Jacqueline J. Holness
Home to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and a host of megachurches, Atlanta is known as America’s civil rights capital. While I attend a smaller church, I have visited some of Atlanta’s megachurches. Some I have visited are like my home church in regard to their presentation of the gospel. The main differences are the size of their buildings, choirs, and membership lists.
Other churches I have visited, however, are clearly a part of the prosperity gospel movement and their services seem almost foreign to me in tone and intent.
A Popular Message
It can be tricky to be a Christian in a city that has some of the nation’s most popular prosperity gospel churches, particularly since some of my friends are active members in these churches. In fact, for the most part, I have avoided discussing my concerns about the prosperity gospel with these friends because I don’t want to antagonize them.
But as the economy has declined in recent years, I have wondered how my prosperity gospel friends have fared, or if they still believe in it as heartily as they did years earlier. I imagine the prosperity gospel is not working for as many people as it did when the economy was more robust.
A few years ago I read David Van Biema’s Time Magazine article, “Maybe We Should Blame God for the Subprime Mess.” Van Biema addressed the intersection of a waning economy and the prosperity gospel movement, interviewing Jonathan Walton, then a religion professor at the University of California at Riverside.
Walton “realized that Prosperity’s central promise—that God will ‘make a way’ for poor people to enjoy the better things in life—had developed an additional, dangerous expression during the subprime-lending boom.” Walton says this encouraged congregants who got dicey mortgages to believe that “God caused the bank to ignore my credit score and blessed me with my first house.” The results, he says, “were disastrous, because they pretty much turned parishioners into prey for greedy brokers.”
Some prosperity gospel leaders believe times are changing for the health and wealth gospel. In a Christianity Today article, “Prosperity Gospel on Skid Row,” Bobby Ross Jr. interviewed prosperity gospel proponents such as J. Lee Grady, formerly editor of Charisma magazine. “Grady predicts the movement will look much different in a few years as it refocuses on evangelism and overcoming what he calls the distraction of “materialism, flashy self-promotion, and foolish carnality.’”
Finding Some Good
Still, although I don’t subscribe to prosperity gospel tenets, I don’t entirely condemn its aim either; and I actually believe the Christian church can learn from this belief system. Reared in Atlanta, I have been thoroughly schooled in the Civil Rights Movement. Before the movement gained ground, black people suffered physically and financially because of racism.
Recently I read Alice Walker: A Life (Norton, W.W. & Company, Inc., 2006) by Evelyn C. White. The book chronicles the life of Walker, author of The Color Purple. It reminded me how difficult it was to be black not that long ago.
Walker was accidentally shot in the eye with a BB gun by one of her brothers in 1952, and family members immediately tried to get medical attention for the 8-year-old. They attempted to hitch a ride on a country highway in Georgia from a white man who “refused to help.” When she finally saw a white doctor, he “hardly examined her at all.” Walker was permanently blinded in her right eye.
Efforts to acquire wealth were also thwarted during that era. Walker’s father, like many black sharecroppers then, found himself in debt instead of earning a paycheck after working for a white plantation owner.
Such stories demonstrate why the health and wealth gospel would thrive in Georgia and other areas where people were marginalized because of their race.
So what are the lessons for the Christian church? Do we focus enough on the promises of overcoming and provision in the Bible? Do we consider how Jesus was willing to heal the sick he encountered and how is he is willing to do so today? Do we encourage people to have big dreams and pursue self-actualization? Do we encourage racial diversity in our churches?
The prosperity gospel movement seems to be at the forefront of addressing these issues. The Christian church would do well to do the same.
Jacqueline J. Holness, a member of Central Christian Church in Atlanta, Georgia, is a correspondent for Courthouse News Service, and author of After the Altar Call: The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship With God, (Nevaeh Publishing, 2012).