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.