There is much criticism of Joel Osteen out there these days, in particular lumping him in with those who promote a ‘prosperity Gospel.’ For a round up, take a look at some of the links on this Google Search. Avoid the first link- it keeps freezing up my Mozilla browser. Now, I don’t listen to Mr. Osteen on a regular basis but I have seen his program on the TV quite a few times. I have yet to hear anything that is truly objectionable from a doctrinal point of view. I can’t even say that I have ever heard him actually say any of the things I would normally hear from the prosperity Gospel point of view. Maybe he has, but in the dozen or so times I’ve heard him speak, I have yet to hear it.
I heard him again today. His message had lots of good insight, insight I confess I cannot say I have ever heard from pulpits I’ve encountered. His messages usually focus on pragmatic, practical aspects of the Christian walk.
Today, for example, he pointed out that we are in charge of our own feelings and we shouldn’t allow people around us to dictate how we feel. They shouldn’t have the capacity to ‘rob us of our joy.’ We give people that power- it cannot be taken, it must be given. There are some people, he explained, who by simple choice choose to be grumpy and pessimistic, and if we hang around them we are likely to absorb their pessimism. This is all advice you can find in the Scriptures in one form or another and I would wager that most mainliners wouldn’t object. The problem- as I have heard Osteen say before- is that this is the sort of counsel that is rarely heard.
I agree. The question in my mind is how reasonable it is to ever hope that our current way of conducting ‘church’ could ever hope to produce well rounded Christians. When Osteen says that people are tired of getting beat up in sermons I think he makes a valid point. When anything is successful, anything, there is always ‘something’ to it. People vote with their feet. This goes even for the writings of someone like that rascal Richard Dawkins. Yes, there is something to what he says. That means that in formulating responses you need to be prepared to give an account for that very same ‘thing’ and show why you’ve got it equally handled or why you can do better.In other words, if certain mainline denominations are losing members to organizations similar to Osteen’s it may not simply mean that Osteen is promoting heretical harlotry and attracting the unwary, it may mean that Osteen is offering something that the mainlines could not or do not provide. The solution would be to provide it. More on that in a moment.
I find that many of the perspectives on just what should constitute a church service seem to me to be elaborate theological constructs generated on certain personality types and particular cultures. For example, there are certain personality types who, like David, see their sin ‘always before them.’ (Psalm 51). There are some cultures which have a high proportion of people of that personality type. But not every person has this view of themselves and it doesn’t follow that just because you are like that that everyone should be like that.
On the other hand, there are particular cultures and personality types which are more likely to resonate with “Be joyful always; pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” (1 Thess 5:16) It may not be that they are not aware of their sinful self but being aware of it, they are also deeply aware of what God has done about it in Christ Jesus.
Still, a community that focuses on that latter ‘personality type’ may structure themselves at the expense of the Psalm 51 ‘personality types’ and therefore fall into its own set of extremes. Clearly, the goal is to be balanced. To obtain that balance, it would be a first step to identify how much of one’s theology is being driven by the culture they were raised in and their own personality type rather than straight out of the Scriptures. As often as I hear genuine wisdom out of Osteen’s mouth, I do not see evidence that he is really setting forth a legitimate, robust, balanced perspective on what it means to live the Christian life in community of other, diverse Christians.
The problem is that I don’t see much evidence of this on the other side, either, and I wonder if the general structure of things would allow it. Consider this quote from a critic of Osteen’s:
but the reality is that 30,000 people are not being biblically fed a balanced spiritual diet that will promote true growth in their lives. What you do hear is a synthesis of WOF concepts wrapped up in a seeker-friendly environment by a young man with a winsome smile.
Lastly, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a certain synergy builds with any church when it begins to reach such a size. People, who have no solid doctrinal foundation, will want to attend the place where “something” is happening (throw in a coffee bar, ice rink and gym does not hurt either). In America, bigger is better. After all, many posit, if Joel was not being used of the Lord then why would God allow all these people to come to Lakewood church?
Could it be a sign of God’s judgment on His people who have forsaken His ways? Often we think of God’s judgment as some divine catastrophe, yet often, and just as catastrophic, is when He simply allows people to have own way. I believe the words of Jeremiah are applicable to many in the Church today:
As much as Joel no doubt believes the growth they’ve experienced is due to the blessing of God it really boils down to three simple things, which have nothing to do with God at all: (1) his father’s legacy and an already existing mega-church; (2) Joel’s slick marketing abilities; (3) a biblically errant, but hugely popular message which appeals to the masses seeking to have their ears tickled and experience a “good time” in church.
