Faith Matters: Prosperity, Faith Teaching in Question

Some question whether African-American religious leaders are too materialistic when it comes to teaching prosperity and a "name it, claim it" theology. Two successful pastors share their views on the subject.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, a new documentary asks, "What Would Jesus Buy?" It's a tongue-in-cheek look at America's love of stuff. But first, we want to take a serious look at the question of what faith requires in the stewardship of wealth in one faith tradition in one community. It's our weekly Faith Matters conversation.

Today, ministry and materialism. Does the new wave of black Christian leadership emphasize more bling than benevolence? Joining us today to talk about this are Reverend Anthony Evans, associate pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Also here in our studio is Reverend Jamal Harrison-Bryant of Empowerment Temple in Baltimore. Gentlemen, thank you both for being here. Welcome.

Reverend ANTHONY EVANS (Associate Pastor, Mount Zion Baptist Church, Washington, D.C.): Thank you for having us.

Reverend JAMAL HARRISON-BRYANT (Senior Pastor, Empowerment Temple, Baltimore, Maryland): It's good to be here.

MARTIN: And you know that some well known theologians - I'm talking about Princeton theologian Cornel West in particular - have raised the question in recent years of whether some of our Christian leaders are focusing so much on prosperity that they've forgotten the core message of Christianity. Reverend Bryant - I'm not calling you out…

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Okay.

MARTIN: But your Web site is spectacular…

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Thank you.

MARTIN: …I think by any standard. And you don't hide the fact that you are obviously very successful, have a very successful congregation.

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Yes.

MARTIN: And I must say you are beautifully tailored (unintelligible).

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: You're too kind to me. Thank you.

MARTIN: But I wonder if you ever worry that people are more attracted to the marketing of your message than they are to the substance of your message.

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: James Baldwin, some years ago, wrote about survivor's guilt is that once you do well in the black community, then you have to hide it or else you're not considered keeping it real. And I don't think it's a matter of either/or, it's a matter of both/and. What is the priority? There is no sin in success unless success takes your focus off of reaching out.

So I think it will be woe unto the church if we would just talk about individual success, if we're not also preaching corporate development. Success has to come through being faithful to God, yes, but also by holding a job, paying your bills on time, making sure your credit score is in good place. And many of our congregants have never been trained as to how it is that they can be good stewards of their money. They've been taught to tithe but haven't been taught to invest.

MARTIN: Reverend Evans, you are at a - also a big church, Mount Zion Baptist Church. It's a big church. And you focus, I think, more on traditional themes like community activism. I mean, you are well known in this community and also, I think, for your work with the Ministerial Alliance. But you tend to focus more on the - what I think a lot of people associate with traditional themes of African-American ministry, which is the poor, the most vulnerable. I wonder if you ever worry that you're missing the boat and not speaking to the next-generational language that they understand.

Rev. EVANS: I don't think so. I think you can - again, I think you can do both as well. I think that there's two things to be concerned with. In the Bible, they mention the poor 3,000 times. So it's very clear that our job is to make sure that we uplift the poor and provide the spiritual nurturing that they need. We need to preach the word of salvation, but we also need to make sure that they are not being exploited. And I'll give you a perfect example of that. We recently came out against the payday loan industry, how they are exploiting the poor by charging the poor 400 percent on a $400 loan. So the church have a prophetic voice to make sure that that exploitation doesn't place. But the church also have a calling to make sure that there is proper financial literacy programs in place so we can teach the value of money, teach the value of stewardship, but at the same time not to worship money.

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: And Michel, if I can interject. The problem is, is that when the church does what it is that my dear colleague is expressing and then the people in whom you tutor and mentor to do that get the principles, get the ideals and benefit from it, it is not money that is sin. It is the love of money. And when church uses as its focus and as its emphasis that my whole raison d'être, my whole reason for being is money and a house and a car, then we've lost focus.

MARTIN: But I wanted to talk to you…

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Yes?

MARTIN: …Reverend Bryant, you talked a lot of about success.

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Yes.

MARTIN: And I don't think that success is necessarily a word that many people associate with prophetic ministry.

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Yes.

MARTIN: So I wanted to talk to you about why do you think it's important to talk about success, and how is that compatible with prophetic ministry?

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Absolutely. So many people have taken on the mantle of being overcomers that we are perpetually in fighting mode. So that when the fight is over, we don't know how to have a break or a breather in between. The number one killer of black people is heart disease, dealing with stress, tension, hypertension, anxiety, and a lot of it comes with family issues and deals with financial issues.

