This post is the sixth entry in a series by Dr. Rick Waldrop. In this series he explores the relationship between Pentecostalism and the global poor. New posts every Friday! Series Links: First Things, History and Contexts, People of the Book, The Option of the Poor, Social Action, Challenges and Developments

Here, I will divide my observations into two categories. First, those challenges that I see as primarily internal to the Pentecostal movement and then I will move finally to the issue of the so-called “prosperity gospel”.

Internal Challenges

Briefly, as the Pentecostal movement worldwide ages and has moved more into the middle classes and away from the poor, the tendency has been for its growth and expansion to lose impetus. Even in places such as Guatemala and Chile, where Pentecostalism seems to be relatively strong among the poor, the evidence suggests that its growth is beginning to decline or at least plateau[1]. This seems to have been the case for several years now in the Global North with the exception of Pentecostals’ continuing vitality among immigrant and other minority populations such as Latin Americans (North America) and Africans (Europe). Although more research certainly needs to be done on these developments, we might ask the question of whether or not there is a direct correlation between the waning of Pentecostal growth and influence, and its retreat as an organic expression of ministry among the poor. Perhaps the experience of Pentecostals in Europe and North America can assist us in understanding better this situation.

Speaking of influence, or the loss thereof, the other current challenge facing Pentecostals, especially in the Global South, is the problematic role of its recent interest and incursion in the field of political engagement, as is mentioned earlier. According to Juan Sepúlveda, this issue is related to the breadth of scope of the contribution of the Pentecostal churches to society. As we have touched upon in the previous section of this paper, the challenge is that of abandoning this corrupting dream of becoming a political force since, according to Sepúveda and others, Pentecostals have no experience or preparation for this task, and that the formation of Pentecostal or Evangelical political parties is at odds with the tendencies of internal competition and the fractious nature of interpersonal relationships among many Pentecostal leaders. Thus, the challenge is to re-appreciate and prioritize the great social and spiritual contributions that Pentecostal churches can continue to make to the quality of life in the barrios, for example, in the prevention of delinquency and other forms of threats. In other words, suggests Sepúlveda, we should “let our Pentecostal churches continue to be what they have traditionally been: therapeutic and healing communities that have the potential to give much more to society in terms of the overcoming of poverty than by creating an Evangelical block in parliament or forming a great Evangelical political party”[2].  

Finally, what do Pentecostalism, the poor, and the “prosperity gospel” have in common? For some, quite a bit and for others, nothing! I will begin with “continuity” and finalize my observations with “discontinuity”.

Prosperity Teaching

There is no doubt, in my understanding, that there has always been a strand of “prosperity teaching” that has run through most brands of Pentecostalism. This is true by the shear connection of Pentecostalism with the poor and the liberating ethos within the movement itself. We want the poor to prosper, to be healed and to have an abundant life. Therefore, it is not strange that this impulse would be prominent and that, unfortunately at times, it would be overstated and abused by some. The great Pentecostal healing evangelists and crusades of the mid- to late 20th century is a case in point. There certainly was much emphasis on “faith healing”, “receiving your miracle”, “claiming the victory over disease”, “praying through to deliverance”, “prayer lines”, etc. But were these evangelists and crusades “made in America” and exported to the rest of the world? Pentecostal history is full of examples such as T.L. Osborn, Katherine Kuhlman, Tommy Hicks, Oral Roberts, A.A. Allen, Yiye Ávila, Reinhard Bonnke, to name a few. Can it be documented that there have been more or less simultaneous efforts and emphases on “divine healing” in other contexts and on other continents? Or were these, mostly U.S.-based “faith healers”, the precursors to the “prosperity gospel” movement, or as it is also referred to, the “Word of Faith”, “Positive Confession” or the “Prosperity Theology” movement?

Some would see extreme Prosperity Theology as an aberration of Pentecostal healing teaching and practice. Still yet, others would say that it is a child of the “Neo-Pentecostal Movement” and has little to do with classical or historic Pentecostalism. This latter argument is made on the basis of the distinct historical, sociological and theological origins of each movement.

