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.
As a young Christian in a majority Roman Catholic country, I was always very excited when I met other young men and women who professed to be evangelical Christians. During my teen years, I spent a few months with some I considered Christians, people who were always eager to talk about religion and faith. When one of them learned I was a diabetic, his question left me perplexed: “So, what is it that you do?” He was asking what sin I’d committed that caused my diabetes. He then proceeded to explain how I could go to their church and their pastor would pray for me so I’d be healed.
Of that group of young friends, most—if not all—have fallen away from the faith. But the theology that fed that conversation isn’t only alive, it’s booming. In an article I wrote about the state of the church in Latin America, I argued prosperity theology is king in Latin America:
While prosperity teachers are highly influential in the United States and other places, they’re particularly popular in Latin America. In fact, the charismatic, Word-of-faith, prosperity form of Christianity is, by and large, the only form of Protestantism people know. In our region, a non-Catholic churchgoer is almost guaranteed to belong to a church that falls somewhere on the spectrum of this movement.
In Latin America, prosperity theology is not just a system of belief, but the culture in which we live. Most well-known Spanish-speaking Christian artists have backgrounds in prosperity theology. TV shows and movies promote a culture of consumerism and so do the “Christian” television channels. Books written and sold advocate this theology. And of course, the works of many false teachers from the United States have been translated into Spanish.
Formerly, you had to do evangelism mainly among Catholics, showing them how the true gospel is so much better than works-based attempts at salvation. But more and more evangelism has turned into an effort to preach the gospel to those who subscribe to some kind of prosperity gospel, showing them how Jesus is so much better than the riches of this world.
This remains true today, but how did we get here? Is there hope sound doctrine will expose the false teaching of prosperity teachers in Latin America?
New Wave of Pentecostalism
Old-school Pentecostals (many of whom don’t adhere to the prosperity gospel) are easy to spot in my home country. Women wear long skirts, no makeup, and no earrings. Men wear colored suits and matching ties on 100-degree days. They’re also typified by a propensity toward street evangelism (which the Lord has mightily used to increase the numbers of Protestants).
In recent decades a new wave of Pentecostalism has swept through the old denominations. Usually referred to as neo-Pentecostals, they’ve modernized many of the practices of the old denomination while maintaining the emphasis on what they consider to be manifestations of the Holy Spirit.
It is through this neo-Pentecostalism that the prosperity gospel has taken root in Latin America. A few years back Yiye Ávila, a Pentecostal pastor known for his evangelistic zeal and Dispensational sermons, was the household name for evangelicals. Today it’s more likely someone like “Apostle” Guillermo Maldonado, who gladly wears the prosperity gospel on his sleeve. And because Pentecostals and charismatics exist in massive numbers in the Spanish-speaking Protestant world, this influence is felt throughout the church.
Some countries, like Guatemala, Puerto Rico, and Colombia, are experiencing an interesting phenomenon. The presence of and trend toward megachurches has led some smaller churches to be converted into “franchises” of larger ones. Many of the poorly-trained pastors leading the smaller congregations may not be in full agreement with what the big corporation teaches, but they’re glad to be economically supported and to become part of their numerical/financial success. In all likelihood, those claiming to be “apostles” at the top of the chain will never visit the small franchises (and because of the peculiarities of the Third World, livestreaming is not a common practice). But they tell the pastors what to preach, train them in their teaching institutions, and change the brand of the smaller church to make it a “daughter” of the big one. This has also helped to propagate false teaching.
Snatching What’s Mine
In most of Latin America prosperity theology is particularly tied to spiritual warfare. As others have pointed out, the message usually goes like this: “God wants you to be well and happy, but you’re sick and miserable. Why? Well, the devil, of course! So what can you do? You call out to God, bring him your offerings (how else can you show him how much you care?)—and declare who he is, who you are, and how small the devil really is.”
A prime example is found in a popular song from a few years back, the title of which can be roughly translated “I Snatch.” In it, a self-proclaimed prophet is singing to the devil, requesting he give back what he’s taken:
Even if a thousand giants rise up against me, I will not fear;
The enemy won’t be able to touch my faith;
Because God has changed my name and made me his daughter;
Now I’m head and not tail;
And I now live from glory to glory.
Today I appropriate what belongs to me;
What you’ve taken from me, you’ll give it back with interest;
Because God made me his daughter, and with God’s sons no one messes.
He made me a co-heir with him;
And has given me power to tie and untie,
And declare a word that changes your generation.
And today I declare that he will return what he took from you.
I snatch my family out of you.
I snatch my health out of you.
I snatch the treasures of heaven that belong to my house.
I snatch, I snatch, I snatch all that is mine.
While not all songs are this transparent, you can see health and wealth innuendo in most contemporary Christian songs in Latin America.
On the Defensive
In Latin America there is a relatively small amount of solid, Reformed churches. And due to the Pentecostal’s evangelistic zeal and the prevalence of prosperity teaching in the culture, many of those who are now Reformed used to believe in some form of prosperity teaching.
Though the young, restless, Reformed movement is transcending cultures, it has manifested itself a bit differently here. It tends to exhibit a much more defensive posture and tone, particularly as it relates to the prosperity gospel. Christians are certainly called in Scripture to expose false teaching, but not to obsess over it.
A quick look at the social media feeds of many—if not most—who identify as Reformed will reveal a prevalence of tweets and blogs about prosperity gospel teachers and their latest scandals. Such things are commonly pointed out in the pulpit to an unhelpful degree. I’m relieved whenever I find pastors regularly expounding the whole counsel of God without resorting to namecalling.
True Revival Underway
By God’s grace, this false gospel is not having the last word in Latin America. Due to a revival that seems to be underway, many followers of false teaching have turned to Christ, and many true believers in unhealthy churches are either working to reform their own or forming new ones. Even the unhealthy focus on pointing out false teachers seems to be diminishing. Gospel-centeredness is becoming a more common idea (and term), and Reformed-leaning churches are focusing more than ever on working together and planting new churches.
And so we’re praying that the young Reformed generation here settles, prepares more leaders, and that the genuine gospel of our Lord is proclaimed louder than ever before.