Interview With Debra Mumford, Author of Exploring Prosperity Preaching

This book was graciously provided to me by Judson Press.

MW: I think one critical element within your book is faith.  What is faith?

DM: Faith is the belief that God is able to do all things – even the seemingly impossible.

MW: Tell us what makes prosperity preaching so attractive.  It’s a relatively recent development.

DM: At the core of prosperity preaching’s appeal that the hope that the American Dream which for many people has been elusive, can be realized by faith. If they have faith in God and are obedient to (what they are taught by prosperity preachers is) the word of God, they can be rich and enjoy perfect physical health.

This preaching is also attractive because it is cloaked inside of sound theology that sounds good. For example, four very appealing traits with which most Christians agree are:

  1. Immovable, unshakeable faith. Nothing is impossible for God. So if Christians believe and do not doubt, nothing will be impossible for them.
  2. Unlimited hope. Hope for a more abundant life compels believers to pray and believe for a tomorrow that is better than today. It is hard to live in this world without hope.
  3. Personal accountability. Believers are taught to live righteous lives that are pleasing to God through prayer, reading the bible, being faithful in marriage, giving of tithes and offerings.
  4. Importance of the Holy Spirit. Listeners are taught that the power of the anointing of the Holy Spirit is necessary for them to fulfill God’s will for them in the church and in the world.

The problem with each of these teachings is that they are taught as means of achieving financial wealth and perfect physical health. Though we all like to be beneficiaries of God’s blessings, we should strive to praise God and live Godly lives because we simply want to please the God who created us and sustains us daily.

MW: Why might other Christians have resisted this kind of hermeneutic in the past?

DM: Some people may have resisted this hermeneutic in the past because its message is problematic is many ways:

  1. The preachers obtain their consistent message of prosperity by proof texting or interpreting verses of the bible out of context. Sighting isolated verses and ignoring the verses that come before and after them can make the bible mean almost anything.
  2. When people do not become wealthy or have problems with their health, they (as individual followers) are blamed. Preachers tell their members that if they do not experience the wealth and health benefits prosperity preachers promise, they are obviously doing something wrong. Perhaps they do not have enough faith or are not working through all of the steps as the preachers instruct.
  3. Adherents are encouraged to be individualistic in their thinking rather than communal. They are taught to pray and believe for their own prosperity rather than for prosperity for all people.
  4. Social justice is overlooked. Members are taught that social ills of the world will disappear as more people are converted to Christianity. They are not taught that as Christians they have a moral and ethical responsibility to help all people and not just themselves.

MW: Talk about how your brother’s experience and your father’s ministry helped you in sustaining a critical book that was loving, analytical, and even.  You could have been sharper in your exploration, but you weren’t.  Yet you weren’t soft in your clear, pointed affirmations or disagreements either.

DM: It is because my father is a prosperity preacher and my brother was a member of a prosperity church that I worked to achieve balance in the book. My goal was to affirm teachings that were positive and to critique those that were not. I aimed for balance because I personally know that there are good and faithful Christians who are members of prosperity preaching churches and who preach and believe in the prosperity message. It is these people whom I had in mind when writing the book. I want them to understand from whence prosperity preaching originated and the positive and negative aspects of its teachings. I also wanted to offer them alternative ways of interpreting the bible and understanding theology.

MW: One of the important things you do, among many, is expand what poverty means.  What is poverty?  And can you talk about why the prosperity message, as it has been, has not necessarily been a message that for the world as much as for North America?

DM: I like the World Bank’s definition of poverty:

Poverty is pronounced deprivation in well-being, and comprises many dimensions. It includes low incomes and the inability to acquire the basic goods and services necessary for survival with dignity. Poverty also encompasses low levels of health and education, poor access to clean water and sanitation, inadequate physical security, lack of voice, and insufficient capacity and opportunity to better one’s life.

Their definition of poverty transcends money. It speaks to quality of life which I believe is what makes poverty so problematic. When people are poor, they are not only deprived of basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter, they are often also deprived of the opportunity to make their lives better. They cannot afford education and training that can help them get well- paying jobs. In our capitalistic society, money creates power. As a result, the opinions and needs of the poor are often overlooked and underrepresented. Hence, many of the poor find themselves caught in a cycle of poverty.

There are many poor in the United States of course. However, even people we consider poor in our nation, are not as poor as people in many other nations. Though it would seem that the prosperity message would not resonate well in very poor nations, it actually does. Prsoperity churches are located in nations such as Brazil, Kenya, and the Ukraine and many African countries. Many of the people who attend those churches want to be rich like people in the United States. However, the opportunities for them to become wealthy are often even more limited than they are in the US. Preaching prosperity in these poor nations is an especially egregious enterprise.

MW: I imagine you spend some time as a professor appealing to others to lean into the Bible and other sacred texts.  In some ways you even put your own way of studying on the page.  Why do you think it’s important to study the scriptures?

