This series examines the prosperity gospel every Thursday and Friday during the month of June. We explore the theology, sociology, and international influence of this popular but aberrant teaching. The Gospel Coalition International Outreach (IO) is partnering with African authors and publishers to create a resource that biblically examines the prosperity gospel and that will be distributed free across Africa and beyond. In Prosperity? Finding the True Gospel, African pastors Michael Otieno Maura, Ken Mbugua, and Conrad Mbewe are joined by John Piper and Wayne Grudem in pointing pastors and other Christians beyond the deceptions of prosperity theology to the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
While the prosperity gospel traces its theological, philosophical, and sociological roots to the United States, its most prominent teachers (e.g., Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, Joyce Meyer, Joel Osteen, and the aptly-named Creflo Dollar) have made it a leading American export across the globe. Today, health and wealth teaching is proliferating at an alarming rate in Latin America and in many countries across the African continent.
Jeff Atherstone has witnessed the spread of prosperity theology in Africa over the past decade. Atherstone serves as president of Africa Renewal University (ARU) in Uganda. He’s served in that Sub-Saharan country as a missionary since 2006 and was among the founders of ARU. Before moving to Uganda, Atherstone served as a church planter on staff at Cornerstone Community Church in Simi Valley, California.
TGC spoke with Atherstone about the challenges he faces in seeking to proclaim an orthodox gospel in a region overrun with false teaching.
Is prosperity gospel teaching widespread in Uganda?
The prosperity gospel runs rampant through Sub-Saharan Africa, and Uganda is no exception. Churches don’t call themselves prosperity churches and even churches claiming to oppose the prosperity gospel have
it proclaimed from their pulpits. The prosperity gospel has attached itself to the theological framework that runs through this region. It has spread primarily through television. Preachers such as Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, Myles Munroe, and Joel Osteen can be seen on TV around the clock in Christian homes throughout Uganda. Their books are found lining the shelves of Christian bookshops. These preachers have also done a great job of personally visiting this region.
In what places have you seen the prosperity gospel at work? How difficult is it for orthodox theology to gain a hearing where health and wealth teaching is so prevalent?
Sub-Saharan Africa is a patriarchal society with a great amount of respect for their leaders. The prosperity gospel has moved strongly because the movement’s leaders have paid to have their shows televised here. They have visited this region and their books are in this region. The leaders of orthodox theology haven’t paid to bring their TV shows to the airwaves, they haven’t hosted stadium-filled gatherings, and their books can’t be found. Orthodox theology needs to present their leaders to this region to gain the respect (and ears) of the people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Is there some biblical truth being intermixed by the prosperity teachers in these countries, taught along with the prosperity gospel?
Yes, all the time. Sermons and service times in Sub-Saharan Africa are much longer than in the West, running more than two or three hours each Sunday (not to mention multiple mid-week services and overnight prayer meetings). The sermons are filled with long stories and anecdotes, so you can often hear truth and false teaching weaved together.
Why do you think word fo faith/prosperity teaching appeals to the people of these countries?
Three main reasons.
Patriarchal. As I mentioned, the prosperity gospel has brought their leaders here through large crusades, TV, radio, and books. You can hear and see Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen, and T. D. Jakes everywhere. These men are presented as the leaders of global Christianity, so the people follow.
Media. Television and radio are still king in these places. While U.S. orthodox teachers use podcasts, YouTube clips, and social media to reach their people, in Sub-Saharan Africa TV and radio are still the best mediums for reaching people. Social media is growing rapidly but the sound of TVs and radios can be heard 24/7.
Energy. The word “charismatic” might be confusing so I will use “energy.” Many orthodox preachers seem boring and stand still behind their pulpits with little movement. Meanwhile, African preachers are full of energy; they sweat while moving across their stages, delivering fiery sermons. The prosperity preachers have similar energy to African preachers in their style, theatrics, and delivery. This helps them to win over the Sub-Saharan African audience.
How are missionaries working to combat it?
Again, three main ways. First, stay long. In a patriarchal society you either need to be famous or stay long in order to win approval. Missionaries who come and leave quickly don’t receive the same response and acceptance. This is confusing since Sub-Saharan Africa is very hospitable. Short-term visitors feel heard and accepted, but often the words they preach are soon forgotten.
Second, bring over leaders who preach orthodox theology. We should be getting our leaders on TV, on the radio, and in large stadiums here. The impact of these events lasts for months and sometimes years.
Passion brought over Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, and Charlie Hall in 2008 and 2012 and it literally changed the worship music sung in churches around Kampala (Uganda’s capital city).
Third, be faithful in preaching and teaching in theological schools. Having students in our classrooms for two or three years at a time at Africa Renewal University has dramatically changed their theology, their preaching ministries, and the course of their churches. Investing in local leaders and equipping them with the true gospel is key.
Do you meet a lot of people who are frustrated that prosperity theology has not “worked” for them? Perhaps they haven’t become more wealthy and healthy and now they are discouraged or frustrated?
Honestly, no! People in Sub-Saharan African don’t have the same need for instant gratification we do in the West. Their patience in waiting for prosperity is one of the factors that keeps this movement growing and moving ahead.
Most of the people I meet who come out of the prosperity movement are students at Africa Renewal University. When their eyes are opened to the truth of the gospel, time and again they eventually give up on the false hope health-and-wealth teaching provides. Their first months are filled with debates in class, which is extremely healthy. Eventually the truth of the gospel wins out in their lives and then in their churches.
Give us a strategy for effectively combatting this false teaching.
The prosperity gospel robs people of joy, leaving them empty, lusting after more, and searching for something they cannot find. Since God has already poured out the riches of his grace on us, we can daily delight in his presence free from the empty promises of this world. If I were to lay out a strategy for combatting prosperity theology in Sub-Saharan Africa, I would (in this order):
- Invest in long-term discipleship training through theological schools like ARU. This may sound like a shameless self-promotion, but honestly the prosperity gospel has such deep roots in these students that one sermon, conference, or book will not change their thinking.
- I would invest in bringing the leaders of orthodox Christianity to this region through stadium-filled conferences, TV, radio, social media, and books.
- Finally, I would encourage missionaries to stay long and learn to preach with the energy of the Africans while holding onto their theological convictions.