Thursday, February 20, 2014

What About Joel Osteen?

People love to talk about people, especially highly visible people.

The wind of social media can whip up the opinion of a grasshopper, turn it into a whirlwind, and topple an elephant.  Someone with too much time on his hands makes an unfounded and cruel accusation about someone he doesn’t know and counts on the rest of us to pass the babble on. That has made gossip much more lethal than in years past.

Christians like participating in this shark feeding, even if the victim is a fellow believer. It is something blatantly forbidden by the faith we profess and even has a technical name: bearing false witness. We like to do it anyway. So we do.

I am afraid of participating though.

I think when Jesus said “you will give account on the Day of Judgment for every idle word” and “what is said in secret will be declared from the housetop,” he may well have had Internet gossip in mind. So I try to delete hysterical email messages that sound too much like the old National Inquirer. Otherwise, they may seduce me into a toxic pastime. Its difficult to resist sometimes. Who wouldn’t want to know more about an exotic fruit that could add twenty years to one’s life or about how the secretary of state was once arrested for streaking in a college dormitory?

(I just now made that bit of gossip up but I fully expect to watch it circulate on the web tomorrow and hear a reporter ask the secretary of state if is it true the following day. I'm testing my hypothesis by putting it out there to see what happens.)

Anyway, back to my point: what about Joel Osteen?

One the surface, one would not have predicted that Joel Osteen would have become that controversial. He is a nice person. By all accounts this is not merely his public persona moreover, but is his private demeanor as well. He is inevitably polite, civil and winsome. What he says in his sermons is encouraging, enjoyable to hear, and helpful for the journey of life.

So what’s the fuss about?

Well, the people who dislike Joel Osteen believe he doesn’t say enough. They claim his messages are not good examples of the sort of Bible teaching one ought to expect from an equipped and seasoned pastor; he doesn't take definitive stands on the issues of the day; his polished style seems rehearsed, staged and designed for the theater or political platform rather than the pulpit; that sort of thing.

When people say things like that about Joel, I am inclined to agree. Perhaps that gives me enough credibility to ask, “so?”

St. Paul told us that God placed in the Body of Christ ‘different gifts for the profit of the whole.’ He told us that we should not fault a nose for not seeing or an eye for not hearing. The health of the body depends on the interaction of its various organs and counts on each of them to do what it is supposed to do.

In that light, it seems unfair to criticize Joel Osteen for doing what he does. Unless he preaches rank heresy – and to determine that would actually require someone to understand orthodoxy – or promotes unethical, immoral or illegal practices  -- which he does not – or does something else that clearly places him outside the boundaries of Christian ministry –whining about him seems utterly unfair and unhelpful.

Does what Joel do on TV count as a sufficient presentation of the gospel? Most of the time; probably not. But is what he says compatible with the gospel? Yes. Much more so in fact than the ranting preachers who wrap up the fish of their political ideologies in Bible paper or the religious ponzi scheme marketers that constantly raise money in order to develop campuses where they can make a living raising money.  Joel actually feeds the hungry. He helps poor people develop better lives. 

Maybe he should do more but what he does are things Jesus told us to do.

Ok. I personally like Joel Olsten.  I don’t often listen to his sermons and I don’t read his books. But I like him. I believe he is a Christian trying to carry out Christian ministry. 

I am also wiling to learn from him.

Recently, I learned that a huge percentage of people attending Joel’s church are from broken families and working class backgrounds. Their testimonies to reporters and researchers are pretty consistent: the church has been a refuge and second family for them. It has helped them rise out of their circumstances and into new lives. These people believe they found the Lord in Joel’s church and that the Lord has delivered them from their old mess. That counts for something in my book and is something I want to do too.

As a pastor, it is my fervent hope that these people are learning the fundamentals of Christian faith; that they are becoming true disciples of Christ. Who, however, will determine that?

The loss of Christian catechism in the last many decades – call instruction in the faith whatever you want -- has been catastrophic. Many really good preachers now seem unaware of the basics of Christian theology, church history or even the stories of the Bible. From what I have seen, Joel may well fit into that category. But if he does, he is hardly alone. What did we expect? We have been steadily transforming pastoring into business management, spirituality into pop psychology, and worship into entertainment. When choosing a pastor, “successful” churches usually relegate the skills of scriptural exegesis and spiritual discernment to ever increasingly lower levels of hiring preference. A great pastor can get by without knowing much about the Book of Romans but he cannot survive without knowing how to tweet. Joel may be the product of this culture we raised him in but he cannot be faulted for it.