So if I helped you with that, when do we teach our congregants to say, you're doing well, that you ought to applaud yourself, that there is no shame in taking a vacation or spending the day at the spa because you work hard? But because we're just three generation removed from sharecroppers, we just know how to work, work, work, work, work because we haven't been taught how to live, we've been taught just how to fight.

MARTIN: Reverend Evans, what about that? There were some who would argue that African-Americans have been taught a lot about survival but have not been taught a lot about success, about how to thrive, and that some implicate the traditional leadership in there.

Rev. EVANS: Well, success have many definitions. I mean, for some young mother, it is to make sure that they have a whole family, that the husband comes home and the child is nurtured. That is a success. What are we saying that success cannot be defined as how big is your bank account. And certainly the gospel doesn't define success like that.

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: (Unintelligible).

Rev. EVANS: The gospel defines success in faith in Christ. The most important thing here is faith and success, but it can come together as long as Christ is the center of that.

MARTIN: We're talking with Reverend Jamal Harrison-Bryant and Reverend Anthony Evans about faith and success. Reverend Evans, are you ever concerned that some of these newer congregations, however successful they may be in ministering to the individual needs of members and helping them to improve their own quality of life, are forgetting or moving away from concern for the broader community and the less successful members of the community? Does it ever worry you?

Reverend EVANS: It does. It does. And I'm very concerned. I'm very concerned with national ministries such as T.D. Jakes. And in Dallas, he's doing a tremendous job. He got 100 ministries. And we applaud that. But T.D. Jakes is a national preacher. He can do much more, you know, in our inner cities to deal with a lot of our oppressing situations, bringing us ministers together to deal with black-on-black crime, preach holiness and marriage, to fight domestic violence. I mean, there is a bigger agenda here as opposed to how big your church could be.

MARTIN: Reverend?

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: I have the…

MARTIN: Reverend Harrison-Bryant, T.D. Jakes is a mentor of yours.

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Yes, he is. I think that so many people limit televangelists to a 28-minute, 30-second broadcast. Bishop Jakes brings in for social training and economic development in excess of 500 pastors annually. While it is that they are working on the grassroots level, they're not wearing bumper stickers that say I gained this from Bishop Jakes. But I think in order for it to happen, we can't wait for one individual to do it.

MARTIN: Reverend Evans, maybe it's time for something different. Is it possible that it's time for a different approach? That the focus on community and community activism isn't yielding the results that people would desire. Maybe it is time for the individuals to focus on themselves.

Rev. EVANS: I wish that was the case, but in the black community, we couldn't afford to do that. Our numbers are too terrible in every field, whether it's social, whether it's economic, whether it's health-wise. What we need to do is use those methodologies that have worked successfully with new paradigms and new science to go along with that. You've got the same type of problem you have in a 250-church that you have in a 7,000. It's no different. But what we've seen is that if you've got a 7,000-member church, you'll have more clout. So you can deal with the issues of predatory lending; you can force those banks to come into our community. We've just not seen the power that those huge churches have being levied for the common good in our community.

MARTIN: Reverend Bryant?

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: I think that it would be gravely irresponsible and immature for us to go into individual advancement and leave the community behind, and I think that's what we've witnessed in the era of prosperity gospel and we've come into amnesia and forgotten the larger community. So most of these mega churches are not in the inner city, they are in suburbia. And I think that those who have now moved out to the suburbs have a responsibility to pull back into the inner cities that they grew up in and say, if I was able to do this, then I want to see the same thing happen in my local community.

MARTIN: And why isn't that happening?

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: I think because we're not teaching it. Most of the leadership in my generation has been reactionary. So if somebody gets killed, we have a candlelight vigil, the funeral is packed from center to circumference, but there is not the next day a call to arms to say this is how we stop to make sure that this doesn't happen again. And so I think we need a plan to execute.

MARTIN: Finally, last point though. The Reverend Evans thinks that - he feels that the church is in trouble. Is that a fair assessment? Do you think that's an accurate assessment?

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: I think that the church is not in trouble. We're seeing the largest churches that we've ever seen in the history of black America. I think that we are witnessing the rise of a new generation who's coming to bear. My church has 10,000 members in just seven years. So we're seeing new believers come in and so it's a creative time. It's a wonderful opportunity and we've got to seize the moment.

MARTIN: Reverend Jamal Harrison-Bryant, the founding pastor, the senior pastor of the Empowerment Temple in Baltimore. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Rev. HARRISON-BRYANT: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And Reverend Anthony Evans of Mount Zion Baptist Church here in Washington, D.C. Thank you also for coming again.

Rev. EVANS: Thank you again. Thank you.

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