Posted by: Damon Whitsell | March 7, 2014

What is wrong the Joel Osteens message?

joel soteen purple shirtSOURCE: While on my road trip through the US I listened to Osteen preaching a message titled “Get Over It” and have since listened to another, “Take Control of Your Happiness”. Two, twenty-five minute, sermons could hardly be described as extensive research, but I think it is sufficient familiarity to give something of an opinion of Osteen’s teaching.

First of all, I did enjoy listening to Brother Joel. He, and wife Victoria, introduce each podcast with a wonderful folksy southern charm. If I were passing a bar where they were singing country tunes I’d definitely stop and listen! Their Texan sunshine and optimism is certainly attractive by comparison with grey British cynicism. There is no doubt that Osteen is an entertaining and uplifting communicator. I’m not sure I could cope with listening to him a lot though – his pattern seems to be to speak in axiom upon axiom. This makes his messages memorable, but I would imagine it would become wearying after a while.

So much for the style. What of the substance?

Let me illustrate this with an aside. Comedian Graham Norton runs an ‘agony aunt’ column in The Daily Telegraph once a fortnight and offers advice that I think is about as good as it can get, without reference to the gospel. Take this example

Dear Graham
Our mother died following a short illness. Before she died she had tried to make preparations, part of which involved cashing out her pension, and she instructed our father that the money was to be used for the education of her grandchildren.

Before she died, our father suffered a stroke and was diagnosed with dementia. His short-term memory has been affected, as has his interest in life. He has a good pension, owns a large house and is now sitting upon a very sizeable sum of our mother’s money.

He refuses to discuss carrying out our mother’s last wish, and gets into a rage when the subject is mentioned. He also refuses to plan for the future (e.g. setting up a lasting power of attorney) or do any inheritance tax planning.

We know we shouldn’t allow money to affect us in this way but both sides of the family are extremely angry about this. We feel let down and disappointed that he is not interested in investing in his grandchildren’s future. He never gets in touch, and it’s all we can do to call him. We can clearly see our inheritance evaporating in care home fees and inheritance tax.

Should we keep trying to engage him or just give up and leave him to himself, accepting that we mean nothing to him any more?
Richard, London

Dear Richard
Consider my gob smacked. Your mother dies suddenly and your father is recovering from a stroke after being diagnosed with dementia and you want to talk to me about school fees? If I find your concerns incomprehensible, imagine how your dad feels? He has lost his wife, his body is a stranger, he feels his mind slipping away. I really think he has enough on his plate without worrying about the fact you were too thick to realize you might have to pick up the tab for your kids yourself.

The bottom line is you are entitled to nothing. Your parents gave you life and brought you up – the rest is down to you. If your father decides to leave everything to a local cattery, then so be it.

If waiting for your parents to die is your idea of a get-rich-quick scheme then I feel very sorry for you. This is your only surviving parent and I really don’t think it is a case of you meaning nothing to him any more. This is an old man mourning his wife and coming to terms with the heartbreaking realisation that all he means to his children is school fees and a new bathroom suite.

In the end the only lasting legacy your father will leave is you. Make him proud, and pass those values on to your children. This was money you never had, so I suggest you kiss it goodbye and focus on what you do have.

If every pastor gave advice as good as this, our churches would be happier places. And Joel Osteen does. Osteen serves up practical, life-affirming, straight down the line advice, that is about as good as it gets, and the size of his church reflects the appeal of this.

But good advice is not enough. Certainly it is not enough for a Christian minister to offer. If all anyone needs is good advice, well they may as well stay at home and read Graham Norton as go to church.

What Osteens messages lack (and this is on the basis of only two sermons remember) is any real gospel explanation or application; and this despite Osteen beginning his messages by getting the entire congregation to recite,

This is my Bible, I am what it says I am, I have what it says I have, I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the word of God. I boldly confess, my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I will never be the same. In Jesus name.

In reality, any Bible references Osteen makes are passing ones. There is no working the message out of the text. There isn’t any real teaching of the word. Rather, texts are rarely used, and when they are serve merely as illustrations used to support the points he is already making. And this is a great pity, because the points Osteen makes are good ones, and he could easily make them great ones by applying the gospel.

For example, “Get Over It” is a memorable message, with great advice about not being stuck in the stuff that has happened to you. In this message Osteen even undermined normal ‘word of faith’ teaching by recognizing that bad stuff happens to good people and making no claim that this is due to a lack of faith. Instead, he urges his listeners to ‘get over it’ and get on with life. Some of the application is questionable (I’m not really convinced that every setback is always a setup for a greater comeback) but the main problem is the complete absence of the gospel. “Get Over It” could be summarized as, ‘Theism will work for you’ rather than, ‘Come to the cross’.

Osteen could so easily have preached what he preached, but then gone on to proclaim how Christ has dealt with our guilt and shame at the cross, which is the true reason we can get on with it. He could have gone on to describe an eschatology that speaks of the not yet as well as the now, and so offers us hope even when life is more setback than comeback. He could so easily have preached Christ, and offered something that was not only good advice but contained sufficient gospel seed for the salvation of those in need.

On the basis of two sermons that is what I think is wrong with Joel Osteen. What he says is good, but it is not sufficient. A lot like Graham Norton.

http://thinktheology.co.uk/blog/article/whats_wrong_with_joel_osteen

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