In a Boston Globe piece about neo-televangelist Joel Osteen — whose Lakewood church is now meeting in Houston's Compaq Center, which seats 16,000 people — readers learn that "two topics Osteen sidesteps are hell and damnation":
"I think people are used to ministers beating them over the head with condemnation," Osteen says. "The Scripture says that it's the goodness of God that causes people to repent. Jesus didn't condemn."
So, when was the last time you heard a homily/sermon that made you feel as though the pastor was beating you over the head with condemnation? Can't remember? It's not as though strong words about sin and damnation are the rage in pulpits these days, is it? Osteen is simply playing on stereotypes and promising people that he will do little more than tell them how wonderful they are — which is exactly what he does.
Perhaps I wouldn't be so hard on Osteen except I've actually listened to about 10 or 12 of his sermons. He's a very good speaker who combines a disarming "ah shucks" quality with an easy-going self-help philosophy. He says lots of positive things, tells funny stories, tells touching stories, tells silly stories, and (as mentioned) tells people how wonderful they are. Very nice. Very upbeat. (Did I mention the stories?) But is it Christian? Considering that I've never heard him talk about Christ's Passion, the Cross, sin, or salvation, I have my doubts (for example, see if you can find any mention of Jesus, the Cross, sin, salvation, etc. in this lengthy Beliefnet.com interview with Osteen).
Meanwhile, his best-selling book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living At Your Full Potential, isn't any better, focusing on these 7 points, all meant to "put you on a journey to a brighter future": 1) Enlarge Your Vision, 2) Develop a Healthy Self-Image, 3) Discover the Power of Your Thoughts and Words, 4) Let Go of the Past, 5) Find Strength Through Adversity, 6) Live to Give, and 7) Choose to be Happy. This is essentially Norman Vincent Peale territory; in fact, Joel Osteen seems to have a lot in common with Peale. Although it doesn't mention Peale, a recent post over at InternetMonk.com comparing Osteen to Charles Spurgeon highlights the comparison, especially the relentless emphasis on being upbeat, happy, and successful. Commenting on Osteen's first sermon in the former Compaq center, Evangelical Michael Spencer writes:
Osteen talked about his father. A lot. A whole lot. He talked about dreams. He talked about dating his wife. He talked about a church that would teach people to be champions. He said God's favor is on Lakewood and on all those who attend there. He talked about Lakewood's diversity. He told, again, how he didn't want to be the pastor. He was positive. Funny. Grateful to God. Likeable. Upbeat. He made you feel good.
Jesus Christ, the savior of sinners? The Gospel of salvation? The cross of Jesus Christ? Salvation by grace, through faith by Christ? As usual, Osteen had nothing to say about these matters. Once again, he sounded like a motivational speaker, encouraging his audience to stay tuned to Lakewood and get in on the miracle favor of God that is obviously on tap.
Spurgeon talked about the Gospel and the Savior. Osteen talked about turning out champions in life.
And that, I think, is the whole point: Osteen is a talented motivational speaker who happens to have started out as a pastor but was never comfortable with the more demanding elements of Christian faith, theology, and practice. Which is why, in large part, he has been so successful: there are a lot of people out there who want to be motivated, be told nice things, and hear inspiring stories, but without much fuss about discipleship, death to self, taking up the Cross, suffering for Christ, and so forth. But don't take my word for it — let Karen Beld, a Catholic and "an Osteen fan who owns the pastor's book and one of his cassettes for her car", explain:
"My family watches Joel every Sunday morning before we go to 10 o'clock Mass," says Beld, a 43-year-old homemaker in Braintree, Mass. "He's uplifting and positive. It's not like you're doomed to death. He makes you realize that no matter what you've done, God forgives you. I need that in my life right now."