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Joel Osteen and “Joel-Likeness”

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When I was in the eleventh grade I decided to study Latin. I don’t remember what it was that compelled me to study the language, but I suspect it had something to do with the small class size. Where most classes in my high school had twenty five or thirty students, Latin usually had only seven or eight. And so it was that for a year I studied Latin. The teacher, Dr. Helder, quickly became my favorite teacher and grade eleven Latin stands out as my favorite class in all my years of high school. Dr. Helder was faced with the daunting task of making a group of teenagers enjoy Latin, a dead language. Yet he succeeded in making us not only learn the language but also in making us enjoy learning it. How did he do that? He proved to us that Latin is not dead, but in fact, is still in common use. One ongoing task throughout the year was to collect Latin words and phrases we found in books, newspapers and magazines. We were to collect all these examples and at the end of the year, part of our grade was based on how many of these we found. The more of the language we learned, the more Latin we found. As our eyes were opened to the language, suddenly we saw it all around us – in print, in law, in theology, in advertising, and just about everywhere else.

Six months ago I had never heard of Joel Osteen. I first came across his name when reading about American mega-churches, and having learned a little bit about him, I suddenly found myself seeing him everywhere. If I turn on my television on Sunday morning, I am sure to see his smiling face. When I browse the shelves at Christian bookstores, I see his book, and lately he has begun to make appearances in the media. In this case I do not know whether his increased visibility, like my experience in Latin class, is due to my awareness of him, or if it is due to his rising popularity. I suspect both are true. Either way, it seems that Joel Osteen is quickly becoming one of the big names in the Evangelical church. And how could it be any other way? Evangelicalism is obsessed with numbers and it just so happens that Osteen preaches at the most mega of the mega-churches.

Lakewood Church was founded in the late 1950’s by Joel’s father, John. John Osteen was originally Baptist, but just prior to founding Lakewood, was apparently baptized in the Holy Spirit and became Charismatic. His ministry, in which he preached thousands of sermons and wrote over forty books, ended in 1999 with his sudden death. At the time, nearly 10,000 people packed his church every Sunday. When his father died, Joel was unwillingly thrust into the pulpit. Within a few years, attendance has nearly tripled and the church has been forced to buy the 18,000 seat Compaq Center, former home of the Houston Rockets, to house the congregation. Osteen’s ministry has already eclipsed his father’s in scope and has gone worldwide, as television stations across the globe have begun to air his messages. Today over 100,000,000 households in 100 countries have access to his messages. Joel recently wrote his first book, entitled Your Best Life Now, which promptly became a New York Times best-seller. It is the stuff dreams are made of.

Not surprisingly, Joel Osteen is becoming the poster boy of the mega-churches. He is known to some as “the smiling pastor” and with his good looks, charming personality and beautiful wife, he seems ready to take Evangelicalism by storm. Because of this, it is expedient for believers to take a long, hard look at Osteen and determine if this is a man we want to represent Christians to the world. The next time terrorists strike, do we want to have Osteen speaking to the press on our behalf? The next time tragedy strikes, do we want to see Osteen’s face on Larry King Live and in the newspapers? Is this a man we want to stand as our representative?

Todd Wilken, of the radio program Issues, Etc, often evaluates the sermons of popular preachers on his broadcast, and has done this for several of Osteen’s messages. He evalutes the sermons on the following three criteria:

  1. How often is Jesus mentioned? For his purposes, a simple tally will suffice.
  2. Is Jesus the subject of the verbs? Is Jesus the one who acts, or are you?
  3. What are the verbs? What has Jesus done and what is He doing?

I find this a fair, though basic, framework to evaluate a sermon. Here is what one would expect to hear from a typical sermon in Lakewood Church.

Osteen’s preaching follows a distinct formula. He always begins with a joke, often a “Charismatic, Baptist and Catholic arrive in heaven…” type of joke. He then tells the congregation how great they sound and has them recite the Congregational Confession which goes as follows, “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’ll be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I’ll never be the same, in Jesus name.” He affirms his love and respect for the congregation once more, and then begins the message.

