An Unholy Marriage: Megachurches and the Prosperity Gospel

On the Collusion between Megachurches and the Prosperity Gospel by Ben Whitehead

Next Sunday, as you walk into your church and grab your coffee before finding your seat, there will be 50,000 folks doing the same thing at Lakewood Church in Houston, TX. There will also be around 30,000 watching Andy Stanley simulcasted across a few church campuses in the Atlanta area, 25,000 turning out to hear Bill Hybels in Chicago, and 20,000 more to hear about the purpose driven life from Rick Warren in California.[i] The point is a lot of people gather with lots of people on Sunday mornings in America. The presence of megachurches as a mega-fabric of the American Christian landscape is hardly news to anyone. What might be, however, is the relationship between megachurches and the prosperity movement—a relationship that is inherently symbiotic.

PROSPERITY

Kate Bowler, a professor at Duke Divinity school, has devoted a significant portion of her young academic career to studying the relationship between megachurches and the prosperity movement. She defines the category “prosperity gospel” as a kind of Christian religiosity that revolves around four main themes: faith, wealth, health, and victory. Briefly:

1. Faith, in the context of the Prosperity movement, is belief in the supernatural breaking into the mundane. This was especially true in a post-World War II America that featured mega-figures like Oral Roberts who was famous for performing supernatural healings that were considered to be effectual because of a believer’s faith.

2. Wealth emerged as a major tenant of the Prosperity movement in the 1970s and 80s, especially after the decline of the Soviet Union which, according to Bowler, “produced a triumphalist aura surrounding all things capitalist.”[ii]

3. Health in the physical sense was/is believed to be a reflection of the spiritual state of things. A person with a disease was so because of some spiritual affliction or inadequacy. The role of someone like Benny Hinn, then, was to exorcise the spiritual affliction, and thereby alleviate the believer of their physical pain as well.

4. Victory in the Prosperity movement refers simply to the ubiquitous message of human triumph, though perhaps aided by God.

The last feature, victory, is perhaps the most seductive of them all, because its pervasiveness makes many in the Prosperity movement blind to it. The notion of victory is a foundational myth that undergirds wealth and health. Even more, victory has an implied sense of spiritual grandiosity. The implicit claim here is that as time passes, the intensity of God’s involvement grows in some way, which is to say God is more present now than 2,000 years ago. Words like ‘momentum’ and ‘growth’ are centerpieces to evangelical church outreach philosophies, providing an example of how ‘victory’ manifests itself in church life. Churches, in this case, are not merely interested with making disciples, but in conquering a godless world, establishing themselves as victors in a foreign land. Subsequently, one of the obvious evidences of the influence of ‘victory’ has been the marriage of the Prosperity message with the megachurch movement.

MEGACHURCH

What qualifies a church as a megachurch? Generally speaking, megachurches are congregations exceeding 2,000 folks. Over the past two decades interest in the rise of megachurches and whether their upwards trajectory is sustainable has increased. Of course there are also theological arguments to be made for or against them, but I digress for the data’s sake.

Bowler makes use of research by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research, Hartford Seminary, and Leadership Network in the Megachurch Today 2005 study. This study, combined with some other resources like the Megachurch Database on the Hartford Institute’s website, illustrate the relationship between prosperity movements and megachurches. Bowler is clear that conflating the two is a mistake. However, the data clearly shows that the largest of megachurches preached a prosperity message. “By 2011, a tally of self-reported membership showed more than one million people were attending American prosperity megachurches.”[iii]

Beyond Megachurch Myths: What We Can Learn from America’s Largest Churches makes use of the same data as Bowler, only the agenda is slightly different. Whereas Bowler attempts to give a historical account of the prosperity gospel that inevitably runs its way into the megachurch movement, authors Scott Thumma and Dave Travis offer up their text as a defense for the American megachurch that contains within itself some prosperity congregations and pastors.

