Since I began writing into this space, I’ve had a bunch of feedback. Some from people I genuinely love and care about, a lot more from people that I don’t really know (though I’m sure if we knew each other I’d love and care for you too, you’re probably awesome).
I get the perception that people think I hate or perhaps dislike Brian Tamaki and Peter Mortlock.
I’m being genuine.
To be honest I kind of understand where they’re coming from. I get the theology, the world view, I understand that in their hearts they believe what they preach. That within their worldview, and theological framework of belief that they sincerely believe they are serving others, loving neighbor, following the Divine.
I get it, at least as much as I can.
And I should, I guess.
I grew up in Peter Mortlock’s church.
His theology, his leadership, it shaped me. For a time at least.
So, I know, that there is a whole bunch of nice people that call City Impact home. People who genuinely want to love people, who genuinely care about others, and do what they can for those who come into their orbit of influence.
And yet two things can be true at the same time. There can be good in a people, a community, a leader, and there can be harm that is done by that community’s worldview, their theology, their leadership.
When I was kid my whānau and I expierenced poverty.
There were times, when we barely had enough food to get by, that my parents would starve themselves so that we could eat.
They didn’t think we noticed.
My dad did what he could, he worked bloody hard to try put food on our table, but it’s rough out here on these streets. And sometimes, through no fault of your own, all you can do, isn’t enough.
So, we did what we could to support one another.
We are a musical family, so us kids busked on odd days during the week, and on the weekends.
Dad got creative and found ways to make money.
We pulled what we had together, and we survived.
But, growing up in an affluent church, surrounded by wealth, status and power, when you’re dirt poor, it has a sort of dissonance about it.
Every Sunday, one of the pastor’s would preach a mini sermon encouraging the people to give their tithes and their offerings. We were told that if we gave, God would bless us. If we gave, we would receive back, pressed down, shaken together and running over. Whatever seeds we planted (read cash), would unlock blessing, health, wealth and prosperity. These were Kingdom Principals, principals that were said to be locked within the Scriptures, that if utilized could open the doorway to God’s blessing.
Need a job? Give.
Got a sick or dying friend? Give.
Struggling with your mental health, or wrestling with an addiction? Give.
And so, we gave.
We would empty out our pockets of whatever silver shrapnel we had left, and we would give what we had. Sometimes the last of what we had. In faith, in hope.
Because we believed.
We believed God would provide a blessing.
We believed God would change something for us.
We believed Dad would get work, and that the stress would go away, that thing’s would get better.
But, they didn’t.
In fact things got harder over the years, money got tighter, and the stress and anxiety intensified.
And every Sunday we would go to church, and we’d hear the sermon, and we’d be encouraged to give.
And every Sunday we would empty our pockets.
And hope for a miracle.
Some people will read this and think we were being taken for a ride.
Perhaps, you think that the leadership of this church community were laughing their way to the bank at our expense.
But that’s not the way it was. Or I’d argue is. The Church community, its leadership, they believed it, still do I imagine. They believed that it was all true, that by giving in this way, a person could unlock blessing. That by preaching this message, they were providing people with Kingdom principles that would help them out of the hard situations they were in.
And we have to acknowledge that there are always some that it appears to work for.
These church communities teach discipline. You learn to budget, to be wise with your money, save some for a rainy day, give 10% and a little more to church. When people come into these spaces, find Jesus, give up the partying, the drinking and the drugs, suddenly their lives start to get better. They have more money, a clearer head, a community to belong to, a mission to believe in, a purpose to live for. These aren’t bad outcomes. There’s actually a lot of healing and love and life that can be found in these spaces.
And yet, it doesn’t work that way for everyone.
Because not everyone is just having a hard time, some people are suffering due to poverty.
The Prosperity Gospel ignores the systemic inequalities and injustices that exist in our nation.
It tells people that the key to health, wealth and prosperity, is faith, it’s tithing, it’s naming and claiming the blessing your after. And when it doesn’t come, you’re left with this feeling, these questions? Did I do enough? Did I believe enough? Perhaps my faith wasn’t strong enough? Perhaps I need to give more? Take more of a risk? Make more of a sacrifice?
