One day a colleague dropped an article on my desk. I imagined it was an emphatic drop, as if he were saying, "Here. The Smoking Gun."
So I read it. It was a New York Times story on black televangelist Creflo Dollar, and a working-class family in the Bronx that ate up his message on prosperity and had begun tithing--giving 10 percent of their income to Dollar's Manhattan church.
Well, I finished reading it, and I thought, And?
Let's see. They're strapped for cash. They caught on to a hopeful message. They believe the Bible is the Word of God, and now they've corrected their path to line up with it. They've begun tithing, a biblical practice. And? (If you're interested in the Scriptural basis for tithing, click here for a balanced overview.)
I say good for them. I'm not surprised that they told the New York Times reporter they'd already seen results in their finances. Faith works that way.
Now some of you are reading this, and you're enraged for the same reasons that made me go "And?" They're POOR. They're listening to a simple-minded PROSPERITY PREACHER. And, good God, they actually GAVE their money to the church when it was desperately needed for something else, like...like...
Whoa, whoa there. If these things ticked you off, let me guess something about you. You are:
White. Educated. Middle-class.
No, I'm not like my teeny-tiny great-grandmother on the South Side of Milwaukee, who'd watch Lawrence Welk on TV and think he was winking at her, just her. Really, I can't see you through this computer screen. Oh, but I can feel you. Because I'm one of you.
White. Educated. Middle-class.
I want to turn you around. I want to give you a different perspective on prosperity teaching. And I want to just slide this into your consciousness, ever so smoothly, so you don't start tripping on me again.
Maybe, just maybe, you react so strongly to teaching about prosperity because you think those poor people are too ignorant to make an informed decision about giving, and you're so sure those dastardly preachers want to take the poor folks' pittance and shove it in their own expansive pockets.
Well, occasionally that's true. But I'll also say this: Isn't that a rather condescending view?
Just a little patronizing, you think?
Now let me zip back in time, back when I was a kid attending a Dutch Reformed church (R.C.A.) with my parents, a nice little place with a tidy sanctuary and a table in the foyer where your family's tithing envelopes were laid out just so at the beginning of the year. It had that church smell: the pleasing scent of wooden church pews. Real solid stuff, not those cheap benches with grimy cushions that you find in some of the holy-roller churches. Oh, and there were the old Dutch guys who smoked in the parking lot right after the service. But they kept their stink outside, OK?
I guarantee you the lights were never shut off at Grace Reformed Church. All the bills got paid. If there was a mortgage to pay, I never heard about it. Granted, I wasn't listening half the time, but in eight years of attending I would have heard something if there were a financial crisis.
Now isn't that great? A fine, white middle-class church, always on top of its bills, always making sure the preacher stood down by noon, otherwise we'd be throwing him dirty looks. Gotta make it home in time for the Green Bay game. That's right: If some sinners need to repent, they're just gonna have to wait. Till baseball season.
Here I am now at my church in South Dallas, The Body of Christ Assembly (not to be confused with the Inspiring Body of Christ megachurch--though we're inspiring, too). It's in a poor area, though in honesty, few of the members live in South Dallas. A bunch of them grew up there, but most folks hightail it out as soon as they're able.
Two Sundays ago, we took up a special collection for our mortgage note. Had to. We needed $2,400, or else. Or else we couldn't make our payment the following week. We didn't do the polite white-church thing where you tiptoe around with the collection plate and act as though money, mammon, shall never soil thy soft pink fingers. Nope. We sat there until we'd raised at least half of it. We whipped out the checkbooks and billfolds and dug deeper until we got the job done. We've had to do that several times, in fact. We're not celebrating that fact, and we're hoping it ends soon, but you know, Jesus has a made a way, as they say. We know he'll continue to do so, because he's faithful. And so are we--in giving.
By the way, prosperity is preached in my church. Some theologians would call it "Prosperity Lite": We believe and teach that God rewards those "who diligently seek him" in every way, including financially, but it's not a heavy-handed, Robert Tilton-esque thing. You have choices, and God isn't necessarily going to make you a millionaire next week if you give a $100 seed tonight. Though he just might.
