(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
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
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
“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
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
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.