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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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 receive it.'" (See boxes.)

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."

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