Sunday, October 21, 2007

The Pensive Pastor's Prosperity Pose

Rodin, the famous sculptor who gave the world The Thinker statue, must have known, like those pictured here, that there's something the chin that gives you the money-making mojo.

And Joel Osteen, the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston knows something about it. In fact, Osteen has made so much cash off his first self-help book, Your Best Life Now, that he's stopped taking a salary from his basketball arena of a church. A noble act to be sure, but it probably stemmed from the fact that he knew he'd be getting a huge advance for his new book, Become a Better You, which, judging from the first few pages and the table of contents, is just as sappy as his first one. Best Life has more than 4 million copies in print, and it just came out in paperback, which is what bestsellers do when the publisher has milked the entire audience willing to pay the extra 10 bucks for the hardback. In one lap around Borders the other day, a friend and I saw Osteen's million-dollar grin four times, even once in the Spanish section.

For the past few years, I've made it a sort of hobby to watch and trash prosperity pastors. To me, they just too adequately fit the description of false prophets, those who peddle some incomplete version of the Gospel for their personal gain. But a lot of the time, though it's hard--and most of the time inappropriate--to judge another's heart, I've come to believe that these guys aren't necessarily intentional deceivers. As I think is the case with Osteen, they sincerely believe that their namby-pamby, cheerleader-with-a-podium, self-help messages are good for their audiences, and they take the testimonials they receive as validation of their ministries.

A case in point: Osteen was featured on "60 minutes" the other day. When challenged by the reporter about his skimpy messages, Osteen asserted that it was his calling to "lift people up," not to "beat them down," and to give them simple messages that they could use in their daily lives. Not once did he mention Jesus. God got in there a few times, but his portrayal in Osteenology is little more than that of a plump Santa Claus whose main goal as ruler of the universe is to get everyone to hold hands and get along. On the set of the interview, Osteen broke down and cried as he told the reporter how "humbled" he was to hear so many people tell him that he--woops, and God--changed their lives.

As he sobbed, burying his makeup-caked face and pristine white teeth in his hands, I actually began to pity Osteen. The man who created the Wall of Champions to honor church members who paid more than $2,500 for their Sunday season ticket at his stadium has bought the lie that winning the approval of men equals adherence to the mission of God. The problem is that no matter how many books you can sell by editing out the hard-to-swallow aspects of the Gospel, your mission as a pastor is not to motivate people to feel better about themselves. Your mission is to speak truth: hard-hitting, uncompromising and often painful truth. As our Lord said, "Woe to you when all men speak well of you." Translation: If the path you're on has a lot of traffic, you'd better make sure it's not the broad one that leads to destruction.

I'm sure that Osteen has touched lives. He's probably helped some people regain the ability to think positively and persevere without complaining, a few virtues often overlooked in our fast-food culture. And he's probably done these things with great intentions, without realizing that he's shortchanging the Savior he claims to serve by feeding his flock what I call "spiritual gruel" rather than anything approaching milk or solid food.

But that's the problem--and the danger--with Osteen's gospel. It's well-intentioned but incomplete, a recipe for something indescribably delicious but missing the key ingredient. What I mean is that, yes, God wants us to be happy. He wants us to be positive. He wants us to have joy and abundant (Osteen would say "victorious") life. But what God does not want is to be a means to an end. He does not want to be spiritual prozac to make our day positive, uplifting and "safe for the whole family." He does not want to be sprinkled, stirred and mixed into our daily routine as the active ingredient that makes our spirit rise like dough.

As John Piper puts it in a book by the same title, "God is the Gospel." He is the good news. He will not be used as an instrument to bring us joy. Rather, as we learn to worship him for his own sake, he will become our joy, whether we're screaming in agony like Job or rejoicing as Abraham on the day of Isaac's birth. God is the end, not the means. When we learn this fully, we will have our best lives now--and eternally.
You're probably wondering by now what the other pictures have to do with this post. Well, I couldn't resist throwing in Creflo (picture 2) for good measure. I first saw Creflo "Boom! Can I Get A." Dollar when I was about 10 years old. I was at a friend's house in Florida, and we were flipping channels. The dial stopped on Creflo, who was creeping across the stage, hands outstretched like an airplane. His speech is still clear in my mind; I've memorized it by reciting it so many times over the years.

