We asked Mike McKinley a few questions about his book Am I Really a Christian? Here’s what we got.
Why did you write this book?
The short answer is that I was struck on one hand by how much time the NT spends clarifying what it means to be a genuine Christian and on the other hand how little time most churches spend talking about it. As a pastor, I run into people all the time that are confused on these issues; some believers with sensitive consciences lack assurance, others with no evidence of conversion in their lives are presuming on the grace of God. My aim in writing the book was to help both of those kinds of people by examining what the Bible says on the topic.
Any funny stories about people's reactions to the title since it's come out? What about encouraging stories?
I had a near-death experience with a women’s book club of sorts that was reading the book. They invited me to sit in on one of their discussions, and then spent most of the time talking about how discouraging and upsetting the book was. After about an hour, one of the women who had until this point been silent spoke up and said, “But all of the things that you’re upset about are in the Bible. Don’t blame him, blame Jesus.” That was uncomfortable.
But I’ve also heard some amazing stories of how God has used the book as a means of bringing people to Christ. The best are emails from people who gave the book to a friend or family member for whom they’ve been praying for a long time and the Lord saved that person. When I hear those stories I think to myself, “This might be the most important thing I ever do in my ministry”.
Anything you'd change in the book since writing it?
Maybe a different publicity photo, or a photo of someone better looking. Seriously, I don’t think so; not because it’s perfect but rather because it’s pretty simple. There wouldn’t be that much to change that wouldn’t change the basic message.
Get your copy of Am I Really a Christian? today.
Joseph Hellerman writes Embracing Shared Ministry as a New Testament scholar and a seasoned pastor, seeking to apply the fruits of his scholarly activity to the problems of the church. In a 2005 monograph he argued that in Philippians Paul “intentionally subverts the social values of the dominant culture in the Roman colony at Philippi in order to create a radically different relational environment among the Philippian Christians” (11). This current book is an attempt to apply his thesis to modern abuses of power in the church, reminding us of Paul’s “cruciform vision for authentic spiritual leadership,” that is, “other-centered leadership—leadership in the shape of the cross” (14–15). In particular, Hellerman argues that biblical leadership lies in a community of leaders who are in relationship with one another.
The last chapter is my favorite part of the book. In it, Hellerman recounts his years of experience as one of the pastor-elders of Oceanside Christian Fellowship. His description made me want to join that church. The pastor-elders at Oceanside Christian Fellowship develop consensus through community—through the relationships they’ve developed as they meet together, share their lives, and pray for each other and the church. They emphasize character, transparency, and real community among the leaders in order to gain the trust needed to lead the church. Hellerman insightfully observes that “Scripture turns repeatedly to the quality of our relationships—particularly with our fellow Christians—as the foremost evidence of genuine love for God” (John 13:35; 282). He advises students looking for their first pastoral job to ask, “Does the senior pastor of this church have close friends in the congregation?” (297). Wow—great question. Finally, Hellerman models his advice in that he is strikingly personal and transparent throughout this book.
But even though I agree with Hellerman’s conclusions, I just don’t think the almost 200 pages of socio-historical background of Philippi and exegesis of Philippians actually lead to these conclusions.
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In the fall of 2007, I began regularly attending the church as I pursued formal training at the nearby Dallas Theological Seminary. My stay at the church was short-lived. However, I did get to observe and experience many things that year, including the release of Reposition Yourself: Living Life Without Limits.
Jakes’ thesis can be summed up in a common phrase he employs in the first chapter: “…God helps those who help themselves.” His goal is to demonstrate that, with minor adjustments, one can take control of his or her destiny and attain what he calls “true prosperity” and “real success.”
Jakes’ writing style is as winsome as his oratorical flare. With many personal anecdotes, he appeals to the reader as one who genuinely desires to help by delving into the common lived- experiences of everyday people.
