The Prosperity Gospel and the Future of Global Christianity

(This is a lightly edited version of a paper I wrote in seminary.  Enjoy!)

1.  Christianity: Not Simply a Western Faith

The future of Christianity has been a significant issue for many over the years.  Christianity’s moral absolutism and emphasis on the supernatural leads many liberals in the West to believe that it is a dying religion, unable to conform to the culture that surrounds it.  This is only exacerbated by the fact that many mainline denominations are dwindling in number and impact.  But is Christianity really on its way out?  If “American” Christianity ceased to exist, would Christianity itself cease to exist, as some conservative Westerners believe?  Philip Jenkins, in his book The Next Christendom, seeks to answer these very questions.  He sets out to answer the difficult, yet pressing questions regarding the apparent decline of Christianity in the West, and how the rise of Christianity in the Global South and East will shape the future of the faith.  The purpose of this post is to analyze Jenkins’ argument regarding the nature and rise of global Christianity, giving particular attention to the charismatic or Pentecostal traditions, and to explain how his view coincides with a 21st century Western perspective.

2.  The Rise of Christianity around the Globe

In the opening chapter of his book, Jenkins’ provides his thesis: “However partisan the interpretations of the new Christianity, however paternalistic, there can be no doubt that the emerging Christian world will be anchored in the Southern continents.”[1]  According to Jenkins, the future of Christianity resides largely in the Third World where massive growth is already occurring.  He begins the whole work by shedding some light on a common stereotype held by Western Christians regarding the faith.  Many believe that Christianity is “the religion of the West…the religion of the haves…Christians are un-black, un-poor, and un-young.  If that is true, then the growing secularization of the West can only mean that Christianity is in its dying days.  Globally, perhaps, the faith of the future will be Islam.”[2]  According to Jenkins’ portrayal of this stereotype, only white, educated, rich, old people are Christians in the West.  While this is an obvious overgeneralization, Jenkins’ point still resonates strongly.  For example, some of the mainline Protestant denominations are slowly dying out for the same reasons that Jenkins concludes here.

However, Jenkins shifts the conversation in a different direction.  The American version of the faith, however overgeneralized, might be dying, but the faith throughout the globe is thriving.  Jenkins states “the center of gravity in the Christian world has shifted inexorably away from Europe, southward, to Africa and Latin America, and eastward, toward Asia.”[3]  This has striking implications for the general future of the faith.  No longer should Christianity be considered a dying religion around the world.  On the contrary, it is steadily growing and becoming the dominant faith throughout the earth.  In his own words, Jenkins explains, “Christianity is doing very well indeed in the global South—not just surviving but expanding.”[4]

With this reality in mind, it is important to then consider the different “versions” or manifestations of the faith in the world.  Jenkins observes, “This global perspective should make us think carefully before asserting ‘what Christians believe’ or ‘how the church is changing.’  All too often, statements about what ‘modern Christians accept’ or what ‘Catholics today believe,’ refer only to what the ever-shrinking remnant of Western Christians and Catholics believe.  Such assertions are outrageous today…”[5]  This is a striking reality that must not be forgotten, according to Jenkins.  Western Christians are no longer able to claim a monopoly on what faithful adherents believe.  Due to its truly global nature, Christianity appears in very different forms throughout the globe.  That being said, it is nearly impossible to declare with certainty the exact theologies of each of the Christianities present in the world.

Jenkins is fully aware of this.  He claims, “The numerical changes in Christianity are striking enough, but beyond the simple demographic transition, there are countless implications for theology and religious practice.”[6]  This is evident if one simply considers the vast differences in culture around the world.  Surely the American version of Christianity will be markedly different than the Chinese or African versions.  And even claiming that there is only one American or Chinese or African version of Christianity is an exercise in futility.  In America alone, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of denominations and outworkings of the same professed faith.  Jenkins provides the reader with one good example of these differences in theology.  Regarding the view of the atonement in American circles, he claims that the penal substitution view “can be traced to the writings of Saint Anselm around 1100.  For Anselm, human sins were like grievous offenses committed against a great lord, debts that required a ransom or restitution of great price, which, in Christianity took the form of the death of God’s Son.”[7]  This view still holds a fair amount of support in the West, regardless of the fact that Eastern Orthodox theologians originally rejected it.  This is only one of many examples of the differences between theologies in the global Christianities.

