The prosperity gospel is a diverse, popular, and worldwide movement that understands faith to be the instrument through which Christians can attain physical health, material riches, and divine favor. There are countless thousands of these churches around the world with various levels of adherence to the key tenets of the wider movement, yet they rarely advertise themselves as prosperity gospel churches. So how can we know if a church is part of this movement? In Kate Bowler’s book Blessed, she provides some helpful guidance.
Look for Keywords. There are certain keywords that may demonstrate an association with the prosperity gospel. The first place to look is in the name of the church since most churches have names that reflect their ethos. Words like “victory,” “abundant,” or “conquerors” provide what may be key information. Beyond the name, look at the language used either in the church’s material or in its services. In different ways these churches will emphasize their core conviction that faith is the instrument through which believers attain their desires. This leads to language like, “releasing your faith,” “speaking your faith,” or “believing God for” things.
Look for Publications. These churches will probably provide or promote publications associated with other prosperity gospel teachers or organizations. Most notably, it will likely offer books by some of its leading personalities, so look for a bookstore or recommended reading list and see if it contains titles by Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer, Paula White, Benny Hinn, or T.D. Jakes. If it does, that may well indicate an alignment.
Look for Personalities. Prosperity churches tend to align their identity with their senior pastor. If a church’s web site or other material prominently features the pastor, it may be an indication the church is part of the prosperity movement. In fact, “71 percent of American prosperity megachurches use the image of the senior pastor as the primary advertisement on the church’s homepage.” This is substantially higher than non-prosperity churches and megachurches. This adds to the likelihood that people know the church not so much by its formal name as by its pastor—“Joel Osteen’s church” or “Paula White’s church.”
Look for Education. The prosperity gospel tends to draw graduates of a limited number of educational institutions such as Rhema Bible Training College or Oral Roberts University. The movement also hands out an unusually large number of honorary degrees, often from these two institutions or others like them. Within the movement you are likely to find as many honorary degrees from Rhema or Oral Roberts as earned degrees from ones that are more reputable.
Look for Affiliation. The majority of prosperity churches are not aligned with denominations, so there may no denominational affiliation to look for. However, many are bound together in less-formal networks or associations that provide “legal qualification and spiritual accountability to hundreds of member churches.” The Association of Faith Churches and Ministers is an example of one, while Creflo Dollar’s Ministerial Association is an example of a group through which a major personality offers some level of guidance or support.
Look for Connections. There are relatively few superstars in the prosperity movement, so those few people tend to appear at the majority of the big events and to endorse the majority of the prominent books. These people also regularly trade pulpits and appear at each other’s conferences. In this way it is possible to quickly see who is willing to align themselves with the movement and its main voices by simply looking for connections.
What I find particularly interesting about this set of criteria is that it could as easily be applied to other movements such as church growth or even New Calvinism. The keywords, publications, and institutions would change, the centrality of the senior pastor might be a negative rather than positive indicator, and so on. But on the whole, these criteria could be applied to almost any Christian movement to help identify a church within a wider context.
(For an alternate set of criteria, consider John Piper’s Six Keys to Detecting the ‘Prosperity Gospel’.)