I have watched the prosperity gospel grow in popularity during my lifetime. It used to be preached primarily in small Pentecostal churches scattered around the country. Now it's the central message in some of the world's largest churches. It fills arenas and is the subject of bestselling books. It's become so prevalent that its eccentricities are a key part of Righteous Gemstones, a HBO series.
I have travelled the world and have seen first-hand the devastating effects of the prosperity gospel in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. It promises material wealth and physical health to those who trust in God. It implies—often insists—that a lack of wealth and health is tied to a lack of faith. This is why Langham Partnership's Preaching, Literature and Scholarship programmes all focus on developing the theological understanding of local leaders and congregations.
The greatest tragedy is that Christ is not central. His sacrificial atonement is replaced with our sacrificial giving. His glorious resurrection is replaced with aspirations of our glorious "success." The prosperity gospel is indeed heresy. And yet, some Christians reading this article might be missing a bigger danger closer to home.
The Scarcity Gospel
Is it possible that some of us, having rightly rejected the prosperity gospel, have subtly succumbed to another insidious belief? I call it the scarcity gospel—the assumption that we should expect God to do little through our churches or in our lifetime.
We don't expect to see people come to faith in surprising numbers through our churches. We don't expect to see a surprising work of God's Spirit sweep through our churches and strengthen the faith of congregants. We don't expect to see the gospel advance in places and among people where the church is underrepresented. We expect little. And that may be what we actually experience during our lifetime (James 4:2b).
We aren't promised the church will advance or progress exponentially. Yet we should expect God to do more than we can ask or think (Eph. 3:20), while entrusting him with the final result.
It's easy to see why we're attracted to the scarcity gospel. As ministers, we want to protect ourselves from disappointment. If we expect God to do big things but our congregations only experience small steps or no visible progress, we grow disillusioned with ourselves, and potentially with God himself.
We also tend to calibrate our expectations of God according to the news cycle. It's easy for Christians to watch the news and conclude that Christianity is losing its influence in the UK. The percentage of Christians in the UK is shrinking - with the latest census results showing that Christians make up less than half of the country for the first time - and Christians are often in the minority on cultural hot topics. No wonder it feels as though the church in the UK is shrinking rather than blossoming.
I'm not asking you to disbelieve the news or set yourself up for disappointment. I am asking you to believe in the power of the gospel to save. I am asking you to believe that Christ can use our churches, our preaching, our prayers, and our meagre gifts to do things that are disproportionately amazing in our lifetime. The world should not dictate what we anticipate from God.
What might repenting of the scarcity gospel yield?
- It might invigorate our prayer life from the normal list of friends and family to bold requests for God's transforming power to be made manifest.
- It might change our expectations of what the preaching and teaching of God's Word can accomplish.
- It might change what we believe God will do with the financial gifts we contribute to his kingdom's advance.
- It might change how we interpret events unfolding in our culture as exceptions, rather than the trajectory of God's work in the world.
Anything Is Possible
The world should not dictate what we anticipate from God. Just as rightful scepticism of the prosperity gospel shouldn't make us expect nothing of him, so the secularising of Western culture shouldn't reduce our hope. We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7).
After all, there has never been a revival that people expected - otherwise it wouldn't be a revival! The situation in church history has never been, "Everything was going well and the church was amazing, and then God sent revival." No, revivals are a surprising work of God. They follow seasons of scarcity and struggle. We simply can't deduce from our day what God will do the next.
But the good news is that he is sovereign - so anything is possible. His omnipotent Spirit moves when and where he wishes (John 3:8). Whether or not we witness exponential growth in our culture, we know the end of history will reveal his faithfulness in fulfilling his original promise to Abraham: his children will be as populous as the sands of the sea (Gen. 22:17; Rev. 7:9).
Andy Jones is Chief Marketing Officer at Langham Partnership US and founder of the Roundtree Agency.