(07)Does God Want You to be Rich?

A growing number of Protestant evangelists raise a joyful

Yes! But the idea is poison to other, more mainstream pastors
By DAVID VAN BIEMA, JEFF CHU

Posted Sunday, Sep. 10, 2006

When George Adams lost his job at an Ohio tile factory

last October, the most practical thing he did, he thinks,

was go to a new church, even though he had to move his wife

and four preteen boys to Conroe, a suburb of Houston, to do it.

Conroe, you see, is not far from Lakewood, the home church

of megapastor and best-selling author Joel Osteen.

 

Osteen’s relentlessly upbeat television sermons had helped

Adams, 49, get through the hard times, and now Adams was

expecting the smiling, Texas-twanged 43-year-old to help

boost him back toward success. And Osteen did.

 

Inspired by the preacher’s insistence that one of God’s top

priorities is to shower blessings on Christians in this lifetime

–and by the corollary assumption that one of the worst

things a person can do is to expect anything less–Adams

marched into Gullo Ford in Conroe looking for work.

He didn’t have entry-level aspirations: “God has showed

me that he doesn’t want me to be a run-of-the-mill person,”

he explains. He demanded to know what the dealership’s

top salesmen made–and got the job.

 

Banishing all doubt–“You can’t sell a $40,000-to-$50,000

car with menial thoughts”–Adams took four days to retail

his first vehicle, a Ford F-150 Lariat with leather interior.

He knew that many fellow salesmen don’t notch their first

score until their second week. “Right now, I’m above

average!” he exclaims. “It’s a new day God has given me!

I’m on my way to a six-figure income!” The sales commission

will help with this month’s rent, but Adams hates renting.

Once that six-figure income has been rolling in for a while,

he will buy his dream house: “Twenty-five acres,” he says.

 “And three bedrooms. We’re going to have a schoolhouse

 (his children are home schooled). We want horses and

ponies for the boys, so a horse barn. And a pond.

And maybe some cattle.”

 

“I’m dreaming big–because all of heaven is dreaming big,”

Adams continues. “Jesus died for our sins. That was the

best gift God could give us,” he says. “But we have

something else. Because I want to follow Jesus and do

what he ordained, God wants to support us. It’s Joel

Osteen’s ministry that told me. Why would an awesome

and mighty God want anything less for his children?”

 

In three of the Gospels, Jesus warns that each of his

disciples may have to “deny himself” and even “take up

his Cross.” In support of this alarming prediction, he

forcefully contrasts the fleeting pleasures of today with

the promise of eternity: “For what profit is it to a man,”

he asks, “if he gains the whole world, and loses his own

soul?” It is one of the New Testament’s hardest teachings,

yet generations of churchgoers have understood that

being Christian, on some level, means being ready to

sacrifice–money, autonomy or even their lives.

 

But for a growing number of Christians like George Adams,

the question is better restated, “Why not gain the whole

world plus my soul?” For several decades, a philosophy

has been percolating in the 10 million–strong Pentecostal

wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels’ passage

on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep

one eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God

doesn’t want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a

variety of names–Word of Faith, Health and Wealth,

Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology–its emphasis

is on God’s promised generosity in this life and the ability

of believers to claim it for themselves. In a nutshell, it

suggests that a God who loves you does not want you

to be broke.

 

Its signature verse could be John 10: 10: “I have come

that they may have life, and that they may have it more

abundantly.” In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed

said they considered themselves part of such a movement,

while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be

prosperous. And 31%–a far higher percentage than there

are Pentecostals in America–agreed that if you give

your money to God, God will bless you with more money.

 

“Prosperity” first blazed to public attention as the

driveshaft in the moneymaking machine that was

1980s televangelism and faded from mainstream view

with the Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart scandals.

But now, after some key modifications (which have

inspired some to redub it Prosperity Lite), it has not

only recovered but is booming. Of the four biggest

megachurches in the country, three–Osteen’s Lakewood

in Houston; T.D. Jakes’ Potter’s House in south Dallas; and

Creflo Dollar’s World Changers near Atlanta–are

Prosperity or Prosperity Lite pulpits (although Jakes’

ministry has many more facets). While they don’t exclusively

teach that God’s riches want to be in believers’ wallets, it is a

key part of their doctrine. And propelled by Osteen’s 4 million

selling book, Your Best Life Now, the belief has swept beyond

its Pentecostal base into more buttoned-down evangelical

churches, and even into congregations in the more liberal

Mainline. It is taught in hundreds of non-Pentecostal Bible

studies. One Pennsylvania Lutheran pastor even made it

the basis for a sermon series for Lent, when Christians usually

meditate on why Jesus was having His Worst Life Then. Says

the Rev. Chappell Temple, a Methodist minister with the

dubious distinction of pastoring Houston’s other Lakewood

Church (Lakewood United Methodist), an hour north of

Osteen’s: “Prosperity Lite is everywhere in Christian culture.

