Here’s my blog for March on megachurches, female pastors, and the prosperity gospel. Dig it.
This is an idea that I am playing with for my manuscript on megachurches. Any comments/suggestions/ideas are, of course, welcome.
“It is time for the truth to be told and for people to realize the attack on women is actually from Satan himself.” Joyce Meyer makes this provocative proclamation in her 2006 book The Confident Woman, in which the celebrity preacher argues that women are equal in God’s eyes and must fight for their rights within the church and society. In fact, often men’s “egos” prevent women from fulfilling their calling to minister or teach. “Historically, women have often been allowed to do a lot, if not most, of the praying and servant-type work in the church,” she points out, “Meanwhile, the same men who refused to let them preach or teach stay home and rest.” This dichotomy is unacceptable for Meyer who believes that churches rely on women to fill certain “feminine” roles while preventing them from realizing their full potential. She contends that men abuse the Scriptures (like Paul’s writings in II Timothy) to hem women in, when those teachings were written within a certain cultural context—women today should not be punished for the unique circumstances of the past.
This focus on women’s rights and empowerment, however, is blurred with other passages that detract from Meyer’s seemingly feminist perspective. The bold female pastor also makes note that women bless the world by being “creative, comforting, sensitive.” They can also follow the model of the woman described in Proverbs through creative cooking. “I fed my family hamburger 1,001 different ways,” Meyer recalls, “I must admit I wasn’t too creative… our lady in Proverbs challenges us to go the extra mile and make things as good as possible.” And even when women feel called to church leadership, they still should allow men to become the spiritual head of the home, without opposition. The Confident Woman reveals the curious contradictions inherent in female prosperity preaching as embodied by Meyer and fellow female evangelists like Paula White. This kind of rhetoric raised some questions for me as I dug deeper into the messages and histories of these women. Are Meyer and White models of postfeminist preachers? Does the prosperity gospel actually help ameliorate the contractions that these postfeminist preachers present in their sermons and writings? This potential connection (between postfeminism and prosperity teachings) is one dichotomy that I’m toying with in my current manuscript about megachurch culture.
The prosperity gospel seems to provide an interesting cohesion for the messages of some female
megachurch leaders. It directs both their strong emphasis on women’s leadership and their constant stereotyping of women’s roles in the home and consumer culture back to the notion of God’s blessings. Paula White, in particular, demonstrates an ability (unconsciously or not) to blend the theology of Kathryn Kuhlman and the charisma of Sister Aimee Semple McPherson with a modern postfeminist message and consumer focus. A self-proclaimed “former messed up Mississippi girl,” she uses her tragic childhood and even present-day troubles (including a publicized affair with Trinity Broadcasting star Benny Hinn) to minister to women about overcoming the devil’s influence in their lives and increasing their prosperity. Like Kuhlman, White emphasizes the power of faith healing and leads Charismatic services, relying on the power of the Holy Spirit to fill her services and to give her prophesies. Breaking from Kuhlman’s commitment to leave men in lead pastor positions, White leads her own congregation—New Destiny Christian Center, a megachurch in Apopka, Florida with membership in the thousands. She actually first became a senior pastor in 2009, when she took over her former husband’s position at Without Walls International Church. Since she entered into the spotlight, the “Mississippi girl” has demonstrated the power of prosperity preaching when wielded by a woman.
White’s prosperity gospel is saturated with gendered anecdotes and analogies, which she uses to make the message relevant to diverse or largely African American audiences. Men and women alike are attracted to the energetic blond, who at once plays into the stereotypes of southern femininity but breaks through traditional barriers of female leadership. She openly references her father’s suicide (often labeling this event as the source of her “daddy issues”), being sexually abused as a child, and former struggles with anorexia and bulimia, using past troubles to contrast current blessings. At the same time that White preaches about spiritual empowerment and confronting the past to achieve present success, she impresses upon her followers the need to obey male authority within appropriate boundaries. “When I give honor I fill the terms of my commitment,” White teaches, “All of us have a father. So all of us have an obligation according to biblical standards and principals to honor our father. Now maybe you lost your father and he’s not living but you have a spiritual father (for me it’s Bishop Jakes). You have someone in your life that’s a figure of authority. If not, you have anarchy.” White presents an interesting blend of traditional evangelical motifs (the spiritual father is a figure revered since the revivals of the early 19th century) and modern consumer religion that promotes self-help and fulfillment.
