With his snug leather jacket, pinky ring and semi-pompadour, Joseph Prince looks like an Asian pop star. He’s an on-stage pro, accustomed to cheering crowds. What usually comes out of his mouth, though, is not a song but a sermon. Usually he talks about God’s generosity. “You have right believing in your heart? You have right speaking? That’s all you need,” he says in one sermon, in his lilting Singaporean accent. “What you need first, many a times, is to be established in righteousness. Then you can believe God for a baby. Then you can believe God for healing. Then you can believe God for blessings on your company. Amen?”
His God wants you to get promoted at work, wants your bank account to be full … His God is always on your side.
Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide have said “Amen” to Prince, the 50-year-old pastor of Singapore’s New Creation Church. His sermons air on TV in more than 200 countries. His videos tally thousands of views on YouTube. His books sell strongly; the newest, The Power of Right Believing: 7 Keys to Freedom from Fear, Guilt, and Addiction, released on October 22, has stayed firmly in Amazon’s Top 100. This week, he tours the U.S., packing arenas like a theological Taylor Swift, except with more positive lyrics.
It’s easy to see why the faithful flock to Prince: His God wants you to get promoted at work, wants your bank account to be full, wants your blood pressure low and your spirits high. His God is always on your side. “We all know the church in general has a reputation of being judgmental,” says Jonathan Koh, a Singaporean who blogs on Christianity and has occasionally attended New Creation. “When you hear a message that God is really love and He’s not out there to get you and fault you, this is an attractive message.”
Prince’s Followers on Facebook
- Cynthia Hardy: ”[Prince’s] message has freed me from bondage of the law and religion and now I know what right believing has already accomplished for me and in me. Thank you Jesus for the finished work at the cross. Thank you Pastor Prince for hearing and obeying God!”
- James Wade: ”Attended the Newark event. What a blessing to our lives. The music and the worship service that preceded the ‘sermon’ was incredible, probable the most spiritual service we ever attended and there were 25,000 people. Thank you Pastor Prince for preaching the Word of our Lord in the USA.”
- Donna Slakis: ”Pastor Prince I believe your Message of Grace, however, I have to watch you daily to put it into practice & be reminded how to rest in Jesus, how to take from Jesus & how to depend on Jesus. Thank you Pastor Prince you are a true blessing.”
Prince’s brand of Pentecostal-inflected, blessing-centric Christianity has particular appeal for the marginalized. The sociologist Milmon Harrison of the University of California, Davis, writes in his book Righteous Riches that such churches offer “a religious response to class hierarchy appealing to many who have traditionally been farthest from its center” — hence their popularity among African-American and immigrant populations in the U.S. and in developing nations worldwide. But while this brand of Christianity is unfailingly positive, it’s also very controversial — just like Joseph Prince.
Prince named himself. At birth, he was Xenonamandar Jegahusiee Singh, the Singapore-born son of an Indian father and a Chinese mother. Religious service was in his bloodlines — he’s the son of a Sikh priest — but thanks to an aunt who took him to church, he became a Christian when he was 12.
Xenonamandar Singh became Joseph Prince in the early 1980s, while working as an IT consultant. He and friends co-founded New Creation in 1984. When he became the senior pastor in 1990, services only drew about 150 people on a typical Sunday.
According to his book Destined to Reign, a turning point came during a 1997 holiday in Switzerland with his wife, Wendy: “I heard God say this clearly to me: ‘Son, you are not preaching grace.’” The idea that God showed sinful humanity undeserved favor by sending Jesus as savior is not new — it’s a key tenet of historic Christianity. But Prince takes it farther, arguing that God is never angry with Christians and that He promises the faithful material as well as spiritual blessing. This puts him in a theological camp called Word of Faith (or sometimes, pejoratively, “Prosperity Gospel”). Joshua Woo Sze Zeng, a Presbyterian preacher and blogger in Singapore, recalls attending a New Creation service in which Prince shared that God had suggested investing in gold. “Indeed gold prices went up after that. He called that his gift of prophesy,” says Woo. “Such a message is very inspiring and hopeful to many who are preoccupied with socioeconomic gain.”
A Self-Described Groupie
South African born-again Christian Lulu Dikana considers herself a Joseph Prince groupie. “I fell in love with Joseph’s style of preaching and how he made everything sound so easy,” she says. Dikana especially values Prince’s message that “right believing produces right living.” She adds, ”Preachers of the gospel are my rock stars.”
Today, weekly attendance at New Creation averages more than 20,000, with eight services (four in English, two in Korean, and one each in Mandarin and Hokkien). Last year, it moved into a 5,000-seat auditorium in an ultramodern, $600-million, retail-and-entertainment complex that the church co-developed and co-owns. Prince has preached at his friend Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston. And his sermons are now broadcast online and on television in dozens of countries; in the U.S., you can watch him six days a week on the ABC Family and TBN networks.
They moved into a 5,000-seat auditorium in an ultramodern, $600-million, retail-and-entertainment complex.
His rising stateside prominence forms the beginnings of a full circle: Prince’s theological heroes are American, and Word of Faith is rooted in the U.S. church. Particularly influential: the late Pentecostal preacher Kenneth Hagin, Word of Faith’s father, who did more than any other minister to promote the notion that God wants to bless believers materially. “It is truly on the shoulders of great men of God like [him] that we are able to see further into the Word of God today,” Prince writes in Destined to Reign. “I deeply honor and respect him for all that he has taught me.”
Prince told the Christian magazine Charisma in 2010 that his ministry “is all about exalting the person of Jesus and pointing people to His finished work at Calvary.” This Jesus discusses career advancement and residential real estate. Indeed, Prince — who has become wealthy through his TV deals and book sales — venerates typically American ideas of success. “This is the American Dream,” says Kathleen Hladky, an assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Charleston, “packaged with a religious veneer.”
Jon Ruthven, a Regent University professor emeritus of theology, says Prince has done good work in emphasizing positive aspects of Christianity, including the idea “that God is very present to save, heal and provide.” But he expresses concerns shared with other critics of Word of Faith, faulting Prince for minimizing Biblical warnings that the Christian life “necessarily will cause suffering, loss and rejection.” God, says Ruthven, “is not the popular ‘vending-machine’ God, who exists only to make someone healthy and rich.”
But it’s easy to see the appeal of Prince’s brand of theology. It’s compelling to listen to him, with his lustrous black jacket, jeweled brooch and stage whisper, promising that God wants only good for you. In one sermon, before launching into a soft-pop setting of Psalm 34, he says, “We’re going to sing this psalm over you, and cancers will be healed and tumors will be healed. Jesus is about to put in the key and set you free.”There’s another perverse, perhaps unintentional, consequence of teaching that God rewards the faithful materially: If you don’t get the blessings, you must not be faithful enough. “People want to latch onto something that will give them hope, that will give them assurance they can succeed,” says Robert Bowman, director of research at the Institute for Religious Research and the author of The Word-Faith Controversy. “But it’s not always to your credit when good things happen, and it’s not always your fault when bad things happen.”
To many people, that certainly sounds like good news.
Why you should care
His compelling brand of Christianity is making this Singapore-born former IT consultant a household name for believers all around the world.