Go into any Christian bookstore, and see what they’re offering.”

 

The movement’s renaissance has infuriated a number of

prominent pastors, theologians and commentators. Fellow

megapastor Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven

Life has outsold Osteen’s by a ratio of 7 to 1, finds the very

basis of Prosperity laughable. “This idea that God wants

everybody to be wealthy?”, he snorts. “There is a word

for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t

measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show

you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in

poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?”

 

The brickbats–both theological and practical (who really

gets rich from this?)–come especially thick from

Evangelicals like Warren. Evangelicalism is more prominent

and influential than ever before. Yet the movement,

which has never had a robust theology of money, finds an

aggressive philosophy advancing within its ranks that many

of its leaders regard as simplistic, possibly heretical and

certainly embarrassing.

 

Prosperity’s defenders claim to be able to match their critics

chapter and verse. They caution against broad-brushing

a wide spectrum that ranges from pastors who crassly

solicit sky’s-the-limit financial offerings from their

congregations to those whose services tend more toward

God-fueled self-help. Advocates note Prosperity’s racial

diversity–a welcome exception to the American norm–

and point out that some Prosperity churches engage in

significant charity. And they see in it a happy corrective

for Christians who are more used to being chastened for

their sins than celebrated as God’s children. “Who would

want to get in on something where you’re miserable, poor,

broke and ugly and you just have to muddle through until

you get to heaven?” asks Joyce Meyer, a popular television

preacher and author often lumped in the Prosperity Lite camp.

“I believe God wants to give us nice things.” If nothing else,

Meyer and other new-breed preachers broach a neglected

topic that should really be a staple of Sunday messages:

Does God want you to be rich?

 

As with almost any important religious question, the first

response of most Christians (especially Protestants)

is to ask how Scripture treats the topic. But Scripture is

not definitive when it comes to faith and income.

Deuteronomy commands believers to “remember the Lord

your God, for it is He who gives you power to get wealth”,

and the rest of the Old Testament is dotted with

celebrations of God’s bestowal of the good life.

 

On at least one occasion–the so-called parable of the talents

(a type of coin)–Jesus holds up savvy business practice

(investing rather than saving) as a metaphor for spiritual

practice. Yet he spent far more time among the poor

than the rich, and a majority of scholars quote two of his

most direct comments on wealth: the passage in the

Sermon on the Mount in which he warns, “Do not lay up for

yourselves treasures on earth … but lay up for yourselves

treasures in heaven”; and his encounter with the “rich young

ruler” who cannot bring himself to part with his money,

after which Jesus famously comments, “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.”

 

Both statements can be read as more nuanced than they at

first may seem. In each case it is not wealth itself that

disqualifies but the inability to understand its relative

worthlessness compared with the riches of heaven.

The same thing applies to Paul’s famous line, “Money is the

root of all evil,” in his first letter to Timothy. The actual

quote is, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil.”

 

So the Bible leaves plenty of room for a discussion on the role,

positive or negative, that money should play in the lives of

believers. But it’s not a discussion that many pastors are

willing to have. “Jesus’ words about money don’t make us

very comfortable, and people don’t want to hear about it,”

notes Collin Hansen, an editor at the evangelical monthly

Christianity Today. Pastors are happy to discuss from the

pulpit hot-button topics like sex and even politics.

 

But the relative absence of sermons about money–which the

Bible mentions several thousand times–is one of the more

stunning omissions in American religion, especially among

its white middle-class precincts. Princeton University

sociologist Robert Wuthnow says much of the U.S. church

“talks about giving but does not talk about the broader

financial concerns people have, or the pressures at work.

There has long been a taboo on talking candidly about

money.”

 

In addition to personal finances, a lot of evangelical churches

have also avoided any pulpit talk about social inequality.

When conservative Christianity split from the Mainline in the

early 20th century, the latter pursued their commitment

to the “social gospel” by working on poverty and other causes

such as civil rights and the Vietnam-era peace movement.

Evangelicals went the other way: they largely concentrated

on issues of individual piety. “We took on personal salvation,

we need our sins redeemed, and we need our Saviour,” says

Warren. But “some people tended to go too individualistic,

and justice and righteousness issues were overlooked.”

 

A recent Sunday at Lakewood gives some idea of the

emphasis on worldly gain that disturbs Warren. Several

hundred stage lights flash on, and Osteen, his gigawatt

smile matching them, strides onto the stage of what used

to be the Compaq Center sports arena but is now his

church. “Let’s just celebrate the goodness of the Lord!”

