Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Watching Joel Osteen

Last night as I was flipping the channels during a second straight depressing late-inning loss by my Cardinals, I happened onto Joel Osteen's program. As someone professionally-trained as an American religious historian, it was striking to watch Osteen once again and note both the themes of his message and the manner of his method. In both respects, his popularity is not the result of originality, but his skillful repacking of positive thinking/self-esteem and Pentecostal/charismatic elements. [On this particular episode, his wife Victoria was presiding at the Lord's Table. While watching that gave me the shivers, it was also striking how much less skillful and how much more plastic she was compared to Joel.]

While there were a lot of things to critique, I couldn't help but ask the historian's analysis questions: why does this message appeal to so many (upwards of 15,000 attend services at Lakewood Church each weekend)? what are the verbal and facial cues that draw people in? why does it seem that Lakewood is amazingly interracial (a fact that is much more common in Pentecostal-oriented churches than Reformed); how do you account for that?

I think the driving reason that Osteen is hugely popular is that he sells hope. Books like Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You provide a message of hope that my life does not have to be the way it is right now; that God is powerful and able to change my life; that God is profoundly interested in my life and is near to me. And while that message of hope is packaged in the code language of the prosperity Gospel and positive psychology (like the phenomenally successful book by Tal Ben-Shahar, Happier), at the end of the day, people leave Lakewood feeling as though there is a greater meaning and purpose for their lives.

As I thought about all this, though, I couldn't help but think about John Piper's question from God is the Gospel (and other places): do you delight more in the fact that God makes much of you in the Gospel or that the Gospel frees you to make much of God? The fault in Osteen's message is that it overplays and wrongly prioritizes the fact that God makes much of us (and God does make much of us: as I read in my morning worship today, God cried out to a wayward Israel, "How can I give you up, O Ephraim?...My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender" Hosea 11:8).

The biblical priority is that God in the Gospel rescues, delivers, frees and sustains us to make much of God. He is the great good in the Good News--and it truly is amazing: that God would save his wayward children for the fame of his name; would shape worshippers who will find their deepest satisfaction in making much of God; and would gather together a worldwide body of worshippers who hallow his name!

And that is the great hope: not that our material position would be better or our relationships grow stronger. Rather, our great hope is that the steadfast, committed love of our God is transforming us into worshippers who find their hearts satisfied in God himself.


tim linkletter said...

good writing, keep it up and I would have to agree 100%...take care,


Clay Johnson said...

Thanks for this Dr. Lucas. Exactly right. As I have interacted with others attracted to Osteen's message, I try to assure them that God wants MUCH more for them than Joel does. In Christ and Culture Revisited (117-18), D. A. Carson identifies Osteen's "bromides" as a product of the "instinctive lust to accommodate contemporary cultural predilictions" that is a heritage of fundamentally secularist American Deism (or at least the pressure to drift toward Dulles's "Deist minimum"). I thought Carson's observation was well placed, but would be interested to know what you think.

JTapp said...

Very fair critique. Osteen was on 60 Minutes a few weeks ago and I felt the interviewer did a good job grilling him on his Gospel. Osteen came across as very sincere and very humbled by all the ways people are being touched by his ministry & preaching. He has a relatively humble financial lifestyle going with it, much smaller than he could have. I came away thinking "Man, he's so close but just not quite there."

Brett said...

Get ready to be blasted. Some of the Osteen fans are all positive except when you critique their hero.

Just a note on the "success" of Lakewood. You stated upwards of 15,000 attend each weekend. Not sure where you got your number, but it's pretty dated. Apparently Lakewood is now drawing over 40,000 per weekend.

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Brett: on attendance, I was guessing based on the size of the old Toyota Center; thanks for the correction. sml

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm here from Tim's blog.
I actually watch Joel on t.v. I have both of his books. The first one was given to me and I enjoyed it so much I bought the newest one.
I understand why Joel is controversial. I've been a Christian for 26 years next week, but I have always struggled with depression and not really believing that God loves ME. I watch Joel because he reminds me to guard my thoughts, to think more positive, to see the cup as half full instead of half empty.
I listen to John MacArthur on the radio and I also watch Charles Stanley on t.v. Joel isn't my only source of spiritual nourishment. But, he truly does help me to trust in the Lord more and to believe that He cares about me. I don't go for any of the prosperity stuff, but I believe there is a place for Joel Osteen in the world. As someone said above-he does live much more humbly than other well known preachers. He stopped taking a salary from his church a few years ago and lives on his book sales. He also tithes to his church. I believe he does mean well and isn't out to fleece people.
To sum up, then-Joel is no John MacArthur but I appreciate his message for what it is. I'm glad he's there but I'm also glad there are other preachers who preach the whole gospel. Joel is more of a motivational speaker than a preacher anyway. He is very good at what he does, and doesn't claim to be anything different. For some reason, God has given him a very large platform. I don't see him as the meat and potatoes of the Christian life. More as the dessert.

