As part of its commemoration of the 40th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, CNN.com posted an interesting story about a shift in the “black church” since the days of King. The article, by John Blake, kicks off with this tantalizing lede:
The contemporary white church has largely accepted King as a religious hero. Yet some observers say there is one religious community that continues to shun King — the largest black churches.
The piece goes on to suggest that, in America’s biggest African American churches, “King’s ‘prophetic’ model of ministry — one that confronted political and economic institutions of power — has been sidelined by the prosperity gospel.”
As we all know by now, prosperity preachers promote a gospel of health and wealth, asserting that God rewards the faithful with financial and spiritual success. The implicit message, of course, is that those who are poor or sick are simply not exercising enough faith in God. Blake writes: “Prosperity pastors such as Bishop T.D. Jakes have become the most popular preachers in the black church. They’ve also become brands. They’ve built megachurches and business empires with the prosperity message.”
The article claims the prosperity movement took root among blacks in the 1970s with the ministry of Rev. Ike, who was known to brashly proclaim: “My garages runneth over.” (Check out his site for a glimpse of his pompadour do.) Today, reports Blake, churches that continue in the prophetic tradition of Dr. King have empty pews while the prosperity churches are packing them in. The article winds down with these provocative lines:
King’s voice may ring out in the history books, but it no longer rings out in the black pews. [T]he battle between the prophetic and prosperity ministers in the black church is over for now.
The Rev. Ikes have won.
What the article fails to observe is that the prosperity gospel is not just a black phenomenon. Congregations of all races are drawn to this skewed message. In fact, on the positive side, prosperity-teaching churches are some of the most racially diverse congregations today, and they spearhead a lot of charitable endeavors. (Of course, it also could be noted that Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple began as a racially diverse and charity-minded religious group.)
Anyway, the article presents an intriguing premise and some worthwhile history. However, I wouldn’t go so far as to say the majority of African American churches are driven by a prosperity gospel, as this article seems to do. I just don’t see it. Sure, some of the largest and most lively churches subscribe to it. But I would bet for every Potter’s House there’s a Vernon Park Church of God and a Sanctuary Covenant Church and a Strong Tower Bible Church.