The words “prosperity gospel” are enough to make many Christians shudder and envision white shiny suits, Rolls Royces and “preachers in sneakers”.
But Australian cultural commentator Stephen McAlpine thinks a “soft prosperity gospel” is infiltrating our churches.
He is concerned that Western Christians in particular have a sense of entitlement, much like the older brother in Jesus’ parable: “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me …” (Luke 15:29)
We know God doesn’t owe us for our obedience. But, if we’re honest, we often feel betrayed when things don’t work out the way we expect.
In his forthcoming book, Futureproof, McAlpine writes, “Wealth is the blind spot of the modern West.” Our cultural obsession with progress, including economic progress, makes it very difficult to obey the scriptural command not to trust in wealth, but to give generously.
In fact, McAlpine extends this observation beyond financial wealth, noting the way Tony Rinaudo (the “forest-maker”) used “the wealth of his education and intellect” to serve others.
My fellow Sydneysiders may face particular temptation to idolise wealth. Speaking with Eternity, McAlpine observes that in many Sydney churches “the second topic after Jesus is housing … Sometimes the first topic before Jesus is housing.”
With about 30 per cent of Australian homes occupied by only one resident, McAlpine thinks it will be crucial for Aussie Christians to be creative and generous in their housing arrangements. The common alternatives – either relocating or relying on two high incomes – both prevent the sort of long-term church commitment that enables local congregations to deepen and flourish.
A rival gospel
But the risk of entitlement is not limited to financial prosperity. In fact, McAlpine thinks many Western Christians have internalised another cultural gospel. Its essence is that “the goal of your life is to find out your true inner authentic self and express that to the world.”
This message is everywhere – threaded through every reality-TV platitude and underpinning every advertisement.
In one sense it’s “the age-old issue from the garden”, McAlpine notes. But in another sense, individualistic rebellion has become less and less constrained by cultural forces. While traditional societies were built on relationships of mutual obligation, “now the only obligation we have is to ourselves – to express ourselves authentically.” Many acts of self-expression that carried significant cultural costs are now celebrated.
The gospel of the self doesn’t deliver in the long run.
McAlpine is clear that self-expression is not all bad, and that he isn’t hoping for a return to the traditional world. But he is equally clear that an obsession with authenticity and self-expression presents a rival to the Christian gospel. “The authenticity gospel says the search is within. You can’t trust out there (the cosmos) and you can’t trust across here (the world). The only thing you can trust is your authentic self.”
Like any gospel, “the authenticity program promises a lot”: fulfillment, pleasure, freedom and the like. But the gospel of the self doesn’t deliver in the long run, McAlpine argues, as our culture’s polarisation, cancellation, loneliness, anxiety and crisis of meaning demonstrate. There is a reason that Augustine, Martin Luther and Karl Barth referred to sin itself as a state of being “curved in on oneself”, and sin never delivers on its promises.
“The biggest challenge we have had as pastors for many years is that people will come to church as consumers.” – Stephen McAlpine
Not just out there
Unfortunately, but predictably, this pervasive focus on looking inward has seeped into the Western church. As well as feeling entitled to prosperity (while insisting that we absolutely don’t feel that way!), we often feel entitled to express ourselves, becoming frustrated when we are constrained by others or even by God himself.
“The biggest challenge we have had as pastors for many years,” McAlpine reflects, “is that people will come to church as consumers, and my job is to make them disciples of the gospel, not disciples of the culture.” In fact, he thinks “the good life” is far more likely to tear middle-class Christians away from Jesus than “the bad life”, emphasising our task as Christian leaders, parents and friends to remind each other that Jesus is the most compelling thing in our lives.
“Men my age in particular become self-entitled, [thinking], ‘I’ve done the hard yards. I get to do what I want and make the choices.'”
McAlpine acknowledges his own struggle against hyper-individualism: “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more individualistic. I have more money, flexibility and autonomy than I had at 30. My kids are older. The half-gods of comfort and ease are what you want as you get older, and you feel entitled to them.
“I think men my age in particular become self-entitled, [thinking], ‘I’ve done the hard yards. I get to do what I want and make the choices.’ Well the Bible doesn’t say that, and I think that’s one of our issues. I need Christian friends around me to knock a bit of that off me I think.”
The real thing
In keeping with his continual reference to the situation of God’s people throughout the Bible, McAlpine suggests that the book of Daniel could be a useful litmus test for us and our churches.
We often use Daniel as a template for navigating the world, assuming that if we obey God like Daniel did, then we will be vindicated before the world the same way he was. But the problem with that (prosperity-oriented) interpretation, McAlpine explains, is that “Jesus is the greater Daniel”, yet on the cross, he was thrown to the lions and suffered death, as did many of his followers.
In fact, even the story of Daniel and his companions was a story of resolving to obey the Lord regardless of the earthly consequences (1:8; 3:17-18). And in the end, even Daniel, when he sought clarity about how God’s promises would come about, was told, “Go your way, Daniel, because the words are rolled up and sealed until the time of the end … As for you, go your way till the end. You will rest, and then at the end of the days you will rise to receive your allotted inheritance.” (Daniel 12: 8-13)
“The great irony of the gospel is that you actually find yourself when you lose yourself in the service of other people.”
Jesus was raised up, and we will be too, along with Daniel. But first, we are commanded to take up our own crosses and follow him.
Following him doesn’t mean going back to the traditional world. It means, in McAlpine’s words, living out this gospel: “God loves the individual, and saves them into community so that each individual part plays its role. And the great irony of the gospel is that you actually find yourself when you lose yourself in the service of other people.”
The gospel of Jesus – not one of self-expression, but of self-sacrificial love – is the gospel that will outlast every rival.