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.