Osteen yells. His wife Victoria says, “Our Daddy God is the

strongest! He’s the mightiest!”

 

And so it goes, before 14,000 attendees, a nonstop

declaration of God’s love and his intent to show it in the

here and now, sometimes verging on the language of an

annual report. During prayer, Osteen thanks God

for “your unprecedented favor. We believe that 2006

will be our best year so far. We declare it by faith.”

Today’s sermon is about how gratitude can “save a marriage,

save your job [and] get you a promotion.”

 

“I don’t think I’ve ever preached a sermon about money,” he says

a few hours later. He and Victoria meet with TIME in their

pastoral suite, once the Houston Rockets’ locker and shower

area but now a zone of overstuffed sofas and imposing oak

bookcases.

 

“Does God want us to be rich?” he asks. “When I hear that word

rich, I think people say, ‘Well, he’s preaching that everybody’s

going to be a millionaire.’ I don’t think that’s it.” Rather, he

explains, “I preach that anybody can improve their lives.

I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to

be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills.

I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants

us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God

wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?” The room’s warm

lamplight reflects softly off his crocodile shoes.

 

Osteen is a second-generation Prosperity teacher. His father

John Osteen started out Baptist but in 1959 withdrew from

that fellowship to found a church in one of Houston’s poorer

neighborhoods and explore a new philosophy developing

among Pentecostals. If the rest of Protestantism ignored

finances, Prosperity placed them center stage, marrying

Pentecostalism’s ebullient notion of God’s gifts with an older

tradition that stressed the power of positive thinking. Practically,

it emphasized hard work and good home economics. But the real

heat was in its spiritual premise: that if a believer could

establish, through word and deed (usually donation), that he or

she was “in Jesus Christ,” then Jesus’ father would respond with

paternal gifts of health and wealth in this life.

 

A favorite verse is from Malachi: [‘Bring all the tithes into the

storehouse … and try Me now in this,’ says the Lord of hosts.

‘If I will not for you open the windows of heaven and pour out

for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to

receive it.]

 

It is a peculiarly American theology but turbocharged.

If Puritanism valued wealth and Benjamin Franklin wrote

about doing well by doing good, hard-core Prosperity

doctrine, still extremely popular in the hands of pastors

like Atlanta megachurch minister Creflo Dollar, reads

those Bible verses as a spiritual contract.

 

God will pay back a multiple (often a hundredfold) on offerings

by the congregation. “Poor people like Prosperity,” says

Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at

Boston University. “They hear it as aspirant. They hear,

 ‘You can make it too–buy a car, get a job, get wealthy.’

It can function as a form of liberation.” It can also be

exploitative. Outsiders, observes Milmon Harrison of the

University of California at Davis, author of the book Righteous

Riches, often see it as “another form of the church abusing

people so ministers could make money.”

 

In the past decade, however, the new generation of preachers,

like Osteen, Meyer and Houston’s Methodist megapastor

Kirbyjon Caldwell, who gave the benediction at both of

George W. Bush’s Inaugurals, have repackaged the doctrine.

Gone are the divine profit-to-earnings ratios, the requests for

offerings far above a normal 10% tithe (although many of the

new breed continue to insist that congregants tithe on their

pretax rather than their net income). What remains is a

materialism framed in a kind of Tony Robbins positivism.

No one exemplifies this better than Osteen, who ran his

father’s television-production department until John died in

1999. “Joel has learned from his dad, but he has toned it back

and tapped into basic, everyday folks’ ways of talking,” says

Ben Phillips, a theology professor at the Southwestern Baptist

 Theological Seminary. That language is reflected in Your

Best Life Now, an extraordinarily accessible exhortation

to this-world empowerment through God. “To live your

best life now,” it opens, to see “your business taking off.

See your marriage restored. See your family prospering.

See your dreams come to pass …” you must “start looking

at life through eyes of faith.” Jesus is front and center

but not his Crucifixion, Resurrection or Atonement.

There are chapters on overcoming trauma and a late

chapter on emulating God’s generosity. (And indeed,

Osteen’s church gave more than $1 million in relief money

after Hurricane Katrina.)

 

But there are many more illustrations of how the Prosperity

doctrine has produced personal gain, most memorably,

perhaps, for the Osteen family: how Victoria’s “speaking

words of faith and victory” eventually brought the couple

their dream house; how Joel discerned God’s favor in being

bumped from economy to business class.

 

Confronting such stories, certain more doctrinally

traditional Christians go ballistic. Last March, Ben Witherington,

an influential evangelical theologian at Asbury Seminary in

Kentucky, thundered that “we need to renounce the false

gospel of wealth and health–it is a disease of our American

culture; it is not a solution or answer to life’s problems.”

