Benny Hinn made an announcement last week.
“I am correcting my own theology and you need to all know it. The blessings of God are not for sale. And miracles are not for sale. And prosperity is not for sale,” he said during his weekly TV broadcast.
His comments made waves. Hinn is one of the biggest names of a movement known broadly as the prosperity gospel. (His nephew wrote for CT about rejecting its theology.) Those seen as part of the movement—be they Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, or Paula White—are often attacked for their health and wealth teachings.
But determining the limits of the movement—especially when it exists around the world—isn’t easy, says Candy Gunther Brown, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University.
“Anytime you use a phrase like ‘prosperity gospel’ whether it’s in a North American context or whether it’s the Global South, it’s necessary to be very conscious to not paint things in too broad of strokes,” said Brown. “You need to be careful to respect the variety in the Global South and not idealize any more than you paint under the same brush of criticism. There’s variety in teachings, whether you’re talking about Nigeria or Brazil or South Korea.”
Brown joined digital media producer Morgan Lee and editor in chief Mark Galli to discuss how much influence prosperity gospel preachers actually have, what President Trump thinks about the prosperity gospel, and where the millennial leaders are in this movement.
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Highlights from Quick To Listen: Episode 177
Can you give us some background on Benny Hinn and his ministry?
Brown: Benny Hinn was born in Israel and eventually migrated to Canada. He started off in the Greek Orthodox church, but then he gravitated more towards Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity.
As Hinn tells the story, one of the most important formative influences for him was a woman named Kathryn Kuhlman, who was a very influential charismatic healing evangelist in the 1960s and 70s. He attended a Kuhlman miracle service in 1973, and he modeled a lot of his ministry after hers.
Kuhlman emphasized that the Holy Spirit is a person, not an impersonal force. And she would talk about the Holy Spirit in her services, and in 1947 a woman stood up in the middle of her service and said that she had been healed while Kuhlman was preaching on the Holy Spirit.
So this came to characterize Kuhlman's ministry— a welcoming of the presence of the Holy Spirit, and then people would just say that they had been healed. She wasn't praying for them. She didn't have a big long healing line. She actually didn't have a lot of patience for that. And Benny Hinn has really kind of emulated this in his ministry.
Even the way that he often dressed, which has attracted a lot of attention—he comes in in fully white suits—he models that on Kuhlman who would wear white dresses, which she modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson, who modeled that on Mariah Woodworth-Etter.
Even when he was making his renunciation statement a few days ago, Benny Hinn said he was called as an evangelist to preach the gospel, to pray for the sick, to pray for empowerment of the Holy Spirit—not to focus on financial prosperity. And incidentally, that's not a direction that Kuhlman’s ministry ever took.
So Hinn got his start in the 1970s, he founded the Orlando Christian Center in 1983, and then he took on more prominence. So by the time you get to the 1990s, he had a broadcast called This Is Your Day, and crucially he published a book called Good Morning, Holy Spirit in 1990. And it really had that emphasis, that Hinn was recalling in his recent statement, on just living in the presence of the Holy Spirit and that focus on Jesus' ministry, Jesus' message.
The teachings on prosperity started to grow up with that in the 1990s, and really even the 1980s, but that's not where he started.
When we hear the name Benny Hinn, oftentimes there are other names that also come up. Can tell us about some of the other leading so-called Prosperity preachers and their backgrounds?
Brown: When there is media coverage of Prosperity the same names come up over and over again. Figures like Joel Osteen, who is probably one of the best known because he has an enormously large church in Texas; Paula White, who's got a lot of prominence because of her advisory position with Trump and her role in giving the invocation at his inauguration and regularly counseling him; Joyce Meyer in Missouri; Creflo Dollar in the African-American church in Georgia; TD Jakes, also in the African-American church in Texas.
And I would say that what's characteristic of all of these figures is that they have megachurch followings, they've attracted a lot of listeners, but they've also made very strategic use of the media. None of them are strictly teaching a message of prosperity, and they're generally not really comfortable with being called prosperity teachers or preachers because they want to be associated with the gospel.
It's just that their interpretation of the gospel is that it includes more than salvation. It includes healing and it includes other kinds of prosperity that in ways are quite easy to caricatured as being all about money and all about the personal finances of those ministries.
What type of institutional presence have they had with hosting conferences, starting organizations, starting publishing houses and so on and so forth?
Brown: If you think of the most prominent individuals associated with prosperity theology, most of them have risen to that stature because it's been a multi-modal approach that they've taken. They've written books, often with Christian presses; those books have sold well; they have churches; they also have nonprofit foundations; they have radio and/or television broadcasts; they use Twitter and social media.
So it's an informal kind of network of communication, but that's also partly why it's effective—it's reaching out on multiple levels.
