Repenting of the Health-and-Wealth Gospel: Lessons from Kibera
In the heart of Nairobi, Kenya, lies one of Africa’s largest slums—Kibera. Conditions there are harsh. People live in makeshift structures, surrounded by open ditches filled with human and animal waste. Opportunities for jobs and education are severely limited, as is access to healthcare, food, and clean water.
Amid this landscape, though, the people of God are present. From makeshift cardboard churches, the sounds of hymns and prayers flow out. Though humble in structure, churches like this offer a small sanctuary for some of the most impoverished people on earth to gather together to worship the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Chalmers’ founder and president Brian Fikkert shares a story in When Helping Hurts of a visit to a church like this:
When we arrived at the church, I was immediately asked to preach the sermon. As a good Presbyterian, I quickly jotted down some notes about the sovereignty of God and was looking forward to teaching this congregation the historic doctrines of the Reformation. But before the sermon began, the service included a time of sharing and prayer. I listened as some of the poorest people on the planet cried out to God: “Jehovah Jireh, please heal my son, as he is going blind.” “Merciful Lord, please protect me when I go home today, for my husband always beats me.” “Sovereign King, please provide my children with enough food today, as they are hungry.”
As I listened to these people praying to be able to live another day, I thought about my ample salary, my life insurance policy, my health insurance policy, my two cars, my house, etc. I realized that I do not really trust in God’s sovereignty on a daily basis, as I have sufficient buffers in place to shield me from most economic shocks. I realized that when these folks pray the fourth petition of the Lord’s prayer—Give us this day our daily bread—their minds do not wander as mine so often does. I realized that while I have sufficient education and training to deliver a sermon on God’s sovereignty with no forewarning, these slum dwellers were trusting in God’s sovereignty just to get them through the day. And I realized that these people had a far deeper intimacy with God than I probably will ever have in my entire life.
In this eye-opening encounter, Brian shares that he began to understand that “repentance for many North Americans, myself included, often begins with renouncing the false teachings of the health-and-wealth gospel.” He had walked into a church filled with faithful believers, carrying the unstated assumption that wealth and faithfulness to the gospel somehow go hand in hand. But he realized his assumption was deeply flawed.
The Danger of the Health-and-Wealth Gospel
At its core, the false teaching of health-and-wealth doctrine asserts that increased faith leads to greater material wealth—or more broadly, that we can somehow guarantee God’s blessings through practicing some aspect of our faith in a specific way (whether prayer, church attendance, parenting, or something else).
Such a perspective is easily debunked as we walk with faithful believers around the world who experience material poverty and other sufferings. It is imperative to reject the notion that people who are economically disadvantaged are somehow spiritually lacking, simply based on their condition of material poverty.
We can see how misguided it is through considering the life of the apostle Paul—a man of enormous faith who endured shipwrecks, beatings, stonings, poverty, and nakedness. Paul’s hardships remind us that poverty can stem from injustices rather than spiritual inadequacies or personal failings.
This understanding is crucial, especially when encountering communities like Kibera, where many Christians demonstrate incredible spiritual strength despite devastating poverty. It is simply not the case that financial prosperity accompanies spiritual maturity.
The health-and-wealth gospel is just one facet of the broader “god-complex” many Christians with greater access to material resources struggle with. Acknowledging our brokenness is a vital part of the journey toward true fellowship with brothers and sisters in material poverty. Repentance involves embracing the message of the cross that declares, “I’m broken, weak, and sinful, but God loves me and was willing to send Jesus Christ to save me!” Without such gospel-grounded humility, unexamined arrogance on the part of “helpers” may inadvertently deepen the poverty experienced by those already burdened by material challenges as they are “helped,” reinforcing feelings of shame and inferiority.
A Way Forward
Walking alongside people in a way that recognizes our mutual brokenness and the power of the gospel to restore broken relationships is a delicate balance. We want to avoid creating ministries that lead to a “god-complex” or further shame those experiencing material poverty. The Chalmers Center has put together a proven approach to building a benevolence ministry that leads to lasting transformation. If your church or ministry would like to learn how to create a benevolence ministry that makes a difference in your community, click here to learn more and sign up for the next cohort.