The Christian Science Monitor published a three-part series on Pentecostalism in Central and South America earlier this month.
I read the first in the series, on “Health and Wealth” theology in Guatemala. Unsurprisingly, it causes the same controversy there that it causes in the United States. Some criticize Health and Wealth churches for being manipulative and individualistic, and those who are part of the churches think they can do no wrong because they help their members to become entrepreneurs and escape poverty.
I am no fan of the prosperity gospel, since I don’t think it is what Jesus (or Paul, or anyone else in the Bible) meant by “gospel.” I can’t recall them ever saying that if you give money to God, he will bless you financially. But I think that it is difficult to argue with prosperity gospellers when they’re getting results: they’re leaving poverty behind, they’re increasing in self-esteem, etc. Still I wonder: when people let faith affect their life, don’t good things generally happen? Here is a quote from the first article:
Still, in many ways, elements of their faith lead to economic betterment, say scholars. Their strict moral code alone – which includes no drinking, gambling, or promiscuity – leads to behavior changes that play important roles in family economics. “If a group of people change their behavior, work harder, save money, don’t drink, show interest in education – all of which Pentecostalism encourages – from one generation to the next, the consequences are very simple: social mobility,” says Peter Berger, a noted sociologist and theologian at Boston University. “You begin to have a Protestant middle class.”
Although I have not studied this movement in depth, I think that it is at least possible that prosperity gospellers have simply stumbled upon a way to improve your lot in life, whether you happen to be religious or not. If you have a strict moral code, and if you’re part of a community that gives you needed encouragement and opportunities, you’re likely to gain more social mobility.
That’s not to say, of course, that people are wrong to give to the church. They’re just giving for the wrong reason: to get “blessed” financially. Rather, I think that Christians ought to give to the church because God a) cares about us (“Consider the lilies. . .”), b) wants to keep us from idols (I seem to remember something in the Bible about money and the root of all kinds of evil), and c) can take care of money better than we can.
Anyway, these articles are informative and interesting, and I recommend reading them. For those interested in a critique of the exegetical foundations of the prosperity gospel, check out Gordon Fee’s booklet, The Disease of the Health and Wealth Gospels.