(Photo: The Christian Post)
Thuso Kewana, an ordained pastor and ministry leader living in impoverished South Africa, says he can be silent no longer about the damaging effects of the prosperity gospel, an American export he believes is unbiblical and used by wolves in sheep's clothing to prey on mostly charismatic and Pentecostal Christians not only in his country, but around the world.
Kewana, speaking recently via phone from his home in Polokwane in the Limpopo province, bordered by Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, told The Christian Post he has witnessed how the prosperity gospel can warp people's understanding of God — leaving the impression that He requires worshippers to give money, to ministers, churches or their favorite television network, before they can be blessed with financial, physical and spiritual well-being.
"People are leaving churches. Some practice fellowship in their homes, but some leave the church and go back to their old lifestyles. Some leave to stay at home and do nothing," Thuso writes in Where Are We Heading To? The book critiques the "obsession" of some pastors for material things and large congregations.
"This is because of the disappointments people experience with churches and church leadership. This is more prevalent with so-called spirit-filled or charismatic churches," Kewana adds in his book. "The greed for worldly wealth, huge church membership numbers, and fame form the cornerstone of such dissatisfaction engulfing the congregants and encouraging them to leave the church of God. Pastors are involved in all sorts of ungodly behaviors."
The prosperity gospel appears to most find its home in the "word of faith," or name-it-and-claim-it movement, which positions some charismatic preachers as special carriers of God's favor and power. These particular ministers are then often looked to by hopeful Christians as their key or source to divine healing and blessings.
A recent example unfolded in a deadly way in May, when a stampede broke out at Temitope Balogun (T.B.) Joshua's Synagogue Church of All Nations in Ghana. At least four people were killed and 30 others injured when a throng of 1,000 people made a frantic rush to get a hold of free holy water, which usually costs $39.36 and was presumably blessed by Joshua, a popular self-declared Nigerian prophet who has churches around the globe.
"The worshippers were hoping to obtain holy 'new anointing water,' which (Joshua's) Emmanuel TV had announced would be distributed for free," the Guardian newspaper reported.
"The anointing water usually costs 80 cedis, but we learned that on Sunday it would be given out for free," Joseph Adanvor, a 52-year-old witness, told the British publication. "I have never seen anything like it before. People had come from Togo, Benin, even from Kenya. They tried to close the church but people were climbing over the walls and breaking in. The police and army were there but they couldn't control the crowds."
Adanvor went on to vouch for the anointing water, saying, "I have seen the miracles it performs." He related how spraying the water on his father's leg, coupled with prayer, had put an end to the man's pain.
T.B. Joshua, who has promised to pay medical expenses for those injured during the Sunday stampede, has been criticized by other charismatic Christians for his teachings, but at least one minister also found fault with worshippers themselves.
"The problem we have in this country is the type of Christianity people are practicing whereby, instead of seeking to know God through his work and a relationship with the holy spirit which is assured to every Christian, are running after signs of miracles," Apostle Samuel Yaw Antwi, General Secretary of the Ghana Charismatic and Pentecostal Council, told the Guardian.
"People want instant solutions to their problems, just like they want instant coffee. If anybody comes along offering instant answers to financial or health challenges, people want to go for it. But the Bible warns Christians about that."
It is this same mindset, along with Biblical ignorance, that Kewana believes allows the prosperity movement to thrive in his own country of South Africa.
"You know right now, everybody listens to the TV and watches TV and (to) look at what is happening with the churches, to be honest with you know I don't know if I'm feeling more despondent on a daily basis," Kewana said of his observations. "And I wish, like one guy said to me, people should know that the route to God is not a short cut and the root to God is not a nice paved way with flowers and blah blah blah. It's a narrow road that's full of tribulations, and we've got to face them."
Accumulating Earthly Wealth, or Storing Up Heavenly Treasure?
South Africa, considered a "rainbow nation" due to its rich diversity, is home to 51.8 million people with nearly 80 percent of them espousing some form of Christianity, according to the government. Latest census figures show that Pentecostal/Charismatic Christians are among the top five religious groups in the democratic nation.
According to Kewana, the spread of Christianity in his country is due to its ugly government-enforced era of apartheid.
"... It was an unfair system, but most people were subjected into the Western kind of worshipping, and as a result most South Africans, even in rural areas, became Christians through the distribution of the Bible right across the country," he explained. "We have basically all sorts of denominations in South Africa, you name the Lutherans, the Catholics, the Methodist Church – all of them are all over, were all over in South Africa in all areas. Because of that, most South Africans became Christians, and we still hold our culture in most parts of South Africa."