So what will these “Christianities” actually look like?  The Global South will soon far exceed the North in the numerical advantage of Christians, and each of the theologies will be different and possibly more deeply rooted in the surrounding cultures.  Jenkins answers the question this way: “Making all allowances for generalization, then, global South Christians retain a strong supernatural orientation and are by and large far more interested in personal salvation than in radical politics.  Often, Christianity grows and spreads in highly charismatic and Pentecostal forms, ecstatic religious styles that are by no means confined to classical Pentecostal denominations, but which span churches with very different origins and traditions.”[8]  One can imagine the scene around the world if the dominant form of Christianity is closely related to Pentecostalism.  Conservative Westerners are utterly cringing in their seats with discomfort.  For many, the Pentecostal versions of Christianity are strange and weird; for others, they border on heretical.  While such a broad statement as this is certainly too wide-sweeping to encompass all of what Pentecostalism is, caution must be used in discerning the actual growth of the Church in the Global South.

It also must be noted that the Pentecostal version of Christianity is still widely considered to be a genuine manifestation of the faith.  It is easy to write something off as strange or weird, but that does not necessarily mean that it is inauthentic.  That being said, it is important to gauge the authenticity of particular movements on a case-by-case basis in order to determine their validity.  One contemporary Western example of this could be seen in Joel Osteen.  Allegedly America’s largest church leader, Osteen is a proponent of the “prosperity gospel” which finds its roots in Pentecostalism.  Many evangelicals recoil at the thought of Osteen preaching the “orthodox” Christian gospel.  Some might even go as far as saying that his version of the gospel is heretical: offering to fallen man what he wants as a natural man means that there is no need to be born again or converted.  In his book Christless Christianity, Michael Horton warns, “Celebration of the much-advertised expansion of Christianity in the two-thirds world (most notably in recent years in Philip Jenkins’s The Next Christendom) should at least be tempered by the fact that the prosperity gospel is the most explosive version of this phenomenon.”[9]  Jenkins confirms that this particular type of Pentecostalism is rampant.  In the Philippines, for example, a group called El Shaddai has their “followers raise their passports to be blessed at services, to ensure that they will get the visas they need to work overseas.  Some open umbrellas and turn them upside down as a symbolic way of catching the rich material blessings they expect to receive from on high.”[10]  This type of Christianity would certainly fall outside of the bounds of orthodoxy.

Jenkins outlines the rapid growth of the Pentecostal movements in other places as well.  “In Tanzania, charismatic services are marked by ‘rapturous singing and rhythmic hand-clapping, with…prayers for healing and miraculous signs.’…In most of Africa, Pentecostals have overtaken the independent or indigenous churches in popularity.”[11]  This growth clearly demonstrates that Pentecostalism is on the rise in Africa.  Moreover, “Pentecostalism has deep roots in Latin America, where some independent churches were founded before World War II.  Their numbers were tiny until the 1950s, when growth began in earnest.  Since that date, Pentecostals account for 80 or 90 percent of Protestant/Pentecostal growth across Latin America.”[12]  He also claims, “Protestant and Pentecostal expansion is not limited to Latin America.”[13]  One example can be found in the new Pentecostalism of the “Brazilian-based Universal Church of the Kingdom of God…or IURD.”[14]

In sum, Jenkins has demonstrated throughout his book the nature and rise of global Christianity.  Far from a dying religion, Christianity (in various forms) is thriving around the globe.  Numerically, churches are dwindling in the West, but there is an explosion of popularity and numbers throughout virtually the rest of the world.  In terms of theologies, each will be different and uniquely fit within the context of its culture.  This is evident already, and it will only continue on its current trajectory.  American Christianity is substantially different from Chinese Christianity and African Christianity.  Pentecostalism is arguably the most explosive of these versions of Christianity, as shown by Jenkins.  With this in mind, a detailed explanation of how Jenkins’ view strikes a modern Western Christian follows.

