The Prosperity Gospel Popular in American Megachurches

Ilana Quinn

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Amanda was looking for a church. After attending Sunday services with her tight-knit family every week, she had moved to a large city for college and discarded her faith. But when she had reached her early thirties — working as a high-powered attorney in a reputable law firm and being engaged to the love of her life — she still felt something was missing. An emptiness dwelled within her not even the sleekest apartment or most charming fiancé could fill.

Yearning for the comfort and peace she had once found in the refuge of her family’s church sanctuary, she accompanied a work friend to church. The building was like any other in her city from the outside. With massive columns separating sprawling glass windows in the front and a perfectly manicured lawn accompanying the Walmart-sized parking lot, the church was nothing like the quaint wooden chapel she had gone to Sunday school in.

And yet, there the modernity of the church was undeniably attractive. Young, well-dressed professionals like herself swarmed through the doors like bees to flowers, clutching cups of Starbucks and hip designer Bibles to their chests. Amanda even believed she recognized some celebrities.

As the two friends settled into two chairs on a balcony overlooking the sanctuary, a stage with a rock band and concert lights loomed before them. The music was upbeat and contagious. The pastors were young and hip, their inspirational messages filled with promises about well-being and wealth.

“You were not created to have a boring, unsuccessful life. God made you to be a winner.” One pastor with a blinding white smile enthused, moving his hands in an animated fashion. “When you keep up a positive attitude, God will make you healthy and wealthy.”

Amanda was entranced. After purchasing several of the lead pastor’s self-help books and devotionals at the door, as well as some merchandise with the intention of telling her friends about the wonderful church she had found, she settled into an exciting routine of Sunday services and bi-weekly small groups. She transformed her life — doing everything her pastor told her to do in order to achieve spiritual, emotional and financial success, as well as salvation.

Despite her best efforts, Amanda’s emptiness persisted. She did everything she could to achieve the peace she so desired, yet she remained unhappy. She eventually fell ill with cancer, shocked her newfound faith hadn’t provided her with some kind of special buffer. Though she recovered, the experience changed her forever. She discovered she had fallen prey to the seductive brand of Western Christianity known as the “prosperity gospel.”

Prosperity Theology

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Amanda’s experience is not unlike that of the millions of other individuals whose introduction to Christianity comes from encounters with prosperity theology — which is also called the Word of Faith movement. Essentially, proponents of the prosperity gospel believe one will achieve success and health when they pray or accomplish enough good deeds. According to this ideology, God rewards believers with prosperity when they think positive thoughts or pray their wishes into existence.

The Word of Faith movement is attractive to oppressed and impoverished people and others encountering significant hardship. Even middle-class individuals find the promises offered to them by preachers of the Word of Faith movement to be enticing. Who doesn’t like the idea of a prosperous life free of pain and suffering?

Exploiting their followers’ vulnerability through mass-producing and selling self-help books, merchandise, seminar tickets, devotionals, specialized Bibles, and even “inspiration cubes,” many leaders in this movement live extraordinarily lavish lifestyles. Joyce Meyer, the massively wealthy author and speaker, lives in a $20,000,000 mansion. Joel Osteen, the preacher who has repeatedly denied his connection to the Word of Faith movement, is currently worth $100,000,000. Evidently, the sale of those inspiration cubes paid off.

Remember Kenneth Copeland, the creepy televangelist who broke the internet with his horrific explanation for why he travels in a private jet? He is considered the central figure in the modern Word of Faith movement.

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Kenneth and Gloria CopelandWikimedia Commons

On Copeland’s blog which he runs alongside his wife Gloria, promises of prosperity are abundant. There are entire pages dedicated to so-called “biblical prosperity,” including one where Copeland completely contradicts John 16:

Can you see now why Satan would spread a rumor that would make you believe you have to suffer with the world instead of live as victor over it? He doesn’t want people running after you asking where you get your power, your peace, your health and prosperity.
But that’s exactly what God wants to happen. So, put the Word of God to work and dare to receive the blessings He has promised to you. Let the light of God’s power in your life put the devil’s dark rumors to rest!