Let me tell you something else about my church, all 75 of us. We've sent a ministry team to Nigeria. We've hosted conferences with nationally known speakers, which we offer to attendees at a fraction of the actual cost. (Got one coming up, in fact.) We regularly do street ministry in South Dallas. We obtained a loan a year ago to build a new building, and let me tell you, banks are not particularly eager to finance new construction in South Dallas, despite all they say. Had to find a Christian credit union all the way in California to do it.
Did my nice little Dutch Reformed church that never dropped a single word about prosperity ever do anything like that? No.
Why? Because the comfortable don't preach hope the same way the desperate do.
In my church, we believe that Jesus Christ can and will transform every area of your life if you just let him. That includes finances. Yes, we also preach repentance from sin, living a godly life, taking responsibility, studying the Word, applying faith. All that good and necessary stuff.
Over the years, I have seen people pulled out of the mire of poverty.
You know what the Bible says about poverty? It says "poverty is the ruin of the poor." Maybe that seems kind of obvious to you--the "duh" statement of the day.
What it means is that poverty has spiritual as well as social, educational and economic roots. That's why money and opportunity won't eliminate it. Come into the neighborhood where my church is, and you will feel the curse of poverty. You will see the drunks, seemingly able-bodied men, lounging all day on broken-down chairs, saying nothing, doing nothing. The rail-thin crack addict in Daisy Dukes who shakes it like she's hot. The weary woman in a flimsy house dress padding to the convenience store in her slippers, eyes glued to her own footsteps.
If I had to describe it all in one word, it would be this: hopelessness.
Viktor Frankl, survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, observed that people without hope died quickly. I see the casualties of a different kind of death--spiritual death--on the streets of South Dallas.
Authentic, biblical prosperity preaching says this: You were created for a purpose. Jesus abolished every curse on the cross not only so you could be saved from the fire, but so you could live an abundant, full and productive life on this earth.
To do so offers witness that Jesus can transform a life, that he uses "the weak things of the world to shame the strong," that the last shall indeed become the first.
Giving generously to the church, to those in need, shows that you understand it's God who supplies all of your needs--that you're walking "by faith, not by sight."
I've found that God always responds to that exertion of faith. In a season of his choosing. No, he doesn't respond to greed; some people, misunderstanding the Bible's teaching on prosperity, give to get primarily for themselves. Their motives are exposed when difficulties blow into their lives and the giving stops. Greed, after all, is simply sin.
White evangelicals, though, have done their brothers a disservice by scooting away like scared possums from any mention of prosperity.
It sure wasn't mentioned at the ol' Dutch Reformed church of my youth. Hey, they kept the sanctuary plenty warm in those Midwest winters. But I wonder today what would have happened if they'd ever pushed beyond their middle-class comfort zone. What could they have been if they really scooched out on that limb in terrified faith?
Maybe they could have raised $100,000 for relief work in Sierra Leone. Is that asking too much for a bunch of smokin' Dutch boys? Well, maybe they just could have helped a little church in South Dallas make its mortgage.
I guess we'll never know.
One thing I respect greatly about American evangelicals: They demonstrate compassion for those in need, and their habit of giving shows it. Sometimes, though, that compassion takes a lesser form, a sort of patronizing pity for the impoverished. Even a sense that they are somehow nobler in their meager state.
How do I know? Um, well, I used to think like that, back when I had a copy of Sojourners tucked under my arm and lofty ideas about solidarity with the poor in my head.
Can I let you in on a secret? No one who's in poverty wants to stay that way.
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You see, Creflo Dollar and his prosperity-preaching brethren offer something far more precious than your pity.
It's called hope. --Julie Lyons
Next Thursday in Bible Girl: Lisa Bevere fights like a girl.
Missed Pt. 1 of "Jesus, Send Money?" Here it is.