Blessings are a constant thread that runs throughout White’s sermons, which rely on consumer culture as reference points. In one 2010 sermon, for instance, White compared God’s blessings to a shipping company, confiding in her audience that she “orders a lot through the mail.” When she wanted “cute shoes for a conference,” she was not there when the company tried to deliver them, much like God tries to send messages to his followers but they do not always receive them. As a result, her shoes, and God’s plans, can be delayed. “The enemy has been trying to discourage you,” she exclaims, “make you disbelieve by DELAY. BUT DELAY doesn’t mean denial.” By comparing God’s blessings to modern consumerism, White makes the prosperity gospel relevant to many women in her congregation but at the expense of playing into and promoting dominant gender stereotypes. At the same time that she admits to her shopping habits, she also presents her destination as that of a conference, indicating her professional status.
Joyce Meyer breaks from the healer/prophet identity promoted by women like White. The St. Louis
preacher focuses on building women’s confidence and health as a reflection of God’s favor. Like White, Meyer often references consumer culture in making the gospel relevant and she has published over forty books that are largely Christian self-help. Meyer also manipulates common female stereotypes but uses them to try to build women up, concentrating on self-esteem and how women can better manage their marriages and households. Meyer has gained a large following by speaking to notions of female empowerment and expanding the concept of prosperity beyond finances into areas like relationships and having a positive attitude. Her writings and sermons are predicated on the contradiction inherent in postfeminist rhetoric, however, as she often argues that women have unique weaknesses in an attempt to help shape female behavior. In her series the “Confident Woman,” for instance, Meyer argues that “women have more of a tendency to be emotional where men are more logical” and the devil can prey on these emotions. She also contends that dominant social attitudes also diminish women’s abilities and talents, destroying their confidence. Meyer’s expressed desire is to “release women to be all that God wants them to be.” Thus, while contradicting traditional cultural restrictions on women, the preacher actively relies on negative stereotyping to make her argument. This dichotomy is also present in her challenge to women to find fulfillment and independence by increasing their dependence on the patriarchal figure of God.
I attended a sermon given by Meyer at Lakewood Church in Houston (Osteen’s congregation) back in February 2013. The message was about complaining. Meyer listed reasons why should could have complained over the past two months, ranging from spraining her toe when it got caught in her underwear, losing her pants at the spa at a five star hotel, her staff not being able to find an open Starbucks for her morning coffee, and receiving the wrong bedspread that she ordered through the mail. Meyer’s message focused on the problem of the modern Christian constantly complaining but her larger point was muddled with references to her economic status, consumer culture, and gendered notions of beauty. She bragged about looking younger than her age and the number of squats that she can do at the gym, giving God praise for her physical body. Christians should not complain about their houses are cars because they asked for them and God gave them those blessings. “If gas prices rise, believe God will give you money to pay for how much you need to get to where you need to go.” Meyer uses neo-Pentecostal touchstones of “name it and claim it” (like claiming the gasoline or a house or car) theology but incorporates her own, almost boastful, praises to help build her image as a successful and confident woman.
Like with Meyer and White, as I explore the lives of more megachurch leaders (including Matt Pitt, Joel and Victoria Osteen, T. D. Jakes, and Ed Young, Jr., among others) I’m looking for ways that their rhetoric reflects and interacts with secular culture and larger social movements. There are some excellent studies out there on some of these pastors (I’m looking at you Shayne Lee and Phil Sinitiere) and on the prosperity gospel (and you, Kate Bowler) and on megachurches, too. I’m hoping to connect some of the dots in the literature—just some of them—to try and discover how megachurches were made and why they are consuming the religious imagination of the nation. I’ll keep you posted.