An Osteen sermon is what a fellow blogger calls skyscraper preaching as it is constructed from placing one story on top of another. Each of his sermons is divided into two distinct parts. The first lasts about eight to ten minutes and describes a problem. The predominant words and phrases in this section are “a lot of people,” “some people,” and “many of you.” For example, if he is preaching about joy, this part of the message will focus on how many people, including those in attendance, do not have enough joy in their lives. If he is preaching about integrity, he will tell about people he knows who have lacked integrity. After about ten minutes of this, he moves to the second part of his sermon where the focus changes to himself. Now the predominant words and phrases become “I used to,” “Victoria and I,” and “When I…” I call this the “be like Joel” portion of the sermon, for he shows how he has overcome the problems he described in the first section. In short, his sermons follow the formula of “you’re the problem, I’m the solution.” He nags the congregation for ten minutes and then holds himself up as the example of better Christian living.

He often closes his television broadcasts with a brief prayer, after which he assures the viewers that if they prayed this prayer they are born again.

If we look once more at Wilken’s framework, we will find that Osteen does very poorly. He seldom mentions Jesus, and only mentions the Bible in passing. Osteen preaches a message that is not distinctly Christian, and in truth is not much different from what you might hear coming from Anthony Robbins or any other motivational, feel-good speaker. He deliberately avoids preaching the full Gospel message. The following quote is from a story in Fox News. “I think for years there’s been a lot of hellfire and damnation. You go to church to figure out what you’re doing wrong and you leave feeling bad like you’re not going to make it…We believe in focusing on the goodness of God….I think it’s a place of life and victory. They want to be encouraged and uplifted.” Michael Horton correctly summarizes Osteen’s preaching, saying that it “sort of treats the Bible as a collection of fortune cookies. If you claim the right verses, then you can have health, wealth and happiness.”

Here are two testimonies of other bloggers who have invested time into researching Osteen. Don Elbourne watched a webcast and concluded that there was “No Christ, no cross, no mention of man’s moral bankruptcy, just the feel-good positive message of assurance that God always rewards human effort and virtue.” Michael Spencer, who says he has listened to over twenty five hours of Osteen says “Osteen’s messages are about “God’s Favor” on marriage, finances and career. Sin is never mentioned. In well over 25 hours of preaching that I listened to this year, Jesus was almost never mentioned, and when he was mentioned, it was in a perfunctory prayer in the last minute. Sin, the Cross, the atonement? Not there.”

Jesus is rarely mentioned. If He is mentioned, it is as our helper in becoming better people.

My pastor likes to relate a story of when he was considering leaving a church he pastored in Alberta to begin a new church in the Toronto area. One of the members of his church was a wildly successful businessman who was a marketing genius. My pastor asked this man how he would appeal to the upper class residents of Toronto’s suburban sprawl. The man’s answer was simple: appeal to their guilt. So many of them live in constant guilt that they do not have more time for their wives and children. Play on their guilt and you will have an open door to reach out to them. And that seems to be exactly what Osteen does. He finds the areas in which every person needs to grow. We all need to live with more joy! We all need to live lives of greater integrity! But instead of providing a solution grounded in Scripture, Osteen provides a solution grounded in self. He nags his congregation, daring them, begging them, to try harder. As for God, He is not here to save us from our sin and to meet our greatest need. Instead, God is here to help us try harder as we strive to be just a little bit more like Joel. Osteen’s message is one of Joel-likeness, not Christ-likeness.

A damning indictment of Evangelicalism comes from Wilken, who, with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek, says that Osteen has everything going for him. He has “good hair, good teeth, nice fingernails…” Wilken’s point is that many Evangelicals are hopelessly shallow, deliberately opting for style over substance. In an interview with MSNBC, Osteen admits as much. When asked about his success he says, “Maybe it’s the fact that I’m younger, I’m not beating people over the head, and that I’m saying that there are good things in store – you can make it in life. Most of the stuff that I minister [is] not real complicated deep things.” The interviewer reacts with surprise saying “You admit that it’s not complicated and not deep.” And Osteen reaffirms, “No, I admit that. It’s [the] simple things.” He may as well have said “it’s the shallow things.”

The problem with this is that life is complex. And even more importantly, Christianity is complex. Even the apostle Peter had to admit about Paul’s writings that “there are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” (2 Peter 3:16) A message that is always simple and never complicated, will only appeal to spiritually shallow people – to people who have a thin veneer of faith coating their lives, but have little desire to allow the message to go deeper and to penetrate every area of their lives. And what is most tragic, is that what is most simple in Scripture, the message of sin, death, forgiveness and life, is the very message Osteen forsakes because that is the message his congregation has no interest in hearing. He preaches a shallow message that perfectly suits shallow Evangelical Christianity. Joel Osteen is the posterboy for shallow, feel-good, meaningless, powerless, Gospel-free Christianity.

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