First Church of Prosperidad
The author of Latino Pentecostal Identity (Columbia, 2003), Arlene Sanchez Walsh is in the middle of a three-year Lilly Foundation study on U.S. Latino prosperity churches. CT associate editor Madison Trammel asked the Azusa Pacific University professor how such churches mirrorand differ fromtheir counterparts in Africa.
How widespread is the prosperity gospel among U.S. Latinos?
Latino prosperity denominations like Maranatha boast 400 churches worldwide. But prosperity might best be measured in terms of influence. I measure its significance by how many Latinos are influenced by prosperity teachings via the media, not only TBN, but also Almavision, which is based in Los Angeles and has more than 30 outlets in predominately Latino areas from New York to Charlotte to Washington state. People hear those teachings and incorporate them into their preexisting Pentecostal-charismatic theologies, creating a hybrid Pentecostalism that is typical in Latino churches.
In what ways are Latino prosperity churches different from their primarily white or black counterparts in the U.S.?
They have often been taught by white or black prosperity teachers. Those who are graduates of Kenneth Hagin's Rhema school are traditionalists: If you don't get healed, it's because you did not have enough faith, period. But the Maranatha denomination is similar to African churches. It does not like the prosperity label and will not acknowledge it is a prosperity church, even when pushed.
How else are Latino prosperity churches similar to African renewalists?
Immigrant churches are especially similar, though few are as brazen as some of the African churches described in this article. Maranatha churches will pray for finances and for debt to be dissolved, for example, but the pastors don't live anything near an extravagant life.
Immigrant churches also tend to exhibit the roots of their native countries. So if there is a growing prosperity movement in Puerto Rico, some of that influence becomes transnational. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Universal Church of God in Brazil, which has planted churches in every major Latino area in the U.S. and buys television time on most Spanish-language networks.
There is no doubt that immigrants bring prosperity ideas from Latin America, since in that part of the world, according to Andrew Chestnut, virtually no church, even the Catholic church, has been untouched by these teachings. On the other hand, most non-immigrant prosperity churches look like Creflo Dollar's or Kenneth Copeland's, though smaller and not as wealthy.
What positives do prosperity churches offer to Latino communities?
The pastors view their theology as one of liberation: God wants to heal you. God wants you to prosper. You don't have to wait. You don't have be tied down by your immigrant circumstances.
It is a powerful message to immigrant and assimilated Latinos alike, since both score lower than whites on a whole scale of measurables: education, finances, health care, etc.
Do prosperity churches hold back their members or communities in any way?
The focus on materialism is a weakness, and pastors acknowledge it is a temptation. They all say they try to steer their churches away from that focus.
Personally, though, I think the theology is the weakest link, the selective literalism and emphasis on prosperity without responsibility. For a people that have focused for centuries on the suffering Christ, to have that focus turned toward a prosperous Christ is troubling. Once suffering rears its inevitable head in one's life, what kind of Christ is one left with?