Anonymous said...

The fact that our hope is so God-centered rather than my-bottom-line or emotional/relational-need-centered is the reason his place is packed. The gospel will always be an offense, or seem impractical to most because they can't see or feel tangible results NOW from it. Nor does the God-centered hope of the gospel give you something to do to satisfy that natural craving we have on the inside (our sin-nature) that makes us feel like we're earning something.

Same game; different names.

Anonymous said...

I'm not expert on Osteen, but his message strikes me as similar to many others- what can God do for you and how can I get Him to do it?

Anonymous said...

I've watched Osteen often, and am constantly amused at how he mesmerizes all of the people there. They hang on every word, but the guy doesn't say anything at all!! It's like a preacher version of Barack Obama. When the camera pans the audience, I see people scribbling notes as fast as they can write. What can they possibly be writing? "Be good to happy...don't talk about people behind their backs..."? I don't get it.

Anonymous said...

The day I brought my wife home from a week's stay in the hospital after excrutiating surgery for breast cancer, I tuned into Joel on the TV for some comic relief. There he was in all his glory, telling of a friend who had been diagnosed with cancer who "thought away" the cancer through positive thoughts. If he had been in the room, I would have strangled him. It's no wonder the Cross is absent in his "church;" it plays no part in his messages.

Anonymous said...

With apologies to Gertrude Stein

a snake oil sales-person, is a snake oil sales-person, is a snake oil sales-person

Anonymous said...

Having been in a "Word of Faith" Church years ago that was similar to Mr Osteen's (and having heard of his father there) I would make a few observations as to why some grow and attract a variety of people.

1) More than anything, everything is centered around you.

God is there to do what you want, you evaluate, you emote, and you have every right to have a healthy, wealthy, easy life. If not, tell God to clear it out of the way.

2) It's easy

Very little accountability, very little submission to the Lordship of Christ. Sing, be happy and tell God what you want.

3) It's "fun" to watch

People falling over, emotional testimonies (sometimes true), usually uncorroborated "miracles"

You can yell, scream, jump up and down and dance- and feel you did something spiritual.

Having said all that, a basic Gospel is usually preached and then there is 2% of the rest of Scripture taught out of context for the whole rest of your life discipleship.

People do not tend to stay long in these churches, generally. A steady group hop from church to church, which often reflects the poor teaching they receive and the poor discipline they follow in the means of grace God has provided.

Although it may seem like many groups are there harmonious, I don't see much that lasts. There is almost no biblical conflict resolution because there is almost no discipling of the body in the truths of the Christian life.

Don't lament not being a part of this. Be thankful God did not put you through what many Americans particularly have come to view as a "bad" experience going through a non denominational, independent, not accountable church.

Anonymous said...

What we must guard against is the 'cult of personality' which is turning the simple values of Jesus into Beijing-Olympic-style entertainment. Nearly all the TV preachers fall into this phenomena: Joyce Meyer, Franklin Graham, Benny Hinn etc. Colossal crowds are present in the gospel accounts but not to glorify the human preacher. Better to have small gatherings with message substance than gigantic crowds with superficiality from the front.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with the previous post. If you're a preacher and your photo is on every book, DVD, magazine, web site etc - take it off and let the Holy Spirit do the work and have the glory. If that's hard for you to do, you're not called of God.

Anonymous said...

I shouldn't generalise and I'm not biased but after much channel flicking observing all these guys, I keep coming back to a host-list of a few TV preachers who really do deliver solid Bible substance without the seduction of camera-panned mega-mammoth-crowds: Doug Batchelor (Amazing Facts - The Hope Channel and 3ABN), Lonnie Molishenko (It Is Written - The Hope Channel and 3ABN), Mark Finley (It Is Written - The Hope Channel and 3ABN). Seems to me the bigger the attendance the greater the shallowness of message - the inverse being more true to the Bible approach to evangelism.

Justin said...

Is he, and others like him, just selling shares in his own Narcissism?

Anonymous said...

Watching many of these TV preachers I see common elements: large crowds, snappily-dressed guy or woman, overly-confident preacher who seems to enjoy the newly won celebrity status, mind manipulation, a naiive and gullible audience, preacher's face on every product and advert. Ofetn the preacher's wife is nundled in as part of the marketing. Plastic smiles, plastic teeth, plastic message. And...requests to send money. This is text book narcissistic personality.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, all "sound and fury - signifying nothing" (said Shakespeare I think. Best stuff going on Christian Satellite TV is the 7th day Adventist material. Substance without the hype.

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