In just a short time, Joel Osteen has risen to become one of the most recognized religious figures in North America. His weekly TV program, aired from Houston Texas' Lakewood Church, attracts an audience of millions, in addition to the over 40,000 who attend services at its newest campus in the former home of the Houston Rockets. His book Your Best Life Now has been a consistent best-seller since its publication early last year, and his engaging pulpit personality and charismatic eloquence leave few listeners bored.
When Osteen's wife Victoria was perceived to be the cause of an altercation on a December 20 Continental flight to Colorado, news sources both secular and Christian speculated and criticized. And when Joel appeared in what he himself admits was a failed opportunity to assert the truth of the Gospel on Larry King Live, the result was a dismally unclear and inaccurate articulation of the deity and exclusivity of Jesus Christ.
While the Osteen's recent behavior is currently a hot topic within Christendom, the above events are merely symptomatic of a greater problem within evangelicalism at large. I call it "the rise of the pop-evangelical," and this phenommenon, more than any other, is a clear indication that it is time for the church at large to re-examine the meaning of Christian preaching.
Not too long ago, Evangelicalism as a whole recognized the true focus and impetus of the preaching task. In a somewhat dated commentary, Al Mohler points to the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter as an example of what motivates and clarifies the message being delivered. Mohler quotes Baxter as saying "I preach as never sure to preach again, and as a dying man to dying men." He then comments by saying "With vivid expression and a sense of gospel gravity, Baxter understood that preaching is literally a life or death affair. Eternity hangs in the balance as the preacher proclaims the Word." Such a view of Gospel proclamation is undergirded by a conviction that nothing less than the expounded Word of God can truly be legitimized as genuine preaching.
Contrast this with the prevalent mood among Evangelicals today, which motivates many to focus on providing "needs-based" preaching. These preachers may eventually get to the text, but the text in no way sets their speaking agenda. Instead, there are three new foci present in "pop-evangelicalism":
1. It is always Positive and Simple: This of course is a chief concern of Osteen. Over and over in his interview with King, he asserted that he just wanted to be "positive," and make people feel good. Certainly the Gospel is a positive message! But the Scriptures don't just command that pastors "exhort," but that they also "reprove and rebuke," and do so "with great patience and instruction." (2 Timothy 4:2 NASB) Instead, many of the most popular preachers in our day sound more like Tony Robbins clones at an Amway Convention than prophets of God's truth. These men don't deny the truthfulness of God's Word, but by their practice they minimize its influence in the hearts of their parishioners. Commenting on Osteen, one blogger put it this way: "He's just a motivational speaker. At least that's what his sermons sound like. [I] don't hear a whole lot of scripture being tossed around; just "feel good" Christianity."
One shining example of this is seen in how Osteen opens up every message at Lakewood Church. With his Bible held high above his head, he leads his standing congregation in boldly declaring the following: 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 will be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess that my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I will never be the same, in Jesus name. This is indeed a powerful declaration of both the nature and potency of Holy Scripture. Yet after this declaration, Osteen never again approaches the text with any degree of depth. It never sets his agenda, but is merely used as an authoritative "peg" for Osteen's own thoughts.
Can you imagine someone promising you a steak dinner, only to serve you M&Ms at the table? Your mouth waters at the thought of the sweet nourishment that is coming, and your soul cries out "feed me!" Then the candy comes and leaves you with a slight sugar buzz, but your stomach is still empty. Spiritually, that's how I felt after watching an Osteen broadcast. But Osteen isn't the only one to blame here, simply the most visible. When I think of the churches I have visited while on vacation during my 14 years in the ministry, I have fond memories of a few, but shudder still at what is passed off for Biblical exposition and Gospel preaching, even within my own denomination! Pop Evangelicalism wants preaching to be Positive and Simple. The Scriptures call for Gospel proclamation to be Transforming and Profound.
2. It is Man-Centered: Let us here contrast the powerful view of preaching espoused by Richard Baxter with that of another, earlier pop-pastor; the late Harry Emerson Fosdick. To Fosdick, preaching was simply "personal counseling on a group basis." Mohler asserts that, "Enamored with trends in psychological theory, Fosdick became liberal Protestantism's happy pulpit therapist." Of course, Fosdick was an unabashed theological liberal, and given his low view of Scripture, one should scarcely be surprised that he saw its content to be of little use in the modern pulpit. The shock should come when those who espouse a high view of Biblical inerrancy and authority marginalize the importance of Biblical content in the sermon, and replace it with man-centered psychotherapy. The problem with this approach is that ultimately, it can never provide the only solution to what ails us. God and God alone heals our hurts and reforms our lives, and thus, only a God-centered worldview will serve as adequate ground for Christian preaching.
