Over half of American churchgoers now believe God will bless them if they give more. Is the increase due to more people getting their teaching via the internet and TV? And if so, what could it mean for orthodox Christian beliefs in the UK? Peter Ould interrogates the data and makes a plea for better British surveys


Source: Alamy

Just over 1,000 American Protestants, who attended church at least once a month, were surveyed by Lifeway Research to explore their opinions on the prosperity gospel. The results were then weighted back to what researchers know about the wider Protestant church-going population.

In particular, the researchers were interested if the respondents “ticked the box” on core evangelical beliefs (biblical authority, evangelism, substitutionary atonement etc). This means that it is a much more reliable picture of what Christians in the USA believe, compared with some YouGov surveys of UK “Anglicans”, which don’t even check if they attend church, let alone believe in the core tenets of the Christian faith.

God and money

So what did the survey discover? Well, 52 per cent said that their church teaches that God will bless them if they give more money to their church or charity. That’s quite a dramatic increase from 38 per cent in a similar survey five years before. Of course, it’s worth noting that this is the respondents’ perception of what their church taught, and no-one has checked what they actually do teach, but it does fit other results in the survey.

The move to online teaching has affected the doctrinal position of our congregations

A staggering 76 per cent believed that God wanted them to prosper financially. 45 per cent believed that material blessing was contingent on them doing something for God - a dramatic increase from 26 per cent just five years previously.

The younger you are, the more likely you were to agree with these ideas, which were also associated with those who didn’t go to university, some particular denominations, and with the African-American community. These beliefs were also more likely if you did not agree to the core evangelical beliefs laid out above.

Learning from across the pond

So what does this tell us about Protestant Christianity in the USA? And is there anything to be learnt for the UK Church?

It is clear that there has been a shift among what Protestants think - in part linked to younger people. The fact that these prosperity beliefs were more likely if you didn’t believe core Christian doctrines indicates that some of this may be to do with teaching. Either new Christians aren’t being taught correct doctrine, or they’re not understanding it properly.

Christian TV is dominated by this kind of teaching, and, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, it may have been the only Christian teaching some people received. So perhaps it is not surprising that such beliefs have grown.

But I wonder if there’s also a political dimension. The changes in the Republican Party over the past decade (where evangelicals have typically found their loyalties) have seen Donald Trump, as both candidate and president, associate himself with prosperity teachers as much as with mainstream Protestant pastors. The culture war in the USA is closely aligned with religious belief, so perhaps some cultural Protestants with Republican leanings have been listening to the pastors Trump favours. We need some more research to be sure.

What about the UK?

But what about the UK? It is important to recognise that the Church on this side of the Atlantic is very different. Prosperity gospel teaching has not gained as much of a foothold here, and the overwhelming majority of evangelical Bible teachers are firmly against it.

On the basis of this survey, we shouldn’t be worried about this unorthodox teaching being a major problem in the UK. We should, however, be interested in exploring whether the move to online services and teaching has affected the doctrinal position of our congregations. We know that the internet is incredibly influential, and it allows people to be exposed to theologies they would perhaps never encounter in person.

A staggering 76 per cent believed that God wanted them to prosper financially

It would be interesting to properly survey UK churchgoers to explore some of these issues, and track them over time. While the prosperity gospel may be the main issue in the USA, would we find that issues around sexuality were the dividing line here? Could we discern whether there were key factors behind unorthodox beliefs that might help evangelical church leaders think about how to address them?

Good quantitative research, like this survey in the USA, is always helpful. Even if we don’t like the answers, we can rely on it to give a true picture of what people think. It also helps drive further questions, to identify why we’re seeing what we’re seeing.

It would be great to have similar surveys here in the UK so we could understand what the issues in the pews really are (not just what nominal Christians think) and help our leaders properly address them.