Previously in this series:
I’m from Guatemala, a country considered to be the Promised Land of Latin America. In 2013, a study reported that Guatemala was 97 percent Christian (Protestants and Catholics included). This same study claims that about 35 percent of the population identifies as evangelical. It’s not surprising, then, that Guatemala has seen the growth of megachurches with tens of thousands of members where the prosperity gospel is preached every week. Needless to say, Guatemala is not as evangelical as we may like to paint it and needs the gospel just as much as ever.
After talking it over with the team at Coalición por el Evangelio and my wife, I decided to visit one of these megachurches and share my experience.
Surprisingly Similar, Fundamentally Different
My wife and I entered the church grounds through the four-car lane entrance. Immediately I was taken back to memories of visiting Disney World the year before. A well-constructed and organized parking system allowed for many people to arrive, find a parking spot, and join the thousands of others entering the building—all in a matter of minutes. I was impressed!
The service had already begun, and we were astonished by the grand stage, musical production, and excellent presentation. Even though we arrived just in time for the early service, there were already thousands of people present singing and clapping along with the dozen musicians on stage. As an usher led us to our seats, we took in the sight of it all. It was incredible to see so many people in one place who seemed to be singing to Jesus.
The worship music continued for the next hour. I heard songs I’ve sung in many other churches. Songs by Hillsong and other contemporary artists, as well as classic worship songs that have existed in the Latin American church for years now. After the music, one of the pastors gave a brief welcome and made some announcements. I turned to my wife and said, “This isn’t so bad. They haven’t really said anything wrong.” My wife smiled and responded, “Well, they haven’t really said anything at all.” God bless her for her wisdom.
That Sunday they were celebrating the Lord’s Supper, and it was done almost the same way I’ve seen in many smaller churches. The pastor read from 1 Corinthians, mentioned the need for repentance, ate the bread, drank the wine (juice, actually), and prayed.
Finally, the same pastor opened up his Bible. What I thought was the beginning of the sermon was actually just an introduction to the offering. The pastor read from Job 1:8–10, a surprising choice of reading and not immediately easy to interpret. He interpreted it this way: Job was a man who daily gave offerings and sacrifices to God. The Devil himself knows that when he gave or tithed, that God put a fence of protection around him and his belongings. Therefore, we ought to give so that we may be blessed and so that our blessing may be protected from the Devil.
After allowing a few minutes to pass for people to fill their envelopes with cash, checks, or credit card information, he ended with a prayer declaring, “God has placed his fence of protection around us and has promised to prosper us.”
Mangling the Bible
I didn’t think I would hear a worse interpretation of Job ever again in my life. I was wrong.
The main preaching pastor was on vacation, so a guest speaker from another country was invited to preach. He made his way to the stage and, after making several jokes, began telling the story of Job. Job was the richest and most righteous man in the world. The Book of Job is about how Satan attacked him to take away his riches, but, in the end, God reversed those attacks and turned them into blessings. Satan hates it when we offer sacrifices to God because those sacrifices guarantee a fence of protection (actually angelic bodyguards) around us. That’s why Satan took away Job’s animals first—so he could no longer sacrifice animals and have that fence.
But God promised Job he would not only restore him but give him more than he had before. All because he continued to be faithful. The preacher then referenced Exodus 22:7: “If a man gives to his neighbor money or goods to keep safe, and it is stolen from the man’s house, then, if the thief is found, he shall pay double.”
What does this verse mean? The preacher claimed it was simple: when a thief is uncovered, the person who was robbed must receive not only what was stolen, but twice as much. Job was mistaken when he thought God was doing all this to him, since it was actually the Devil who was stealing from Job. So God descended to earth and told Job: “It wasn’t me! I didn’t take away all these things from you! It was the Devil!” God never takes away, he only gives! God doesn’t allow bad things to happen to you; he only allows good. Only when Job understood who the real thief was could he receive the double blessing he was due. And sure enough, Job 42:10 reads: “And the LORD restored the fortunes of Job, when he had prayed for his friends. And the LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.”
