Private jets, luxurious residences, giant screens showing the faces of leaders during their sermons, incessant demands for money, full authority of pastors over their congregants, these are some of the characteristics more or less shared by churches defending the gospel of prosperity, assimilating faith and material success and health. Especially present on the other side of the Atlantic and in Africa, the assemblies preaching this doctrine are developing in Europe, particularly in France where the CNEF denounces their ideology.
If the words "prosperity gospel" immediately conjure up megachurches run by super-rich celebrities such as Benny Hinn or Joel Osteen in North America, there are also small ones, even in Europe. The same codes are found in these various congregations where the speeches are self-validated by the preachers supposed to possess particular charisms and whose spouses also have an outsized importance in the church which strives to obey them, buy their books and others. "goodies", believing their extraordinary stories and promises.
The failure of the latter can only be explained by a lack of faith or morality of the faithful invited to question themselves. The same pattern is found in matters of health, which is not considered an aspect of the human condition: the sick person would have a sin in his life or would lack faith.
"Give me 500 euros to find a job!"
"Who wants a blessing from the pastor? Those who gave 100 euros, come on, I'm going to give you a special blessing!", remembers horrified Isabelle (pseudonym) who attended an ethnic church of African origin where one preached this doctrine. In this assembly governed by a couple in the west of France, there was a red velvet sofa on the platform: "When the husband preached, his wife sat there and vice versa", says Isabelle, thus showing the position superiority of the couple over the rest of the congregation.
The pastor did not hesitate to make spiritual contracts with the unemployed, asking 500 euros from job seekers to pray on their behalf. “He asked two young girls to testify to the blessings received and asked them to deposit, each, an envelope of 500 euros in his personal basket…, as Christmas was approaching”, relates Isabelle.
According to him, the faithful who gave money to the "man of God" were blessed a hundredfold. An idea notably taught by the wife of televangelist Kenneth Copeland, Gloria, in her book "God's Will is prosperity", as denounces the evangelical media The Gospel Coalition.
Abusively interpreting a verse from the Gospel of Mark (chapter 10, verse 30) where Christ speaks of blessing a hundredfold without mentioning money, Copeland assures that whoever gives 10 dollars will receive 1000 and so on. Disregarding the previous verses warning of the risks of wealth.
One Sunday, Isabelle's pastor asked that each believer in his little congregation give 10 euros so that he could sign a white sheet, he said after receiving this sum from about forty people that he would sleep on the sheet to bless donors. If the promised blessing is not forthcoming, it is due to a lack of faith on the part of the faithful, he professes. Ironically, the pastor told the faithful that, in a former life, he robbed passengers in the Paris metro, which had earned him a stay in prison.
A public stuck in spite of manifest abuses
The lavish lifestyle of the pastors of these movements is denounced by the media and evangelical organizations, such as the Trinity Foundation which exposes the frauds of televangelists and the undue enrichment, the lavish lifestyle, for example multi-million dollar homes made available to pastors by or owned by churches.
Thus, the property of the pastor of the Potter's House in West Virginia TD Jakes was valued at 4,4 million dollars in 2021, that of Joel Osteen at 10,5 million or that of Kenneth Copeland at nearly 11 million in 2020. The request for donations from American televangelist Jesse Duplantis, who already owns three planes, to buy a fourth jet in order to bring the good word to the world had attracted media attention outside the United States. If these abuses are documented to the point that they should be repulsive, the danger exists, for these preachers may find a naïve audience.
If Isabelle left the church after a few months, after having confronted the pastor with the Bible, the faithful remain for the most part, believing that this pattern is justified, and ethnic origin may not be unimportant in this acceptance. Assemblies preaching prosperity do not push all their eccentricities to the level of that of Isabella, but we find the same constants: the financial promises and the credulity of the faithful convinced of the biblicality of these practices. In addition, relates Isabelle, fear is also a binder: "The pastor (who spoke a lot about witchcraft in Africa) pointed the finger at the congregation and predicted that someone in the family of one of the faithful would die before the end of the year because of his refusal to recognize Jesus."
“Ethnic churches may be affected because of a culture – prevalent in their countries of origin – relating to church functioning and pastoral roles which favors the concentration of power in the hands of a pastor known for his “charisma”, and in particular because of its "success", a tangible sign of "divine blessing", observes Philippe Gonzalez, lecturer and researcher in the sociology of communication and culture at the University of Lausanne.
This specialist in religion in the public space, in particular evangelical movements, nevertheless wishes to recall the presence in France of megachurches which do not address a population of immigrant origin, in which the pastor and his discourse on healing are as important as in prosperity churches, which can promote a certain porosity even if they do not preach financial blessing. In particular during tours of promoters of this doctrine in Europe, such as Joyce Meyer or Benny Hinn in the Paris region or in Normandy where churches of prosperity are established.
