National Baptist speakers criticize prosperity gospel, 'seeker' churches

DALLAS (ABP) -- Speaking to a late-afternoon audience of more than 1,000, former Southern Baptist Convention president Jimmy Allen told the nation's largest African-American Baptist group that media promotion of a "prosperity gospel" is deluging modern-day churches -- and driving them into error.

"Prosperity gospel is now a problem because we've learned to study the market, and now the marketplace is dictating the message," said Allen, the last moderate to lead the SBC.

Allen spoke as part of the National Baptist Convention USA's 126th annual meeting, in a forum designed to answer the question, "What do we preach?" Claiming more than 7.5 million members, NBCUSA is the largest historically African-American denomination in the nation.

As part of a panel including social activist James Earl Massey and several prominent pastors, Allen set the tone for the discussion, referencing the prevalence and persistence of Christian media in contributing to the creation of so-called "seeker-sensitive" megachurches.

"The marketing studies are so precise and so constant that they figure out what you want," Allen said. "We have folks who are looking at that and saying, 'Now if this is what they want, then I'll give it to them.' And so we find ourselves with seeker churches. The fact is that we build to match the market."

William Shaw, NBCUSA president since 1999, also broached the subject of churches tailoring themselves to match demographics. He prefaced Allen's remarks by correlating the so-called prosperity gospel with the development of seeker churches. He defined "prosperity gospel" as a belief system focused on health, wealth and faith -- "a contemporary form of uplift theology" and "a capitalistic devotion to personal privilege."

Shaw disparaged the consumer-centric message of the movement, saying television preachers have increasingly established themselves as religious persuaders across lines of color, race and class. The theological message of the gospel must be founded in biblical truth, not emotional experiences, he said. Shaw is the pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia.

"The devil has long since concluded that he's not really going to be able to defeat the Lord in open matters of conflict…so he infiltrates from the inside," he said. "Our people have been misfed and misled."

Massey, who spoke after Allen, related the exponential numerical growth of many seeker churches to a lack of biblical doctrine or "a great neglect of the centralities of the Christian faith," he said.

The neglect comes from forgetting the apostolic doctrines taught in the Bible, Massey said. And when doctrines are slighted, he said, "emotion becomes a primary concern and a controlling force."

"There is a proper, biblical pattern for church growth," Massey said amid applause. "We should preach what the apostles preached and taught. And the basis for their apostolic teaching is the New Testament."

Massey also said that African-American religious life is faced with several challenges, including a rise in using pop music for worship, a rejection of church tradition, and a diminishing interest in "doctrinal constraints." But the Bible shows Christians how they can overcome the struggle, he said.

To that end, he added, every congregation should be a place of "prescribed learning" to monitor personal experience so that each person is "text-anchored." When the truth is not preached, the Holy Spirit has no ally to serve its interest, he said.

"Don't forget Acts 2:24: 'They continued strongly in the apostles' doctrine,'" he urged delegates. "That is what we preach."