Copeland’s ministry is a microcosm — or macrocosm — of prosperity theology. His messages often take single Bible verses out of context, overlooking the fact that Jesus Christ Himself lived a life of poverty and strife, eventually dying by crucifixion — one of the most painful deaths known to man.

Pervasive throughout Copeland’s message is the strange idea one can pray their aspirations into existence. For example, his guide to erasing financial debt includes the following instructions:

Write down a statement in your journal that says something like this: “I am debt free. I owe no man anything but to love.” By making this positive affirmation, you are already setting things in motion in your mind and spirit.
Every day pray over your vision and your plan. Thank God that it is done, and praise Him for the freedom you’ll enjoy!

Is it just me, or does this philosophy seem eerily reminiscent of the Law of Attraction?

Regardless of where Copeland derives his inspiration from, his logic is absolutely flawed and anti-Biblical. Nowhere in the Bible are mere humans promised a perfect life free of hardship. While God makes several promises to those who seek Him, including rest, a peace that transcends all understanding, forgiveness for our sins, His presence and guidance, He never promises instant healing or financial success.

Copeland is profiting from his audience’s vulnerability by erroneously teaching that the most holy can avoid the inevitable suffering of the world, despite the reality of Jesus and His disciples’ poverty and persecution. Instead, Jesus told a wealthy young man to “sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me”(Matthew 19:21). He also said it would be easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (Matthew 19:24).

The Trump Administration

During Donald Trump’s presidency, many of his faith advisors belonged to the Word of Faith movement, including Paul White, an American televangelist and outspoken advocate of prosperity theology. Arguably, Donald Trump’s presidency brought widespread attention to prosperity theology like never before.

In particular, Paula White was one televangelist who was subject to probes concerning the finances of mega churches, despite her failure to comply with the federal investigation.

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Paula WhiteWikimedia Commons

White’s early life was hard as her father committed suicide and she grew up in abject poverty. However, after becoming a born-again Christian, White began ministry alongside her second husband, broadcasting sermons and attracting the attention of the future president. Her mega church raked in $40,000,000 a year at one point.

Out of all the prosperity theology blogs I scrolled through, White seems to be the most blatant in her attempt to secure money from vulnerable parishioners. White describes offerings as an “act of worship” — money which funds her expensive tastes rather than being given to the poor, as Jesus told us to do.

Every year, she promises material and spiritual blessings for those who purchase her DVDs and other merchandise, stating:

When you sow a generous First Fruits Offering of $75 or more today, as led by The Holy Spirit, I will rush to you the new series plus digital download, and you will also receive my book and companion 31-Day Devotional “First Things First”; **plus, a gorgeous Pewter Mezuzah proclaiming for 2021, like Joshua did in Ch 24: “As for Me and My Household; We Will Serve the Lord.” I am so excited about this- because it is so special because I feel I am to lay my hands on it and declare blessings over your house for the year 2021 WHEN I RECEIVE YOUR RESPONSE!! This is to act as a point of contact between myself and you and your house, and dedicate it to The Lord!!

As a Christian, I feel my stomach turn when I read these appeals. Pastors and spiritual advisors are meant to provide help and encouragement to those who are suffering, with no strings attached.

Unfortunately, pastors like Paula White and others who abuse their power designate themselves as necessary intermediaries between lowly humans and God while making false, unbiblical promises.

Final Thoughts

In the end, it is imperative to hold prosperity theology preachers — including Paula White, Benny Hinn, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, Kenneth Copeland, Gloria Copeland, Creflo Dollar and others — accountable. Jesus Christ Himself warned of the false prophets who would disguise themselves as “wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matthew 7:15).

Contrary to the erroneous teachings of these celebrity pastors, God never promised us a life free from trouble and suffering. Suffering is an unavoidable aspect of our world, as well as something even Jesus experienced profoundly. He was born into a lowly manger and remained poor and unhoused for his life, dying an excruciating death at an early age. How can we demand something more for ourselves?

While we can rest assured God will grant us peace and strength when we encounter hardships — and possess hope for the Kingdom of Heaven — attaining a lavish lifestyle is something we were never called to do.

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world, yet lose his soul? (Mark 8:36).

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A university student writing about faith, mental health, history, literature, politics and travel.

Los Angeles, CA
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