Reposition Yourself consists of fifteen chapters divided into three major sections: “The Sky’s the Limit,” “Beyond the Limits of Mediocrity,” and “Beyond the Limits of Success.” These sections could easily be titled, “Wanting Prosperity,” “Pursuing Prosperity,” and “Managing Prosperity,” respectively. The first five chapters are aimed at animating the ambition of the reader by exploring the pathology of what Jakes calls an “addiction to apathy,” and by championing the fight for a “better life.” The second section of the book deals specifically with finances and the how-to’s of success, while the final section devotes a couple chapters to women’s issues before moving to the legacy of success.
Simply put, Reposition Yourself is a self-help book—and a dangerous one, at that. I render this critique in light of the book’s own admission regarding Jakes’ methodology: “Mixing both sacred and secular insights, he shares a unique blend of practical and pragmatic steps coupled with the sage wisdom of Scripture for which he is noted.” While this approach might seem laudable, the resulting combination often yields erroneous conclusions. Two immediately come to mind.
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When I read about prosperity-preaching churches, my response is: “If I were not on the inside of Christianity, I wouldn’t want in.” In other words, if this is the message of Jesus, no thank you.
Luring people to Christ to get rich is both deceitful and deadly. It’s deceitful because when Jesus himself called us, he said things like: “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33). And it’s deadly because the desire to be rich plunges “people into ruin and destruction” (1 Tim. 6:9). So here is my plea to preachers of the gospel.
1. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that makes it harder for people to get into heaven.
Jesus said, “How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” His disciples were astonished, as many in the “prosperity” movement should be. So Jesus went on to raise their astonishment even higher by saying, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” They respond in disbelief: “Then who can be saved?” Jesus says, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:23-27).
My question for prosperity preachers is: Why would you want to develop a ministry focus that makes it harder for people to enter heaven?
2. Do not develop a philosophy of ministry that kindles suicidal desires in people.
Paul said, “There is great gain in godliness with contentment, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” But then he warned against the desire to be rich. And by implication, he warned against preachers who stir up the desire to be rich instead of helping people get rid of it. He warned, “Those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs” (1 Tim. 6:6-10).
So my question for prosperity preachers is: Why would you want to develop a ministry that encourages people to pierce themselves with many pangs and plunge themselves into ruin and destruction?
3. Do not develop a philosophy of ministry that encourages vulnerability to moth and rust.
Jesus warns against the effort to lay up treasures on earth. That is, he tells us to be givers, not keepers. “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matt. 6:19).
Yes, we all keep something. But given the built-in tendency toward greed in all of us, why would we take the focus off Jesus and turn it upside down?
4. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that makes hard work a means of amassing wealth.
Paul said we should not steal. The alternative was hard work with our own hands. But the main purpose was not merely to hoard or even to have. The purpose was “to have to give.” “Let him labor, working with his hands, that he may have to give to him who is in need” (Eph. 4:28). This is not a justification for being rich in order to give more. It is a call to make more and keep less so you can give more. There is no reason why a person who makes $200,000 should live any differently from the way a person who makes $80,000 lives. Find a wartime lifestyle; cap your expenditures; then give the rest away.
Why would you want to encourage people to think that they should possess wealth in order to be a lavish giver? Why not encourage them to keep their lives more simple and be an even more lavish giver? Would that not add to their generosity a strong testimony that Christ, and not possessions, is their treasure?
5. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that promotes less faith in the promises of God to be for us what money can’t be.
The reason the writer to the Hebrews tells us to be content with what we have is that the opposite implies less faith in the promises of God. He says, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?’” (Heb. 13:5-6).
If the Bible tells us that being content with what we have honors the promise of God never to forsake us, why would we want to teach people to want to be rich?
6. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that contributes to your people being choked to death.
Jesus warns that the word of God, which is meant to give us life, can be choked off from any effectiveness by riches. He says it is like a seed that grows up among thorns that choke it to death: “They are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the . . . riches . . . of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14).
Why would we want to encourage people to pursue the very thing that Jesus warns will choke us to death?