This text, published in 2007, attempts to redress what Thumma and Travis perceive as myths[iv] about the megachurch movement. These myths include things like “The Church is just too big,” “megachurches water down the faith,” and “megachurches grow because of the show.” The first chapter offers up “the scale and scope of megachurches.” Simply put, they are everywhere. “With a few exceptions, we estimate that there is a megachurch within a ninety-minute drive of 80 percent of the population of America.”[v]

MUSIC

One of the most recognizable elements of the megachurch movement and prosperity gospel is the music. Bowler and Wen Reagan’s article “Bigger, Better, Louder: The Prosperity Gospel’s Impact on Contemporary Christian Worship” is an attempt to explicate the connection between the music of the megachurch—contemporary Christian music (CCM)—and the propagation of prosperity gospel themes and beliefs. Just as a message of prosperity needed physical structures that could adequately reflect their scope, so too did the structures need a music that would adequately make use of their capabilities. Bowler and Reagan categorize much of the music in prosperity congregations as “arena rock.” Prominent lead guitar lines, simple chord structures, and repetitive lyrics characterize the arena rock sound. The influence of bands like U2 and Coldplay on the CCM arena rock is obvious.

Much of the music that Bowler and Reagan cite as containing a message of prosperity is Hillsong, an Australian based megachurch and music giant. Bowler and Reagan readily categorize Hillsong Church as “one of the world’s largest prosperity churches,” though it is not American, at least it wasn’t initially. The prosperity gospel to megachurch phenomenon, then, is not exclusively American. That being said, Hillsong’s influence on the music of American megachurches is difficult to overstate. Once Hillsong’s first son, Joel Houston, headed up a younger, trendier offshoot of the Hillsong music empire—Hillsong United—there was a burst of American church interest and subsequent mimicking. Even today, eleven of the Christian Copyright Licensing International’s (CCLI) top 50 songs belong to Hillsong, one of which is Darlene Zschech’s “Shout to the Lord,” which was released nearly fifteen years ago. Bowler and Reagan cite newer groups such as Bethel Music, Jesus Culture, and Elevation Worship as other Christian music groups that embody the same arena rock sound that Hillsong essentially introduced.

Associating some of these bands with the prosperity movement might come as a shock to you, as it did for me. Yet it makes sense, I think. Bands like U2, Coldplay, or someone like Justin Timberlake all have sonically “massive” sounds. This, coupled with their chart-topping success, calls for large scale arenas and venues to host their concerts. It would perplex us to see Coldplay playing some acoustic set in a cramped dive bar. Those spaces are reserved for singer-songwriters to play their acoustic guitars and sing about their troubles (see Micah’s wonderful review of Julien Baker’s new album from last month). The point is, large spaces call for large sounds. Megachurches demand sonically booming anthems by virtue of their physical structures alone, and the worship bands who play in these structures are forced to oblige.

The megachurch-Prosperity movement saga is still unfolding. Yet, Bowler’s work shows very clearly the Prosperity message is not relegated to Lakewood Church or Creflo Dollar sermons. The triumphalist overtones of a Hillsong chorus sung out over a crowd of Midwestern suburban megachurch goers are an outgrowth of the Prosperity message, according to Bowler. Ironically, a fair number of these congregations scoff at Joel Osteen and make memes of Joyce Meyer, all the while blind to how Osteen’s message and their nondenominational liturgy are predicated on the same victorious vision of the Prosperity movement. The way forward for those congregations is either to own that they have at least some aspects of the Prosperity gospel present in their theologies or to reimagine their theology in light of the realities of human limitation and earthly antagonisms. The antithesis to the Prosperity gospel is certainly not, “Our God is greater, Our God is stronger, Our God is higher than any other,” but, perhaps “I think there’s a god and he hears either way when I rejoice and complain. I never know what to say.”

 

 


[i] Based on a 2013 study published by Outreach Magazine. http://omag-eszuskq0bptlfh8awbb.stackpathdns.com/2013-outreach-100-largest-churches-america.html

[ii] Bowler, 94.

[iii] Ibid., 165.

[iv] Myth in a pejorative sense. Not, perhaps ironically, in the way traditional religious studies uses the term.

[v] Ibid., 9.

Ben Whitehead

Contributor at Christianity Now
Ben is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School and resides in Nashville, TN, with his wife Rachel. His primary interests are radical theology, professional basketball, and the guitar.