The Prosperity Gospels Impact in the CommunityI live in a poor neighborhood. I didn't grow up here but moved into the 'hood' about a decade ago. I came to this neighborhood as a pilgrim searching for God. After becoming a Christian and reading the words of Jesus I became convinced that he would be found among the poor. In reading about his life I saw Him hanging out with prostitutes and outcasts. I asked myself where in our own city might I find Him if this same man where walking around in it today. It seemed clear to me that he was in the homeless camp, or at least on 'the wrong sides of the tracks', He would be walking on Nebraska where the poor and vulnerable women of our city are selling themselves. I came to the needy as one who is needy. I came as a pilgrim in search of God.
After living here for years I can say the I found Him here and still often feel like He is nowhere to be found. God has never seemed so real to me and our desperate need for God has never seemed so real either.
Many in our neighborhood rely daily on God to get by. I have grown deeply impressed with the black women, who face the biggest obstacles in this society and yet, who know joy in the truest way possible. It is the white man who systemically holds power in this society and yet, in contrast with what the prosperity Gospel might try to convince us of, the reality is they also are the most prone to kill themselves. If you look at the statistics of suicide rates they strangely invert the structures of privilege and power in our society. Reality doesn't seem echo the 'blessing' of wealth. If there is a spirituality represented by what I see in those who hold wealth and power I would probably refer to it as more of a choke hold than a gift. Scripture warns explicitly that the 'Love of money is the root of all kinds of evil.'
The 2 Peter passage I used in the last post said that the false teachers 'seduce the unstable.' What I realized after moving to this neighborhood is that Jesus and false teachers both pursue the poor and unstable. It is in the heart of the city that both God and the devil became living realities at work around me. In my neighborhood there are many churches. There are many small and good churches that are devoted to Jesus and there are also 'churches' that I can only describe as evil and oppressive institutions created to destroy poor people. The prosperity churches in my neighborhood are feeding on sheep that the Good Shepard loves. There are pastors driving into the neighborhood, from their mansions in the suburbs, in Escalades and Bentlys to Flaunt their wealth and prey on the poor. There are many resources that the poor might get like food stamps and social security that is pried from there hands by belittling their faith. They are told they are poor because they are holding it back instead of giving it over in faith. They are threatened with images from scripture like the story of Annanias and Sapphira who are struck dead at the apostles feet because they lie and hold back money from the sale of their house from the community. The story from acts is no doubt a harsh and difficult story that I won't get into hear but there is no place I have ever seen scripture used in such a violent way. People are called thieves that 'are robbing God' as money and even the deeds to their homes are pumped out of their possession. I am reminded of the prophecy spoken against leaders that are in it for themselves by Ezekiel:
I have known many people in these congregations and I must say that the majority that I have spoken with are great people that genuinely want to know God. They are deceived and lead further into despair as what little they have is stripped from them. The poorest of the poor who have no home or resources in our community have been offered housing in a program run by one such church. They own a huge number of homes in the community because of deeds that have been left to them and they fill these houses with an outrageous number of people. These folks who are in their programs are crammed into homes like sardines, forbidden to work, are indoctrinated with mandatory 'bible study' that teaches them about prosperity, and then they are sent in teams to the continuous 48 states to panhandle and raise money that comes right back to 'The Bishop.' I have heard horror stories of folks left in random states and people dying in wrecks on these trips. The church that was running these programs had to tone it down a few years ago when the bishop was under investigation for all kinds of crimes including slavery.
34 The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? 3 You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. 4 You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. 5 So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. 6 My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
Beyond the explicit violence and pillaging done by the worst of these predatory pastors there are many more subtle ways that these doctrines erode the self worth of these congregants. You must not overlook the implications of teaching poor people that wealth is what God wills for you. Desperate people fork over the little that they have like an investment in their blessings. What happens when they remain poor? Even worse when they find themselves in more vulnerable circumstances after giving what they have to the church? What is one to conclude when they never get rich? What are the ill to conclude when they don't get well? Is the disabled man to conclude anything other than God is not pleased with Him? The poor embrace this doctrine in hope only to realize that once it has taken root in their hearts it echos to their psyche and soul that God must not love you. I cannot think of any image from scripture short of demon possession to describe this thing that will consume and destroy the one who welcomes it.
Lets zoom out from the poor community and ask how the public at large have been impacted by the 'money gospel'. What is the first reason that almost all people will give for not wanting to 'go to church?' In almost every case it will have something to do with them wanting your money. From all of the TV pastors selling their prayer rags to grandma and the way that all of our churches have been converted to consumerism people have concluded that it is all about money. The church is often a big ponzy scheme in America. Even if your pastor isn't driving a luxury vehicle or building a multi million dollar facility we have to see that that American church has fallen into the grips of gluttony and consumption. We neglect the poor and the call to mission while we invest in state of the art worship facilities and youth programs. Even in the churches that are not twisting the arms of their congregation for tithes we will find the same desire for wealth and luxury. In poor communities it tends to be very explicit while middle class and wealth congregations are much more subtle about it. This demonic tide seems to have taken over most of the North American church and I promise you it will not go quietly. This kind only comes out by prayer and fasting.
I have often asked what it looks like to follow Jesus in the context of the North American church. I often see Jesus fashioning a whip to drive out the money changers who are profiting on those who have come to worship. I hear his voice calling to us just as he called to Lazarus to come out of the tomb. I see Him leaving behind the priests and the synagogues to gather the masses and break bread with them in the wilderness. I see Him leaving the churches so that outside of those worthless walls we might actually become The Church, His Bride.
False teachers are targeting the unstable and so is the love of God. Jesus is leading us to touch the lepers, share our food with the hungry and love our neighbors. When we stand before God we will no longer find value in, or confuse his favor with, material wealth. We will remember in fear and trembling those terrible words of James:
5 Now listen, you rich people, weep and wail because of the misery that is coming on you.2 Your wealth has rotted, and moths have eaten your clothes. 3 Your gold and silver are corroded. Their corrosion will testify against you and eat your flesh like fire. You have hoarded wealth in the last days. 4 Look! The wages you failed to pay the workers who mowed your fields are crying out against you. The cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord Almighty. 5 You have lived on earth in luxury and self-indulgence. You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the innocent one, who was not opposing you.We will remember the dirty disabled man on the side of the road begging for change and we will recognize Him once again as he now stands before us on the throne repeating those words from Matthew 25 "I was hungry and you did not feed me." We will know then that the rich were not his favored and we will realize that the poor were His image and presence among us.