7. Don’t develop a philosophy of ministry that takes the seasoning out of the salt and puts the light under a basket.
What is it about Christians that makes them the salt of the earth and the light of the world? It is not wealth. The desire for wealth and the pursuit of wealth tastes and looks just like the world. It does not offer the world anything different from what it already believes in. The great tragedy of prosperity-preaching is that a person does not have to be spiritually awakened in order to embrace it; one needs only to be greedy. Getting rich in the name of Jesus is not the salt of the earth or the light of the world. In this, the world simply sees a reflection of itself. And if it works, they will buy it.
The context of Jesus’ saying shows us what the salt and light are. They are the joyful willingness to suffering for Christ. Here is what Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. You are the salt of the earth….You are the light of the world” (Matt. 5:11-14).
What will make the world taste (the salt) and see (the light) of Christ in us is not that we love wealth the same way they do. Rather, it will be the willingness and the ability of Christians to love others through suffering, all the while rejoicing because their reward is in heaven with Jesus. This is inexplicable on human terms. This is supernatural. But to attract people with promises of prosperity is simply natural. It is not the message of Jesus. It is not what he died to achieve.
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary, Minneapolis, Minnesota.
While evangelicals have traditionally decried the prosperity gospel in its “hard” form, there is a softer form of this teaching that is all too common among us. Often undetected by Bible-believing Christians, it assumes the gospel and leads its adherents to focus on things like financial planning, diet and exercise, and strategies for self-improvement. In contrast to the hard prosperity gospel, which offers miraculous and immediate health and wealth, this softer, subtler variety challenges believers to break through to the blessed life by means of the latest pastor-prescribed technique.
Of course, matters of personal stewardship such as money, health, and leadership skills should be woven into a whole-Bible theology of Christian discipleship. The trouble comes when Christians, and especially pastors, place greater emphasis on these secondary matters. What we choose to preach or listen to says much about what we value. And what I see among some evangelicals is a willingness to prioritize the lesser matters of the law over the weightier mercies of the gospel.
This is not a new concern. Others have described facets of this prosperity gospel under names like moralistic, therapeutic deism, Christless Christianity, and the commodification of Christianity. In truth, all three descriptors overlap to describe a prosperity gospel that is easily missed, because it is seems reasonable to Christians who love God and the American Dream.
A SOFTER, SUBTLER PROSPERITY GOSPEL
For those with eyes to see, signs of soft prosperity are everywhere in evangelicalism. Christian radio offers a “positive, encouraging” experience, with innumerable songs beckoning listeners to be overcomers. Christian publishers market books that help Christians look better, feel more confident, and reach their maximum potential. Likewise, Jeremiah 29:11 and Philippians 4:13 continue to be championed as mantras by Christians who want to make an impact on the world.
But of course, these examples are only symptoms, and the solution is not to demonize Christian retailers. Rather, we all must learn to think more deeply about the content of our faith and to refute the errant teachings of the soft prosperity gospel (Titus 1:9).
FIVE TRADEMARKS OF SOFT PROSPERITY
To aid in that discernment, let me outline five trademarks of soft prosperity, particularly as they show up in sermons and books.
1. Soft prosperity elevates “blessings” over the blessed God.
First, soft prosperity elevates “blessings” over the blessed God. When blessings are divorced from the triune God, compromise ensues. True blessedness resides in God alone, “the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords” (1 Tim. 6:15). By consequence, to seek God’s blessing requires seeking him (Isa. 55:6-7; Matt. 6:33). Christ is the true treasure (Matt. 13:44-46), and any pursuit of blessing that makes God a means to another end is erroneous and idolatrous.
2. Soft prosperity detaches verses from the redemptive framework of the Bible.
Second, soft prosperity detaches verses from the redemptive framework of the Bible. When preachers present isolated verses as time-honored principles for claiming God’s blessings, a counterfeit gospel results. Instead of relating all blessings to Christ, they directly apply individual verses to people today.
