I suspect if you’re reading this you’re not a fan of the Prosperity Gospel or the Health and Wealth Gospel. You are probably aware of some well-known pastors and authors who teach this dangerous doctrine. If your pastor started preaching giving more money will make you wealthy or that your cancer is because you lack faith you would probably rebuke him and look for another church. Nevertheless, I wonder if you have bought into some lies of the prosperity gospel in a hugely important area without you ever noticing. I think we have bought at least a bit into the prosperity gospel in the discipleship of our kids both in the home and in the church. Further, I fear that we have built a model of discipling young people that at its very core assumes the prosperity gospel. I fear I have bought into these lies as I have partnered with parents in the discipleship of the next generations.
John Piper famously has outlined six keys to detecting the prosperity gospel:
- The absence of a serious doctrine of the biblical necessity and normalcy of suffering, the absence of a doctrine of suffering.
- The absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial is a tip off that something is amiss.
- The absence of serious exposition of Scripture.
- The absence of dealing with tensions in Scripture.
- Church leaders who have exorbitant lifestyles.
- A prominence of self and a marginalization of the greatness of God.
I like this outline of the prosperity gospel as it avoids the caricatures and gets to the heart and beliefs that are behind the prosperity gospel. I am not going to suggest that children’s ministries are telling kids that if they have faith they will never get the flu or that parents are telling their youth God will give them a yacht. The problem is more nuanced and I think requires a deeper look than those simple stereotype abuses of that well known heresy. If we look at these keys one by one I think it will be easy to find the prosperity gospel under our noses and hopefully correct it.
The first key Piper sees is an absence of a doctrine of suffering. In prosperity preachers on tv this is evident as suffering is portrayed as something to overcome not something to ever understand. Suffering is in a strange way at the core of the Christian life. A theology of suffering takes us back all the way to the beginning pages of Genesis and Revelation is full of suffering for both Christians and those who reject our savior. Most importantly Jesus promised His disciples if they follow Him they would suffer just like He did (John 15:20). It’s hard to teach much of the Bible without seeing Christians will suffer and often will at the hands of their friends and classmates. Nevertheless, many young people leave church when they get to the age at which they notice Christianity isn’t exactly the center of popularity. Studies have shown “Christian teenagers” are confused by suffering and even youth pastors at some of the healthiest churches this side of the Atlantic will attest almost none of their youth have any kind of expectation of suffering.
Sociologist Christian Smith has often effectively noted American religious teenagers see God as their therapist who is there to give them good feelings and drop good times out of that great vending machine in the sky. This is hardly a shock if we truly think about it. A friend recently told me how a seasoned “effective” former youth pastor recently advised him that if teens aren’t having a great time whenever they’re at church my friend is doing something wrong. The “seasoned pro” is far from an exception as an overwhelming percent of most church youth leaders (and some children’s leaders) time goes into crafting positive experiences for those in attendance. It’s right and good to be welcoming and fun is not sinful, but this focus is teaching something. Teenagers in churches are taught that Christianity is about the ups of life, the good times and when we feed them this day in and day out that’s what they come to expect from their faith. Its little wonder teens raised in this mentality seldom have the patience to do the hard work of studying the Bible and are bored of prayer and the worship service. The expectation of a good time so clearly negatively impacts their adult church involvement as they realize the normal church service every Sunday can’t get them stoked like youth group used to and the historic Christian songs written from great sorrow become buzz kills. Church in this model of ministry isn’t the place for answers in our sorrows in sufferings in this model, it’s the place where they are hidden and bottled up. This dagger stabs both ways. If the young people in our church are not prepared for suffering it means the little bit of home discipleship that happens today rarely addresses the difficulties of life and presents Christianity as the key to the good life.
The second key to identify the prosperity gospel is the absence of a clear and prominent doctrine of self-denial. This key flows out of the first and has similar implications. An aspiration of nearly every American family is to raise children to have it better than mom and dad did, to pass on a progressively greater ease of life with each successive generation. This is not inherently bad; in fact it is loving and good of parents to seek the welfare of their future descendants. Far more than we want our children and youth to have much, we should strive to raise our children to deny themselves much in pursuit of the glory of God. In Matthew 16:24 Jesus stipulated those that wished to know Jesus as Lord and Savior must be willing to count the cost and deny themselves to follow Jesus. Self-denial doesn’t merit salvation but it is at the core of the repentance that alongside faith is the Christian response to God’s grace not only in the moment of salvation but all throughout the Christian’s life.
Are we teaching self-denial in the Christian home in any substantial degree? We may tell young people that following Jesus means no sex until marriage but in more significant ways we often implicitly teach Christianity is about self-indulgence. The most common reasons people give up on family worship in the home is their families are too busy or their kids are too bored. Both of these reasons buy into the prosperity gospel at least a bit. The family too busy for family worship is giving their kids the impression that following Jesus is all well and good until it gets in the way of the sports club that little Johnny wants to join or the scholarship opportunity for teenage Suzy. Denying self doesn’t always mean missing an opportunity it can also mean embracing the hard but good thing. It’s discouraging when mom and dad try to teach the kids about the Lord only to see glazed over eyes and feet ready to run off and play Fortnite. This discouragement makes many parents think family worship and things like it aren’t worth the hassle and that it might make the kids see the Christian life as boring and laborious. Newsflash! The Christian life is full of things that our fast paced society sees as boring and though we have the Holy Spirit within to guide us and encourage us, sanctification is absolutely supposed to be laborious. Instead of dropping family worship in these moments it may be worthwhile to address the boredom (maybe even admit when you get bored in the pews or serving in the nursery) and challenge the next generation to self-denial in the face of their very human disinterest.
Sadly, in the American Evangelical world it has become the default that when Johnny’s sports game falls on a Sunday morning church is skipped and when family vacation rolls around no effort is made to find a church by the beach. This might be a worse version of the same problem. It’s easy to be faithful in attendance and giving when the family has plenty and the choice is church or yard work, this kind of faithfulness is hardly self-denial. Real self-denial in the family comes when your vacation shifts to a campground so you can financially support the church food pantry. Real self-denial is taught to our kids when we acknowledge it stinks that going to church on Sunday may lose them a spot on the varsity team but obeying Jesus means giving up some of the things we like the most.
Some time ago I led a Bible study with some teens that had grown up in a great church. In that Bible study I asked that group of mostly regenerate teens what they have had to give up to follow Jesus and a few minutes later I asked them to give a time when the Christian life was painful. Those teens couldn’t give me an answer for their life. They were quick to answer questions related to how Christianity made their lives better but the concepts of Christian self-denial and suffering for Jesus seemed completely alien to them. The next day I called several Gospel centered children’s pastors and youth pastors I know to find they all have observed this same concern. I don’t think any of those teens are heretics but they most definitely have bought a bit into the subtle prosperity gospel they have heard preached all around them for more than a decade.
This disease has saturated our ministry to minors, so much so that subsequent blogs will explore the other four keys to detecting the prosperity gospel and their shocking prevalence in ways we have seldom thought about. There is hope and it doesn’t require us to burn everything down and start again. In the final blog in this series we will see how rightly understanding the cross gives real solutions to all these problems.