It is no secret that the “prosperity gospel” is on a steady decline in the west and on the rise in the majority world at the same time. This ironic twist has produced the greatest threat to the vitality and witness of Christianity in the global South.
The prosperity gospel/teaching/doctrine is the central tenet of the “Word of Faith” movement that originated in America in the 1950s and then was exported all over the world. Benny Hinn, E. W. Kenyon, Oral Roberts, Robert Tilton, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, Jim Baker, and Kenneth Hagin are some of the well known proponents of this doctrine and movement.
Even though they still hold sway amongst certain demographics to this day, by and large, they have not been able to withstand the numerous sex scandals, the public falls from grace, and the countless charges of fraud and embezzlement. Do not get me wrong, the prosperity gospel is alive and well in America. But it's popular version as represented by the flashy televangelists and flamboyant preachers and their outright teaching of wealth as a necessary outcome of faith, public sourcing of funds for private jets, and bizarre manifestations in the name of the Holy Spirit have become largely suspect. Nevertheless, more subtle versions of the prosperity gospel exist even in circles that might reject the “Word of Faith” movement but fully embody its lifestyle and principles.
One of the many reasons why the “prosperity gospel” is deteriorating in the west is because of the public scrutiny. Numerous documentaries that were released in recent decades exposing the deep moral inconsistencies of prosperity preachers and their extravagant lifestyles resulted in a mass media campaign that exposed the movement for the spiritual pyramid scheme that it is. However, many of the above names and their counterparts continue to exercise considerable influence in the majority world, in places like Africa and Asia.
Figures like Chris Oyakhilome and the late T. B. Joshua in Africa have created their own ecosystems founded on the “prosperity doctrine” and are having more success than their American predecessors. So much so that they have established a strong presence in other parts of the world with their own distinctive stamp on it. The prosperity gospel in contexts like these have also taken a life of their own, having syncretized with folk religion and animism they have produced a wide variations of alarming practices and beliefs.
But our main concern is why the prosperity doctrine is having its heyday in Sri Lanka despite the serious criticisms from within and without the Christian community. Even though prosperity theology has influenced Sri Lankan Pentecostalism in the last few decades in one way or another, it has not had the kind of reception and spotlight it has now under the banner of KRC (now called “Glorious Church”) and “prophet” Jerome Fernando. Why is this?
Before we dive into that, a brief description of what the prosperity doctrine/gospel is and its key beliefs may be beneficial. As a disclaimer, I must also clarify that even though the prosperity gospel is sometimes seen as synonymous with Charismatic christianity in some places, in reality it is at best an aberration of pentecostal theology and practice. Nevertheless, “Word of Faith” and prosperity gospel centered churches may carry the same features and emphases of supernatural phenomena as Pentecostalism since the doctrine has permeated countless pentecostal communities worldwide with varying levels of success.
What is the Prosperity Gospel?
In Kate Bowler’s book, Blessed, she traces the history of the prosperity gospel in America. Bowler explains that the prosperity gospel movement rose out of the New Thought movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It purported that there is hidden power within everyone that is meant to be unlocked through positive thinking. This together with a neo-pentecostal theology formed the core of the prosperity gospel.
In their book, When Helping Hurts, Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert note,
At its core, the [prosperity gospel aka] health-and-wealth gospel teaches that God rewards increasing levels of faith with greater amounts of wealth.
The entire system is built on the formula of “sowing and reaping” that promises material wealth, worldly success, and longevity to those who seed into the kingdom. This is usually in the form of tithing and gift offerings that must be directed to select ministries and their leaders. The promise of wealth and perfect health is further spiritualized and packaged as the rightful inheritance of the believer in Christ’s atonement. In this understanding, the gospel is seen as salvation and deliverance in the here and now from poverty primarily and other ills of life like diseases, debts, depression etc.
Needless to say, there is not an adequate basis in this teaching to account for why faithful Christians sometimes suffer, or why the unrighteous sometimes prosper. The primary motivation for spirituality is achieving a quality of life as defined by capitalistic and consumerist models of success through positive affirmation and faith confession (as depicted by their popular slogan “name it and claim it”).
