Here’s a prediction: as Western culture increasingly turns against Christianity, the prosperity gospel will keep growing, at least for a time.
It won’t be the only false teaching whose stock rises in a spiritually bearish market. Theological liberalism in some fangled form will always lurk in the shadows, ready to mug anyone who lets down their guard. But the prosperity gospel is a uniquely attractive stock in a materially acquisitive and entitlement-driven age, so expect its share price to keep rising on exchanges around the globe. This trade is hot! God wants to provide you with gabled double-front doors, leather interiors, satisfying sex, and an all-around better you. It’s like a wedding between a Wall Street shark and a self-help guru, all decked out in the paraphernalia of a Christian bookstore.
As with any pressurized system, the growing cultural opposition to the biblical faith will send Christians and spiritual seekers in search of a relief valve, some path of least resistance that lets the God-talk continue flowing through the pipes, while the tough demands of the faith disappear through a valve door. And here it’s hard to think of a better path of least resistance than a message that promises health and wealth but is effectively post-biblical.
Prosperity is a different kind of sneaky than theological liberalism because it usually affirms the doctrines you affirm, at least with its lips. Liberalism appeals to the intellect, prosperity to the appetite. But it’s like liberalism in two ways: it exploits the evangelical inclination toward an attractional model of ministry, which builds on common ground with the culture; and it enters church buildings and sermon manuscripts wearing Christian camouflage. It sneaks in softly, gently, not with the BLING BLING of the Preachers of L.A., but with a nodding and sympathetic, “You want a healthy marriage? Jesus wants that, too.” Which of course is true. Yet little by little, the Bible becomes a handbook to your best life. Church morphs into a therapy session. And God and his gospel exist for your sake, not you for his. Hello, Shadow Christianity.
Amidst external oppositions and internal temptations, I expect the broad center of evangelical churches to move in one of two directions in the coming decade: toward prosperity squishy or biblical solidity. The latter could mean another fundamentalist retreat, or it could mean learning how to better balance our bridge-building instincts with biblical fidelity in everything from sermon scope to church structure.
The goal of this Journal is to increase awareness and educate evangelicals concerning the prosperity gospel for the sake of diagnosis and prevention. As a couple of the articles will suggest, this globally-popular American export exists on a spectrum between soft and hard, more evangelical and less. Indeed, you and I can probably find some of it in our own hearts, as one piece observes. This issue concludes with a meditation on biblical theology, because it’s in the storyline of Scripture that we find the real antidote to all proof-texting reductionist gospels. The Bible is all about the glory of God in the face of Christ. Beholding him is the pathway to the truly blessed life.