Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Gospel Bling: If Preachers Are Preoccupied with Pursuing the Life of Conspicuous Consumption and Preaching a "Prosperity Gospel," Then Poor People Are in Big Trouble

Magazine article Sojourners Magazine

The Gospel Bling: If Preachers Are Preoccupied with Pursuing the Life of Conspicuous Consumption and Preaching a "Prosperity Gospel," Then Poor People Are in Big Trouble

Article excerpt

I AM CONVINCED THAT THE SINGLE threat to the historical legacy and core values of the contemporary black church tradition is posed by what is known as the "prosperity gospel" movement. That movement, however, is only symptomatic of a larger mission crisis or "mission drift" that has placed the black church in the posture of assimilating into a culture that is hostile to people living on the margins of society, such as people living in poverty, people living with AIDS, homosexuals, and immigrants.

This is not a new challenge. Christians have grappled with their relationship to material goods and opportunities in this world since the first century. But in our era something new and different has emerged. Today, prominent, influential, and attractive preachers and representatives of the church now are advocates for prosperity. Perhaps this could only occur at a time and in a place where two conditions exist. First, Christianity is the dominant faith tradition; second, the nation permits and rewards extraordinary inequalities of wealth and power.

The gospel of assimilation provides sacred sanction for personal greed, obsessive materialism, and unchecked narcissism. That distorted gospel dares not risk a critique of the culture and systems that thrive in the presence of a morally anemic church. This is more than a concern about the encroachment of the prosperity gospel movement that receives so much negative attention. Rather, this is a more thorough and comprehensive distortion of the religion of Jesus.

To be a successful (different from faithful) pastor in today's world is to confront the ever-present temptation to sell one's soul, compromising one's vocation and ethical responsibilities, in exchange for or access to wealth. One Houston-based minister observed that when the church gets a mortgage, "poor people" become just another church program. Poor people were central to Jesus" own self-definition, but they are often relegated to one of many service programs of today's corporate church, simply another item on the services menu.

The tragedy is that one-fourth of the black community lives in poverty while many clergy and churches are distracted and seduced by the lure of material wealth. When churches devote more time to building their local kingdoms and less time to nurturing and uplifting poor people, they are struggling with a mission crisis.

A prosperity field trip. One Sunday, I visited the church of my Atlanta neighbor, the Rev. Creflo Dollar. I had heard about the burgeoning ministry of the World Changers Church and felt I should see for myself.

I found a parking space three blocks from the sanctuary. The hike to the sanctuary was so far that I momentarily forgot where I was headed and began to window shop the stores en route to the church, perhaps unconsciously getting into prosperity mode. I finally arrived and entered the enormous domed sanctuary, taking a seat near the front. Everything was neat and comfortable. The blue carpet and plush pew covers were welcoming. The huge rotating globe and other props on stage subtly reminded one that what happens here is intended for a global television audience.

After the choir sang, Rev. Dollar entered the sanctuary dressed in a business Dower suit and took his seat. Most black preachers begin their sermons in a conversational way. They acknowledge the presence of special guests and familiar faces and invite people to relax and laugh before they begin the journey toward an encounter with the holy. But this was a bit different, perhaps because the stage lights and television cameras were operating. Dispensing with all of the "old school" black church conventions, he went right to the text for the day.

The first 15 minutes of his message were encouraging and impressive. I heard evidence of a critical thinker who had done his homework and given careful attention to various scholarly sources for the selected biblical text. …

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