Opinion: Prosperity Gospel—a message for the poor?

Written by Anna Sawatzky

The After-8 Debate on SAFM this morning (4 May 2010) featured a discussion on prosperity gospel and whether the church has lost its moral compass and is failing in its mission to help the poor. The majority of callers and panelists, which included Rev. Frank Chikane, agreed that prosperity gospel is preying on the poor for its own enrichment. There certainly are churches that preach a stark gospel of enrichment while enriching themselves. I do not mean to defend this practice.

One caller, calling from Soweto, pointed out that charismatic churches are, by and large, the churches of the poor, the young, and the urban and "we must not undermine that." She is asking the question that we must ask--not whether it's right to preach health and wealth as an inevitable outcome of true faith or whether it's right for a pastor to "own a Navara" and a fancy home purchased on the tithes and offerings of people remaining in poverty; we can all agree that these things are unbiblical and wrong. The questions we must ask are why the poor flock to these churches and whether there is anything that they can teach us.

My Anabaptist tradition has taught me a gospel that is quite the opposite of prosperity gospel. I have believed that it is only in suffering or bearing the cross that we are faithful. My tradition has taught me that it's only in serving that we are righteous and that the role of the rich is to give to the poor. These things are true and come from the words of Christ. But there are other strands of teaching in the gospels that point to a teaching that may be more appropriate to preach to those currently living in poverty. The poor know suffering and they know patient bearing. While the preaching of the cross is the basis of our faith and is good for all, including the poor, I worry that the gospel emphasis I know has told them to wait for us to give to them. Our gospel which emphasizes systems, principalities, and powers may further entrench the sense of helplessness and hopelessness that many feel. They wait for the government and they wait for charity--they are powerless.

In my experience of four years of working with pentecostal, charismatic, and spiritual churches in the former Transkei, there is a version of prosperity gospel that has been filtered, adopted, and adapted by pastors of little churches all over the region. This version of prosperity gospel emphasizes the role that the poor can have in their own upliftment. It emphasizes the power of the widow in her small giving over the evil of the system that put her there (Mark 12:42-44). It emphasizes the value of hard work and education to lift a person. It emphasizes the evil of alcohol and smoking and the ways in which they can pull a person back into poverty. It emphasizes giving along with saving. Why do the poor flock to these churches? Maybe because the churches want them, want them to give, want them to do better.

What can we learn from the charismatic churches? We can learn that God cares about the whole person and wants a full life for each one--and this includes financial stability. While the poor are blessed, we do not want people to stay in poverty in order to continue being blessed. We learn that every contribution is valuable and that even the poor can give.

While it is important for those of us who are not in poverty to work against principalities and powers that keep people in poverty--and these include self-enriching pastors and churches--we must consider what the role of the poor is. Is it to wait for our benevolent charity? Or is it exercise their God-given power and worth? And must we also consider that the charismatic and pentecostal churches are preaching a more relevant gospel than we are?