The preacher ended by saying God has the power to reverse what the Devil has done to us, and that everyone has the power to declare the thief has been uncovered. In doing so, we can claim our double blessing. It’s important to mention that throughout the course of his sermon, men and women were quietly walking up front and leaving cash on the stage, resulting in a large pile visible from where I was sitting hundreds of feet away.
One of the pastors then came up and prayed, “We don’t just declare that we must be returned everything we’ve lost, but we declare that God owes us the double.” He continued addressing God before suddenly turning to Satan: “Leave us alone! Return to us what is rightfully ours! You are a dirty thief!” Finally, the service ended with more music and crowds rushing out in the hopes of avoiding traffic.
The experience left me with a lot to think about. Here are four things I took away.
1. It’s easy to make the Bible say whatever you want.
The Book of Job is not a story about how Satan attacked Job to take away his riches only to have God reverse those attacks and turn them into blessings. It’s about a man whose faithfulness to God was tested and who, although he didn’t understand the reasons for his losses, never doubted the goodness of God (Job 13:15). It’s about a man who loved God even though he lost all his earthly belongings and children. It’s about suffering (Job 1:13–22).
In the end, the story is really about God. It’s about a God whose thoughts are higher than ours (Isa. 55:8–9). It’s about a God who gives and takes away according to his knowledge (Job 1:21). It’s about a God whose ways we cannot fully grasp (Job 38). It’s about a God we can trust, even when we lose all things.
If we approach Scripture only a few verses at a time, we’ll easily change its message to adapt to our own. The Bible is the key to its own lock, and we must let it interpret itself. Read it. Study it. Pray over it. And don’t teach it until you know the whole story.
2. False teaching can be easily hidden under superficial Christianity.
After an hour at this church, I hadn’t heard any explicit false teaching. In fact, it seemed just like any other church, just bigger. The same songs, same lingo, and same actions you’d see at any other church were common here. However, as my wife made clear to me, in this whole hour it wasn’t just that we hadn’t heard the gospel; we hadn’t heard any explicit teachings about the entire Christian faith. This is nothing more than superficial Christianity, and it is the perfect disguise for false teaching.
A prosperity teacher can preach true things, but always as a means to something else. Use the same terms, wear the right clothes, help the poor, and wave around your Bible. As long as you look the part, you can preach your own message.
Although this is most evident in false teachers, we’re all guilty of this sin to some degree. After all, who hasn’t tried to look his best, do the rights things, and act as “Christianly” as possible to hide the filthiness residing within (Matt. 23:27)? We need Jesus. If our exterior doesn’t correspond with our interior, it’s time to pray for repentance and run to Jesus (1 John 1:9–10).
3. It’s easy to focus on the wrong things.
The real problem with this church wasn’t that it was too big, or that the music was too loud, or that the pastor made a few jokes. Such things aren’t inherently sinful and shouldn’t be at the center of our discussion.
I don’t care if your music is loud, as long as your theology is louder. I don’t care if your church is big, as long as your view of God is bigger. I don’t care if your stage has bright lights, as long as your love for Christ is brighter. I don’t care if you make a joke or two, as long as you’re serious about the gospel. Don’t get upset about peripheral things; get upset that the gospel isn’t being preached.
4. People need Jesus, not your snarky criticism.
Many of the articles, videos, and other resources dealing with the prosperity gospel are characterized more by hate than by love. In our honest attempts to call out false teachers, many of us have turned to methods of ridicule and embarrassment rather speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15; 2 Tim. 2:24–26). We’d rather mock and ridicule a prosperity gospel teacher than show compassion to a prosperity gospel follower and come alongside him to teach the truth of the real good news.
The intent of this article is not that you share it with your friend who goes to a prosperity gospel church to prove him wrong or make her feel dumb. Stop trying so hard to call out these false teachers on your Facebook page and instead focus on gently leading their followers to Christ. Many of us pray (or at least think) the prayer of the Pharisee—“Thank you God for not making me like them!” (Luke 18:9–14)—when we should be heartbroken so many are blinded and led astray from Christ’s flock.
We don’t need to share another video depicting another ridiculous thing that happened in a prosperity-preaching church; we need to start sharing the gospel with people, one on one, patiently explaining why King Jesus is better than any promise of earthly prosperity.