“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.”– Congregational Confession led by Joel Osteen at the beginning of each sermon.
Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.
Acts 20:29-30 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.
Every week, Joel Osteen leads thousands of his flock and millions of his viewers in the confession that they are whatever the Bible says they are, and I assume that goes for him as well.
Now we get to figure out just what he is.
There’s Joel the smiling preacher, pastor of America’s largest church. The boy who didn’t want to preach, but wound up in his daddy’s shoes, doing greater things than daddy ever did. The humble, compassionate, ever-positive preacher with the great sense of humor. The best selling author with practical wisdom for everyone, Christian or not.
Or there’s evil Joel, the epitome of all that’s wrong with the Word-faith movement. A multi-million dollar shyster selling the snake oil of name-it, claim-it and the lie of positive confession. The Joel you meet on dozens of web-sites where Hannegraf wannabes catalog the loony promises of Kenneth Hagin and his brood.
Or there’s church growth genius Joel, the man who has found the secret to turning congregations into arenas full of paying ticket holders and basketball venues into churches: eliminate the traditional Gospel and talk about success principles. Combine Tony Robbins with a hot worship band and the thinnest veneer of Pentecostal revivalism and America will beat a path to your door. Tell people God is waiting to give them their best life now and they will believe- and buy- it. Leave out sin, the cross and “all that stuff” that smells of serious religion and even Buddhists will love you.
Or how about Joel the clueless? The preacher without an education who couldn”t teach an actual Bible class or handle a theological topic if his life depended on it? The guy who looks good, but is just plain lucky. The man whose interviews sound like the college freshman youth director has just become the senior pastor, and has stocked his brain with enough cliches to last through an hour’s talk.
Maybe he is Joel the apostate? The man who avoids any mention of Jesus with such dedication that you can’t help but wonder what’s going on? The man who sees the Christian faith as a nice introduction to positive thinking, but too much of it is obviously a bad thing? The man who is more Oprah than Oprah, and mentions Christ less than Marrianne Williamson? While new agers and Eastern cults want Jesus “in,” Osteen has thrown Jesus to credits in the last thirty seconds, and won’t speak his name otherwise.
What other hats will we see Joel wear? He’s been endorsed by Max Lucado and John Maxwell, so Christian publishers and authors can be expected to hail him as the next big thing. He’s a hit in the positive thinking community, where his revved up version of Norman Vincent Peale is a best seller. When Lakewood takes over the former Compaq center and turns it into a massive community center, Osteen might as well run for mayor of Houston. I see crossovers into the world of business and finance prefigured in much of the church’s plan.
I doubt that Osteen is any one of these persons, but I have no doubt that he is, and will be, on some level, ALL of them.
I believe Osteen is entirely aware of what he is doing. From deemphasizing the Gospel to buying an arena, he’s a man with a marketing method that makes sense in America today. Yet, I still imagine the sudden success of his Lakewood has happened in a way that surprised him, and as he rides the wave he will never totally lose the nervous look of the guy who doesn’t know how to fly the plane.
I don’t doubt that he is a very sincere person. He doesn’t seem complicated, but I believe he is ambitous, and the opportunity to make more and more money won’t be overlooked. Expect more books- without the ghost writer’s name on the cover. Expect increasing levels of approval from anyone who likes numbers, and increasing amounts of condemnation from those who love the Gospel and care about orthodox Christian belief.
Is Osteen a sheep? A shepherd? Or a spiritual wolf in sheep’s clothing? The Bible speaks of all three. Which is he? Maybe in a way unlike anyone we’ve seen lately, he’s all of the above.
I don’t think he really knows, and it won’t be easy for us to ever agree that we know. Still, the fact remains, Osteen has left the Gospel of Jesus behind and is moving away from it faster with every sermon. Those who haven’t accepted that fact can defend him all they want, but he won’t be joining the case. He’s moved on.
Osteen couldn’t give a Gospel presentation in an interview when asked directly, because he didn’t want to. He will do all he can to never say the words of the Apostle’s Creed or even a modest Southern Baptist evangelistic presentation. Somehow, after two years of echoing his dad’s word-faith preaching, something new started coming from Joel Osteen. His brother calls it the “unchurch.” I agree, and it is based on the “unGospel” and the “unChrist.” He’s going with it as far as he can go, and I expect that will be far beyond anyone’s expectation. Joel is, if nothing else, an over-achiever.
In the last few days, I’ve read that Osteen’s teaching is good for Christians, unbelievers, those with strong Biblical foundations, those who don’t know the Bible, new believers, mature believers and, of course, anyone who has been beaten down and confused by what Osteen’s brother calls “goofy” traditional preaching. I think Osteen would agree with all those assessments. Just don’t ask him what it all means. He would just smile.
Whatever it means, it works, and this is the most pragmatic of cultures. Osteen’s unGospel is born in a mind that understands advertising, image making and identification with a brand. Content doesn’t matter much, and it will probably matter less the longer Osteen ascends. Osteen has hit the pulse of our burned out, preached out, ears itching, success starved, emotionally thinking, celebrity worshiping, marginally Christian culture. He’s found a winner and he’s going to ride it. He may be a sheep, a shepherd, a wolf or a clueless clown. He may have on so many suits, he doesn’t really know which one he’s wearing or what he believes. What he does know, is how it is all going to look and sound to the audience.
One thing I can assure you: while a sovereign God may use him, you will never get to know Jesus listening to him. Never. And if Jesus is important, then Osteen shouldn’t be. His confusion may be a version of our own confusion, but his rejection of the Gospel and the Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t need to become ours.