Such a promise motivates the strong and extinguishes the weak. Unless a passage is rightly related to redemptive framework of the Bible, verses like Psalm 1:3 become treadmills on which earnest Christians tire themselves out. Genuine Christ-centered expositional preaching prevents this sort of textual manipulation, and guards against the gospel of soft prosperity.
More specifically, soft prosperity delights in the tangible promises of the Old Testament. The error is often found in promising old covenant blessings to new covenant saints. Whenever we read the Old Testament, faithful interpreters must see how the promises first related to Israel in their historic and theocratic state; second, to Jesus who perfectly fulfilled the law (Matt. 5:17); and third, to us. Because we live under the new covenant, there will always be continuity and discontinuity between the Old Testament promise and its contemporary fulfillment. Preachers must learn how to interpret these ancient texts at the textual, epochal, and canonical levels. Likewise, healthy churches must learn to see how every blessing is found in relationship to Jesus Christ, the mediator of the new covenant.
3. Soft prosperity diminishes the curse that Christ bore and the blessing of the Holy Spirit.
Third, soft prosperity diminishes the curse that Christ bore and the blessing of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, blessedness is not an amorphous idea. Deuteronomy 27-28 specifies the content of the Mosaic covenant’s blessings and curses. Quoting these verses, soft prosperity preachers advertise divine blessings through greater obedience, but they ignore the fine print. Only one man has so perfectly obeyed God’s so as to merit God’s blessing (Heb. 10:5-10). And for Jesus’ covenantal obedience, he was sentenced to death on a Roman cross, accursed for the sins of his people (Gal. 3:10-13).
Perhaps the greatest problem with the soft prosperity is the way it assumes the cross of Christ, instead of adoring the Blessed One who bore the wrath of God in our place (Gal. 3:13). Soft prosperity preachers speak often about what you can do to experience God’s favor, but they rush past the cross, missing the fact that every spiritual gift has been secured for the believer by Jesus, who gives us his Spirit as the preeminent blessing (Gal. 3:14; Eph. 1:3). Although they don’t deny the Romans Road, they are driving on another highway.
4. Soft prosperity relies on pastor-prescribed therapeutic techniques.
Fourth, soft prosperity relies on pastor-prescribed therapeutic techniques. By assuming the gospel, soft prosperity preachers fill the vacuum with a full plate of therapeutic techniques. With the language of Zion, they emphasize the good works of the believer. Although not explicitly denying salvation by grace through faith, pastors who repeatedly insist on life tips, techniques, and strategies for saintly success undermine the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
5. Soft prosperity largely addresses first-world, middle-class problems.
While the previous four trademarks could in many ways apply to hard or soft prosperity preaching, one striking difference remains. Whereas hard prosperity preaching invites followers to name it and claim it, soft prosperity preachers inspire the upwardly mobile to reach for their dreams. In the former good health and a strong portfolio prove God's tangible salvation; in the latter preachers proclaim a religion of therapeutic solutions. To quote only one of their teachers: "Do I believe in supernatural return on giving? Yes, sir! Do I believe God blesses tithes and offerings? Yes, I do. But why should we teach you to claim a car without teaching you about the car payment and interest rates on loans."
In a nutshell, T. D. Jakes' message promises the same gold, through a different line of credit—superabundant faith mixed with well-ordered works. In short, this softer prosperity preaching appeals to first world, middle class people who are too busy living to examine a message that reaffirms their natural aspirations for success. Tragically, "believers" who buy into this false gospel may remain ignorant of their greatest need—atonement for sin before a holy God—unless confronted with true gospel of Jesus Christ.
A BETTER THEOLOGY OF BLESSING
In the end, the tragedy of the soft prosperity gospel is the way it focuses so much on earthly improvements. By offering Christians their best life now, the eternal realities of heaven and hell are lost. This brings the very real possibility that many who hear the soft prosperity gospel are and will remain lost.