Who first coined the term "Prosperity Gospel," and what can you tell us about where the roots of the theology derived from?
Brown: If you go to Oxford English Dictionary, it actually points to a 1908 newspaper article from Fort Wayne, Indiana, that use the term. And the phrase was this, "the Prosperity Gospel has been preached just the same in all the lake ports."
So the term's been in currency for some time. Often it is used by critics of the movement to say, "oh, well, that's a prosperity theology" or "that's health and wealth, it's not the real gospel." So it's used often as a kind of pejorative term for a departure from orthodox Christianity.
But more leaders than you might think are actually okay with using the term, at least in common parlance. Although then sometimes you'll get those same leaders and you want to pin them down or interview them, and they'll say, "well no, I don't want to be characterized with phrase," because of all the negative connotations.
The negative connotations really took off in the 1980s, when there are all kinds of scandals with televangelist over both financial and sexual improprieties. So in some ways, there's the pre-scandal and the post-scandal version, but the roots of this movement go far further back.
If you talk to one of the Prosperity preachers, they would say they go back to the Bible, to the New Testament teachings. Oral Roberts, who was one of the mid-twentieth century pioneers said that it was in 1947 that he discovered 3 John 2: "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health even as thy soul prospereth."
And well before Roberts, if you want to just look at US history, you can find roots in the early 19th century with someone like Ralph Waldo Emerson. You see a lot of the same kinds of threads in the development of the New Thought movement of the 19th century, and you get other kinds of movements like muscular Christianity or Rags to Riches success models. So there's a real kind of blending of Christian traditions.
It's really difficult to kind of tease out which influence is the leading influence, or the most significant because they really do overlap and shape one another.
What is the relationship between mainstream Christianity and its emphasis on prosperity for the poor and Prosperity Gospel as it's as we understand?
Brown: I want to start with Reinhard Bonnke because he makes a point that's been made by a number of leading evangelist and theologians. Bonnke's ministry is about healing and deliverance from spiritual oppression. It's not about prosperity in the sense of, "you give $1000 and you're going to get a lot of money or you're going to have six jets just like I do." That's a very different kind of message. The context of the global South is fundamentally different from the U.S. context.
The second stream of this I want to follow is watching how teachings have changed over time because of the pressures of the very media that have facilitated preaching. And I think Oral Roberts is a really important example here, because the emphasis of his early ministry in the late 1940s was like Bonnke's. Roberts started off with that same focus on praying for healing of the sick, welcoming the presence of the Holy Spirit, and opposing spiritual oppression or casting out evil spirits. But it was when Roberts was developing a printed media ministry, then radio and television, it was very expensive, and it forced a shift in method. He couldn't pray for as many people when it was being televised because it doesn't look as good on film if you pray for 100 people in quick succession versus you tell the story of one person. He started praying less for deliverance from demons because that didn't gel well with middle-class American sensibilities.
You can see a more extreme example of this with Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker and with the expansion of the satellite television, "the tail started wagging the dog," and there was such an incredible need for funds just to keep this thing going that it created a shift. And I think we see this in Benny Hinn's recent statements as well, where he said that he got distracted, he started going in different directions.
To go back to the bigger umbrella question about how. This relates to mainstream Christianity, I think if you trace out Christian history from Bible times to the present, you're going to see an emphasis on preaching good news to the poor and calling those who have Earthly blessings to use those to support others—especially in the church, but outside of the church as well.
But the real question or issue is about financial accountability. It's a concern that money that's being given for the purpose of benefiting the poor is actually being directed towards benefiting certain individuals and their family and their friends.
One doesn't have to be in a prosperity theology category for that same bigger question to really be very salient of, what is the purpose of money? What is the purpose of giving? How our funds being used? What is the kind of accountability? And what is both the heart, but then also what is the fruit or the result of the use of funds?
Anytime you use the phrase "Prosperity Gospel," whether it's a North American context or whether it's the global South, it's necessary to be very conscious to not paint things in too broad of strokes. You need to be careful to respect the variety in the global South and not idealize any more than you paint under the same brush of criticism.
There is a variety of teachings and emphasis, whether you're talking about Nigeria or Brazil or South Korea or other places where there are actually quite prominent churches that are often categorized as prosperity. There are preachers there who are lining their own pockets. There are preachers there who get distracted and who do start talking more about money than about prosperity in the sense of prospering spiritually and having enough and having a kind of salvation that has material heft to it. And then you have others who are very discerning of that in their own leaders, as well as in North American leaders.
And so I think it's important to have a respect for lay Christians, as well as leaders, and to neither think that everyone is somehow being duped by glitzy televangelists nor that everyone outside the US is somehow more naive or noble or free from the same kind of greed that can get into play in U.S. context.
