The story of how the most famous attack on the ‘prosperity Gospel’ happened in an Alabama church
BIMRINGHAM, Ala. — John Piper is a Baptist preacher at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota and the founder of desiringGod.org. Famous for his sermons and published works, he travels the country to preach and teach the word of God. Piper is know for his measured and methodical style, which makes one of his most famous moments all the more intriguing.
One night at Mountain Brook Community Church in Birmingham, Alabama, Piper went off the cuff during a sermon to a group of college students. He broke off from his script and went after the so-called “prosperity gospel.” The theology, popularized by mega-preachers like Joel Osteen and Robert Tilden, posits that through enough faith and prayer, God will deliver wealth, health, and happiness to those who worship him.
But Piper, like many other Christians, asserts that this is not the case. “It is not the gospel, and it’s being exported from this country to Africa and Asia, selling a bill of goods to the poorest of the poor: ‘Believe this message, and your pigs won’t die and your wife won’t have miscarriages, and you’ll have rings on your fingers and coats on your back.’ That’s coming out of America—the people that ought to be giving our money and our time and our lives, instead selling them a bunch of crap called gospel,” Piper said.
He went on. “I’ll tell you what makes Jesus look beautiful,” Piper added. “It’s when you smash your car, and your little girl goes flying through the windshield, and lands dead on the street…and you say through the deepest possible pain, ‘God is enough.’”
Since the time of that sermon’s delivery back in 2007, over one million people have listened to it on YouTube – a number higher than any of Piper’s other stand-alone clips. But Piper’s message to the college students at Mountain Brook Community Church almost did not happen. In fact, it was almost as impromptu as the segment of the speech itself.
Piper’s original reason for coming down to Alabama was that he was asked to deliver a Reformation Day lecture at Samford University’s Beeson Divinity School. His speech to the University Christian Fellowship was “tacked on” as a favor to the group’s leader Joel Brooks, who took a class at Beeson that Piper taught from time to time.
Per usual, Piper had a pre-written, measured sermon ready that he had already delivered before. “He is very much a preparation guy,” desiringGod.org executive editor John Mathis told The Gospel Coalition. “He rarely does purely extemporaneous speaking. But sometimes the little extemp moments in an otherwise scripted message are some of the most golden things he says.”
Brooks, however, wanted to hear about something different from Piper than he originally prepared. Believing his campus ministry had become tainted by the false teachings of the prosperity Gospel, Brooks wanted Piper to address the issue. He brought it up to the preacher over dinner immediately before the start of the service. 47 minutes in, Piper addressed the issue, and did not think much else of it at the time.
Since that night in Birmingham, Piper’s attack on the prosperity Gospel has become one of his key messages as he travels to preach. The influence and reach of that except has far exceeded the walls of Mountain Brook Community Church and out into the broader world. “I still meet college students who are very familiar with it,” Brooks told The Gospel Coalition.