I have a potentially unhealthy obsession with late-night Christian TV, and particularly with the strange mix of evangelists, preachers and 'personalities' who populate it. In recent months I've become acquainted with Pat Robertson, with Benny Hinn, and with the once-disgraced Jimmy Swaggart. They showcase elements of the church with which I am, well, unfamiliar.
One of the major themes of late-night Christian television is the message of personal prosperity. This intriguing –and obviously very attractive – theology suggests that God is minded to make us all wealthy, and healthy, and that there are simple ways to take him up on the offer. Wealth problems are there to be 'broken through'; you can have 'financial dominion', if only you'll follow the simple steps suggested. Although there are various different 42-step systems and seven-part revelatory DVD series on offer, one element to these approaches is always the same. If you want to get wealthy, you have to 'sow a seed of faith.'
There are no end of people willing to help you do this by relieving you of your $58 seed (don't ask me why it's always $58; they're happy to take more if your faith is greater than that). Once you've demonstrated your faith to God, lots of unlocking, binding and loosing apparently takes place in heaven, and your financial breakthrough awaits. Although unconfirmed rumour has it that once you've sown your initial seed to a TV 'ministry', they may soon be back in touch to offer you further opportunities to achieve increased financial dominion – for the right level of seed. No-one say 'charlatan'.
At first, I got very bothered by this. It's clear (mostly from the expensive dental work on show) that vulnerable, suggestible and financially bereft people are responding to this kind of message daily. The 'ministries' which broadcast these messages are growing rich from all these desperately-planted seeds, and while God in his grace may often decide to bless those who give sacrificially, that doesn't make it right; not at all.
But then I had the sort of revelation that presumably launched a thousand wealthy 'ministries': if you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Here then, is my first draft at my own six-step prosperity plan. I've tried to give my prosperity 'keys' catchy, TV-friendly titles; I'm even giving a total, 100 per cent money-back guarantee that these steps will lead to prosperity. I'm already picking out my sparkly suit and poring over jewellers' windows, hopeful that this is my route to a career in Christian TV. My ordination request is already with the Church of the Internet, and I've reserved www.martinsaundersministries.com, just in case. This could be the start of an uncommon new season of breakthrough for me.
PROSPERITY KEY ONE: Take dominion over your outgoings
There's another financial thread to Christian TV – a raft of programmes which help you think through your financial management... and which handily have a series of life-changing resources to sell you, which will do just that. If you really want your finances to improve, there are some simple things which work a lot better than sending money to a dangerously compelling American man with eyes like the deepest night. Jesus talks a lot about good stewardship, and that means the way we spend our money matters. So in fact, auditing your bills and seeing if you can find cheaper providers (through sites like moneysavingexpert.com), is a potentially Godly pursuit. Making sure you're getting the best deal on everything from mortgages to broadband provider isn't just about making your money go further, it's also a way of taking seriously your stewardship of the resources God has given you.
PROSPERITY KEY TWO: Unlock your financial mindset
Just like their wonky ideas on healing, many prosperity teachers say your wealth is limited by your way of thinking about it. And in a funny way, they're right. We've all stood slack-jawed in someone else's cavernous house, or gazed longingly at a friend's much more impressive car / sound system / mountain bike. Because we live in a culture that prizes material accumulation, we can buy into the lie at that point that if we had these things too, we'd be happier. Then jealousy kicks in, and we struggle with feeling a little less good about our friend. So we DO need a different mindset: one that remains acutely aware of the lies of consumerism. These things are ultimately far from fulfilling – in fact they're as disappointing as receiving a self-published book of 278 financial breakthrough keys, which you've paid $58 for.
PROSPERITY KEY THREE: Achieve material breakthrough
That's right! If you want to see real prosperity, then you'll need to own your destiny – not have it dictated to you by a consumeristic culture. How do we do that? By practicing the ancient spiritual discipline of simplicity which means regularly asking ourselves some key lifestyle questions. Where should I have less? What could I give away to someone who needs it more? What are the things I really need, and what are the things I really just want? Reflecting on these questions regularly can harpoon our materialistic thoughts.
I'm already starting to realize that my message is going off the rails. I can hear that TV contract being torn up right now. Still, I plough on with...
PROSPERITY KEY FOUR: Become an uncommon sower
Are you known for your generosity? Wouldn't that be a wonderful thing to be known for? I know a few people who are known for exactly that, not just because of what they give away financially, but because of how they use their other resources, including their time. They're the people who cook meals for people in our community who've just had a baby; who give their time to staff the local food bank, and who always seem to have someone staying in their spare room. Yet because radical generosity is so counter-cultural, it won't happen by accident; it's an intentional thing – and it's hard work for some of us.
PROSPERITY KEY FIVE: Increase your victory number
There's a clear suggestion in the Bible that 'you can't out-give God' (see Malachi 3:10), and while that isn't a motivating reason for being generous with our money (whatever those $58 seed people might tell you), it is a reason to be confident that financial giving won't leave you desperately struggling at the end of the month. While it might sound trite, the testimony of many, many Christians appears to be that God 'honours' our giving by being even more generous with us. One particular story, which takes that further, is of the well-known American couple who increase their 'tithe' amount every year – and last year gave away 93 per cent of their income as a result. A mind-boggling figure – and one which makes me wonder... could I do the same? (NB: I might start with a slightly lower number...)
PROSPERITY KEY SIX: Step into your abundance harvest
We need to have a vision for prosperity – and the first five 'key's listed above will help us to get there. The important thing to remember however, is that this isn't about our own prosperity, but that of the people and places around us. If our dream is to see others prosper – in every healthy sense – and to see our communities renewed, then we're probably not too far away from Jesus' command that if we want to be first, we have to become 'the very last, and a servant to all' (Mark 9:35). Simplifying our own lives, and preferring the needs of others above our own are sure-fire ways to bring the right kind of prosperity – and to usher us closer to the heart of God.
To be serious for a moment then: the prosperity gospel is just a subversion of a healthy message. The Bible says that 'the love of money', not money itself, is 'a root to every kind of evil.' Money can be used for all sorts of good things – and it can even bring us closer to God, if we use it in the right way. By being good stewards, being aware of our tendencies to consumerism, and embracing generosity to others, I reckon we can all get a little bit wealthier, and a whole lot healthier. Just send me your seed gift of $58, and all of this will soon be yours...