I’ve heard a good bit of discussion about Joel Osteen lately. He’s the TV preacher in Houston whose church recently began meeting in the arena that formerly housed the Houston Rockets. In other words, it’s big (like 28,000 big), and Osteen’s influence is growing. His weekly broadcast is the #1 rated religious program, his book Your Best Life Now has been a smash hit, and now his tour may be coming to an arena near you. He’s a fairly young guy (in his thirties?) and I guess he seems telegenic (though, let’s be honest, as Mark Driscoll point out, the guy has a mullett. It may be nicely coifed, but it’s still a mullett.) Now, I don’t have a ton of time to sit around and listen to TV preachers, and even if I did it would drive my wife bonkers (and you don’t drive pregnant women bonkers). As I understand it, though, Osteen is pretty big into the feel-good message of prosperity and happiness, with very little mention of sin, repentance, and other key components of the gospel.
Mark Dever, in his excellent book, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, writes of the importance of a biblical understanding of the Gospel and of evangelism. In doing so, he contrasts this with the message of Robert Schuller, who preaches on TV from his Crystal Cathedral in California, and is famous for writing of the power of positive thinking and self-improvement. Schuller says:
“I don’t think that anything has been done in the name of Christ and under the banner of Christianity that has proven more destructive to human personality, and hence counterproductive to the evangelistic enterprise, than the unchristian, uncouth strategy of attempting to make people aware of their lost and sinful condition.” (From Schuller’s Milk and Honey, quoted by Dever in Nine Marks, 112. Click here for more interesting quotes from Schuller.)
Excuse me? Making people aware of their lost and sinful condition is in fact uncouth in the present age, but how could this be unchristian? Perhaps if we use the term “christian” in its watered-down cultural usage, but certainly not if we’re talking about the biblical gospel. If people are not aware of their lost and sinful condition, why in the world would they give a rip about salvation? Saved from what? Now, to be fair, perhaps the message of a cool Middle Eastern holy-man guru about how to live a whole life might be interesting; a message of self-actualization and self-help sounds pretty good to Western ears. But it is a sham and a lie to not confront people with sin.
I’m reminded of Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:1-5, where Paul famously charges Timothy to preach the Word, and reminds him that the time will come when people will not “endure sound doctrine,” and instead will gather around themselves teachers who will tickle their “itching ears” and tell them what they want to hear. The gospel according to Robert Schuller and Bobby McFerrin (gee that’s not really fair to Bobby is it?) promulgated so often on television sounds good, but it’s a lot like cotton candy – tastes sweet but there’s nothing really there but a stomach-ache waiting to happen.