In response, Christians must learn to recognize the error of soft prosperity. And we—especially pastors—must prayerfully work to liberate others from it. First we must confess the ways that desires for earthly success have latched on to our own hearts. Second, we must present the biblical gospel, which far exceeds the offer of saintly success. We must extol the riches of the true gospel and trust that when God’s sheep hear his call to repent of their sin and cling to Christ, they too will sell their soft prosperity and receive as a free gift the only treasure that counts—Jesus Christ, the only blessed king.
David Schrock is the senior pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Seymour, Indiana.
 On the difference between hard and soft prosperity gospels, see Kate Bowler’s revealing study, Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 78.
 In order, Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), esp. 65-100; Stephen J. Nichols, Jesus Made in America: A Cultural History from the Puritans to The Passion of the Christ (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), esp. 173-97.
 See a list of such verses in Michael Schäfer’s article, “The Prosperity Gospel and Biblical Theology.”
 For a helpful treatment of this approach, see Edmund Clowney, Preaching and Biblical Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 1979).
 Cited in Bowler, Blessed, 119.
I was in college. I was a young Christian. And I remember walking past my pastor’s luxury car into the church office one day, and was greeted by a sign on the door that read, “We are no longer accepting requests for benevolence due to budgetary constraints.”
It’s not necessarily wrong for a pastor to own a luxury car. It’s not necessarily right for a church to use all its discretionary money to care for the poor. But the juxtaposition of these two things in that moment caused me to start viewing the church through a different lens almost immediately, like when you buy a new car and then starting seeing that model everywhere.
Over the coming months I started noticing similar distortions throughout our church: in what it measured and evaluated (numerical growth, physical health, financial well-being); in what it celebrated (new cars for the pastor and his wife, new facilities); in what the church and its members did and did not spend our money on.
Here’s one way to summarize the larger pattern: Money and stuff and outward things generally were treated as an indication of God’s blessing. They weren’t treated as an instrument for blessing others and doing gospel work. So we spent it on ourselves. Cash came into our cul-de-sac and didn’t leave.
The church was its own little private kingdom. Ministers and up-and-comers were rewarded so long as they stayed “loyal” and supported the church. If someone tried to leave and start a new gospel work, the moral and financial support would stop. Missions and church planting and taking the gospel to the nations were seldom, if ever, mentioned.
If you haven’t picked up the clues, I was part of church influenced by the prosperity gospel.
To understand how churches and Christians should view money, we should start with a biblical view of blessing. Listen to what Psalm 32 says is true blessing: “Blessed is the one whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit.”
The forgiveness of sins, as it’s declared and discovered in the context of a church community, is the true indicator of God’s blessing.
In other words, don’t measure God’s love and favor toward you by the money you have or think you should have. There are lots of rich people who are going to hell. Remember what Jesus said about the camel going through the eye of the needle?
You know he loves you and favors you because he’s forgiven you! “But God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).
Money and resources, then, are instruments for propagating this message. Churches and Christians shouldn’t be cul-de-sacs for cash. They should be thoroughfares for finance.
Don’t be like the fool who only knew how to build bigger barns and horde what God had given him, thinking that it was his security. Spend what you have for the kingdom. Pay pastors to preach the gospel. Support other individuals, missionaries, and churches when they go out to do gospel work. Then ask God to give more so that you can spend that on kingdom purposes, too.
So forget about identifying the most blatant “prosperity gospel” offenders. What about you? Do you lead your church to view wealth as an indicator of blessing or an instrument for it?
Here are a few more questions to ask yourself:
- How does the church that I lead view and manage resources?
- What are the things that our congregation celebrates? (Chances are they learned it from you.)
- How long have we been “meaning” to increase our mission’s budget? What things have we used our money for that have kept us from doing this?
- Why am I so concerned with how many people attend my church? Why is numerical growth so important, and why do I envy other pastors?
- Why do I hope that our budget increases this year? Why am I praying for God to provide more resources?
None of us are immune to faulty thinking on how to view the money that God gives us. Is money a blessing? In some ways, yes. But more than that, it’s an instrument for pointing people to the real blessing—a knowledge of him!
John Onwuchekwa is the teaching pastor of Blueprint Church in Atlanta, Georgia.