DM: The bible has been in the past and continues to be a sacred text for those of us who claim to follow Christ. The scriptures provide guidance for how we should treat our sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, and our neighbors. It defines who our neighbors are. It offers encouragement when we want to give up, comfort when we are lonely and disheartened, strength when we are weak, and the opportunity to lament and grieve when we have suffered loss. The bible also informs the ways we see the world – that which we believe to be good and that which is bad. Unfortunately, the bible has also been used to discriminate against people for reasons such as gender, race, class, age, and sexuality. By learning to read the bible for ourselves, we will be better equipped to discern whether the messages being preached in our midst are true to the will of God. 2 Timothy 2:15 instructs us to study so that we can rightly divide the word of truth. We should all be willing to take the time to study the word of God for ourselves so we can better understand what God is calling us to do.

MW: It seems that the Word of Faith movement is, among other things, a severe attempt to apply the scriptures to a listener’s life.  What are some ways you’ve suggested students/readers can approach, read, and apply the scriptures?

DM: Always pray for understanding before reading the scriptures. Then (1) read the text for basic understanding being sure to read as much of the chapter and book in which the text is found as possible; (3)use bible dictionaries, lexicons, and/or commentaries to define important and recurring words and phrases; and (4) research the geography, customs, current events, and politics of people in the text. This particular approach can enable people who read the Bible to mine its depths for deeper understanding. After following these steps, read the text again with the definitions and background information in mind. Then pray for God to help you determine how this text applies to your life.

MW: I kept thinking about theological education as I read your work.  What do you see is the role of seminaries in educating leaders and non-leaders?  How might congregations enhance what is happening in seminaries and divinity schools, again, for leaders and non-leaders?

DM: I believe that pastors and preachers are spiritual physicians. We would not allow medical personnel to attend to our needs without having been trained in their fields. Theological education is the training ground for pastors, preachers and religious educators. In seminaries and divinity schools women and men learn how to critically engage biblical texts, how to evangelize, how to think theologically about the world and its social conditions, how to preach and teach to different age groups and cultures, how to work effectively within the local culture of the congregations (church politics), how to engage with people who are theologically different they, and how to handle conflict. They also learn approaches to ministry to help them meet the many needs of their congregations.

People who are trained in seminaries can then teach people in their congregations how as well. Churches and denominational leaders can require their leaders earn degrees from seminaries and divinity schools. They can also encourage their members to attend seminars, lectures and conferences sponsored by theological institutions in their area. This way, all of the members will be exposed to theological education on some level.

MW: I appreciate how you gave several examples of ministers from the WOF and from the African American prophetic stream.  Who are some of the preachers we who serve in churches need to hear, read, or study?  Who can we not forget in your opinion, particularly from the prophetic stream?

DM: Donna Allen – Pastor, New Revelation Church, Oakland, California

Teresa Fry Brown – Professor of Homiletics and Director of Black Church Studies Candler School of Theology

Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie – 13th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church

MW: You talk about Christian entitlement and the danger of it.  Explain that term and its accompanying dangers.

DM: Christian entitlement is the belief that only people who choose to follow particular teachings of Christ are entitled to certain benefits. It can cause people to ignore issues of social justice. If people believe they are the only people who deserve particular blessings from God, they may be less inclined to help people who believe differently than they. People who have the attitude of Christian entitle believe that, if people who believe they are being discriminated against would just be faithful, they would not have any problems. This attitude ignores the reality of  systemic issues such as racism.

There may also be a sense of false pride or moral superiority. The moral superiority can cause people not to admit that though they are saved and sanctified, they are not perfect and should therefore extend to other people the grace they would like God to extend to them.

MW: What are you reading these days?

DM: I’ve been reading through the book of Job. I am always fascinated by the conversations he has with his friends throughout his ordeal. It raises questions about whether God tests us and how we respond to trials in our lives. It also raises questions about our faith in God – is it unconditional?

Books I have read recently include:

Your Spirits Walk Beside Us by Barbara Dianne Savage.  Here she looks at a history of the intersections of African American religion and life through the works of icons like W.E.B. DuBois, Benjamin Mays and Carter G. Woodson, Mary McCleod Bethune, and Zora Neale Hurston.

A Quiet Revolution: The Veil’s Resurgence, from the Middle East to America by Leila Ahmed.  Ahmed explores the issue of veiling for Muslim women by revealing the political, social, and religious issues at play in the lives of women who veil or do not veil.

The Anointed by Randall J. Stephens and Karl W. Giberson.  The authors examine how leaders like James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Ken Ham, Peter Marshall, Pat Robertson, Tim LaHaye, Oral Roberts came to wield their influences in the evangelical community and public square given the reality that many of them had few academic credentials (i.e. Ken Ham, founder of the Creation Museum, convinced thousands of people of the viability of his museum which rejects the concept of evolution).

MW: How can readers keep in touch with you and stay aware of your work?

DM: The seminary website and the website for my book are good places to stay aware of my work:

Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary www.lpts.edu

www.exploringprosperitypreaching.com

I am very thankful to have read Professor Mumford’s book.  Share this interview with anyone you think would be interested in her work.

Professor Mumford mentioned Teresa Fry Brown above.  Listen to Dr. Brown’s description of identity, preparation, and the preaching moment.  There are a few pauses in the video, but you probably need them to think through her words…

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