We can’t really afford it, but maybe we should take out a loan, and give it as a seed offering to the Church?
We don’t really have the money, but perhaps we should sacrifice a little bit more this week, in order to unlock our blessing?
And when that blessing doesn’t come, you don’t question it. Because you’ve already sacrificed so much, and you’ve been taught to have faith. And Abraham was 100 when his finally came. So, believe, and don’t doubt. Because if you question it, then what if that disrupts the blessing that’s already on its way?
This has an impact on the mental and emotional health of a whānau.
You see others in the church who are rich, powerful, wealthy, you’re told that they got that because of the sacrifices they made, the seeds they sowed, and you just can’t help but wonder. What is wrong with you? Haven’t you believed enough, given enough, sacrificed enough?
The struggle is real.
And so is poverty.
A fixture in this nation due to the unjust, neo-liberal, capitalist system that runs the show.
Poverty is not an individual problem.
When there’s not enough work, or wages are too low, or the benefit’s just not enough, poverty isn’t something you can necessarily work your way out of.
And yet, the Prosperity Gospel completely ignores the sinful systems and structures that cause poverty, while praising those who benefit from them for their faith, and encouraging the suffering to pray harder, give more, to just believe, so that your blessing will come.
And though for those who teach it, the belief is genuine, so is the harm.
Because people still remain in poverty.
And though the church gets rich and may use a lot of that money to run community working bee’s, and deliver food parcels, and support overseas missions, those in their local community still need those parcels, still need that charity.
And perhaps that’s part of the problem.
Charity, over Justice.
Because, if poverty is simply an individual problem, and the key to overcoming poverty is prayer, faith, and tithes and offerings, then it is individual problem, but one that has a Divine solution. And that means there isn’t necessarily a problem for the church to fix. So, we don’t ask why people are expierencing poverty. We already know. They need Jesus, they need to let his Love to come into their life, and once they’ve let him in, all the blessings of the Kingdom will be open to them.
Now, I don’t share any of this because I have a chip on my shoulder. I don’t.
I share this because I genuinely believe that this theology, and this way of being church is causing harm. Not just to those who receive this message, but also to those who give it.
The Prosperity Gospel blinds the Church to the injustice and inequalities that exist within our world. It teaches people, that the acquisition of wealth is something to both honour, and strive for. It does this while ignoring how the system that creates this wealth is actually built from, and sustains, injustices and inequalities that have existed in this land since our pākehā ancestor’s stole the whenua from our māori brothers and sisters.
It leaves the poor, poor, and provides them with food parcels, and Christmas boxes, to alleviate their suffering for a moment, without ever examining how the wealthy within their own community are contributing to the problem in the first place.
Those who receive the message, the vulnerable, the poor, the oppressed, those who come to the Prosperity Gospel for Hope, are further oppressed, and bound by the “Good News” they receive.
And those who give it? They too are oppressed, if not materially, spiritually.
They are lifted up above the people and led away from solidarity with the poor and the oppressed. The wealth, affluence, and prosperity of the gospel they preach, blinds them to the freedom and truth of the Gospel.
The church was never called to be a people who did acts of charity. We were called to be a people of Justice. To see the hungry sitting in our churches, the vulnerable lining our pews, to join Christ with the least of these, selling what we have, becoming One with the poor.
The church is not called to be in the business of Charity. We are called to Justice.
To be champions of the Gospel. This Good News that the Divine’s Dream is becoming reality in our world, that Love is the way, that inequality and injustice will come to end. The church is to be the community that imagines this end, that begins to live as if a world founded on Love was actually possible.
A world without poverty, injustice and inequality.
A world where the only freedom we need.
The only freedom we have.
Is the freedom to Love.
Aaron Hendry is a Laidlaw College graduate, and now a Youth Development Worker and housing advocate, working in the Youth Housing and Homelessness space. He leads a service supporting rangatahi experiencing homelessness and is also a an advocate working collectively to end youth homelessness in Aotearoa. He is also the curator and creator of When Lambs Are Silent.