On July 18, 2021, prosperity preacher Casey Treat delivered a sermon to his Seattle megachurch (founded 1980) titled “Force of Faith.” He began by informing his audience of “two things that changed everything in my life” at the age of nineteen when he experienced a conversion to Christianity in a drug rehabilitation center. The two things were needed to renew his mind according to Scripture and to use his faith so that he would “not be limited by this world.” Treat explained, “That’s how [my wife] Wendy and I are celebrating our forty years of marriage, healthy and strong and whole. Yesterday we were out on our bicycles, rode for twenty-five miles and we said, ‘It’s still working! It’s still working!’” Treat went on to credit prosperity pastors Julius Young and Frederick Price, his two “spiritual fathers in the faith,” with teaching him these spiritual techniques to “leave my depressions, fears, anxieties, addictions, poverty all of that, behind.”

Not only is the prosperity gospel “still working” for Casey and Wendy Treat, but based on the proliferation of it not only in America but around the world, it’s still working for millions of other people as well. Consider the American context alone. According to Kate Bowler in Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, in 2011 one million people were attending American prosperity megachurches with the largest of these churches, Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, boasting 38,000 members. Some of the most recognized names in American Christianity over the last one hundred years are associated in one form or another with the prosperity gospel—names like Oral Roberts, Kenneth Hagen, Kenneth Copeland, Frederick Price, John Hagee, Joyce Meyer, T. D. Jakes, Joel Osteen, and Creflo Dollar. Institutions such as Oral Roberts University and Rhema Bible Training Center (part of Kenneth Hagen’s ministry empire) have given the movement national recognition and served as somewhat of a unifying force among the many disparate prosperity gospel churches spread throughout America. Not only are prosperity churches and ministries not geographically limited but also prosperity preaching translates well into all the major media whether print, radio, television, or internet. Indeed, as Casey Treat declared, the prosperity gospel is “still working.”

What is the Prosperity Gospel?

It’s one thing to describe the ubiquity of the prosperity gospel but quite another to explain it. What exactly is the prosperity gospel? “Though it is hard to describe,” observes Bowler, “it is easy to find. The prosperity gospel is a wildly popular Christian message of spiritual, physical, and financial mastery that dominates not only much of the American religious scene but some of the largest churches around the globe.”

While the prosperity gospel has spread throughout the world, it has its roots in American soil. Indeed, it is in many ways the Americanization of Christianity. Bowler explains how the prosperity gospel is a particular “American blessing”: “But rather than sacralizing the founding of the United States or visions of manifest destiny, the prosperity gospel was constituted by the deification and ritualization of the American Dream: upward mobility, accumulation, hard work, and moral fiber.” Its global persistence, however, is due to more than the appeal of the American Dream. After all, the American Dream doesn’t explain the prosperity gospel’s proliferation in a place like Ethiopia where it’s every bit as popular as it is in America. It has to do with its “comprehensive approach to the human condition”:

“Why has it become so successful in so many places? We must not think that it is simply the lure of financial success. The prosperity movement offers a comprehensive approach to the human condition. It sees men and women as creatures fallen, but not broken, and it shares with them a “gospel,” good news that will set them free from a multitude of oppressions …. The prosperity gospel’s chief allure is simply optimism.”

What began as a baptized American Dream became the comprehensive answer to the human condition since the fall. A movement hatched inside Pentecostalism in the early twentieth century “soon found that its universal reassurances could carry it far beyond any denominational or sectarian home.” A global movement was born. Surprisingly, given its dominance within American religion and global Christianity, the prosperity gospel has received scant scholarly attention.

It has become clear that the prosperity gospel is here to stay. Therefore, further study of the prosperity gospel is needed in the light of Scripture. The prosperity gospel is inconsistent with a Pauline theology of suffering. More specifically, when a Pauline theology of suffering is seen in its connection to glory, the prosperity gospel is seen for what it truly is, namely, a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all (see Gal 1:6–9).

The Necessity of Pilgrim Pastors

The implications of this teaching for pastoral ministry are significant. A Pauline theology of suffering means that churches need not prosperity pastors but pilgrim pastors. In contrast to the prosperity pastor, a pilgrim pastor assumes that pastors and their people will suffer. Indeed, because God has ordained suffering as the way to glory a pastor thinks a particular way about ministry.

Pilgrim pastors, unlike prosperity pastors, take seriously the example of Jesus who “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51; cf. Isa. 50:7). Pilgrim pastors are theologians of the cross who seek to embody the sacrifice of Christ in the service of his people (Col 1:24). After all, it was Jesus who set himself apart from the faithless shepherds of Ezekiel 34 when he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Our suffering, of course, is not at all redemptive or atoning like that of Jesus.

As Michael Horton explains, “His suffering was redemptive, whereas ours is a participation in that already accomplished victory. But our cross-bearing is still real. It is not another cross that we bear, our own burden for sin and guilt, but sharing in his humiliation and shame as those who belong to him.” This is why ministry for pilgrim pastors is not about using people as a means to the end of their wealth or platform or influence or fame, but a laying down of their lives for the good of the churches they serve.

This article is adapted from a chapter in Healthy and Wealthy? A Biblical-Theological Response to the Prosperity Gospel edited by Robert Plummer.