A significant risk of porosity
The porosity can be done at the level of the faithful, but also of the apparatuses, "the institutional supports which guarantee the framing of the charisms can jump", underlines Philippe Gonzalez who cites the example of the Free Church of Geneva in the years which have followed Toronto, on the rise of the New Apostolic Reform trend". When the "Toronto Blessing" appeared in 1994 in the charismatic Vineyard Church in the eponymous Canadian city, the "revival" crossed the Atlantic and evangelical Christians , but also Catholics, hastened to attend meetings of this kind in Europe where visitations of angels or the transformation of teeth into gold were preached. 'erode – like in any institution,' the sociologist points out. And what happened to churches with the 'Toronto Blessing' can happen with the prosperity gospel.
The risk of evangelical worshipers, or even congregations, joining this doctrine is favored by a misunderstanding of the theological foundations of traditional denominations or by sermons unrelated to the prosperity gospel, but which come close to it. A poll published by Time magazine in 2006 found that 17% of American Christians clearly identify with this movement, while 31% adhere to the belief that "if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money." 61% agreed with the more general idea that "God wants people to be prosperous".
The lack of tightness is also due to teachings that "prosperity begins with being in good health, to which is added everything else, work, finances and of course a passage from the Gospel of Luke ( chapter 6, verse 38: “Give and it will be given to you”), notes Christine who attended a church that did not claim the prosperity gospel in Oklahoma, United States. The pastors teach there "especially the fact of giving in time of lack, because that is where the provision comes in", she reports, specifying that they use for this purpose the story of the widow of Zarephath mentioned in the Old Testament (1 Kings, chapter 17) which gave the little she had to the hungry prophet Elijah before receiving in abundance.
Philippe Gonzalez was thus able to observe that the "ideas of complete recovery of the person (spiritual, physical and material" were even proclaimed by Revival pastors that no one in the Geneva evangelical milieu suspected of drifting. On the contrary, underlines- he, "these were actors well integrated into the local bodies of the Evangelical Network." While he understands that this movement can appeal to the most disadvantaged, he emphasizes that all layers of society are concerned: "In the facts, I note that bourgeois populations or those on the rise are also sensitive to it, whether they come from migration or natives.
In France, the CNEF denounced the prosperity gospel
Faced with the progress of this movement in France, the CNEF (National Council of Evangelicals of France) chose in 2012 to set up barriers. Despite doctrinal differences between the various denominations within the umbrella organization, the body's theological committee drafted a warning adopted unanimously by the delegates of the unions of churches and works gathered in plenary assembly.
Taking the measure of the phenomenon by considering that it was misidentified, the Council wanted to define it and give the tools to those who are attracted or encounter this movement to realize its dangers, its practices and principles far removed from evangelical positions. This text also aims to allow frank discussions with churches close to this theology who would like to become a member of the CNEF.
The organization specifies from the outset that "some of these teachings are not presented in a systematized way, but distilled in small touches in the middle of other edifying and beneficial remarks", which requires a work of discernment. The panel of theologians notes that proponents of the prosperity gospel distort, exclude, overemphasize Bible verses. Thus, while "Scripture integrates, in presenting to us the pedagogy of God, experiences such as deprivation, trial, expectation, dependence, hope, perseverance, the doctrine of prosperity denies God these tools for our good", denounces the CNEF which warns against the theological implications of a requirement of abundance:
"What place for attachment to God despite limitations or lacks, and for free and persevering love, if God chooses to bless other than abundance, or ease, or physical well-being? therefore resist the dictatorship of "everything, immediately” of prosperity theology: the immediate good is not always the superior good. God remains the master of the times, the stages and the means that he uses to achieve in us the good that he chooses and aims for us."
This anthropomorphism, the document asserts, leads to the postulation that man participates in the divine nature, as if he were an emanation of God: "In the movement of prosperity, man is the one who commands and God the one who serves ." The authors of the text point out that the apostle Paul does not establish "a mathematical equation of proportionality between the seed and the harvest" when he says that "he who sows little will reap little, and [that] he who sows abundantly will reap in abundance (2 Corinthians chapter 9, verse 6), but that he denounces chilly avarice ("little = sparingly"), and calls for disinterested liberality ("in abundance = with liberality").
Last July, the aptly named American televangelist Creflo Dollar made flip-flop on teaching tithing. The preacher who owns $27 million has denounced tithing as having no Christian basis. The pastor of a 30-member church in Georgia encouraged to 'throw away all the books, tapes and videos' he had produced on tithing, while assuring he would not apologize for having taught this doctrine, because it enabled him to come to this conclusion.
He claims to have realized while reading the Epistle to the Romans (chapter 6 verse 14) that Christians were not bound by the law of the Old Testament. In 2018 and 2019, it was Benny Hinn and Joyce Meyer who said take a certain distance from their own teachings.