Joel Osteen, one of America’s most popular evangelical preachers, appeared in Chicago this past week. The Chicago Tribune featured a front page religion report on the visit in its May 4 edition. For those who do not know, Joel Osteen is the 42 year old pastor of the largest local church in America, the nondenominational Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. He is the son of a famous charismatic minister, who began Lakewood Church after leaving the Southern Baptist Convention many decades ago, and is also the author of best-seller Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. In addition Osteen appears on a national television program that is the highest-rated inspirational show in the country according to Nielsen Media Research.
I have mixed emotions about Christian success stories like that of Joel Osteen. This is a good news-bad news situation. Osteen represents some of the best and worst of popular religion in America. He is a gentle and engaging man with a huge smile. His persona is likeable and his message is positive, in a time when negativity is too prevalent. He uses the Bible in engaging popular ways, speaks simply of the love and power of Christ, and encourages the un-churched to connect with the Christian faith through a vibrant local church. He writes, in his best-selling book: "Let me encourage you to raise your expectations; start seeing yourself receiving good things. Expect the favor of God."
I believe these emphases are very good! But critics of Osteen abound. More often than not they come from the academic Reformed community. In the aforementioned Chicago Tribune article Michael Horton notes that: "Joel Osteen uses the Bible each week like it’s a collection of fortune cookies that can be opened to suit any of your needs or goals in life. The Bible is a story about the redemption of Christ, not a timeless set of principles for success." Sadly, I fear there is a ring of truth in Horton’s words. But the well-known conservative Reformed theologian also adds, "In this religion