The Pentecostal movement and Prosperity Gospel are two of the most influential phenomena in the last century in Global Christianity. Arguably, both originated in the United States and then spread like wild-fire to the rest of the world including India. However, South Indian Pentecostalism is at a crossroads with regards to the Prosperity Gospel. The principles of Prosperity Gospel are antithesis to the traditional principles and values of south Indian Pentecostalism. Early South Indian Pentecostals emphasised the importance of a sacrificial life, holiness and above all a ‘separation from the world’. The emergence of Prosperity Gospel has put in danger some of those cherished principles.
Since the arrival of the word of faith movement in Madras (modern-day Chennai) in the 1980s, the landscape and thought-process of South Indian Pentecostals have been changed and hijacked by the Prosperity Gospel. Since then, South India have witnessed the rise of faith healers, mega-churches, large-scale revival meetings and televangelism which are all borrowed concepts from a group of American Pentecostals, Charismatics and Evangelicals who propagate the Prosperity Gospel. The prosperity message is attractive, positive and inspiring. Its focus on health, wealth and other material blessings do strike a chord with human nature and human ‘wants’. But some would interpret it as an exploitation of human ‘greed’. Moreover, the failure of success, wealth and health promised by the Prosperity Gospel will have serious implications on the faith of Christians. They might doubt their faith, get frustrated by it and even abandon it. But ironically, it was the poverty orientated lifestyle led by many early Pentecostal leaders and the negative effect it had on future generations that contributed to the emergence of Prosperity Gospel in south India.
Moreover, Prosperity Gospel’s message is an excellent tool for numerical expansion and therefore, attractive to those church leaders who measure success with the number of people in their church. Most mega-churches in South India and around the world are led by proponents of Prosperity Gospel. Although, Prosperity Gospel in South India is not as widespread as in the US and traditional Pentecostal denominations have mostly not subscribed to this heretical teaching, the success of churches that promote it could force these traditional churches to make compromises and incorporate the teachings of the Prosperity Gospel. The growth in Indian economy since early 1990’s and changes in attitude and lifestyle towards the traditional doctrine on wearing jewellery, buying property and even watching secular movies are arguably examples of the influence of Prosperity Gospel among South Indian Pentecostals.
The increasing adoration of a luxurious lifestyle by many modern Pentecostal leaders and a change in the theology of many modern songs towards arguably a Prosperity-orientated message are all evidence to show how many in South Indian Pentecostal churches are using the Prosperity Gospel as a biblical solution to sanction certain lifestyles and attitudes which otherwise would be illegitimate in the context of early South Indian Pentecostalism. Therefore, I argue that although the paradigm-shift is not distributed evenly across the South Indian Pentecostal spectrum, there has been a steady shift in paradigm from a humble, biblical and authentic Gospel of Jesus Christ towards the heretical teachings of the Prosperity Gospel since the 1980s.
As Micheal Bergunder says, ‘The connection between holiness and unworldliness has long kept the south Indian Pentecostal Movement from preaching a prosperity Gospel. The appearance of the Faith movement in the 1980’s and the propagation of the ‘financial aspects of the gospel’ went parallel with an increasing turn away from the original separation. Indeed, it was only then the idea of a prosperity Gospel struck a chord with many south Indian congregations’. Therefore, this paradigm-shift could prove destructive for future Pentecostalism, Evangelicalism and even Christianity in India.
South Indian Pentecostalism is at a crossroads today.