Friday, June 24, 2005

Joel Osteen, the Megachurch, and the Mini-Gospel

Do you know the two most popular admission tickets that Ticketmaster sells? According to a knowledeable source, U-2 is #1. And Joel Osteen is #2.

Who is Joel Osteen? He's the pastor of Houston's Lakewood Church and author of the best-selling book, Your Best Life Now (currently ranked #41 on 30,000 people attend Osteen's church. 7 million watch him each week on TV. (For more on Osteen's life, background, and beliefs, see Christianity Today's profile on him: Thou Shalt Not Be Negative.)

Osteen was interviewed on the June 20 program of Larry King Live. I encourage everyone to read the transcript. (One interesting factoid from the interview with Larry King: Osteen said "I don't know" 45 times--an average, I'd guess, once per minute.)

Here is but one of many mind-boggling exchanges:

KING: But you believe your way.

OSTEEN: I believe my way. I believe my way with all my heart.

KING: But for someone who doesn't share it is wrong, isn't he?

OSTEEN: Well, yes. Well, I don't know if I look at it like that. I would present my way, but I'm just going to let God be the judge of that. I don't know. I don't know.

KING: So you make no judgment on anyone?

OSTEEN: No. But I...

KING: What about atheists?

OSTEEN: You know what, I'm going to let someone -- I'm going to let God be the judge of who goes to heaven and hell. I just -- again, I present the truth, and I say it every week. You know, I believe it's a relationship with Jesus. But you know what? I'm not going to go around telling everybody else if they don't want to believe that that's going to be their choice. God's got to look at your own heart. God's got to look at your heart, and only God knows that.

What should our reaction be to this? First, I think there should be a mingling of righteous anger and deep sadness, that so many people believe that this man's teachings are representative of Scripture and that it can offer true and lasting hope. Second, I believe it should cause us to have a greater resolve to preach and teach the whole counsel of God. (For some excellent thoughts on this, see John Piper's talk at the recent PCA convention--available online as audio or manuscript.) Third, we must speak the truth and condemn error where we see it. We must do so humbly and brokenheartedly, but with courage and conviction. The apostle Paul wrote that "even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed" (Gal. 1:8). Osteen is presenting a pseudo-gospel, and we must not be afraid to say it.

Al Mohler comments on his blog:

I have avoided mention of Mr. Osteen thus far. His church claims to have over 30,000 in weekly attendance and he has an expanding base of operations and growing influence. He obviously means well and loves to help people. His message of smiling affirmation is well received by thousands who come to his church and by millions more who watch him on television and read his books. But affirmation and encouragement, devoid of biblical content and context, will quickly turn into a message leading "from death to death" (2 Corinthians 3:16). In contrast, the Gospel leads "from life to life," telling us the truth about ourselves and pointing us to Christ for our salvation. We must encourage persons to believe in Christ, to repent of their sins, to trust in Christ alone, and to live for God's glory. Anything less is an encouragement to eternal disaster.

My prayer is that the church would rise up to faithfully, courageously, winsomely proclaim the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ . As Sam Storms recently wrote in a must-read meditation on "The Mega Church and the Mini-Gospel":

if you are a pastor or member of a mega church that faithfully proclaims the gospel of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ alone, I pray that your congregation would expand to even greater heights. If you unashamedly affirm the reality of divine wrath (without redefining it as simply the inevitable moral consequences of sin), the pervasive depravity of the human heart, the necessity of the new birth and repentance, and the centrality of God’s glory in all things, I’m thrilled that your church is mega! You have my permission to ignore the rest of this article. My complaint isn’t with you. In other words, as long as your gospel is as big as your membership roll, I praise God with you for such an outpouring of divine favor.

. . .

What bothers me is the consistent and somewhat humanistic message of human potential, personal fulfillment, and hope for prosperity, together with an obsession for self-esteem, that is proclaimed from pulpits that rarely hear the echo of solid exegesis or communication of the content of Holy Scripture. This soul-shrinking “gospel” serves only to distract people from what makes the biblical gospel good news: the majestic, mind-blowing beauty of a transcendently holy God who graciously condescends in the person of his Son to absorb in himself the punishment we all so richly and eternally deserved.