White Horse Inn
January 20, 2008 Commentary:
Joel Osteen: A Case Study in American Religion
Hello and welcome to another broadcast of the White Horse Inn where we are launching our new year-long series, "Christless Christianity: The American Captivity of the Church." In the last two programs we looked at Christless Christianity in general and Crossless Christianity which is really the heart of the problem as we are assessing it here. And then in this program we want to take a look at a specific example of what we are talking about. We realize an extreme example, but it does reflect a wider tendency and drift towards Christless Christianity that probably evangelicals would not have been attracted to in the 30s and 40s and 50s but today Joel Osteen is now considered an Evangelical leader.
If Charles Finney's legacy helps us to understand how we arrived at the current crisis, Joel Osteen the Pastor of Lakewood church in Houston, Texas may be the clearest example in contemporary American religion. Name it/claim it, heath and wealth, or prosperity gospel, these are nicknames for a heresy that in many respects is an extreme version of perhaps the most typical focus of American Christianity today more generally. Basically God's there for you and your happiness. He has some rules, and principles for getting what you want out of life and if you follow them you can have what you want. Just declare it and prosperity will come to you. Although explicit proponents of the so-called "prosperity gospel" may be fewer than their influence suggests, its big names and best-selling authors, T.D. Jakes, Benny Hinn, Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer are purveyors of a pagan world-view with a peculiarly American flavor. Its basically what Martin Luther called the "theology of glory." How can I climb the ladder and attain the glory here and now that God has actually promised for us after a life of suffering. The contrast is the "theology of the cross." The story of God's merciful descent to us at great personal cost, the message the Apostle Paul acknowledged was offensive and foolishness to Greeks.
Every few years a religions best-seller sweeps the nation with the message of self-help. Norman Vincent Peale's The Power of Positive-Thinking, Robert Schuller's TV ministry and series of best-sellers, Bruce Wilkinson's The Prayer of Jabez, and other sensations have come and gone. Each time the media treats the appearance of a work in this vein as though it were a new phenomenon, but the success of this genre has long been established. The attractions of Americans to this version of the glory story is evident in the astonishing success of Joel Osteen's runaway best-seller Your Best Life Now: Seven Steps to Living at Your Full Potential and the sequel, the recently released Become a Better You. Beyond his charming personality and folksy style, Osteen's phenomenal attraction is no doubt related to his simple and soothing sampler of the American gospel--a blend of Christian and cultural elements that he picked up not through any formal training but as the son of Baptist, turned prosperity evangelist, who was a favorite on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. However, gone are the eccentric caricatures of prosperity tele-evangelism with it flamboyant style and over the top rhetoric, and bad hair. At least in the televised broadcasts of his services there are no healing lines with people falling or fainting when the preacher blows on them. He doesn't send blessed prayer cloths or speak endlessly of sowing seed in his ministry in order to reap their desired miracle.
The pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, which now owns the Compaq Center, and is now the largest church in America does not come across as a flashing evangelist with jets and yachts , but as a charming next door neighbor who always has something nice to say. However Joel Osteen is definitely a leader of a new generation of prosperity evangelists. His explicit drumbeat of health and wealth, or word-faith teaching is communicated in the terms and the ambiance that might be difficult to distinguish from most mega-churches and other seeker driven ministries. In this broadcast we are going to take a look at Joel Osteen as an example of that increasing creeping fog that we are calling Christless Christianity.
You can read Michael Horton's review of Osteen's Become a Better You here:
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