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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Most start out by saying that Osteen and his ilk have it "half right": that God's goodness is biblical, as is the idea that he means us to enjoy the material world. But while Prosperity claims to be celebrating that goodness, the critics see it as treating God as a celestial ATM. "God becomes a means to an end, not the end in himself," says Southwestern Baptist's Phillips. Others are more upset about what it de-emphasizes. "[Prosperity] wants the positive but not the negative," says another Southern Baptist, Alan Branch of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Mo. "Problem is, we live on this side of Eden. We're fallen." That is, Prosperity soft-pedals the consequences of Adam's fall--sin, pain and death--and their New Testament antidote: Jesus' atoning sacrifice and the importance of repentance. And social liberals express a related frustration that preachers like Osteen show little interest in battling the ills of society at large. Perhaps appropriately so, since, as Prosperity scholar Harrison explains, "philosophically, their main way of helping the poor is encouraging people not to be one of them."

Most unnerving forĀ Osteen's critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism's ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that "you don't have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God's blessing," says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College's Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen's and Warren's) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. "The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture," says Boston University's Prothero.

Non-prosperity parties from both conservativeĀ and more progressive evangelical camps recently have been trying to reverse the trend. Eastern University professor Ron Sider's book Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, a fringe classic after its publication in 1977, is selling far more copies now, and some young people are even acting on its rather radical prescriptions: a sprinkling of Protestant groups known loosely as the New Monastics is experimenting with the kind of communal living among the poor that had previously been the province of Catholic orders. Jim Wallis, longtime leader of one such community in Washington and the editor of Sojourners magazine, has achieved immense exposure lately with his pleas that Evangelicals engage in more political activism on behalf of the poor.

And then there is Warren himself, who by virtue of his energy, hypereloquence and example (he's working in Rwanda with government, business and church sectors) has become a spokesman for church activism. "The church is the largest network in the world," he says. "If you have 2.3 billion people who claim to be followers of Christ, that's bigger than China."

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