During a recent night in a Zambian hotel, I spent three hours watching a broadcast of the Christian Broadcasting Network. Over a satellite link, a long succession of pastors, evangelists, motivational speakers, teenagers, young children, and a woman whose hair looks like cotton candy called for viewers to support their ministries. Of course, this is not new to churches. As non-profits, all churches rely on the ability of others to be profitable and then generous with their earnings. Stewardship, properly understood, is a biblically demanded teaching of the church.
But what was being taught that night on CBN was not stewardship.
Viewers in Zambia—a nation where the average annual income is $320—were given an intensely emotional appeal for funding but with a twist. Put in a little, they were told, and get back a lot more. Put in the equivalent of $100, get out $1,000 or $5,000 or $10,000. It is as simple as that. Speaker after speaker used the expression “sowing the seed and reaping the harvest.”
I agree that both giver and recipient benefit in charity, but not in this formulaic and misleading way. It sounded more like an ad for an investment scheme than it did a witness for the Gospel of Christ. At the bottom of the television screen, CBN flashed the name of a bank where Zambians could deposit their contributions or call a local number. I took some comfort, but not enough, in the knowledge that many Zambian households did not have a television and would not be exposed to such pure deception.
The next morning, I asked a Zambian pastor if such programs were popular and effective. He said that people in his nation are especially susceptible to these appeals because of the economic realities they face. “The message of walking by faith and not by work finds a receptive audience among the poor,” he said. This is one import from the United States he wishes he could stop at the border. That’s because Zambian pastors have begun to emulate the televangelists and have found some financial success in the method.
As church leaders become more sophisticated in their economic thinking, they will produce life-altering results for millions of desperately poor people around the world who today have little hope of ever achieving any level of economic independence or viability. But against this background of more informed and beneficial economic thinking, there is a growing movement among churches in the developing world that should trouble Christians everywhere. In some places this movement is known as the “prosperity gospel” and in others as the “health and wealth gospel.” It is a destructive kind of divine lottery in which very poor people are promised great wealth (and health too, for that matter) if they will give of their very limited resources to a televangelist from the developing world. The math is simple: Give to the pastor’s ministry, and God will reward you 10 fold or 50 fold or 100 fold.
Because people who are poor sometimes have little hope for climbing out of poverty on their own, they are easy prey for those who promise to make them very rich, very quickly. Studies of state lotteries in the United States show that people who are well-off play the lottery to a far lesser degree than do those who are poor. Pay attention to where lottery ads are placed in a city and you will get a quick insight into the state’s strategy for attracting those who are most likely to provide non-tax revenue.
It is one thing to promote a lottery in the United States where pockets of poverty are subjected to this voluntary tax on the hopeless. The usual justification from state governments that the money goes for education holds little persuasive power in providing a moral justification. But imagine committing this same deception in a country in which half the population is unemployed, the HIV/AIDS rate is above 20%, and the average life expectancy for a male is less than 40 years. And imagine doing it in God’s name.
The church’s social ministry involves at least two things: ministering to those in poverty, which is the ministry of compassion, and addressing issues which cause and perpetuate poverty. Churches of many traditions have been involved in sharing food, building homes, digging wells, and providing medicine in the name of Christ. Such activities are done in obedience to the command of Christ to extend a cup of cold water in His name.
Many of these same churches have addressed structures, behaviors, and policies that create poverty or keep it alive in a community or a nation, although sometimes with less success because they operate on emotional response rather than on economic reality. Rather than seeing business and investment as the best solutions to reduce or eliminate poverty, some denominational and ecumenical statements on economic justice have misdiagnosed the problem and called for the wrong prescription. Although soft-socialist solutions are still common in organizations like the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches, many ecclesial bodies are recognizing that economic development must go hand in hand with relief work.
The proliferation of para-church organizations dedicated to economic development is evident of this shift in thinking about poverty. Entrepreneurial education, life skills training, microfinance programs which provide access to capital, and the encouragement of self-reliance and hard work are all common parts of economic development today. As church leaders become more adept at economics, they will bring a deeper moral perspective to trade tariffs, non-tariff trade barriers, quotas, and other forms of protectionism in the United States, the European Union. That moral discernment may even extend to developing countries themselves who decry trade barriers erected by industrial powers while raising significantly higher barriers against their own neighbors.
In the Ten Commandments, we are told that God’s name is to be kept holy and that no image of Him is to be made. Among other things, this command is aimed at prohibiting people who would use God’s name or some image they might create to manipulate Him. It was common belief among the pagan tribes surrounding Old Testament Israel that to know the name of a person or a god was also the ability to have some level of control. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob did not want his followers to think that He could be manipulated to accomplish the whims of human beings. As He said to Moses at the burning bush: “I AM WHO I AM.”
As development workers, missionaries, and members of the clergy become more skilled at understanding and addressing the economic realities that create and sustain poverty in many parts of the world, we need to speak out against divine lotteries and other false and hollow Gospel of Prosperity teachings. That is a complete distortion of the message of Scripture and deserves the condemnation of the church as a whole.