Are you a Christian? Have you ever asked yourself that question? Or did you ever think you needed to?
In his book Am I Really a Christian? Mike McKinley shows us the importance of applying 2 Corinthians 13:5 to “test” ourselves to be sure of our standing before God.
But how do you “test yourself”? Mike begins with five things all Christians have.
“I want to look at five things that the Bible says will always accompany true conversion. If you have these things, you have firm evidence of God’s regenerating work in your life. If these things are absent, you have reason to be concerned.
- Belief in true doctrine. You’re not a Christian just because you like Jesus.
- Hatred of sin in your life. You’re not a Christian if you enjoy sin.
- Perseverance over time. You’re not a Christian if you don't’ persist in the faith.
- Love for other people. You’re not a Christian if you don’t have care and concern for other people.
- Freedom from love of the world. You’re not a Christian if the things of the world are more valuable to you than God.
God has commanded us to examine ourselves to see whether we are in the faith. These five things make up some of the criteria by which we can judge ourselves. For the professing Christian, then, the all-important question is: Do I have the fruit of the new birth in my life?” (39)
Read more of Mike McKinley’s Am I Really a Christian? here.
“As a general rule, whoever describes the person best wins the person—and whoever wins the person—gets the opportunity to impact the person.” Ed Welch said that a few months ago on CCEF’s blog. It makes sense. It’s a compelling concept. But it’s also an alarming concept. What if someone with bad ideas is really good at describing people—their struggles, fears, and desires? Unfortunately, I’m afraid that’s the case with megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes in his book Let It Go.
Jakes’ book falls under the category of “Christian life,” and you would probably find it in the “Self-Help” section of your local bookstore, Christian or not. It’s a book of practical theology.
Jakes uncovers his wide-ranging purpose early on: “My hope is that this book will help you gain insight into what prevents you from being the husband you want to be, the wife you long to be, the mother or father you know is inside you, the creative person you were born to be—the most successful version of you possible!” (4). But tension in relationships hinders that success (5). As does the failure of people to truly understand one another (12). Thus, says Jakes, we need to embrace the big idea of forgiveness, of “letting go of the past and finding the grace to forgive” (18). Forgiveness is a “supernatural power that’s unleashed when we let it go” (34, emphasis his). Such power is foundational for Jakes’ entire outlook on life.
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Editor’s Note: Grant Retief, who serves as rector of Christ Church Umhlanga just outside of Durban, South Africa, sat down with three young Christians in his church who recently came out of prosperity gospel preaching churches and asked them all the same questions: “Tell me what you noticed when you started coming to our church. What was different from your prior experience? What did you hear that was new? What were some of the struggles at first?” Retief asked these three to comment on the gospel, the Bible, corporate worship, and lifestyle.
Below you'll find their answers. These are firsthand accounts of the themes that come up in Retief's accompanying article, “The Rise of a Parallel, Post-Biblical Christianity.” Rochelle and Chantal participated in a prosperity church in Durban for 15 years; Nicola spent 11 years in a prosperity-tinged seeker-sensitive church.
The first thing I noticed was that sin was spoken about a lot. In my previous church, sin was never talked about. For the first time I was told that I was a sinner.
While I was still straddling both churches, I was once rebuked by my previous pastor when I began talking about sin and judgment with people in our church. I was told to stop it, because it was too negative.
I grew up thinking that I gained salvation by my works. At our new church I heard for the first time that Christ had fulfilled all the law.
At first I was offended that my works counted for nothing and I couldn’t contribute to my salvation. The fact that I couldn’t contribute to my salvation was offensive. But after some time, it became liberating.
One of the leaders at the new church kept running after me, and I kept coming back. I realised that up to that point my whole Christian life had assumed the gospel. The cross was only ever preached at Easter. The gospel was seen as old news, and it was assumed that everyone knew it, understood it and believed it. The old church was only interested in a new word from God.
I felt so deceived. I used to cry. I felt betrayed. I realized they knew no better themselves.