Perhaps a definition taken from the Akropong Consultation[3] would be helpful: Prosperity Gospel is “the teaching that believers have a right to the blessings of health and wealth and that they can obtain these blessings through positive confessions of faith and the ‘sowing of seeds’ through the faithful payment of tithes and offerings”.

So, for some, such as Pentecostal theologian, Eldin Villafañe, “prosperity theology is strange fire and, for that reason, is heresy”[4]. From Latin America, perhaps the best critique comes from Martín Ocaña Flores wherein he posits that Prosperity Theology is a reelaboración teológica [theological re-elaboration] directed toward the middle-upper classes in which classical Pentecostalism is intentionally being “civilized” and taken from the poor, making it acceptable to business men, military officers, and large enterprise owners [5].

The Akropong Statement

Back to the Akropong Consultation (2008-9), I will mention four comments regarding the “excesses of prosperity teaching as incompatible with evangelical biblical Christianity” included in the final Akropong Statement, 2008-9.

  1. “We affirm the miraculous grace and power of God, and welcome the growth of churches and ministries that demonstrate them and that lead people to exercise expectant faith in the living God and his supernatural power…However, we reject as unbiblical the notion that God’s miraculous power can be treated as automatic, or at the disposal of human techniques, or manipulated by human words, actions or rituals”.
  2. “We affirm that there is a biblical vision of human prospering, and that the Bible includes material welfare (both wealth and health) within its teaching about the blessing of God. This needs further study and explanation across the whole Bible in both Testaments….However, we reject the unbiblical notion that spiritual welfare can be measured in terms of material welfare; or that wealth is always a sign of God’s blessing (since it can be obtained by oppression, deceit or corruption); or that poverty, illness or early death is always a sign of God’s curse, or lack of faith, or human curses”.
  3. “We affirm the biblical teaching on the importance of hard work, and the positive use of all the resources that God has given us—abilities, gifts, the earth, education, wisdom, skills, wealth, etc. And to the extent that some prosperity teaching encourages these things, it can have a positive effect on people’s lives…However, we reject as dangerously contradictory to the sovereign grace of God the notion that success in life is entirely due to our own striving, wrestling, negotiation or cleverness. We reject those elements of prosperity teaching that are virtually identical to ‘positive thinking’ and other kinds of ‘self-help’ techniques”
  4. We recognize that prosperity teaching flourishes in contexts of terrible poverty, and that for many people, it presents their only hope, in the face of constant frustration, the failure of politicians and NGOs, etc., for a better future, or even for a more bearable present. We are angry that such poverty persists and we affirm the Bible’s view that it also angers God and that it is not his will that people should live in abject poverty…. However, we do not believe that prosperity teaching provides a helpful or biblical response to the poverty of the people among whom it flourishes. And we observe that much of this teaching has come from North American sources where people are not materially poor in the same way”.[6]

[1] According to my personal conversations with Juan Sepúlveda (Chile) and Roberto Aldana (Guatemala). Also, see Sepulveda, panelmission2111052017-JS.docx.

[2] Correspondence with Juan Sepúlveda, September 25, 2018.

[3] See the Akropong Consultation, in  J. Daniel Salinas, ed., Prosperity Theology and the Gospel: Good News or Bad News for the Poor? Hendrickson Publishers, 2017, pp. 172-175.

[4] Eldin Villafañe, Manda fuego, Señor: Introducción al pentecostalismo. Abingdon Press, 2012, pp. 148-150.

[5] Martin Ocaña Flores, Los Banqueros de Dios: Una aproximación evangélica a la Teología de la Prosperidad. Ediciones Puma, 2002, p. 32.

[6] Salinas, ed., Prosperity Theology, pp. 182-186.

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Engaged Pentecostalism is a community that values open dialogue and respectful engagement from different perspectives. The views expressed above are the author's own and do not reflect those of every part of the community.

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Rick Waldrop

Author: Rick Waldrop

Dr. Richard E. Waldrop and his wife, Janice M. Waldrop, have served as career missionaries and educators with the Church of God (Cleveland) World Missions. They have served for 40 years (1976-2016) at different posts in five countries, including Guatemala, Costa Rica, Honduras, Ecuador and the USA. Today, they lead the Shalom Project, an organization aimed at providing holistic mission education and empowerment.