 

Respected blogger Michael Spencer–known as the Internet

Monk–asked, “How many young people are going to be pointed

to Osteen as a true shepherd of Jesus Christ? He’s not. He’s not

one of us.” Osteen is an irresistible target for experts from

right to left on the Christian spectrum who–beyond worrying

that he is living too high or inflating the hopes of people with

real money problems–think he is dragging people down with

a heavy interlocked chain of theological and ethical errors

that could amount to heresy.

 

Most start out by saying that Osteen and his ilk have it “half right”:

that God’s goodness is biblical, as is the idea that he means us

to enjoy the material world. But while Prosperity claims to

be celebrating that goodness, the critics see it as treating God

as a celestial ATM.

 

“God becomes a means to an end, not the end in himself,” says

Southwestern Baptist’s Phillips. Others are more upset about

what it de-emphasizes.

 

“[Prosperity] wants the positive but not the negative,” says

another Southern Baptist, Alan Branch of  Midwestern Baptist

Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo.

 

 “Problem is, we live on this side of Eden. We’re fallen.” That is,

Prosperity soft-pedals the consequences of Adam’s fall–sin,

pain and death–and their New Testament antidote: Jesus’

atoning sacrifice and the importance of repentance. And social

liberals express a related frustration that preachers like Osteen

show little interest in battling the ills of society at large. Perhaps

appropriately so, since, as Prosperity scholar Harrison explains,

“philosophically, their main way of helping the poor is

encouraging people not to be one of them.”

 

Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they

are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel

but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s

ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After

the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money

was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of

Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have

to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of

God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton

College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals.

 

Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth

and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical

brawl over whether comfortable megachurches

(like Osteen’s and Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care

centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from

glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom

color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy

is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,”

says Boston University’s Prothero.

 

Non-prosperity parties from both conservative and more

progressive evangelical camps recently have been trying

to reverse the trend. Eastern University professor Ron Sider’s

book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, a fringe classic after

its publication in 1977, is selling far more copies now, and

some young people are even acting on its rather radical

prescriptions: a sprinkling of Protestant groups known

loosely as the New Monastics is experimenting with the

kind of communal living among the poor that had previously

been the province of Catholic orders. Jim Wallis, longtime

leader of one such community in Washington and the editor

of Sojourners magazine, has achieved immense exposure

lately with his pleas that Evangelicals engage in more

political activism on behalf of the poor.

 

And then there is Warren himself, who by virtue of his energy,

hypereloquence and example (he’s working in Rwanda with

government, business and church sectors) has become a

spokesman for church activism. “The church is the largest

network in the world,” he says. “If you have 2.3 billion people

who claim to be followers of Christ, that’s bigger than China.”

 

And despite Warren’s disdain for Prosperity’s theological claims,

some Prosperity churches have become players in the very

faith-based antipoverty world he inhabits, even while

maintaining their distinctive theology.

 

Kirbyjon Caldwell, who pastors Windsor Village,

the largest (15,000) United Methodist church in the country,

can sound as Prosperity as the next pastor: “Jesus did not

die and get up off the Cross so we could live lives full of

despair and disappointment,” he says. He quotes the

“abundant life” verse with all earnestness, even giving it a

real estate gloss: “It is unscriptural not to own land,”

he announces. But he’s doing more than talk about it.

He recently oversaw the building of Corinthian Pointe,

a 452-unit affordable-housing project that he claims

is the largest residential subdivision ever built by a

nonprofit. Most of its inhabitants, he says, are not

members of his church.

 

Caldwell knows that prosperity is a loaded term in evangelical

circles. But he insists that “it depends on how you define

prosperity. I am not a proponent of saying the Lord’s name

three times, clicking your heels and then you get what you

ask for. But you cannot give what you do not have. We are

fighting what we call the social demons. If I am going to help

someone, I am going to have to have something with which

to help.”

 

Caldwell knows that the theology behind this preacherly rhetoric

will never be acceptable to Warren or Sider or Witherington.

But the man they all follow said, “By their fruits you will know

them,” and for some, Corinthian Pointe is a very convincing

sort of fruit. Hard-line Prosperity theology may always seem

alien to those with enough money to imagine making more

without engaging God in a kind of spiritual quid pro quo.

And Osteen’s version, while it abandons part of that magical

thinking, may strike some as self-centered rather than

God centered. But American Protestantism is a dynamic faith.

Caldwell’s version reminds us that there is no reason a

giving God could not invest even an awkward and needy

creed with a mature and generous heart. If God does want

us to be rich in this life, no doubt it’s this richness

in spirit that he is most eager for us to acquire.

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