[OPINION] The Problem With Welfare Christianity
At the center of contemporary Christianity is the self. We have enough evidence to show that this is the case.
In the Philippines, fraternities and congregations echo the same mantra: “I am blessed”, “I am favored”, “I am loved” and “I am saved”. Even the statement that “I have a purpose” can only have meaning in relation to itself.
These colloquial words are also evident in the very names of congregations and communities. It does not matter whether they are evangelicals, Catholics or charismatics. I’m sure many of you can easily identify some of them.
Worship songs, the most effective conduit for theological thought, are also about the self. Those of us who have been exposed to compositions from Hillsong and other Western churches know that many of them lyricize the triumph of self over personal issues.
Somehow, these religious expressions speak of personal breakthrough, happiness, and success, all expressed in theological language.
In fact, they have become so ubiquitous that they are now taken for granted, even in non-religious settings. We find so much inspiration listening to motivational speakers (often from a Christian background) who tell us that it is good to find meaning and happiness in life.
To feel good and thrive. That’s what a lot of Christianity is today in our society.
So what is the problem?
Dismissive of suffering and hardship, welfare Christianity makes individual well-being the ultimate goal of Christian living.
Theologians have long debated the merits of welfare Christianity. They do not reject prosperity. In fact, they tell us that prosperity is multidimensional in scripture, perhaps close to the idea of human flourishing.
In welfare Christianity, however, prosperity is generally a material concern only. And that’s what bothers them.
In the Philippine context, my colleague, Erron Medina, and I have documented the transformation of the prosperity gospel from the days of Elder Mike Velarde to the contemporary period. Much of it now relies on self-help, what we call the prosperity ethic. (For those interested, our scientific paper is free to download here.)
And yet, the consequence of feel-good Christianity is even more profound. Many who consider themselves “spiritual” are unable to connect their beliefs with the needs of society.
To be sure they are ready to help when called upon. This is why local churches are effective in responding to humanitarian needs in their communities.
But when it comes to corruption, inequality and injustice, many Christians would rather keep quiet.
Years ago, an evangelical friend chastised me on social media for my critical statements on political issues. Rather, he argued, Christians should maintain their “peace” with themselves and with others.
It was then that I began to realize the profound implications of a feel-good Christianity.
His remark then saddened me. And it continues to bother me.
In welfare Christianity, we lose sight of the relevance of faith to major issues affecting our society. Glen Berteau calls it “light Christianity”. It focuses only on “the friendly, pleasant, fun, accepting, and exciting aspects of the life and message of Jesus, but it ignores the parts that make us feel uncomfortable.”
Lately, I have noticed influential religious figures rediscovering the political relevance of their ministry. I feel like a lot of them are tired of feel-good Christianity.
And rightly so.
“I will never use the pulpit to campaign,” the father tweeted. Mike. “But I will use it to preach the non-negotiables of the Gospel and the Faith!” Kung triggered ka sa hustisya, katotohanan, karapatang-pantao, kapayapaan, at responsibilidad, aba eh sino mag-aadjust? Ang Ebanghelyo? If Lord?
Lately, even mega-church pastors are getting louder and louder. This is a welcome development for me. Historically speaking, Filipino evangelicals have generally been apolitical, preferring to convert souls as a way to change society.
On social media, one pastor, for example, said he hated “when people whitewash their choice, excuse harm done, and exaggerate qualifications.” He went on to say that “I especially hate it when they use verses to do these things.” I think he was referring to recent political developments.
These ministers use their influence to help shape conversations about elections and the role of the People of God. They do this without deliberately endorsing specific candidates.
To be sure, many of their followers will be deactivated. The laity, after all, are in church for reasons other than politics.
But it is this very attitude in many Christians that perhaps needs to be converted.
The fact that many separate their Christian life from the business of society is in itself a symptom of a Christianity of well-being. Although they quote the Bible, they forget that God opposes the unrighteous.
As elections approach, Christians of all persuasions – especially the laity – must begin to embrace their prophetic calling. They, for their part, have a big role in exposing lies, especially those that captivate the public.
But their role is more important in showing that there is a better, but not necessarily easier, path for all of us.
It is, I believe, what Christians in the long history of the faith call testimony. However, this will not always do you good. – Rappler.com
Jayeel Cornelio, PhD is a sociologist of religion at the Ateneo de Manila University where he holds the Oscar R. Ledesma Professorial Chair and a Fellow of the Institute for Asian Church and Culture Studies. Follow him on Twitter @jayeel_cornelio.