the first program i saw that made me wonder why anyone in our country, let alone the world, would take american evangelical christians seriously was the episode of 60 minutes that aired sunday night, october 14th.
one of the segments was devoted to joel osteen. now i can hear some of you saying "ok stephen, we know, you hate joel osteen... give the guy a break."
while i have discussed joel osteen in the past on this blog, it is not true that i hate him. in fact, i honestly believe that he is sincere in what he is doing and what he teaches. i also believe that he means no harm and has all of the best intentions in the world. i do not believe that he would deliberately lead people astray.
but sincerity can be sincerely wrong.
the fact that he has a large church is not the primary reason that i am so wary of him. some of my greatest influences(spurgeon, piper, etc.) pastor or pastored churches with thousands in attendance.
large crowds do not an evil preacher make.
the fact is, i do not hate joel osteen. i fear him. more accurately, i fear the effect he has on the thousands who are given a hopeless hope.
for starters, here is how 60 minutes started their program:
Joel Osteen's positive, upbeat can-do message has turned
him into America's most popular preacher and earned him
the title of most influential Christian in the country.
He pastors the biggest and fastest growing
American church and his services are the most watched
religious broadcast in the country
so what is it that america's "most popular preacher" and the "most influential christian in the country" teaches?
Osteen preaches his own version of what is known as the
"prosperity gospel" -- that God is a loving, forgiving
God who will reward believers with health, wealth and
happiness. It's the centerpiece of every sermon
as stated before on this blog, it is hard to reconcile this with the scores of passages that promise suffering and for some, torture and death for the sake of the gospel. what would the believers in third world countries who go to bed hungry or are persecuted by their government for their faith think of osteen's message that god will reward believers with health, wealth and prosperity?
quoting osteen, the interviewer notices what i hope you have noticed by now..
" [quoting osteen]
'To become a better you, you must be positive towards
yourself, develop better relationships, embrace the place
where you are.'[end quote]
Not one mention of God in that. Not one mention of
Jesus Christ in that," [the interviewer] remarks. "
"That's just my message. There is scripture in there
that backs it all up. But I feel like, Byron, I'm called
to help people…how do we walk out the Christian life?
How do we live it? And these are principles that can
help you. I mean, there’s a lot better people qualified
to say, 'Here’s a book that going to explain the scriptures
to you.' I don’t think that’s my gifting," Osteen says.
the problem is, pastors and preachers in the new testament are called to use scripture, to teach their hearers the word of god.
paul told timothy "preach the word" jesus commanded to "teach them to observe all things i have commanded". the new testament is full of passages speaking of "preaching" being the proclamation of the gospel to unbelievers and the reiterating of the need for the gospel in the lives of the believers. the new testament is a collection of books written to believers with its emphasis being the glory of god in the gospel of jesus christ. our need for the gospel isn't over after conversion!
so i guess therein lies the root of my problem with joel osteen. what he does is not preaching.
now you may ask... why does that matter?
here is why it matters.
"I like to see myself as a life coach, a motivator to
help them experience the life of God that God has
for them. People don’t like to be beat down and told '
You’ve done wrong... think that most people already
know what they’re doing wrong. And for me to get in
here and just beat ‘em down and talk down to ‘em,
I just don’t think that inspires anybody to rise higher.
But I want to motivate. I wanna motivate every person
to leave here to be a better father, a better husband, to
break addictions to come up higher in their walk with the Lord "
if joel were simply on the speaking circuit doing motivational speeches, with teh same content, at conferences, business luncheons and trainings, self help groups, etc., for the most part, i wouldn't bother being worried about the content of what he teaches.
but the rub comes in here. people don't go to motivational speakers with an idea that what they are hearing will make them right with god. the preacher doesn't have to "beat people down" with what they have done wrong. but he is called to make people aware that their sin separates them from god and nothing they can do will ever be enough to earn his favor or mercy. this opens the door for teaching of grace and mercy!
osteen's message is that we are good people who haven't reached the goodness of our internal potential because of external problems.
the bible's message is that the problem is internal and the remedy is external.. in christ.
these are two different messages.
the gospel as presented by jesus and his disciples is this "repent and believe".
yet osteen himself in this 60 minute special and in an interview with larry king has explicitly stated that he tries to steer clear of speaking of sin or guilt.
how can one in need of the gospel "repent" if they have never been told they are in need of it and what it *means* to be a sinner in need of repentance?
so how is it that those who need the gospel can hear it at one of osteen's services?
these verses from romans are quite troubling in light of what osteen *isn't* saying:
For "everyone who calls on the name of
the Lord will be saved." How then will they
call on him in whom they have not believed?