"Steeeeeeeeeeeaaalthfully," he said, drawing out the word for emphasis and tiptoeing sneakily across the stage. "Stealthfully, the Lord's gonna come. And when he does--"

Now he really kicked it into high gear. "You gonna hear the sonic boom, and you gonna look up into the sky, but the Lord ain't gonna be there. Uh-uh, naw he ain't. It's gonna be like BOOM! Yo bank account is filled! BOOM! Yo house paid off! BOOM! Yo car payment is gone! BOOM! Blessed and gone! Blessed and gone! Blessed and gone!" The crowd applauded wildly. I don't know whether they were more excited about God's ability to use the breaking of the sound barrier to bring them instant wealth or Creflo's mastery of the ghetto voice as a means to get things really crankin'.

Creflo is funny for many reasons, one of which is the fact that his last name is Dollar. You'd think someone with that last name would at least try to veil their health and wealth message, not create their own School of Prosperity. Yes, you read me right. Creflo, pastor of World Changers Church International and the proud owner of a Gulfstream private jet to cart him back and for between his congregations in Atlanta and New York, is going to teach you how to be prosperous, but like a true entrepreneur, he ain't gonna do it for free. It's only $20 to get your "millionaire login" name and find out "why God wants you rich."

By the way, Creflo's wife Taffi once used a Psalm to justify why God wants her to have a Rolls Royce.
The last picture is Mason Betha, otherwise known by his hip-hop name, Ma$e. Mase, a former Bad Boy Records artist who rolled with the likes of Puff Daddy back in the day, made waves in the rap industry when he decided to go gospel.

I have nothing bad to say about Mase. I just think it's great that he looks like Creflo's version of Mini-Me.


Brad said...

i laughed through the whole thing...and i watched the 60 minutes thing and your thoughts are exactly as mine are--and i've had this conversation with 3 people since

Anonymous said...

Seriously?!?!?! Is Joel Osteen and his preaching such a big issue that we must spend our time cutting his message down with over exaggerated words of disdain? Is there really merit in making these criticisms to begin with? I don't believe so.

Yes, Joel Osteen shares a message of hope, joy, and God's love for us that may seem overly simplistic for the "deep" Christians of today. And yes, I feel that our churches are filled with more motivation rather than God's true proclamation. However, to bash a man who has CLEARLY led thousands (if not more) to Christ is outrageous.

If you don't like him, or his style of ministry, then don't watch him. Lord knows there are MILLIONS of authors, preachers, and teachers to choose from. But to belittle a Godly man who's message, while not preferred by you, but who actually ministers to millions worldwide, is completely unnecessary. Can you disagree with him? Absolutely! To seek him out on television and watch for your perception of his "flaws", however, is a little much for me. Why cut down people who are making a difference in the world for Christ? Why look for things that unnerve or annoy you? While I can't speak for God, I don't believe that He is sitting on his thrown judging the methods of ministers who are leading people to Him. And if He is, I think we should let Him criticize and give His thoughts to Joel once he gets to heaven, as opposed to filling internet blogs with our limited and close minded perceptions of him.

I work with lost, hurting, and damaged people on a daily basis; people looking for a glimmer of hope...people who have never experienced true love or compassion from anyone....people who have little, if any, exposer to Christ and His church. So if someone as "simplistic" and "surface" as Joel Osteen gives them an ounce of understanding on God's amazing grace and love, then I say, good work Joel! There is a place in hearts that are being filled by God's words through Joel....even if it is not your heart. I suggest spending you time watching/reading authors and preachers that you actually and women who minister to you, as opposed to seeking out the ones who fill you with a sense of accomplishment through perceived literary inspiration.

Trevor Williams said...

In response to the last comment, let me first of all say that you should at least leave your name if you want to comment on this blog. I've put my name on here, and my reputation's at stake. I expect the same from you if you want to challenge my words.

