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

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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.

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