And how are they to believe in him of
whom they have never heard? And how are they to
hear without someone preaching? And how are
they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written,
"How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the
suppose someone goes to osteen's church. the are motivated by what they hear. they may even take great steps in improving their lifestyle. that is a credit to the way osteen seeks to encourage his hearers to take responsibility for their lives.
but what if they are lost?
will they ever hear the call to "repent and believe"? do they even know their need for the gospel? or is what they hear convincing them that the secret to happiness lies within themselves and their own efforts? hopefully you can see how dangerous this is.
osteen is not unaware of his critics. he responds to the charge that his teaching is dangerous by saying:
"I don’t know what can be so dangerous about giving
people hope...Causing people to have better relationships.
I'm not leading them to some false God or something like that."
osteen may not be preaching a "false god", but is he building up the "self" to the detriment of the realization for the need for the gospel?
i occasionally will watch osteen's services late on sunday nights. its true that he will hold up his bible and say (with those in attendance repeating after him):
This is my Bible.
I am what it says I am.
I have what it says I have.
I can do what it says I can do.
Today I will be taught the Word of
I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive.
I will never be the same.
I am about to receive the incorruptible, indestructible,
ever-living seed of the Word of God.
I will never be the same. Never, never, never.
I will never be the same. In Jesus name.
after reciting this (notice the power of what "i" can do), osteen goes on to give clever jokes, some anecdotes, and some encouraging comments after having read a passage of scripture. but he never preaches the word of god.
i am scared for the lost persons (perhaps in the hundreds or thousands) who attend lakewood's services or watch on television and think that because they have heard and sincerely believe what osteen has said, that their attendance or assent to the "message" makes them right with god.
so what you have is a 20 or 30 minute motivational talk that encourages people to try hard and not give up, that god wants good things for them, then says "if you want to become a christian say this..."
this is terrifying.
certainly the bible does speak to what are called "practical matters" of life; love, finances, work, relationships, etc. but from genesis to revelation the emphasis of scripture is living life for the glory of god. (1 cor. 10:31 for example). when the emphasis is always on "me", how can we expect anyone to know that the greatest joy in life is joy in christ?
john piper asks a great question in his book, god is the gospel
"Would you be happy to go to heaven... to have all
your family there, to be free from all diseases, to
have every kind of pleasure you desire, etc....
would you be happy to go to heaven... if God were not there?"
if the message heard week end and week out is absent of the call for finding fulfillment in joy in christ, how can the heaer answer yes to that question.. or even know that they should?
to be sure, christians are to have blessings and pleasure. but if at the root of our blessings and pleasure the joy is in the gifts and not the giver, then we are idolaters.
having our best life now is recognizing that any and all good things in our lives are the result of the grace and mercy of god, the chief of which is the salvation of undeserving sinners offered freely by god through the life, death, burial and resurrection of jesus christ. this is teh message of christianity. we can be better husbands and wives, better parents, better employees, have better relationships with our friends and families, even put in a lot of hard work and effort to improve our lifestyles. but if the foundation of our joy is not rooted in joy in christ, then how will we view our lives if all the "stuff" goes away? when thieves steal and moth and rust destroy?
our best life is the gospel- and the benefit comes not from our trying harder, but from our recognition of our inability to satisfy our deepest desires and the utter ability of christ to do just that. but not because of the lifestyle he can give us- but because of the life he gives.
so no, i do not think joel osteen is evil, or the anti-christ, or even a mean person. i mean no disrespect of his person and i do not call in to question his character.
but the message of joel osteen makes me fear for those who hear it and assume it is the gospel. rather than getting their "best life now.." they may be missing any chance of life at all.
(for previous discussions and further concerns regarding this matter see here and here)