Second of all, let me also say that I agree with you, at least on parts of what you said. You say that I shouldn't spend my time cutting down pastors. This is half right. Yes, as I read today in the words of Jesus, I should look at the plank in my own eye before looking at the speck in his. I should really evaluate why I'm watching these preachers. If it's only to bash them, then I should change the channel immediately and never type a word about them. That's something I have to work on, so please forgive my arrogance on a subject where humility is so desperately needed.

But I won't change my desire to have a dialogue about church leaders and whether their methods are damaging to the church in America. Just the fact that you responded shows that this is an issue that can create dialogue within the body of Christ, dialogue that has the potential to go beneath the surface, somewhere down deep where Osteen doesn't want to go.

You say God doesn't judge methods, but there are numerous times in scripture where God judges the motivation behind an action, or even an emotion as a precursor to an action. And sometimes, righteous actions are negated by the state of mind in which they were done (Lord, Lord, did we not drive out demons? Heal the sick?... Depart from me, I never knew you). You might use Paul's statement, "Some preach for their own personal gain, but just as long as the Gospel is preached...," as justification for your point that the message, not the vessel, is what we should focus on.

But here's the point you missed entirely: Osteen doesn't preach the Gospel. His message is not complete. He's been asked on TV numerous times whether those who don't believe in Jesus will go eternally suffering, and he hasn't made a clear answer. Jesus CHRIST was pretty clear on this point, and I don't know how you can be a CHRISTian pastor, a supposed shepherd, and not be bold enough to defend your Lord's most basic tenets.

You say that Osteen has CLEARLY led thousands to Christ. How is it so clear? Because he's sold so many books? Because he has the largest church in America? Last time I checked, popularity didn't equal faithfulness to God's call or the presence of real, lasting fruit. In fact, the opposite seems to be true in scripture. It seems that the less popular Christians became, the more effective they were in spreading the Gospel. Take the unbridled growth of the early church and today's Chinese church as examples. Osteen may fill thousands of hearts with hope, but judging by his words, the hope he sells is shallow and circumstantial, not based on the solid rock of Christ's blood. And what's better? To not give people hope, or to give them false hope based on a fantasy God?

You say that Osteen "ministers" to people. That may be true, but what does that mean? Does it mean they like his words because he feeds their desire to rely on themselves? It is messy to get down to the nitty-gritty and confront how despicably sinful we are and how much we need Christ, not to be used as a pick-me-up like we use a Starbucks latte in mid-afternoon, but for a dynamic transformation of character based on HIS STRENGTH, not our own.

I applaud your work with the hurting people in this world. I myself need to stop being so lazy and get out there and do some of that work too. Let's just make sure that the message of hope we preach to them is true grace.

Here's what I mean: You said in your comment that if Joel gives people and ounce of God's grace and love, then we should applaud him. (If you'll check my blog posts, you'll see that I didn't belittle his every accomplishment.) But grace is not shown as grace if there is no knowledge of sin. You can't tell someone that God has grace for them if you don't first tell them they're sinful, which is not the most welcome thing to say to someone. The grace comes from the fact that we are SO UNDESERVING, not because we're "a child of the king."

And God's love is NOT in his ability to make our lives run smoothly, or to get people to go out of their way to give us "favor" (as Joel suggests in his first book). The love of Christ is IN THE CROSS. "God showed his love for us in this: That while we were STILL SINNERS, Christ died for us."

From pastors like Joel, we need the whole story. We need them to preach the hope of Christ and the positive things about his love and grace, but we don't need them to do it as salesmen of a false Gospel of happiness and ease, or in a way that makes us rely on ourselves, our ability, our know-how and our desires.

Really the question is: Which Christ is Osteen leading people to? And what is he filling hearts with?

Is Osteen's Christ the one of the scriptures? Is the positive, self-reliant message Osteen talks about something that the world (Tony Robbins, maybe?) couldn't offer these people?

If I take your advice, I can't watch Osteen anymore to find out. I guess I'll remain unconvinced, because I've still never seen a sermon on sin or even on the cross. Please email me a transcript if you can find one. Thanks so much for engaging my blog.

Don in Texas said...