As much as I resonate with some aspects of this criticism I have to take issue with it. In the first place, let us remind ourselves that Osteen is not drawing people from out of the secular humanist camp. There aren’t hordes of Buddhists, Hindus, and atheists rushing in because of Joel’s positive message and effective marketing. These are mainly disenchanted Christians, many of whom we can be certain come out of the mainline denominations.
It is interesting that this critic is prepared to dismiss the numerical growth of Osteen’s congregation as definitely not being a sign of God’s blessing. Does the fact that a mainline congregation is reduced to just five people mean that this congregation is doing God’s will? That will be some comfort when the last member dies of old age.
These people with “no solid doctrinal foundation” are, in fact, the product of organizations which supposedly have just such foundations. The mainlines have been in decline for as long as I’ve been old enough to be able to pay attention and I gather it began long before that. How quick this critic is malign 30,000 people, but if it is the case that the bulk of these numbers comes from the the churches he’d approve of, we must conclude that it was a failure of these very same churches to educate its members in good and proper doctrine and likewise to offer the ‘something’ that they find in Osteen’s church.
In other words, the critics of Osteen and others we might mention should realize that it is their churches that are creating the people who eventually leave their midst. But I thought these were “biblically fed a balanced spiritual diet”! Why then did they leave? As a judgment on Joel Osteen and the individuals that make up his congregation? Are we so sure? If they were being ‘well fed’ they would have stayed where they were at.
Sadly, critics (including critics of the so-called ’emergent’ church) are quick to circle the wagons around their own way of doing things. The fact that people are turning their back on those ways and voting with their feet should be a wake-up call to them that something is not right.
Now, I do have some complaints about Osteen and his approach. He speaks about Jesus… occasionally… and I have not personally heard him say anything about sin and its consequences at all. His faith statement says he believes in those things, and the Trinity, but he doesn’t talk about them. It may be that he is taking for granted the fact that many of his members are borrowed from other Church communities. At any rate, it seems silly to me to speak so often about some of the practical aspects of Christian living and mention Jesus’ name every now and then without ever actually talking about why Jesus had to come in the first place. I would like to see what happened to his numbers and to his TV audience if he did.
As a pastor, he has a responsibility and an obligation to educate and train his members in the whole of the Christian walk. That includes discussion about important matters of doctrine. Also, as so many people are inclined to view wealth and ‘prosperity’ as a sign of God’s approval and a lack of wealth and hardship as a sign of God’s judgment (see Luke 13) mature warnings and correctives should be heard on his broadcasts.
One of my biggest objections, though, is not limited to Osteen’s ministry. I understand that he has that big stadium because the membership size demands it, but I can’t help but think that the money that went into buying and fixing that thing couldn’t have been spent in better ways. Even Osteen is under no illusions about how much he can dig into the spiritual lives of individual members of his church. People fall through the cracks even in traditional church settings, but the size of the ‘cracks’ for his congregation are likely to be massive (I admit I speculate, but I think reasonably) which drives me to wonder what the whole point is. His television ministry does not need more than a studio. If he can’t practically shepherd that population- if no one can- what is the point of assembling the population as one congregation?
But then I can be expected to say something like that when I think that even the congregation on the corner is too big and that most congregations could get by with a lot less building and use the saved money in ways I think would be much more edifying to the body of Christ. I also doubt that a congregation with even a thousand members is a congregation can effectively ensure that people aren’t falling through the cracks in droves, so naturally one with thirty thousand will suffer the same objection.
In conclusion, it should be clear that I think Osteen has a lot of good things to say but I think there are nonetheless some definite weaknesses. However, I take issue with the chest-thumping righteous indignation I’ve seen directed at Osteen. Osteen ‘succeeds’ specifically because the systems that the critics are at home in aren’t doing it for people. Rather than take potshots at the man, it seems a better approach to consider how the mainlines can get their own houses in order. If in fact people feel like they are being fed a “biblically fed a balanced spiritual diet” they’ll stick around. If not, they won’t.
If you think that is what you’re providing and people are still walking out on you… sure, it might be a sign that your congregation is doing things right and the drastically diminishing numbers are in fact an indication that it is being blessed by God… maybe… or it could mean they are starving.