience in Singapore is largely young, single and financially comfortable. They're drawn in by the dynamic form of worship, which includes pop music concerts, a strong social media presence and a "wealth-affirming" theology that's in stark contrast to their parents' Buddhism. The largest church in the world, Yoido Full Gospel, is in South Korea and has more than 800,000 members [source: Philomin].

In Brazil, where unemployment hovers at 13 percent and millions live in the urban squalor of favelas, the prosperity gospel attempts to provide a solution to widespread economic desperation. In a nation that was once dominated by Catholicism, now a quarter of Brazilians are Pentecostal. Pastors in Brazil emphasize self-improvement through prayer, self-discipline and clean living (no drinking or drugs), plus making generous donations to the church. One of Sao Paolo's most infamous prosperity churches seats 12,000 and was built to resemble King Solomon's temple [source: Pulliam Bailey].

In an interesting twist, missionaries and pastors from Africa, Asia and Latin American are bringing the prosperity back to predominantly Christian nations in Europe and even the U.S. Nine out of the top 20 missionary-sending countries are found in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and four of Britain's 10 largest churches were founded by Nigerians, including the Nigerian Redeemed Christian Church of God, the fastest-growing church in the U.K. [source: Lenora Brown].

Criticisms of the Prosperity Gospel

Creflo Dollar
Prosperity pastor Creflo Dollar signs a copy of his book in 2007. In 2015, he told his congregation that he needed $65 million to buy a brand-new top-of-the-line plane. Johnny Nunez/WireImage/Getty Images

The prosperity gospel and its preachers have faced a barrage of criticism from mainline Christian denominations who charge the movement with everything from theological heresy to stealing from the poor.

The most vocal complaint with the prosperity gospel is that it glorifies the accumulation of money, and turns the virtuous acts of faith, giving and obedience into mere tools for "getting stuff from God" [source: Henderson]. As we mentioned earlier, the Bible explicitly calls the love of money the "root of all kinds of evil" and Jesus frequently praises the meek and lowly of this world while chastising the rich and powerful.

The traditional interpretation of Christianity is that Christ's atonement on the cross — in which he died for the sins of the world — and his victory over death during the Easter resurrection, mean that all faithful Christians can be forgiven of their sins in this life and ultimately be resurrected with the righteous in life eternal.

Critics of the prosperity gospel accuse prosperity preachers of twisting the message of ultimate victory and applying it to this life in this world [source: Piper]. The traditional view of Christianity is that mortal life is a period of "testing," suffering and sacrifice with the promise that the faithful will be rewarded in heaven, not necessarily on Earth. This is how Christianity answers the fundamental problem of pain and offers solace to believers.

The prosperity gospel, on the other hand casts blame on the victim for not being faithful enough to overcome whatever spiritual, physical or financial "ailment" befalls them. As Duke scholar Bowler wrote in a powerful personal essay, "The prosperity gospel ... revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say 'yes.' It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you ... If a believer gets sick and dies, shame compounds the grief. Those who are loved and lost are just that — those who have lost the test of faith."

Bowler, who spent years visiting prosperity churches while researching her book "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel," also says that the relentless focus on positive thinking can take a psychological toll on followers who are struggling with serious problems.

She describes a practice called acting faith in which people with late-stage cancer walk around acting as if they're already cured, and people in crippling debt thank God for checks that haven't yet arrived. Instead of reconciling themselves with their problems and dealing with them productively, they "scoured their minds" of any negative thoughts that would block the much-needed blessing to come [source: Bowler].

A final overarching criticism of the prosperity gospel is one that's been levied at every televangelist since Oral Roberts, that charismatic pastors are only in it for the money. They enrich themselves by duping their followers into believing that the best way to receive God's blessings — whether it's healing their bodies or their bank accounts — is to give more money to the church.

And all that cash has led to some serious preacher scandals. To name just a few: Jim Bakker went to jail in 1988 for fraud after selling thousands of $1,000 lifetime memberships to TV viewers in exchange for free hotel stays at his theme park Heritage USA. Only one 500-room hotel was ever built. Most of the money went to finance Bakker's lavish lifestyle. Televangelist Richard Roberts, Oral Roberts' son, was ousted as head of Oral Roberts University in 2007 for using school money to pay for his home remodeling and his family's personal stable of horses, among other goodies. And Creflo Dollar, pastor and founder of World Changers Church International in Atlanta, was widely ridiculed in 2015 for asking his flock to buy him a new $65 million Gulfstream G650 luxury private plane. He described it as "necessary" to spread God's word. What was that Biblical saying about the love of money and evil again?

Author's Note: How the Prosperity Gospel Works

Each of us are looking for answers and inspiration to help us overcome personal struggles and find happiness. I don't fault or judge people that cling to the message of the prosperity gospel. When you listen to actual sermons by folks like Joel Osteen or Joseph Prince, there isn't an explicit focus on getting rich. It's much more about focusing your energy and your faith on making the changes in your life that will bring you joy and fulfillment. The implicit message is that some of that joy and fulfillment will come from being more financially secure. I worry, though, that people around the world are sacrificing their finances and psychological well-being in search of a God-given windfall that will never materialize.

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Sources

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  • Bowler, Kate. "Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel." Interview with the Faith Angle Forum. May 2017 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://faithangle.org/wp-content/uploads/Blessed-A-History-of-the-American-Prosperity-Gospel-Dr.-Kate-Bowler-1.pdf
  • Bowler, Kate. "Death, the Prosperity Gospel and Me." The New York Times. Feb. 13, 2016 (Jan. 3, 2018) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/14/opinion/sunday/death-the-prosperity-gospel-and-me.html?_r=1
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