Prosperity gospel has, for better or worse, become a popular trend within 21st-century Christianity, with mega-churches like Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church having an average of 43,500 people in attendance each week. Prosperity gospel, in layman’s terms, makes claims that God deeply desires his followers to feel satisfied and fulfilled with their earthly lives, and that he will fulfill our material desires if we “name and claim” those things on faith.
Social media sites give us the impression that they can offer the same type of rewards. On popular sites like Facebook, most interactions are engineered to have a positive slant to them. We have Facebook “friends,” but never any “enemies.” We can “like” statuses, photos, etc. but not “dislike” them. We can crop and edit photos to death, and ones that still don’t look good enough we can omit altogether. We can even take back the things we’ve said–I personally have gone back through some of my old statuses and deleted things I thought were clever when I was in high school (they weren’t, in case you were curious). Online, we have much more control over what people get to know and see about us than we do in the real world; in essence, we are able to create our “ideal” selves.
The claims of Prosperity Gospel are hotly debated in the church, and its theology is generally considered to be outside of mainstream Christian beliefs. Some well-known Christian thinkers of the modern era such as John Piper, now retired, consider prosperity gospel to be an “abomination,” saying that some of its claims run directly counter to fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith.
Despite the concerns of many Christians that prosperity gospel may be giving people the wrong idea about what to expect from the Christian life, there is no denying its appeal. As mentioned above, Lakewood Church has thousands in its congregation on a weekly basis, and Joel Osteen’s sermons, which are televised, reach millions more. And besides, who wouldn’t want to follow a God whose goal is to make sure your life is always happy and your endeavors always rewarding, and after death, God promises an even happier life in eternity with Jesus?
But do these “positive slants” cause peoples’ perceptions and expectations of reality to become skewed? In a world that encourages us to adhere to #YOLO (You Only Live Once) culture, believing that “this life is all we get so we should get as much out of it as possible,” are people – including Christians – becoming less concerned with whether there is a life after this? Are we losing sight of eternity?
A recent study conducted by the University of Michigan has found that social media may actually be making it harder for people to feel happy and fulfilled in their lives. Not only can Facebook damage your relationships with your friends, but the study showed that people who regularly looked on Facebook felt a negative impact on their happiness and well-being in life. This is one of two recent studies that examined the effects of Facebook on people, with the other study showing that people who post photos frequently on the social media site are at risk of damaging their relationship with friends in real life.
The researchers in the University of Michigan study summarized their findings as follows: “Rather than enhancing well-being, as frequent interactions with supportive ‘offline’ social networks powerfully do, the current findings demonstrate that interacting with Facebook may predict the opposite result for young adults–it may undermine it.” Although the researchers found that Facebook users were more connected with their friends and family than non-Facebook users, they also discovered that when Facebook users started logging on more frequently, they became more dissatisfied with their overall outlook on life.
People typically don’t argue the point that not all Christians lead “happy, fulfilled” lives, by earthly standards. Not all pastors enjoy the same financial or material blessings that Joel Osteen does, nor do they all have perfect, stable relationships with their friends, family, and congregation. But most seasoned Christians would not chalk this up to a lack of faith, or believe that claiming something material on faith will allow you to then possess it in reality. On the contrary, most Christians understand that God sends us out “like sheep among wolves,” (Matthew 10:16) with no guarantee of safety or comfort.
The danger of prosperity gospel theology and social media lies in their false promises. The material blessings that prosperity gospel promises cannot be guaranteed, nor can personal, social fulfillment promised by social media sites substitute the happiness provided by spending time with your “offline” social network. And the danger of these false promises, above all, is that it causes us to invest ourselves in the wrong thing: this world. As Christians, we are called not to “lay up for ourselves treasures on earth,” but to “lay up for ourselves treasures in heaven, for where our treasure is, there our heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21).
Not “laying up treasures in heaven,” that is, living this life with the knowledge that there is indeed eternal life ahead, is perhaps best illustrated by C.S. Lewis:
“It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
There is hope, however!
The dangers of prosperity gospel theology and social media are by no means set in stone.
People can certainly come to faith through a Joel Osteen sermon, and go on to lead wonderful lives of service to God. Osteen has some great things to say, and he is an encouraging and happy man whom I believe truly loves the Lord he proclaims. Social media sites, too, can be excellent tools for keeping in touch with the people who are important to us, and social media allow us to share our lives with each other. In an increasingly digital world, sometimes they are the best (if not the only) option for keeping up that correspondence.
By no means do we have to fear these dangers I have discussed–as long as we are willing to keep our minds fixed on eternity.