3.  The Rise of Christianity in the Eyes of “The West”

From nearly every perspective, hearing about the rise of global Christianity is encouraging.  It strikes modern ears as a wonderful and hopeful occurrence.  But should it?  If Jenkins is correct, should his view make modern Americans feel hope or despair?  Should it make us feel encouraged or discouraged?  In this section of the post, an argument will follow in order to persuade readers that Jenkins’ view should make modern Americans both hopeful and despairing, both encouraged and discouraged.  Because of the strangeness of that statement, it will take a bit of time to sort out exactly what is intended by it.

Americans should be greatly encouraged by the rapid expansion of Christianity around the globe for two reasons.  First, it seems as though the Church in America is dying.  There are many mainline denominations that are losing members left and right, with seemingly no way to stem the exit tide.  While there are certain churches that are growing, it seems likely that as the culture surrounding the American church grows more and more secular, so the impact and numbers in the Church overall will continue to decline.  This means that the global expansion of the faith should be highly encouraging to Americans.  We should celebrate the growth of our faith around the world.  It appears that the faith might be dying in America (though that is probably an overstatement), but it is far from becoming an impotent force globally.  Secondly, Americans should be greatly encouraged that “Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2) is being proclaimed throughout the world.  The name of Christ and the glory of God are being taken to the ends of the earth, signifying and fulfilling Jesus’ statement in Acts 1:8.  These particular facts should give Americans an enormous amount of encouragement.  It is highly moving to see that forms of Christianity are reaching into the darkest, poorest parts of the world.

However, this feeling of encouragement must also be taken along with a sober view of the expansion of the faith.  As has already been noted, it is imperative to consider the exact nature of each theology in the many different Christianities that are prevalent throughout the world in order to determine their validity.  For example, the aforementioned “Universal Church [of the Kingdom of God] has been criticized for superstitious practices that exploit its largely uneducated members.  The church sells special anointing oil for healing, and television viewers are encouraged to place a glass of water near the screen so it can be blessed by remote control.”[15]  In some cases promises are given so “that members will gain ‘prosperity and financial breakthrough.’  Believers are told, in effect, that prayer and giving operate on the same crass principle as secular investments: the more one gives to the church, the more material benefit could be expected in this life.”[16]  This particular version of Christianity should give American Christians an immense amount of discomfort.

Should this rampant version of Christianity, namely, the Pentecostal “prosperity gospel,” even be called Christian at all?  Again, it is important to gauge particulars on a case-by-case basis, but on the whole it seems as if the “prosperity gospel,” for whatever it is, is not Christianity.  An adequate defense of this assertion goes beyond the scope of this essay, but a few comments are in order.  If Jenkins is right and this version of Christianity is prevalent throughout the world and expanding at every turn, it is cause for great discouragement among Western Christians.  Gaining prosperity and financial breakthrough, as mentioned earlier, seems to go against the very fabric of orthodox Christianity.  Promises of temporal health and wealth far outweigh promises of eternal life and peace with God through Jesus Christ in these theologies.  Therefore, it might be cause for concern in Western eyes.

Again, the rise of Christianity around the globe is almost assuredly a wonderful thing in the ears of Western Christians.  That being said, it is important to remember that not everything that masquerades as Christianity actually is Christianity.  Various forms of Pentecostalism certainly can be considered legitimate manifestations of the faith in their various locations around the world.  Yet other forms most certainly cannot be considered to be Christian in nature.  The prosperity gospel comes to mind in this category: promising to people what they naturally want as fallen people is no way to make converts to the Christian religion.  It only serves to swindle people into a false conversion that may have serious eternal ramifications.   With this in view, two practical implications of Jenkins’ view can now be considered.

