The Popularity of Joel Osteen

John ArmstrongAmerican Evangelicalism

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 [i.e., in Osteen’s faith and practice], God is not worshiped. He is used." I have to say to this charge, "Really? How do you know that?” Horton writes as if he does not employ a particularly situated hermeneutic of his own. His hermeneutic is rooted in a historically Lutheran/Reformed way of reading the Bible that plainly informs his opinions of Osteen. To suggest that "God is not worshiped" is to go far beyond what I am prepared to say, even though I have my own particular concerns regarding missing biblical elements in Joel Osteen’s message. I believe that Horton is right to express concern about the loss of a message that specifically sees "The Bible [as] being a story about the redemption of Christ." But note again that Horton is using a very well defined system here and it is one that is not without its own problems if truth be told.

In Dr. Horton’s framework one gets the impression that the Bible is about God, period! The Bible’s message, it is often argued by some Lutheran/Reformed critics, has little to do with me. The categories used in making such a criticism come right out of a certain type of systematic theology. The gospel is about redemption, for sure. But Joel Osteen seems to know this from what I can see. He openly speaks of grace, faith and redemption, and all by Christ alone if you listen to him. He is not peddling a message that says, “Try to please God so he will bless you or save you.” The problem I see in Michael Horton’s approach is that redemption is clearly about God, but in the end this redemption is about God saving and blessing me, and countless others with me in community. God loves sinners, plain and simple. This is astounding good news. Indeed, this is really astounding news. Osteen seems to understand this basic message form what I have seen and heard. Osteen can be faulted for sure. For one, his emphasis appears unbalanced.

No serious student of church history would mistake this ministry for the preaching of John Wesley and George Whitefield. But to draw the stark conclusion that Horton makes simply goes a bit too far to my way of thinking. It fails to admit that the hermeneutic Horton uses is deeply rooted in culture, as well as a very specific tradition, and a narrowly defined way of doing worship and evangelism.

Sadly, I would have drawn similar conclusions to Dr. Horton’s several years ago. While I admire Horton’s zeal, his knowledge and his writing abilities, I have come to think this type of conservative Reformed thought is actually hurting the cause of Christ within broader American evangelicalism. I am increasingly impressed that it keeps needy people from hearing the real concerns all Christians should have for biblical reformation. It also sets us up a class of critics who know who worships the true God and who doesn’t. I not only find this approach lacking in wisdom, it is practically useless in terms of really reforming Christian faith and practice in the dominant Protestant and charismatic movement in this country. We can and must to do better in how we criticize.

Personally, I pray for Joel Osteen and would love to share a meal with him. I would privately share my concerns with him, if he trusted and invited such. I believe I could learn from him how to more positively trust God and remain encouraging in my general outlook. I guess this kind of analysis reveals how I’ve changed over the past decade. Some think my change is for the worse. I will let my friends, and my critics, decide that.