Wednesday, April 30, 2008

To Osteen or Not To Osteen

Joel Osteen is a popular figure in my congregation. It makes sense. In a blue collar town, where our recession and other economic pains are magnified, Osteen provides a wonderful pick yourself up speech. Beyond my town, I have even heard reference to him from DJ’s on Charlotte radio stations about how they listen to his sermons in the car. Osteen came to a stadium near us a couple weeks ago and one of my parishioners suggested, after the fact, that she wished we could have gone. Osteen seems to be everywhere I turn.

On June 1st, the lectionary text is Matthew 7:21-29, the story of the wise man who built his house on the rocks and the foolish man who built his on sand. In Will Willimon’s Pulpit Resource he mentions Osteen as a preacher who is building his house on the sand. I love that image and I believe that it is true, but how do I pastoral approach it in my sermon without having people turn a deaf ear?

Although this sermon is month away this sermon illustration has took over my brain. That is because I have referenced him before. In a sermon on “You Cannot Serve Two Masters” I mentioned that prosperity preachers, namely Joel Osteen, are doing this. They are removing Christ and replacing the almighty dollar as what they worship. You can see some reflections here from that sermon. It came with some backlash but I stand firmly in my belief that Osteen is not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ!

After this outbreak of conversations with people I took a break from looking into the Prosperity Gospel message until I started to plan this sermon. Then like a freight train it has rolled through my mind and left a distinct impression. I am left with a couple of options.

Option 1: Knowing the huge fan base for Joel Osteen in my congregation, I could simply not mention this in my sermon and go on having discussion with people when it comes up in conversation.
Option 2: I can use Osteen as an example of building our house on sand and be ready to have conversations about his theology and teachings. I could be prepared to really make some parishioners mad, not in the way I present it (hopefully) but in the reality I present.

One thing is for sure, I am diving into the teachings of Osteen in order to talk with authority. I have now TiVoed some of his sermons and have been slowly watching them. I have asked a parishioner to let me borrow one of his books so I can read it. If I do chose to use this point in my sermon, I want it to be from a person who understands Osteen better than I use to. I want to learn his basic teachings and his techniques for teaching them. Are his critiques right, is he simply giving “cotton candy gospel” built on proof texting? We shall see I guess.

From the sermons I have watched thus far (only two) I do know that I am not a fan already. There is too much ‘I’ and ‘me’ in his preaching. It is up to the person to do the work of God. If we want life to be better we can work through our problems knowing that God has victory and success planned for our lives. As I dive into his book, I’ll see if that changes…

Pray for me!!!


Allan R. Bevere said...

Rev. J.:

If I can offer some advice that you may or may not find helpful.

Over the years I have discovered that some sacred cows need to be sacrificed and made into hamburger, but the worshipers of those cows need to be slowly weened off ground beef to the more substantive meat of the Gospel. I have found that it is not helpful to slaughter their sacred meat in the pulpit, especially when they have no chance to respond and defend their "pork" (oops! Am I mixing meataphors?).

I had several persons in my previous congregation, who were in love with the Left Behind series, which I personally cannot stand for more than a few theological and biblical reasons, but I never criticized the series in any sermon. Instead what I did was to offer an alternative understanding of eschatology over time in Bible studies and in other conversations when it was appropriate. And when I was asked what I thought of the Left Behind series, I offered my critique in a very tactful way. What I discovered was that, done in these ways, people did receive what I had to say and considered it.

I also think that one of the things that pastors need to ask themselves when it comes to preaching and theology that is questionable is, what "sore spot" if you will, is being rubbed by such preaching. It is never the case, that it is simply shallow theology and a justification for materialism that attacts people to Osteen, though that is part of it; he is also touching something in their lives that is signficant. We need to recognize that as well.

I think you're taking the right approach in reading him and listening to his sermons. Too often we evaluate people and their views without seriously engaging them. Whenever I have expressed my concerns about Osteen, I also do not hesitate to affirm him where he is right and also affirm the many wonderful ministries of his congregation. It is that affirmation that also opens the church's "Osteen groupies" to constructive criticism of him as well.

The task here, for the pastor, is to work through these important issues with the congregation so that all of us will move forward in our disciplship. I have found that pastors who take the sermonic "scorched earth" approach not only put off the congregations, but they do nothing to convince anyone of their point of view.

This is not to say that such things should never be addressed in a sermon, but they must be done carefully; otherwise the desired pastoral effect will morph into something unpleasant.

Just some thoughts.

Allan R. Bevere said...

One more thought. You are correct to be concerned that there is too much "I" and "we" in his preaching, but that is malaise of most preaching today, including preaching in Mainline Protestantism. It is problem much larger than Osteen; he and most preachers only exhibit the symptom of the disease of modern individualistic accounts of the Gospel.

OK, I'm done!

Eric Helms said...

I am in agreement with you, though I doubt Olsteen is as popular in NJ as he is in NC. When I have seen his "sermons" I am struck by the lack of scriptural and theological reference--where is God? At the same time, I remember hearing that if you know an illustration will be deeply contraversial you should avoid using it in a sermon because it will distract people from the gospel that you are preaching. I would say that even if your congregation likes Joel Olsteen, they come on Sunday to hear you; so all you have to do is present the gospel--sorry for unsolicited advice, but you stimulated my thinking.

Unknown said...

Allan, thank you for your advice. That is what I was looking for. I think you created Option 3: Preach the gospel in a way that people will listen and understand. I think that would be more beneficial in the long run.

Eric, I think you nailed it also. The last thing I want to do is become a distraction to people. Thanks.

This does make me think though. When is it a necessity to name the sacred cows of society or the local church. Sure, Osteen and the Left Behind series are not huge issues in the grand scheme of things, but what is? At what point did those preachers who lived with Apartheid or Nazi Germany realize that their society turned and they had to call out and name those atrocities? Not equating Osteen and Left Behind to these but your comments got me thinking. At what point are we to be prophetic and not worry about the cost?

Eric Helms said...

That's a great question. If we wait too long on certain issues it becomes too late and/or we cease to be prophetic--i.e naming the issue of torture several years ago when it first became public vs. now when so much damage has already happened...

Unknown said...

Eric, I think you are right on with the torture, or even war. I wasn't in the country when the war started, I was living in England, and that gave a unique perspective on it. I wonder how many ministers here in America preached about the how war is wrong or how we should repent about how we have treated prisioners of war.