 4.  Practical Implications of Jenkins’ View

One of the practical implications of Jenkins’ view is the importance of sound theology.  That statement might sound incredible given the fact that Jenkins portrays a variety of different Christianities throughout the world.  Which one should be considered sound, if any?  Are there multiple versions that can claim truth?  Is it arrogant to claim that one manifestation of Christianity is the correct version of Christianity?  Or might it be possible or even probable to agree that there is only one faith that can be totally true?  If the Holy Spirit has been sent in order to “guide [Christians] into all the truth” (John 16:13), why in the world, pardon the pun, are there so many different manifestations of the same faith?  What follows will be an argument for the necessity of sound theology.

The rise of Pentecostal prosperity theology has arguably been one of the most detrimental aspects of religion in the 21st century.  The reason it is so devastating is because it contains a plethora of half-truths that take a keen and discerning eye to identify.  This author would argue that many people have been deceived into believing in a God that simply exists for their temporal pleasure and happiness.  One of the implications of prosperity theology is that God exists to wait on people, like a butler, and give them all of the desires of their heart.  Texts like Psalm 37:4 “Delight yourself in the Lord and, and he will give you the desires of your heart,” are utterly ripped from their proper contexts in order to serve the purposes of the adherents.  While virtually no tradition or manifestation of Christianity is devoid of people who will commit this error, it is especially prevalent in Pentecostal circles.  Therefore, thorough and constant study of the Scriptures in order to decipher truth is an implication to be drawn from Jenkins’ work.  Sound theology and a deep knowledge of Scripture will be one way that the prevention of further dilution of the Christian faith will take place.

A second implication of Jenkins’ view that will impact my ministry will be in personal evangelism and missions.  If it is true that prosperity theology is as pervasive as Jenkins claims it is, then it is with great caution that I must proceed in my own personal evangelistic efforts.  Having a prior knowledge of the insidious nature of this theology will certainly go a long way in assisting me as I seek to share the gospel with those I come into contact with.  It will become evident throughout various conversations who subscribes to the notion that God exists to serve them rather than the opposite.  In mission work, it will be important to realize just how prevalent this prosperity theology really is.  This will also facilitate more effective conversations among adherents to this version of Pentecostal Christianity.  Jenkins has seemingly provided many Western Christians with the tools they might need to engage a particularly devastating theology.

5.  Conclusion

Jenkins’ book The Next Christendom overviews and describes the nature and rise of a global Christianity.  Far from being simply one version of the same faith, Christianity will take on many faces as the world progresses.  The faith is not dying, despite what many in the West believe, but it is thriving around the globe.  That being said, it is important for modern Western Christians to consider the nature and truths of the things that they currently believe.  Could it be possible that some things we believe are simply wrong and incorrect?  If we come to the conclusion that we are getting it right, what should we do about the other versions of Christianity that we consider to be heretical or in error?  Time will tell with the expansion of Christianity going out around the globe.


Recommended Reading

Horton, Michael. Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church.  Grand Rapids: Baker. 2008.

Jenkins, Philip.  The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. New York: Oxford. 2011.


Endnotes

[1] Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford, 2011), 20.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 2.

[5] Ibid., 3.

[6] Ibid., 6.

[7] Ibid., 7.

[8] Ibid., 9.

[9] Michael Horton, Christless Christianity: The Alternative Gospel of the American Church (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008), 67.

[10] Jenkins, 85.

[11] Ibid., 85.

[12] Ibid., 80.

[13] Ibid., 87.

[14] Ibid., 81.

[15] Ibid., 82.

[16] Ibid.


Thanks for reading.  Have additional thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

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