Editor’s note: The following is a summary of this week’s Time magazine cover story.
(Time.com) — 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 prediction, he 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?”
Generations of churchgoers have understood that being Christian means being ready to sacrifice. But for a growing number of Christians, 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. 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 percent of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61 percent believed that God wants people to be prosperous.
“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.
– The Bible, 1 Timothy 6:3-10 NIV
Of the four biggest megachurches in the country, three — Joel Osteen‘s Lakewood in Houston; T.D. Jakes‘ Potter’s House in south Dallas; and Creflo Dollar‘s World Changers in 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.
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?
Click here for the entire cover story on Time