The April 22-24, 2011 issue of USA Weekend featured an article on Joel Osteen entitled “My gift is encouragement.” Writer Cathy Lynn Grossman accurately notes that “quite possibly no one smiles more, ear to ear, day after day, than Pastor Joel Osteen.” She continues, “He is the blue-eyed beaming Texas preacher known worldwide for exuberant declarations of health, prosperity, wisdom, confidence, and courage.”
There are some things about Osteen that I like. He hasn’t felt the need to don the “it-doesn’t-matter-what-you-wear” jeans and casual shirt attire of preachers seeking to relate to people. Osteen still wears a suit and tie, dressing as though worship were a serious activity.
Osteen is a positive person, and that is attractive. No one like a sour puss, someone whose constant dour expression can snuff out the candles of an octogenarian’s birthday cake with one quick glance.
Another positive is that Osteen has not given into political correctness by failing to call homosexuality a sin. He does soften his declaration by saying that homosexuality is not “God’s best for a person’s life,” but at least he doesn’t characterize deviancy as something to be celebrated, as do many theological liberals.
Despite Osteen’s appeal, his preaching entails critical problems. Grossman, while praising Osteen, unintentionally reveals a key issue with Osteen’s brand of preaching: “Small wonder that Osteen, 48, has built up the nation’s largest congregation by far, thronged by people in Houston and global visitors who come to hear about hope and God’s love—not his wrath. Let others carry spears in the culture wars and veer into politics: Osteen is the Lord’s Pollyanna, looking on the bright side of all trouble and travail.” Magnifying God’s love at the expense of his wrath, Osteen’s hearers fail to get the message of what makes God’s love “love.”
The description of Osteen as Pollyanna points to the superficiality of Osteen’s message. There really is little there but nice sounding but relatively meaningless platitudes. “We are victors, not victims.” “Magnify God, not your problems.” Grossman writes, “In Osteen’s sermons, bad times can be reimagined as opportunities. Someone left you? Lost your job? Thank God! You didn’t need that person. A better job awaits. ‘God wants to double your blessings as he did for Job,’ he says.”
Misusing Scripture is the norm in Osteen’s preaching. “I tell people, ‘You are created a masterpiece.’ If you are missing the mark, that’s what sin is. You are missing the best of what God offers you.” Actually, “for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10) comes on the heels of “for by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). It is the regenerated follower of Christ who is God’s “masterpiece,” not the unsaved individual who is looking for a divine fix for his problems.
All of this points to the central problem with Osteen’s brand of Christianity: it is man-centered, not God-centered. Everything is about making life better, more pleasurable, more useful, more worthwhile, more meaningful. The centrality of the glory of God is absent. Christ’s dying to reconcile God to man is not in the picture. Richard Niebuhr’s criticism of early-twentieth-century Protestant liberalism could justly be leveled at Osteen prosperity preaching: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” In his book Become a Better You, Osteen writes, “As long as you’re doing your best and desire to do what’s right according to God’s Word, you can be assured God is pleased with you.” In essence, Osteen preaches “another gospel” and stands under the condemnation of Galatians 1:8, “But 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.”