§ According to the prosperity gospel, faith is based on its efficacy. “Faith was only faith because it worked,” Kate Bowler says.
§ Instead of “faith” being trust in and allegiance to God and God’s faithfulness, it is amounted to positive thinking and the ability to conjure up the will to manifest material blessings and one’s desired destiny. Therefore, where there is true and sincere “faith,” there must also be material and visible results.
§ Kenneth Hagin, an early pioneer of the moment, would tell his followers to “have faith in their faith.” Unfavorable results lead to spiritual manipulation and even trauma where one is told that they don’t have enough faith or they have to seed more in order to win God’s favor.
§ According to the prosperity gospel, financial blessing is a guaranteed outcome of faith in God. Bowler explains that for prosperity gospel adherents, “Money served as a common and practical means of assessing one’s faith.”
§ It is taught that a faithful Christian can and should expect wealth from God. This not only spiritualizes greed and lavish living, the highly individualistic nature of this kind of thinking leads to hoarding, flexing, boasting, and an adulterated witness to the Christ who was born among the poor and oppressed.
§ “For prosperity gospel believers, God blesses the faithful with good health as a provision of the atonement. All prosperity gospel believers see a connection between good health and spiritual blessedness.”
§ “Health is the result of positive thinking or “claiming” the health that Jesus’ atonement has already paid for. Poor health is either attributed to satanic attack that has not yet been overcome, or a weakness of faith.”
§ These clearly do not account for people suffering with chronic disability or those who die because of sickness. Some extreme views include “immortality pre-resurrection,” first taught by those like Korbus van Rensburg and brought to Sri Lanka by his disciple Kirby De Lanerolle. While healing is a real and tangible reality in the lives of many Christians, it is not the be-all and end-all of the Christian faith. The danger emerges when miracles and healings are disconnected from a Kingdom perspective. Besides, there is great witness and glory to God in endurance and remaining faithful in spite sickness, pain, and suffering.
Sri Lankan Christians and the PGM
In the recent decades that the “Prosperity Gospel Movement” (PGM) has taken root in Sri Lanka, many have tried to diagnose the problem. Why are Sri Lankan churches turning away from their historical identity as a faithful witness to the gospel amid suffering and persecution, to one that is engrossed in accruing wealth, fame, and notoriety? Some have attributed this to a lack of biblical literacy and discipleship in churches. Others have criticised leaders of the past who paved the way for the rise of narcissistic and cult personalities that now represent PGM in Sri Lanka. Still others have pointed to the lack of robust theological education and training for those pursuing ministry.
Regardless of the given reasons, there is still an evident blindness to PGM’s inadequacies. A recent and poignant critique has been the movement’s inability to address the recurrent economic and political crises in the regions it has thrived. Andile Zulu, a political essayist who runs the Born Free Blues blog, suggests why this is in his own context:
The prosperity gospel promises power to those who feel helpless and submerged in the storms of socio-economic crisis. But it is ultimately a hollow call because it masks the true nature of poverty, and so leads societies away from tackling it. Instead of questioning the inefficient or self-serving economic policies of politicians, prosperity preachers shame congregants for lacking the faith to banish poverty from their lives. Rather than critiquing the monopolies multinational corporations have over resources, sermons encourage people to seek individual financial upliftment through offerings, even though the greatest victories against poverty were gained through collective political action and the redesigning of economic structures.
This analysis is strikingly true for Sri Lanka in the last year when it experienced its worst economic crisis. Churches like the “Glorious Church” that has fully embraced the PGM had reached peak momentum in the years leading up to the Covid pandemic and thereon the economic crisis, yet no amount of prophetic exuberance or grand promises were able to avert the crises. Leaders and adherents of the PGM in Sri Lanka remain unscathed and undeterred in their convictions in the aftermath despite clear indications of the banality of movements like PGM in the face of real suffering. I digress!
Moreover, it is hard to put a finger on one particular thing that led to the rise of the “prosperity gospel” in Sri Lanka. Yet, I want to offer an observation to our central question of “why” and suggest a way toward repair.
Asking Good Questions!