As pervasive as Christianity may be, Kewana believes some professing faith in Jesus Christ are simply pew warmers and have no interest in reading their Bibles – the same having been said about their U.S. brethren.
"One guy called me very early in the morning, like 5 o'clock in the morning, he said to me, 'You know Thuso, after reading your book I realize that it is not only pastors who are responsible for this,'" Kewana shared. " ...Because (some Christians) want short cuts, they don't read the word of God. We want (a) quick-fix. We are responsible for this."
South African pastors should feel an extra burden, he believes, for those in their congregation who are illiterate and "really depend on the person behind the pulpit." About half of the country's residents are considered illiterate.
"But some of us can read, but we just don't want to go and read the Bible," Kewana added. "We don't want to take that five minutes to open the Bible… And yet if we could do that, we'd realize that God wants our hearts not anything else."
Kewana, whose Where Are We Heading To? book was published late last year and is available online, is not alone in his observations.
Other books have been published, conversations taken place, and articles written about the troubling effects of peddling prosperity to the economically depressed, spiritually immature or desperately hurting, particularly in the two-thirds world and predominantly in underdeveloped regions of Africa and Latin America.
Prominent U.S. evangelical Christian minister John Piper has even preached about what he believes is a perversion of what Christians call the "good news" of salvation in Jesus Christ.
"This distorted gospel, is one of the largest and most tragic exports that America takes to the two-thirds world, especially Africa," said Piper in a dated sermon recently highlighted by his Desiring God ministry.
After quoting Kenneth Copeland, whom Piper called a "founder" of the prosperity gospel, the former Bethlehem Baptist Church pastor added, "What is so sadly obvious and prominent is that material prosperity is what is meant. Not spiritual prosperity learned through hardship."
Kewana told CP he started noticing "pastors moving away from preaching salvation" and turning to messages "about money, about tithing (and) giving to God" while he himself served as a co-pastor of a church founded by a friend. It wasn't until one night, while preparing to read his Bible and feeling troubled in his spirit, that the married father asked God if the prosperity gospel was the "true gospel."
As he tells it, God challenged him to search the Scriptures and find out.
"I guess that little voice, I guess (it was) the Holy Spirit that said 'well, what do you think?' And then I realized, but no, Biblically, God doesn't talk about pastors accumulating earthly wealth," Kewana told CP, adding that he does believe God promises to those who love Him, heavenly wealth.
Adding in crisply-accented English, Kewana clarified: "The heavenly prosperity has nothing to do with (material) things."
The question then became for Kewana – what should I do?
"Then the small voice said, 'But do something.'"
Kewana, whose Heart to Heart Ministries actively challenges, encourages and helps Christians to engage the Bible and check claims made by pastors, eventually sat down one night, pen and paper in hand, and started writing.
"It just went on and on and on and on. And as I was writing, the Holy Spirit started to reveal things that are happening, especially about my country, but this thing also happens when you go to watch television and you find that even overseas people (are) preaching about prosperity, prosperity in terms of earthly wealth," he said.
Kewana believes wholeheartedly that if his countrymen simply read the Bible for themselves, or access resources like his ministry provides, and challenge and question preachers, "they will understand that accumulating earthly wealth is not what God desires from us. What He wants from us is our true hearts. He wants us to be faithful to Him without expecting any material (rewards) from Him."
"Seek me, He says, and then the rest (will) follow, so that we shouldn't focus on these material things but we should focus on God Himself," he added.
While Kewana believes he has taken a major risk by penning his book (a friend told him he would be "taking the bread away" from some pastors), he insisted that he had no choice. And he said the most basic and yet biggest step Christians can take is to start questioning, like he has, whether a message whose cornerstone is materialism is actually good news.
"I wish pastors could ... realize that they are heading the flock of God, that human beings are subject to God only, nobody else. And that human beings must worship God and honor God more than anybody else," said Kewana. "Pastors, don't subject human beings into a situation whereby they see themselves as gods, as little gods. They must see themselves as servants and serving the people, rather than people serving them."
He added, "South Africa, it is a poor country, we've got a lot of child-headed homes, we've got a lot of orphanages… and yet we've got pastors who are driving beautiful and expensive cars. And if you can take that money and channel that money to the needy, to the poor, I should think God would bless us more than anything else."