My experience of the Bible was that it was often added to with “prophecies.” The norm was to read the Bible without context and with immediate application. I’ve come to realise that the Bible is first about Jesus.
Corporate worship was all about the experience and feeling one had during the singing. It was a time of inviting the Holy Spirit to come into us. It was always very emotional.
Looking back I realise that there was a deficiency of godliness in the lives of the leaders of the church. This was seen particularly in the way the finances were handled. There was corruption, and money received was sometimes hidden from the congregation. If you did not tithe, you were approached by the leadership.
There was also sexual sin. The youth leader was dating a Christian girl, and sleeping with his other, non-Christian, girlfriend. This was reported to the head pastor, but nothing was done about. Three years later, he is still youth pastor.
Coming to this church was the first time I heard about the seriousness of sin. When I first came I was offended. Later, I’d go home liberated and grieved at the same time. Grace was completely new to me, and such a comfort. I realized it was most important to understand the gospel of grace. For the first time, justification and sanctification were explained to me.
At first I wondered why each and every sermon went back to Jesus. I now realize that it takes me back to my need for a saviour all the time, and that is what I need in order to change.
When I spoke to my previous pastor about some of the things taught at my new church, he said that the gospel was good for that context but not for his context. He felt his people already knew the gospel and didn’t need to hear it all the time. He felt there were other things that God was saying and doing in the world.
Looking at the leaders of my previous church, you’d think they were living godly lives because of their works-based religion. Externally it looked impressive. Yet sexual sin was common amongst the youth, and never disciplined. One young adult sinned sexually, followed by a long fast. He was working for his forgiveness.
The idea of praise and worship was the biggest thing in my previous church: music and the ecstatic gifts, tongues and prophecy. Services were sometimes four hours long, with two hours of singing. The songs always seemed to point to the individual, with a lot of “I” and almost no “Jesus” in the songs.
There was no systematic Bible teaching. The norm was quoting scriptures completely out of context. I don’t know why I took my Bible. The Bible was seldom opened. It was just misquoted.
In my previous church, lip-service was given to the importance of the Bible, but seldom was it preached or read systematically.
There was a strong emphasis on “what God is saying now” in visions and prophetic words that often undermined the context and application of Scripture.
There was an emphasis on training leaders with people skills rather than Bible teaching
Preaching was most often topical and called for behaviour modification. Since coming here, I have realised how little good Bible teaching I had received.
Leaders are cool, trendy, usually younger, very seeker-sensitive in their language. Often services had special lighting, highly polished worship bands, and words apparently from God were brought before and after the sermon. This diminished the emphasis on the sermon by adding to it.
There was a focus on the quality and quantity of worship to the extent that sometimes there was no sermon. Demonstrative worship was always encouraged and even instructed, with frequent altar calls and responses after the preaching.
In my previous church, people became leaders very quickly. And the leaders were elevated and are popular due to their personalities. They encouraged people to make decisions according to what God is saying in your heart rather than according to his Word.
Note: For more on the prosperity gospel in South Africa, see the article "The Rise of a Parallel, Post-Biblical Christianity."
Grant Retief is the rector of Christ Church Umhlanga just outside of Durban, South Africa. He and his wife have three children.
“Being poor is a sin” (Robert Tilton).
“If we please God we will be rich” (Jerry Savelle).
“God wants his children to wear the best clothes…drive the best cars and have the best of everything; just ask for what we need” (Kenneth Hagin, Sr.).
These are some bewildering but common statements from “prosperity gospel” preachers. Their god is a sort of cosmic entrepreneur who can be used, by tithing and offering, to attain what really matters: a prosperous life in merely earthly terms.
“FROM SUCH PEOPLE TURN AWAY”
Paul compels us to stay away from “men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Tim. 6:5). And in his second letter to Timothy he warns his son in the faith “that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, boasters, proud... lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!” (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
Peter also advises us that, just as there were false prophets among the people of God in the old covenant, “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies…And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words” (2 Pet. 2:1-3; cf. Jude 11-16).