In a lecture given to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary over a decade ago, John Piper speaks to this need eloquently: My burden is to plead for the supremacy of God in preaching--that the dominant note of preaching be the freedom of God's sovereign grace, the unifying theme be the zeal that God has for His own glory, the grand object of preaching be the infinite and inexhaustible being of God, and the pervasive atmosphere of preaching be the holiness of God. Then when preaching takes up the ordinary things of life--family, job, leisure, friendships; or the crises of our day--AIDS, divorce, addictions, depression, abuses, poverty, hunger, and, worst of all, unreached peoples of the world, these matters are not only taken up. They are taken all the way up into God. Man-centered, self-help focused pulpits such as those occupied by pop-evangelicals will never be able to provide this powerful cure for souls.
3. It is atheological: Missiologist Paul Heibert makes the astute observation that when preaching and defending truth, evangelicals should adopt a posture of epistemological realism, recognizing that while truth is absolute, none of us will ever know all truth absolutely! Sinful hubris is at the heart of anyone who believes they have it all figured out!
Still, assuming this epistemological posture doesn't mean that there aren't certain things we can know for sure! When asked by Larry King about the fate of those who don't know Christ as Savior, all Osteen could respond with was "I don't know." Since that agonizing night on CNN, Osteen has issued an apology to his congregation and supporters, admitting that he did not accurately represent the Gospel, and this is commendable. Any of us, when called upon to speak the truth of the Gospel, are prone to inaccuracies and unintended compromises because, in the heat of the moment, our sinful nature gets the best of us. The problem however, is that Osteen admits to never having been a serious student of Scripture. He has never been to seminary, which in and of itself is not a problem. Yet he hasn't seemed to compensate for his lack of formal education by being self-motivated enough to study theology on his own, and he isn't the only pastor out there with such a skeleton in his closet!
I can't count the times I have heard a seminary-trained, Baptist pastor say "I'm just not a theologian." In the formal sense, there are indeed very few "professional" theologians. But every pastor should be a practicing theologue. To preach the Word, we must know what it says. To know what it says, we must study it with dilligence, and hold the truth statements it puts forth with clarity as non-negotiable and axiomatic. But for this to be realized, we have dire need for theologians to return to the pulpits of evangelical churches!
With all of this said, I must say that as a person, I like Joel Osteen. I'm sure if I ever had the privilege, I would enjoy his company. Also, Osteen isn't the issue here, but rather, the larger problem of pastors who are valued more for their charisma and winsomeness than for the content of their overall message. No amount of eloquence or positive energy can compensate for the spiritual loss that occurs when the Gospel is truncated and Biblical truth is marginalized.
So what is the answer to pop-evangelicalism? I believe Piper gave us this answer long before Joel Osteen became a household name in Christian homes: People are starving for the greatness of God. But most of them would not give this diagnosis of their troubled lives. The majesty of God is an unknown cure. There are far more popular prescriptions on the market, but the benefit of any other remedy is brief and shallow. Preaching that does not have the aroma of God's greatness may entertain for a season, but it will not touch the hidden cry of the soul: "Show me thy glory."
Imagine for a moment the result of such thinking permeating the mind and preaching ministry of a man like Joel Osteen! The Kingdom possibilities would be endless. As such, I think the real answer here is not to attack, but rather, to pray earnestly for men of such visibility. If Osteen began preaching the "whole counsel of God," millions of viewers would benefit, as would the people of God at Lakewood Church in Houston.
But such prayers begin in the first person! As I think back on my experiences, there have been times when I know God wanted me to speak as a prophet, and instead I spoke as a salesman. May that never be true of my ministry in 2006! And if you are a pastor, I pray it is never again true of yours either. Instead, let our hidden criy be made audible: "Show us your glory, that we may in turn proclaim it to others."
John Piper. 1990. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House
Robinson, Haddon W. 1980. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
Rowell, Ed. 1998. Preaching with Spiritual Passion: How to Stay Fresh in Your Calling. Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers.
York, Hershael W. and Bert Decker. 2003. Preaching with Bold Assurance: A Solid and Enduring Aproach to Engaging Exposition. Nashville: Broadman and Holman.