The influx of reality TV spans every genre possible: single folks trying to find their soul mate; pageant kids turned Honey Boo Boo; people vying for the title of the most talented dancer, singer, or chef in the country and taking the prize after a million texts and phone calls to 1-800-vote-for-me.
There’s no part of life that reality TV has not touched and the church is no different. In a matter of a couple of years, we’ve been introduced to BET’s “Sunday Best” and “The Sheards,” TLC’s “The Sisterhood” (which, by the way, was not renewed for a second season), and most recently, the 2013 fall series premiere of “Preachers of L.A.” to be aired on the Oxygen Network.
The show follows the lives of six L.A.-based preachers: Bishop Ron Gibson, Bishop Clarence E. McClendon, Bishop Noel Jones, gospel singer/pastor Deitrick Haddon, Jay Haizlip, and Pastor Wayne Chaney, all of whom have multifaceted stories of faith, failures, and victories inside and outside the church. The series trailer features small vignettes of the clergy interacting with parishioners in church, ministering on the streets of Los Angeles, and even making appearances in nightclubs. The pastors can be seen standing next to brand-new Bentleys, Ferraris, and wearing custom suits while what sounds like an instrumental of Atlanta rapper Ca$h Out’s song “Cashin’ Out” plays in the background. Interesting.
While most of the pastors on the show have a checkered past (Don’t we all?), this piece focuses on a recurring message that has infiltrated the Gospel for the last thirty years: prosperity. The “Prosperity Gospel,” as many call it, focuses on the believer’s ability to gain and accumulate wealth through faith, prayer, and sowing “seed.” These “seeds” can be money, time, or resources, and Luke 6:38 serves as the ideal Scripture to support this idea of seed, time, and harvesting: “Give and it shall be given unto you; a good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back” (NRSV).
In the trailer for the show, one of the pastors quotes a very familiar Scripture to support his flashy lifestyle, 3 John 2: “Beloved, I pray that all may go well with you and that you may be in good health, just as it is well with your soul” (NRSV). Another pastor uses 1 Corinthians 9:11 to further the point: “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?” (NRSV). For safe measure, and to keep the Scripture in context, I will include verse 12 as well: “If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we still more?”
These two Scriptures have served as the support for ministries everywhere to validate their need for and, quite frankly, expectation of prosperity to be a part of the norm for the work they do in the body of Christ.
Now, let me get this out the way: I, for one, believe that those who WORK for a living should be paid. Being a pastor/minister/clergy is a full-time job for most. It requires a large number of hours spent away from your family studying, preparing messages, traveling, and handling the day-to-day operations of the church. Working in ministry is emotionally and physically taxing and, like many careers, has the potential for burnout.
Some will argue that it is God’s will for us to prosper in the sense that prosperity means an accumulation of wealth, buying things that depreciate and generally to hoard, hoard, hoard. But is that what God meant in the text from which we build our theological beliefs about wealth and prosperity? We will determine whether the Scriptures quoted in the show trailer actually were used in context.
First, 3 John 2: the letters from John (1, 2 and 3) were a series of letters from an elder of the church to the church at large or a specific leader in the church. In 3 John, Gaius is the recipient of the letter and is someone who was revered as a righteous man who took the idea of inclusivity and hospitality seriously. John notes:
“I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely how you walk in the truth. Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the friends, even though they are strangers to you; they have testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on in a manner worthy of God; for they began their journey for the sake of Christ, accepting no support from non-believers. Therefore we ought to support such people, so that we may become co-workers with the truth” (NRSV).
The key verse before John praises Gaius’ work in the ministry is the one that many quote to support prosperity: “Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth” (KJV).
Why does John say that he hopes for Gaius to prosper and be in health above all other things? Was this an indication that Gaius should strive to acquire more material things, or find prosperity in the intangible?
In context, John is writing to a church that is working through power struggles within its walls. Later on in the text, we learn about a man named Diotrephes whose disruptive behavior, refusal to show hospitality to missionaries, and active expulsion of people from the church who are hospitable became problematic for them. The author also notes that Diotrephes “likes to put himself first” (v. 9) and acts out of his own selfish motivation, to the exclusion of the needs of others in the community.
When considering the first verse about prosperity in light of the entire Scripture, the author’s hope that Gaius will “prosper as his soul prospers” is much more than a Scripture about external prosperity. If the soul is the foundation of prosperity, then your external prosperity becomes a reflection of your internal character. The measure of one’s prosperity is about the soul (our mind, will, emotions) and not external things.
This, my friends, is the classic case of taking a Scripture out of context.
It happens again in 1 Corinthians 9:11 where a Scripture to support the prosperity gospel is taken out of context. Paul talks about how those who work in the church should be able to take advantage of the rights and privileges that come with preaching the Gospel—and rightfully so—but he then adds in verse 15: “Still, I want it made clear that I’ve never gotten anything out of this for myself, and that I’m not writing now to get something. I’d rather die than give anyone ammunition to discredit me or impugn my motives. If I proclaim the Message, it’s not to get something out of it for myself. I’m compelled to do it, and doomed if I don’t!” (The Message Version).
He finalizes his understanding between the balance for rights as a minister of the Gospel and the good of the church by noting, “If this was my own idea of just another way to make a living, I’d expect some pay. But since it’s not my idea but something solemnly entrusted to me, why would I expect to get paid? So am I getting anything out of it? Yes, as a matter of fact: the pleasure of proclaiming the Message at no cost to you. You don’t even have to pay my expenses!” (The Message Version).
How do these two Scriptures placate the idea that the intention for the text to serve as support to line our pockets? In both Scriptures, the purpose of sowing and reaping was for a reason beyond the pastor/bishop/minister to live well—it was so the church as a whole would prosper! Prosperity, in context, had nothing to do with external accumulation, but internal understanding that community and the concern for community needs were of the most importance.
To bring things full circle, it seems that rapper Ca$h Out’s head-bobbing song “Cashin’ Out” is an appropriate song to shadow the Preachers of L.A. cast; it may have been the producer’s job to focus on the glitz and glam of Christendom, but the song’s lyrics give quite the textual support for the clergy’s prosperity message:
Got a condo on my wrist girl, I’m cashing out!
Got a condo around my neck girl, I’m cashing out!
My diamonds talk for me they say, “Hi, can I meet ya?”
It’s big pimping over here… I got big money visions
And I’m on da money mission, nobody can stop me
Just grab your camcorder, press record, and gone and watch me!
There’s much to be said about a body of believers who use their “diamonds” (read: prosperity) to speak for them in the midst of millions of people who suffer in poverty, even people in their own congregations. The “money mission” that this prosperity gospel puts us on causes us to lose focus of the intent and purpose of why God wants us to prosper in the first place: to better serve those who are without.
What good is it to prosper when those around you suffer? Go ahead and “cash out”; just be sure to spread the wealth to those in need once you do!