Sadly, in spite of the Scriptures’ clear warnings, the prosperity gospel has a large and growing group of followers. This isn’t hard to understand, since the message appeals so directly to our native greed. Yet it is sad and bewildering that many people remain in the movement for a long time, even their whole life, since its preachers cannot fulfill their promises.
THE PSYCHOLOGY OF THE PROSPERITY GOSPEL
Why is the prosperity gospel so attractive? How does it gain and retain followers? I recently spoke with a brother who was involved in the movement for 10 years, who shed some light on the psychology of the prosperity gospel.
1. An Easily Manipulated God
The prosperity gospel is attractive because it offers us an easily manipulated god. Despite the militant atheist attacks in recent decades, man cannot eliminate from his heart the idea of God, because God has left evidences of his presence in all of creation and has given man the capacity to understand the evidence (Rom. 1:18-21). What makes the prosperity gospel attractive for fallen man is that it seems to place God on his side, while eliminating the hindrance of his sanctity and sovereignty.
The god of these evangelists is not the one reveled in the Scriptures, whom we must approach on his terms. Instead, their god is a combination of Aladdin’s lamp genie and Psychiatrist Almighty, who can be easily manipulated through offerings and “words of faith.”
2. Guilt and Greed
Second, the prosperity gospel draws people in because it creates a cycle of guilt and greed. When the offers of riches or health take long to materialize, people blame themselves for their lack of faith, or for not being generous enough. This guilt, combined with the greed in their hearts, keeps them clinging to these evangelists’ false promises, just like the gambler goes back to the casino again and again hoping that one day he will get lucky.
3. Religious Fear
These “evangelists” tend to instill religious fear in their followers so they don’t dare to question the “Lord’s anointed one.” This hinders their listeners’ capacity to objectively analyze the content of their message and the evident dichotomy between their lifestyle and what the Scriptures say about how a gospel minister should live (1 Cor. 4:9-13; 2 Cor. 4:7-11, 11:23-28).
4. Stewardship Brings Prosperity
Another factor that supports the spread of this false gospel is that some do experience a degree of financial prosperity, as a consequence of putting into practice general principles of good administration that they learn in these churches. This seems to confirm the truthfulness of the message which, in turn, increases the greed of their hearts because “He who loves money will not be satisfied with money” (Eccl. 5:10).
How can we immunize our listeners against this threat? I’ve got seven suggestions.
1. Teach them to read the Bible in its context. Prosperity preachers cite the Scriptures, especially the Old Testament, but overlook the general and immediate contexts of the texts they cite.
2. Clearly present the demands of the gospel (Mk. 1:14-15; Acts 2:38, 3:19, 26) and of true discipleship (Mk. 8:34-37; Lk. 14:25-33; Phil. 1:29).
3. Instill in them the spirit of the Bereans (Acts 17.11). It is one thing to respect pastoral authority (Heb. 13:17), but a very different thing to blindly follow a leader even when he walks away from the clear teachings of the Scriptures (Rom. 16:17-18; Phil. 3:17-19).
4. Preach the Bible’s warnings against greed (Pr. 23:4-5; Lk. 12:15; 1Tim. 6:6-10, 17-19; Acts 13:5-6).
5. Teach them that God is good, wise, and sovereign in the dispensation of his gifts. Not all his children will be prosperous and healthy on this side of eternity, but all will experience the same paternal love and care, manifested in diverse ways for his glory and the good of our souls (Jn. 11:3; Phil. 2:25-30; 1 Tim. 5:23).
6. Teach them how to handle the tension of being a child of God living in a fallen world (Jn. 15:18-21; 17:14-16; Acts 11:13).
7. Above all, present Christ as the pearl of great price, who infinitely surpasses in value anything that this fleeting world may offer (Mt. 13:44-46; Phil. 3:7-8).
Sugel Michelén has been an elder and regular preacher at Iglesia Bíblica del Señor Jesucristo in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, for more than 30 years.