The church in Sri Lanka, particularly the pentecostal, independent, and charismatic churches, has not endeavored to ask good questions. These are questions we ought to ask of ourselves, questions we ask of those who call themselves Christians, and questions we ask of the world. And in that order.
Asking good questions is the first step toward learning and even enlightenment. Those who don’t ask questions, let alone good questions, have surrendered their mind to the viles and schemes of evil men. I find this to be an important step toward reformation in the Sri Lankan church because the questions being asked right now are simply inadequate, if at all they are being asked.
For instance, “are the miracles true?”; “How can extraordinary things happen over there if it is not God?”; “Who are we to judge when there is so much good happening?”; “How could we speak against God’s anointed?” These are some of the questions that are guiding the discussion at the moment. While they are not in and of themselves invalid, they reveal certain assumptions and interests that are telling.
The Christian worldview is neither surprised nor baffled by supernatural phenomena. In fact, it anticipates them — even outside strictly Christian spaces. The porous nature of this world that cuts across naturalist and mechanistic worldviews (that see the world as merely matter and its workings as just a series of causes and effects), regularly manifests non-normative and seemingly other dimensional experiences. Which is why supernatural phenomena are not unique to Christians and are frequently recorded in other religious communities. Therefore, the spectacle or spectacular are not as important to the Christian as much as the source. This is why the ultimate question Christ teaches us to ask is paramount for Christian discipleship and maturity, “what is the fruit?” (Matthew 7:15–20). The fruit leads to the tree that is the source.
The fruit is not defined by the success or output of a particular prophet or his/her ministry. The fruit is the virtues, habits, orientations, and character described by Jesus in the sermon on the mount in the earlier passages. These were the very facets of Christ’s own ministry: Love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control that were fully embodied by the foremost Spirit-bearer and miracle-worker are the unquestionable markers for Christ’s true followers.
The wise caution of the Apostolic Fathers found in the 2nd century writings called The Shepherd of Hermas (11th Mandate) is a reminder of the importance of fruit and asking the right questions: “Try by his deeds and his life the man who says that he is inspired.” Early christian writers sought to shape their respective communities by encouraging them to ask questions, to test, and to observe. Unlike the gnostic leaders who taught their followers that they held “special” knowledge and divine wisdom that can only be mediated through a select few, Paul cautions the Thessalonian church to “test everything” (1 Thess. 5:21).
When the Church fails to ask good questions, she falls to the eloquence of pseudo-intellectuals and the charm of con-artists undermining an important aspect of her humanity and prophetic role: The call to reasoning and reflection. Hence, Peter writes, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
It may be true that there is an increasing culture of greed and decadence within the church alongside a secular culture and society that is shamelessly devolving toward unrestrained pursuit of self-pleasure and self-indulgence. In such a climate, the fruit of Christian witness is not “more of the same” but a radical questioning of the motives and assumptions that characterizes this path to self-destruction.
Christians must learn to ask the tough questions, the annoying ones, the disorienting ones, and the repetitive ones: The kinds of questions that made Pilate unsettled, the religious leaders angry, the law keepers nervous, and the vulnerable woman at the well curious. In so doing, we can get behind the religious exterior and superficiality to the idols, the hidden loves, the false gods, and the cruel masters that so frequently go unchallenged.
This, I think, must occupy a considerable portion of our energy in churches in Sri Lanka — taking pains to train and empower Christians to ask good questions; A new approach to discipleship that will go beyond wooden exegesis or rigid catechesis, to expanding the scriptural and theological imagination of the believer toward the art of enquiry. Only such a turn can resolve the cyclical entanglement of the church with vain questions.
PGM is one of many movements and heretical systems that have tried to encroach on the church of Christ and its orthodoxy. But these were always opportunities for the church to clarify her beliefs and stand firm on her truths. Maybe where we need to start is not with theological discursives or biblical exegesis but good questions? Questions that begin within us, that brings the gospel afresh and so challenges our modern idols. Then questions that we ask together that examines who we are, what distinguishes us, and if we are in line with the great calling. Then finally, we can ask the world. Not merely questions that are asked with words but questions that are provoked by our deeds, by our fruit.