The term prosperity gospel usually conjures up images of a (typically) white, big-haired, American televangelist from the 1980s seated on a golden throne, flanked by artificial ferns, wagging his bejeweled fingers into a camera lens to chasten his faithful parishioners to “sow the seed of faith” in order to “reap the harvest of God’s favor.” Or something along these lines.
This image association is well-merited, as historian Kate Bowler has documented. The entire global movement we now refer to as the prosperity gospel (PG) movement has its roots in this phenomenon within American evangelicalism in the latter part of the 20th century.
Today, however, we are no longer dealing with a solely American phenomenon. This movement has now spread like wildfire to virtually every part of the developing world, perhaps most profoundly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Recent reports from Pew Research indicate that Christianity is rapidly on the rise in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pew projects that by the year 2050, about 38 percent of the world’s Christians will reside in Sub-Saharan Africa. Pew clarifies that their use of the term “Christian” describes anyone self-identifying as such, including Roman Catholics, Orthodox groups, Mormons, Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses. An estimated 37 percent of this group belongs to what Pew calls “the Protestant faith.”
If these numbers are accurate, then Sub-Saharan Africa will be home to approximately 1.1 billion self-identified “Christians” in 30 years. If 37 percent of that number will be Protestant, then Sub-Saharan Africa will have 408,813,000 people who consider themselves Protestant Christian. That’s about 86 million more people than the entire current population of the U.S.
What’s in a Name?
As a missionary and a theological educator in Sub-Saharan Africa, I can’t help but question the accuracy of such numbers—not because I disagree with the methodology of the research. My disagreement is theological.
Included under the “Protestant” banner are traditional denominations such as Anglican, Baptist, Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian. While most of these denominations have some presence in Africa, they are being far outpaced by other “Protestant” groups that don’t really fit in any of these categories, primarily the PG movement.
But how could a movement with such a seemingly limited target audience—spiritually-inclined Americans with televisions—gain such broad appeal among unreached and underserved parts of the world? There are many possible factors: vast amounts of resources at the movement’s disposal, aggressive and innovative media strategies, global fascination with the Western world and American Pop-Christianity. While each of these could have played some part in this movement’s advance, I suspect there is a deeper, more fundamental reason behind its spread: animism.
Reaping What You Sow
Animism has been defined as, “[the] belief that personal spiritual beings and impersonal spiritual forces have power over human affairs and, consequently, that human beings must discover what beings and forces are influencing them in order to determine future action and, frequently, to manipulate their power” (20).
Any textbook on animism will take us immediately to village huts in Africa or rainforests in South America in order to view animism in its most blatant forms. But Mission Alive founder Gailyn Van Rheenen observed that “animism is prevalent in every continent and is part of every culture” (11). Van Rheenen is perhaps more right than he may realize. For when he cites Western examples of animism, he points to things like New Age spiritism, occultism and astrology, which of course qualify. But if someone asked me what the clearest example of animism in the Western world is today, I would point squarely to the PG movement.
“The PG movement is nothing more than humans seeking to discover the forces that are influencing them and then manipulate their power. This is animism at its core, with a few Bible verses and Jesus attached.”
Put simply, the PG operates on the concept of transaction. Input translates to output. Or, to use more biblical (albeit out-of-context) language, “Whatever a man sows, he will also reap” (Gal. 6:7 HCSB). The posited meaning here is that when someone performs an act of religiosity or devotion, this somehow obligates God to return blessing or favor, just as a payment obligates a vendor to render a service. The application point for the PG is that righteous living, believing, giving and praying obligates God to return financial, emotional, familial or professional blessings.
We see this principle espoused on a spectrum that ranges from blatant formulas, such as those of the preening evangelist on a telethon, to the subtler “follow Jesus and he will make your life all you ever wanted it to be” message coming from the pulpits. But behind all of this pseudo-Christian and quasi-biblical lingo is animism. The PG movement is nothing more than humans seeking to discover the forces that are influencing them and then manipulate their power. This is animism at its core, with a few Bible verses and Jesus attached.