Tonight, celebrated mega-church pastor Joel Osteen will be speaking at the Mississippi Coliseum. Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas has exploded in recent years to more than 20,000 members, and his numerous books, including Your Best Life Now (2007) have been best-sellers. Clearly, Osteen is popular. That being said, Osteen has plenty of critics who charge that his ministry leaves much to be desired. Let’s explore the controversial Osteen.
What can be said in favor of Osteen
As a motivational speaker, Osteen is first rate. He enables his listeners to feel better about life, and he sprinkles his messages with humorous anecdotes. He comes across as very down to earth, keeping his messages extremely practical. He gives his listeners a sense that, however much life has gotten them down, they can still go out and “do” it. In that sense, he is very reminiscent of the Crystal Cathedral’s Robert Schuller, who for years marketed “possibility thinking”. Even his harshest critics would be hard pressed to come up with quotations from his sermons that are patently false or unbiblical. What’s the problem then?
The main criticism of Osteen
In reality, much of the criticism stems not so much from what Osteen does say as it does from what he doesn’t say. Osteen is criticized for not saying enough about central historical truths of the faith, including the crucifixion, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ as a sacrifice for our sins. Yes, Jesus is mentioned, but usually more in the context of a life coach than a Savior from God’s wrath. Osteen’s ministry is not so much built on false doctrine as it is doctrineless. The trend towards doctrineless Christianity, a feel-good faith disconnected from the “harder” aspects of Christian teaching (sin, death, hell, judgment, etc…), is hardly new and Osteen is certainly not original in this respect. If he gets blamed for what Michael Horton calls the trend towards “moralistic therapeutic Deism” in American Christianity, it’s only because Osteen’s church is large enough to keep him more in the spotlight than most other pastors.
Motivational speaking is a good thing, but it is not the same thing as preaching repentance from sin and justification by faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Osteen has gone so far as to say in interviews that he shies away from talking about sin from the pulpit because it is a “downer”. His church also made a decision to keep their worship space looking as generic as possible, also so as to not offend anyone (a cross does not adorn the auditorium).
Osteen also raised a lot of eyebrows when he stated that he considers Mormonism a valid form of Christianity. In truth, there’s little in Osteen’s sermons that a devout Mormon would take issue with. Who, of any religious background, could argue against keeping one’s head up and focusing on the positive rather than the negative in life? Again, this is a message that is in itself good, but it’s not the gospel. The church exists to point people to Christ the Savior. It also means pointing people to the Law which we’ve failed to obey which emphatically shows us we need a Savior. Presenting God’s standards is, of course, a “downer” in that it brings conviction which, frankly, makes people feel bad about themselves. This, of course, is not an end in itself; wallowing in joyless guilt is not Christianity. “Godly sorrow”, as Paul calls it, leads to repentance, which in turn, leads to true joy. Simply being told that one is okay at best could lead to indifference about the need to become more Christ-like.
Osteen has been accused by some of being a “prosperity teacher”, because of his emphasis that faith leads to instant gratification in the here and now (hence, the title of his abovementioned book, Your Best Life Now). However, it would be very unfair to lump Osteen in with some of the more notorious televangelists who proclaim riches and health as the most tangible signs of true faith. Ironically, prosperity teachers, in proclaiming it to be God’s will to heal everyone of all sicknesses immediately, actually guilt trip those who find themselves still struggling with infirmity. In keeping with his desire to be an encourager, Osteen doesn’t guilt trip the afflicted.
Lest Osteen’s critics go overboard, let us remember several things.
1. Remember that God can speak through anyone he chooses and let us hope that real good will come from Osteen’s appearance at the Mississippi Coliseum tonight. His critics should remember that God once used a donkey to get a message across to his prophet, Balaam, showing that no one is incapable of serving as a mouthpiece for God’s truth. Let us pray that the true gospel will be preached tonight.Throughout Christian history, many have been led to real relationships with Christ by men and women who later on were exposed to be counterfeits. That’s not to insinuate that Osteen is a “false teacher”, but simply to say that even if he was, God could still work through his ministry.
2. Let us remember what C.S. Lewis said of heretical sects: although for many, they are a doorway leading away from the faith, for many they can be used of God as doorways in. If Osteen’s ministry leaves much to be desired, that doesn’t mean God can’t still use it to draw people to himself.
3. Above all, his critics must not allow personal dislike of Osteen to plant in their hearts a desire for his ministry to fail just to provide an opportunity to gloat. Let us remember that in his letter to the Philippians Paul said that regardless of whether people preached the gospel with sincere motives or insincere, he remained thankful that Christ was being preached. Love him or hate him, Osteen is a tremendously influential religious leader today and Christians should pray for him. We should pray that he would be used an influence for good and not for ill. If one’s opposition to Osteen is so fierce that one considers him an “enemy” of the truth, then the duty to pray for him becomes even more urgent.
Lastly, World Vision, the largest Christian humanitarian organization in the world, will be on hand hoping to recruit child sponsors tonight and let us hope they succeed.