In the end, I think Joel is probably doing what he ought to do. He is giving sound encouraging words to millions of people, believer and unbeliever alike. He is helping lift people out of despair. That is a gift of healing. He is also teaching preachers to smile – that can’t hurt anything! Perhaps if the likes of John McArthur would smile a little more it would make their sound biblical exegesis a bit more bearable and appealing. If being hateful is what it takes to be prophetic and biblically faithful, then perhaps a smile might break the essential character of their gospel witness; but who knows, maybe not.

Perhaps what we ought to do is simply thank Joel for doing what he does, step up to the plate, and provide what we believe is missing from his presentation. It is entirely possible that someone who has been listening to Joel may soon be ready to study the Book of Hebrews. If so, then some teacher better start preparing himself for that moment. And it won’t help to begin that study with a diatribe against Joel. A simple “thank you’ might be more in order and might make the student think the teacher is a Christian.

If I could only prove that Joel Osteen was once an ax murderer or the member of the mafia, this blog might go viral.  That would help my writing career considerably. If I just had the stomach to go on a rant about his deficiencies, my fellow Christians might promote my words and increase my reading constituency. But then there is that scary warning from Jesus about idle words that gives me pause.

Sometimes practicing Christianity is just not very practical.

Now please excuse me while I go practice smiling.


Nanny Karri said...

You have a beautiful smile and I love this post. Joel has said that he always wanted to be behind the camera, and he was for years for his dad. He stepped up to the plate when his father passed and has a very huge following. I like Joel, always have. People aren't encouraged enough, people don't believe in themselves enough. He fills in the gap that so many Pastor's fail to get across (not you). Ask and Ye shall receive, knock and the door will open. He is an encourager, that so many people have never known. He gets people to Christ and Christ will fill in Joel's gaps. We all are one body, no part is more important than the next. You forgot the part about him being a big cry baby (his words).

Alabama Belle 2 said...

Pastor Dan,
You smile just fine... I remember you laughing and smiling and being brutally honest with me. Your sermons also bring about healing and true insight into who we are to become. I thank you. I owe you so much. God con't to bless you and keep you healthy so that more generations can hear you speak, preach, listen (and of course SING) :) Dena Mosley

John V. said...

Thank you Pastor Dan. BTW, can you tweet? I am way behind the tech learning curve, and all I did was change from a pc to a Mac. Thankfully, I am retired and don't have to think any more about pastoral search committees. However, I do appreciate that our pastor prepares his sermons prayerfully and theologically and also psychologically. And he is a good guy to boot ... and my son-in-law. We sure enjoyed your time with us in OKC where in addition to encouraging us you proclaimed grace and truth. Thank you. Grace, peace and joy my friend. Te best is yet to be because of Jesus. - Jack Dabney

Rosy Creations said...

As for me Joel is a God send, all 3 of my sons suffered from anxiety, and depression. He was a light of Jesus in their darkness, he encourages in the body of Christ, all 3 are walking in their healing now, and his words were just what they needed. I was one of those single moms raising them all alone.
Divorce hurts even years after.

Gdavid said...

Dan, your blog did make me think...maybe his smile and "soft" voice is good!! I do wish he were more like his father whose church in Houston was known as "The Oasis of Love"...Really reached out to a hurting community...but wasn't afraid to preach truth...and he was part of a movement that made his fellow Baptist seminary friends cringe! Why, he even had fellowship with Catholic leaders!!! But Joel's marketing strategy from the time he was groomed to take over his father's pulpit was to "coat" the truth so it would not be offensive...even if it were not the "whole" truth according to the Bible. Yes, then there's MacArthur who proclaims "truth" with a vengeance (some would say "hate"). Reminds me of Benny Hinn...whose first book, "Good Morning Holy Spirit" was so filled with extreme Biblical errors that his publisher pulled all of a very large printing off the store shelves. He overtly only wanted to be a best-selling author...whether what he wrote was truth or not!!

Bernie Wade said...

Well said. Blessings!

Bernie Wade said...

Well said. I know Joel. I know he, like all of us, is far from perfect. But there seems to be a great deal of fuss about a guy who goes about doing good.


I have said to Joel's critics for years that he reaches millions of people who would never "darken the doors" of a local church. People listen to him when they fast forward the channel thru every "right" t.v. evangelist. As you said, give them some hope, make them thirsty for something more than the world and then a seasoned Christian should come along and disciple. Some plant, some water...

EXCELLENT read. thank you!