What type of messages about wealth and money and prosperity would you say most American Christians and Christian leaders absorbed or that comes out in their theology?
Brown: There have actually been some surveys that have asked that kind of question. Time Magazine did a poll and 17 percent of Americans said that they would classify themselves as being Prosperity Gospel, but then 61 percent say that they believe God wants people to be prosperous; 31% agree that if you give money to God, God will bless you with more money.
So the teachings, or the beliefs, are actually quite a bit more widespread. I think that in churches there's a lot of variety because there can be a kind of allergic reaction against the thing that sounds Prosperity-related, and so churches that wouldn't consider themselves a part of that movement might actually say so explicitly. I think I've heard more preachers try to distance themselves from the word Prosperity than who have said that they would affiliate with that movement.
And sometimes that can lead to an embarrassment about talking about money, there's a need to apologize for it. There's a sense that it's fine to be wealthy if you're a businessperson, but not if you're a preacher. And that can actually create hardships for people who are in ministries and who are trying to lead churches but who have had their options really constrained by the reputation of the larger movement.
As we mentioned at the top of the show, Paula White appears in many ways to be President Trump's personal pastor. To what extent is President Trump influenced by the Prosperity Gospel, in your opinion?
Brown: It's hard to say that the Prosperity Gospel is influencing him. It is parallel in terms of the affirmation of wealth to ideas that he has, it certainly is useful for him. But it's harder to say that his beliefs or practices have been influenced by it.
He picked up on Paula White by hearing her on television and thinking, "I like that teaching. I like that idea." So it's harder to say that he's actually been changed, but rather that he finds it attractive for whatever his own reasons are.
I don't think it's surprising in the least to see people like Paula White, Kenneth Copeland, and even a decent number of Southern Baptists among Trump's spiritual advisors. Trump is a businessman and he likes the message that hard work is rewarded. He likes the message that wealth is a good this. He also recognizes who's influential, and who has a platform, who's going to be able to influence potential voters. So I think it is entirely logical from the perspective of attracting a contingent of Christian voters.
There are fear mongers about Prosperity Gospel that think it's super influential, reaching out its tentacles, and it's really sabotaging Christianity in America. What would be your thoughts or impression of this?
Brown: I think t's a question of cause and effect. There are certainly American cultural values of materialism, and individualism, and the persistence of the rag to riches success myth, that are very prevalent and very influential. Often the books that do circulate in African cultures are written by people like Kenneth Copeland or Kenneth Hagin or Benny Hinn, so I don't want to diminish the influence or the attractiveness of this myth of the American dream. But my question would be whether that's coming from the church, or whether it's simply church leaders who are appropriating values in the culture and then appealing to the desires for wealth and material success.
And so this is where I go back to what else is being preached by those who are caricatured as Prosperity. Someone like Benny Hinn preaches a lot about intimacy with the Holy Spirit, the need for the power of the Spirit, praying for healing, and even concern for the poor. But what gets picked up on is only the prosperity message. Sometimes is more of an importation of cultural values rather than and exportation of a theologically set of influences.
When we think about the cast of characters that we call Prosperity Gospel preachers, many of them are Gen-X or Boomers. Are there any Millennial Prosperity preachers?
Brown: So I think part of the phenomenon is that it takes a certain amount of time to raise instead. You do have people like Ben Houston, who is lead pastor of Hillsong Los Angeles. He falls within the same kind of umbrella that his father Ben Houston's ministry does. Ben Houston would say he isn't a Prosperity preacher, but he wrote a book called You Need More Money.
Or someone like Chris Galanos who is pastor of a church called Experience life in Lubbock, Texas. if you look on his website, I found the three-month tithe challenge. To quote, "a money-back guarantee of sorts. We commit to you that if you tithe for three months and God doesn't hold true to his promises of blessing, we will refund 100% of your tithe." So you might call that Prosperity teaching. So It's there and I don't think it's necessarily disappearing.
But on the other hand, if you look at other kinds of survey research on Millennials and Generation Z, there is more of a kind of skepticism. These are folks who have grown up with the scandals of the 1980s. Right in their formative growing up years, they're seeing people with sexual and financial scandals, and they're being told watch out for that Prosperity Gospel.
More of that generation are saying they're concerned about things like immigration, and poverty, and climate change, and social justice, and using money to benefit the poor not to get lots of houses and jets and so forth.
So I do think that there's a change in the culture within the rising generations, but I don't know that the category of teaching on Prosperity are going to go away because I think there's still that desire culturally. People want to be told things are going to be okay. They may want the money, but they also want the security that if you live well, it's going to be rewarded. There's a security in that even if you're not greedy and wanting to make huge amounts of money.