A couple of years ago Forbes reported on the Ten Largest Churches in America. The 25,000 member Lakewood Church in Houston topped the list. Soon to be finished renovations to the acquired Compaq Center (former home of the Houston Rockets) will host the ever-growing mega-church. Pastor Joel Osteen packs them in with his feel-good call to “Discover the Champion Within.” His book, “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” hit the #1 slot on the New York times Best Seller list.
Well known evangelical leaders like Max Lucado and John Maxwell have endorsed his ministry, so even though I had no first hand knowledge of Osteen’s theology, I put him in the category of Rick Warren and Billy Graham – not as solid and straight shooting as John Piper and John MacArthor, but not as left-field as Joyce Myer and Jan Crouch. Perhaps I nodded approval too quickly.
Recently, The Crusty Curmudgeon criticized the Christianized self-help guru’s theology as being “a mile wide and a millimeter deep.” The Internet Monk, Michael Spencer, goes so far as to call the evangelical blogging community to “Out Osteen” for his denial of the faith once delivered to the saints. I decided to check him out for myself.
This morning I watched an internet broadcast of one of Osteen’s sermons, “Have the Courage to be Different.” Although he began his sermon with the congregation holding their Bibles in the air chanting allegiance to the written Word of God, he spent precious little time in its pages. He took his text from about 1/3 of a verse, Romans 12:2a, “Don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” (J. B. Phillips paraphrase) He later turned to the book of Daniel to make his main point, “If you do your part and swim against the stream, God will reward and bless you.”
The remainder of the skyscraper sermon (one story on top of another) served to illustrate his main point. Daniel purposed in his heart not to defile himself and therefor God rewarded him by moving him up the corporate ladder. (Daniel 1:8) His other illustrations included his physician brother not going along with a scheme to hide doctor error from a patient, a book-keeper refusing to cheat a client out of money, a girl choosing church over her boyfriend, and his dad asking some rowdy baseball fans to refrain from foul language. In every instance God rewarded the person for taking the high road. His brother eventually moved up to head surgeon and part owner of the hospital, the book-keeper influenced her boss to stop cheating other people, the girlfriend found a new love and the cussing fans changed their tune to shouts of “hallelujah” when their team scored the next run.
Between each story Osteen reinforced his point with metaphorical challenges to stand out in the crowd, swim upstream, and soar like eagles; as well as his favorite homespun aphorism of the day, “cream always rises to the top.” 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. To close the service he turned to the camera with a quick 20 word sinners prayer with the assurance “if you just prayed that prayer you are now born again.”
I commend Osteen for calling his parishioners to a life void of dirty jokes, lying, cheating, premarital cohabitation, and foul language, but if we take the time to exegete the sermon’s key passage (Romans 12:2) we see that Osteen’s pep-rally falls woefully short of the Biblical doctrine the Apostle Paul gives his readers. Paul does indeed urge us not to be conformed to this world, or as J. B. Philips puts it “don’t let the world squeeze you into its mold.” As Osteen rips the phrase from its context, he twists it beyond recognition.
While Christians should have “Courage To Be Different,” Osteen runs counter to Paul when he stresses the motivation for a life of sanctification to be man-centered self promotion, instead of self sacrificing Godward worship. The previous verse gives clear indication of what prompts a believer to resist worldly conformity. Paul says, “Therefore, I urge you brethren by the mercies of God.” (Romans 12:1) With these words the apostle links the coming challenge with the mercies of God previously delineated in chapters 1-11. These abounding undeserved mercies of God include, justification Romans 2:13, propitiation of sin Romans 3:25, forgiveness of our evil deeds Romans 4:7-8, reconciliation with God through the death of His Son Romans 5:10, freedom from the bondage of sin Romans 6:18, the right to be called heirs and the children of God Romans 8:14–17, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the gift of faith, and much much more. These rich mercies of God, not personal promotion, should compel us to offer our bodies a living sacrifice in fitting worship to our all deserving glorious God. Joel Osteen turns Paul’s admonition inside out and upside down when he changes the substance of our worship to God for undeserved mercies into a man-centered program to gain deserving reward.
If this one random sermon provided an indicative look into Joel Osteen’s typical sermon fair, I do not recommend his ministry and wonder why some evangelical leaders have done so. While he may not seem as extreme as the lunatic fringe of the health wealth and prosperity, name it and claim it, blab it and grab it crowd, the end effect may be more dangerous because of his wider appeal.