I want to be clear. I am not a fan of Joel Osteen. So before you fire off emails expressing your shock and horror that I would listen to him, let me explain why I wrote this blog.
Like many of you I have always wondered why so many people find Osteen appealing. Why do thousands of people attend his church and millions tune into his broadcast each week? Is it his corny jokes at the beginning of every sermon? Is it his big (and seemingly fake) smile? Is it his Texas drawl? Does he use some communication secret that eludes the rest of us? I don’t get it. Many of the old ladies in my church think he is wonderful.
Recently I made a critical comment about Osteen on Facebook. A guy jumped all over me and said, “Pastors could learn a lot from Joel Osteen.” When I read his comment it occurred to me that I had never watched one full sermon by Joel Osteen. I can’t cringe for that long. So I got on YouTube and pulled up a couple of his sermons and watched them. It wasn’t pleasant, but I survived. As I watched I made some observations:
The prosperity gospel smells but sells
Although Osteen does not overtly preach the prosperity gospel, it is very much alive and well in his sermons. It is clear that Osteen believes that if you are faithful to God you will be rich, healthy, and people will like you. After all, just look at him!
If you want to grow a mammoth church, start telling people that if they obey God they will get everything their heart desires. That always draws a crowd (and sells tons of books!). You might not be able to sleep at night, but they have medications for insomnia.
Calvinism is everywhere
Osteen is also not explicit with his Calvinism, but it is subtly weaved into his messages. Osteen believes we can all relax because “everything happens for a reason,” thanks be to God. Up front I need to tell you that I am a United Methodist minister, so my theology is deeply Wesleyan. I believe Calvinism is the great epidemic in the church today. It has infiltrated just about every evangelical tradition. Even churches whose history shows a strong opposition to Calvinism proudly proclaim it from their pulpits. If you asked them if they believed God orchestrated 9/11, they would deny it, but their theology leads to that conclusion.
Why is Calvinism so popular? Because it’s easy! You don’t have to struggle with questions or doubt. This is why The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren was such a smash hit. It reeks of Calvinism. Now I know I will get emails for that, but it’s the truth. Yes, the book has done a lot of good and God has used it. Heck, I have even quoted it a few times but we must be very careful with the Calvinistic theology in that book.
Some listeners don’t want authenticity
Authenticity is the buzz word in our malaise of tips for reaching the “none” and “millennial” generations. Gurus tell us ad nauseam that in order for us to reach the unchurched we must be authentic. I believe that, but Osteen’s success shoots holes in that strategy. The cheesiness of Osteen that makes me cringe is the very thing many people eat up. What are we to learn from that?
Maybe one lesson is that people want an escape from the realities of life. Osteen provides that escape, disguised as a sermon. I would be curious to know the median age of those who attend Lakewood Church and watch their broadcast on TV. Those stats may be out there. If they are please share them with me. It would be interesting know if Osteen is effective with the millennial generation.
There are coaches and marketing geniuses behind Osteen
It is hard not to believe that Osteen has a team of gifted people who are handsomely paid to coach, market, and write for his ministry. Some folks have even suggested that he has a team of ghost writers that write his sermons and books. I don’t have any proof of that, but when watching his broadcast it does cross my mind. After all, presidential candidates are really the product of a team of gifted marketers and spin doctors. I am sure there is a formula for Osteen’s success. It certainly would be fascinating to be a fly on the wall when Osteen’s brain trust sits down to talk strategy.
People love stories
When I analyze Osteen’s sermons strictly from a communicator’s perspective, I relearn the power of story. His sermons are saturated with clever anecdotes and inspiring stories. His theology aside, Osteen is smart enough to know that stories capture the attention of listeners. It is something to keep in mind. Whatever your preaching style or theology, telling stories will always be an effective communication tool.
Hope is important
I have been pretty hard on Osteen. I am sure if I went to dinner with the guy he would be fun to hang out with. At the end of the day he is a Christ follower, even though I disagree with much of his theology. Although we come to the faith in two very different ways Osteen reminds me that hope is a core virtue and belief of Christianity, even if he does often couch it in positive thinking. He will never be criticized for not having a word of hope in his messages.
This should be a lesson to us. Do our messages convey hope? I am not supporting Osteen’s theology but we must never forget that people are starving for hope and Jesus is the help and hope of the world. Do our messages express the hope we have in Jesus Christ?
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