I reached the heights and the depths of my experience with the Prosperity Gospel within the space of a few years. And I never want anything to do with it again.
If you’re not familiar with so called-prosperity preaching, it’s a strain of belief in some corners of evangelical Protestantism teaching that God rewards your faith – and particularly your donations – by blessing you financially. Many TV evangelists and megachurches are the product of such teaching, and it has become the basis for Christians across the globe approaching their faith as a sort of religious lottery ticket, paying to play and hoping they hit the jackpot.
Around the turn of the millennium I was at the height of my run as an evangelical Christian. I’d grown a tiny group of barely participating college kids into a crowd of over 50 zealous young Christians who came out on Wednesday nights to hear me teach the Gospel. Sure, a lot of them skipped Sunday services, but my lessons were pulling them in.
My wife and I were a popular young couple at our church, active in numerous functions, friends with the praise band, and contributing to the building fund for what would be a huge new church on a patch of land near our house. My pastor was pleased with the growth of my classes, and was proctoring my exams in New Testament studies. If I didn’t turn out to be a preacher, surely I’d be the father of one, once my wife and I started having kids.
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Winterfest in Gatlinburg, TN is an annual gathering of evangelical teens for a few days of preaching, singing and celebrating their faith in Christ. I helped chaperone our youth group, and was impressed by the huge crowds of kids packing into the auditorium to pledge their faithfulness.
Our youth leader organized a water gun fight at the hotel after one evening’s events, eventually getting a warning from the management. Meanwhile, my students approached me for an impromptu bible study. The power I held over these kids was starting to be intoxicating and a little bit scary.
The next night at the auditorium we passed the rows of souvenir tables selling cross necklaces, T-shirts and WWJD bracelets and someone commented to me how incredible it was in this day and age to see so many kids lining up to buy religious items. They asked me what I thought of it all.
“Looks like someone needs to overturn these tables and drive out the money changers,” I replied. The textbook version of righteous indignation, I was.
Not long after, my wife and I found out we were going to have a baby.
She was sick from the get-go, bedridden off and on for months. In an attempt to get away from it all, we took a family vacation to Tennessee to visit my wife’s uncle, a hard-partying salesman who had found Jesus and become a Pentacostal preacher.
He and I sparred over scripture from time to time, and I enjoyed his company. At his home early into the vacation he and I talked late into the night about my increasing doubts. The conversation ended with a tearful repentance and a recommitment of my life to Christ.
Not long after came the stillbirth.
Followed by another.
And then another.
There were four failures in all, and somewhere along the way I started caring less and less about an heir, or even a marriage. And I cared next to nothing about teaching the Gospel.
I can clearly recall standing at a blackboard in one of our Sunday School rooms, writing to emphasize the point I was making, when I realized I didn’t believe any of this anymore.
The next Sunday I spoke with our pastor, who was caring and sympathetic. I resigned from teaching, and within a few weeks quit going to church completely.
The divorce was quick, but painful and vindictive. I deserved every bit of the shame and guilt. It happened in the spring, and by Thanksgiving I had left the state, hoping to make a new beginning.
In Part 5, which you can read here, I discover an ancient church I never knew existed.