"Prosperity gospel" churches compete with Baptist churches in Africa, especially for younger people, with promises of wealth and health, according to participants in a forum discussion Saturday at the Baptist World Alliance gathering in Accra, Ghana.
Neville Callam, newly elected BWA general secretary, reads liturgy at a Thursday worship service at a castle once used in exporting Africans into slavery.
The movement is "attractive to young people, because TV shows a materialistic world," said an African leader. "Young people like that life."
The leader noted the influence of the Trinity Broadcasting Network on Africans who listen to the same message all day that promises of abundant material possessions.
TBC recycles worship services and talk shows around the world, spreading a theology that if Christians will claim the so-called promises of God, made in a few selected biblical texts, they can enjoy luxurious cars, expensive homes, obedient children and untroubled health. It's a theology devoid of discipleship and service.
"Like many parts of the world, the prosperity gospel has made its way to Africa, especially into evangelical churches," the leader said. "The prosperity gospel is taking advantage of Africa because of more poverty, ill health, malaria, TB and HIV/AIDS."
BWA forums offer an occasion for frank dialogue with the expectation of mutual respect among participants over sharp disagreements. Forum rules allow press coverage without the naming participants and attributing positions to participants.
Titled "Prosperity Gospel in the African Context," the forum was a follow up to a two-and-half hour discussion at the BWA gathering last year in Mexico City on the same phenomenon in Latin America.
The prosperity gospel preaches from a "one-side Bible that if you really believe in God you will have all you want, because you are blessed with the Abraham blessing," said the African leader. "You can claim it and get it. You can't claim you are saved and remain sick. If so, your faith is weak. Confess and you will be well."
He told a packed room of participants, most from across Africa, that "to be rich is not a sign of righteousness; to be poor does not show we are right with God."
While he said Christians must work hard, he called wealth a blessing from God that must be shared with others.
"The past has caused some damage to Africa," he said. "Some missionaries planted some poor churches by emphasizing getting the soul saved and not addressing poverty."
Speaking from another country in the massive continent of Africa, a Baptist pastor noted that the prosperity gospel was born out of a particular need. He compared it to both liberation theology and "slavery theology," movements that emerged due to needs in different centuries and continents.
Prosperity gospel preachers were loud, energetic, inspiring ministers, who "gave people hope," he said, noting that most churches that teach such a message are growing numerically and that young Africans are leaving traditional churches to attend prosperity churches.
"Baptist church members … go to prosperity gospel [churches] because they are selling needs," observed one forum participant. "Baptist churches are not giving hope. [We] must look at needs to people, must look at the reality of the needs and provide solutions."
"Baptists become guilt of preaching one text, evangelism, every Sunday," he said. "Christ would not say this is okay."
An African woman said that church members want more than only biblical teaching. She said church pastors should help people with applying biblical teaching.
Churches ask members for too much money, observed another African woman. "If we are going to be relevant, we need to go back to the Bible to answers" to basic needs.
There was widespread agreement that poverty makes Africans vulnerable to believing what the prosperity gospel promises.
Many participants expressed the need for pastors to preach from the entire Bible and not from the few biblical verses to which the prosperity preachers appeal.
Some said the prosperity theology was unworkable over the long term due to widespread poverty and ill health. One forum participant told of a prosperity preacher who disappeared from his church after securing abundant wealth from the offerings of members.
Robert Parham is executive director of the Baptist Center for Ethics and serves on the BWA's Freedom and Justice Commission. He attended the general council meeting in Accra.
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