Life is filled with suffering. We don't need a preacher to tell us that. We need someone who helps us to understand that God is with us in our suffering and that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. We need to know that He will never leave us or forsake us. We need to be told that God wants to bless us, but that He expects us to be a blessing to others in return. I, for one, am exceedingly glad that God has different people for different missions. I am glad that Joel is fulfilling his.
Trevor, I understand that you disagree with Joel's mission. After all, Peter disagreed with Paul's mission. Peter couldn't understand how Paul could tell the Gentiles they didn't have to be circumcised to be saved. Peter thought it heresy that Paul was telling the Gentiles they could eat anything they wanted -- even the unclean foods. In fact, Peter couldn't fathom why Paul was even talking to the Gentiles in the first place.
So I guess it is Ok to not understand that God is doing a new thing. You are in good company Trevor.

Trevor Williams said...


Thanks for your comment. Let me start by saying that I don't disagree entirely with Joel's mission, at least as you interpret it. Should we preach gloom and doom all the time? No. But by the same token, should we preach happy-go-lucky all the time either? No.

Yes, God calls us to remember that he has our best interest at heart, but I believe you'll see from my other posts that I don't buy the idea that our best interest and our desires are always the same thing. Joel seems to teach that since we are in the kingdom, we can "expect people to go out of their way for us" (a statement from "Your Best Life Now").

That statement is totally contrary to the Gospel that Jesus and his disciples preached. And I think Jesus as well as the writers of the New Testament as well as the prophets would disagree with your assessment that we don't need to contaminate our feel-good preaching with talk of suffering. In fact, if we use that standard to measure scripture, we'd have to throw out most of it.

The beautiful truth, which is incomplete if you just tell one side of the story, is that because Jesus suffered, we are 1)Safe from eternal suffering 2)Willing to suffer for him, taking up our cross daily and following, DENYing ourselves. Nowhere does the Bible promise us ease or earthly benefit because we're "children of the King," which is my biggest qualm with Osteen's teaching.

If you'll read the rest of my posts, I think you'll find that I'm not that hard on Joel. I really think that he does a good job in helping people to think positively and believe good things about God. I just think his picture is incomplete.

And about Peter, he was given an epiphany on a rooftop to cure him of his disagreement with Paul. When I get mine about the merits of Joel's preaching, I'll change my ways. (You'll remember that Peter was the one that stood up in defense of Paul and Barnabus in Acts 15, during a dispute about what laws the Gentiles should follow).

But I have an issue with your comparison. Paul was an apostle whose call to ministry was a call to SUFFER, so he doesn't really fit the Osteen analogy very well.

And telling people what they want to hear, I believe, is not a "new move of God," as you suggest. It's a portrait of neutered grace. Grace without mention of the very thing that makes it grace: The wrath we deserve. Without a knowledge of sin and suffering, you have no appreciation of holiness and salvation.

Thanks for your interest in my blog.

Ray Patterson said...

I'm not a Christian, but I do have a personal interest in the different varieties of religion. Religion changes with the time. This is natural and unavoidable. Still, some new forms can be very far removed from any content the religion was formed around.

I watched a Osteen service past weekend because people referred me to it. I was shocked. There doesn't seem to be any content to the religion he's supposed to be preaching.

And in this I do not agree that Creflo Dollar goes the same way. I watched a piece of a service he's in, and he actually read a Psalm. Not just individual phrases, picked at whatever part he chooses like Osteen does, but a proper Bible reading and interpretation. Dollar uses different tones, and asks questions to ponder. He may be a prosperity theologian and a profiteer, but he still actually qualifies as a priest simply because he delivers an actual message. Osteen just smiles. I guess there's also something inherently American about somebody who always smiles, but to me that is much more indicative of Osteen's emptiness than anything else.

I appreciate also the way you picked anonymous' argument apart. Simply saying "Jesus" every once in a while does not make you a Christian. Atheists, like me, are the most distrusted minority in the US (I'm not American...). But just say you're Christian, and somehow that makes you alright in the nondenominational American public religion. I find that frustratingly naive. If people don't want to trust me, that's fine, but then also don't trust so-called Christians who don't even know the most basic concepts of Christianity. Osteen is definitely one of them, and in that way he is essentially one of us.