The Osteen factor

Osteen_coverLouis Romano hits where it hurts in his profile of Joel Osteen in Sunday’s Washington Post by closing on what Osteen would call a negative note:

Indicating his priorities, Osteen’s first hire was the music director, Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff. She and songwriter Israel Houghton create all the original music for the service. “I just think we’re in a society these days that we’re so distracted or busy. . . . It’s harder to hold people’s attention,” Osteen said. “We try to package the whole service — I hate to use the word production or show.”

He knows that some people just come for the music. And that is a good thing, he said. Whatever gets them in the door.

Osteen has been on my mind recently because I recently read through his besteller, Your Best Life Now, for a future review in Christianity Today. Like Norman Vincent Peale before him, Osteen places a heavy emphasis on being “positive” rather than “negative.” Here’s how Romano describes Osteen’s positive mental attitude creed:

Osteen, 41, does not sweat or yell, or cry for sinners to repent. He preaches an energetic, New Age gospel of hope and self-help — simple Scripture-based motivational messages, notably devoid of politics and hot-button policy issues.

The strongest portion of Romano’s 1,900-word story is this description of the tensions between megachurches and sacramental congregations:

“Joel is doing it better than most,” said William Martin, a sociology professor and religion expert at Rice University. “He is purposely seeking to lower the barriers that keep people from going to church. They don’t know the hymns; they don’t have to learn the creed. It’s all there for them.”

Detractors criticize the style as “Christian-lite” — all show and platitudes and no theological depth. Osteen’s older brother Paul, a surgeon who left his practice to help the church, differs. “There is a disconnect between religion and what people need,” he said, calling some sermons in traditional churches impenetrable, “almost goofy.”

“What people want is an unchurch,” Paul Osteen said. “They don’t want pressure. Joel makes faith practical and relevant.”

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  • Mark Brumley

    “There is a disconnect between religion and what people need,” Olsteen’s brother is quoted as saying in defense of “entertainment as worship” and “pep talk” as sermon.

    He’s probably right. But there is also often a disconnect between what people *need* and what they *think* they need or want. People tell themselves they need all sorts of things when in fact they don’t need them; they only want them.

    Catering to people’s desires for amusement, entertainment and success in this life may get them in the church door, but if the message they receive once they’re at church is coiffured to avoid the unpleasantness of true repentance and the challenge of taking up the cross as a disciple, then what good is it?

    It sounds as if people aren’t really being introduced to into the worship of the Church, but are being pre-evangelized in some other kind of meeting. That’s fine as far as it goes, provided they move to genuine church at some point. But a pre-evangelization pep rally shouldn’t be confused with making true disciples of Jesus and with genuine divine worship, which ultimately is about the glorification of God and the sanctification of man, not entertainment and getting artificial “needs” met.

  • Richard Hudson

    Boy do I wish I had the answer to this issue. I wonder how much time I’ve spent reflecting and discussing the proper balance in a worship service. All I can say is that a balance of some sort seems to be the way to go. Talking to the un-churched is, of course, critical; but where to do that talking? During worship? Is not worship set aside for worship?

    I enjoy this blog very much and look forward to finding help with some of these issues.

  • Joseph LeBlanc

    I was wondering if this article would make it on the GetReligion radar…

    Seeing something like this does not suprise me at all when you consider the hyper-suburban nature of cities like Houston. These people unconsciously look to find any sense of community they can amidst the endless tangle of freeways, strip-malls, and big-box stores. Super-sized, rapid growing, arena churches are the result. People merely choose the sytle much as they would a particular chain restaurant for dinner. Considering this mentality, we still must ask questions.

    How important is it for a ministry to reach a transient church-hopping population that often values entertaiment factors more heavily than spiritual growth? Are ministries like Osteen’s filling a need, or setting a level of expectation for the next “church choice”?

    I do not think that a high-production service is necessairly a bad thing. At the same time, people cannot merely attend services and expect to sustain their spiritual walk. Although Osteen does “lower the barriers that keep people from going to church,” we need to see if this leads people to take initiative for their own growth rather than sit back and be entertained.

  • Huw Raphael

    I’m amazed that so many Mega-Churches are decidely not Churches at all

  • CTImike

    Readers of this site may or may not agree with every translated word of “The Message” Bible.

    But either way, I believe this verse accurately packages my thoughts into one concise idea…

    “Don’t be flip with the sacred. Banter and silliness give no honor to God. Don’t reduce holy mysteries to slogans. In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege.

    Matthew 7:6

    Emphasis on, “In trying to be relevant, you’re only being cute and inviting sacrilege.”

    Relevance in today’s churches too often equals a lack of balance in the teaching of our LORD.

    He is good, but He is also very dangerous.

  • Bob K

    Thank you, thank all of you who have voluntarily assumed the responsibility of determining what is and isn’t “genuine divine worship”. I’m sure that the Creator is glad that He doesn’t have to worry about that aspect of creation anymore.

    Please don’t stand in judgement of others’ spirituality. I’m no longer a Roman Catholic in part because my experience was that much of the worship was formulaic and shallow in actual practice. Venerable, ancient, dripping in symbolism and ultimately sterile. I rarely felt the closeness of God.

    Your mileage may vary, and for many of the readers of this blog it obviously does. However, I’m not going to criticize the Roman Catholic church, nor faithful traditionalists who do find that the liturgy enahances their understanding and worship of the Creator.

    Why challenge the way another Chrisitan expresses their worship of the Almighty? Am I mistaken, or did Jesus do his best to remove the barriers that seperated people from God? Did He speak in the lofty phrases of Hebrew tradition, or preach the Gospel of the Kingdom of God in ways that the people could and did understand?

    Before comparing mega-church attendees to swine (see Matthew 7:6, RSV), look a few verses earlier and consider first the ‘speck’ in your own ‘eye’. (Matthew 7:3, RSV).

    In Christ,


  • greg

    If it’s okay to spend 92 million dollars to build a church, then sin is just a word.

  • Mark Brumley

    Reading through the comments, I’m tempting to respond as follows:

    Let’s all stop saying anything about anything, lest we stand in judgment of others’ experience.

    Let’s not look at what Scripture and the practice of the early Christians might tell us about divine worship and how what we seek to “get out of a worship experience” might fall short.

    Let’s not consider the wisdom acquired by holy men and women over the centuries when it comes to the spiritual life.

    When someone tells us he gets nothing out of reading the Bible but finds the Qur’an or the Bhagavad-Gita or the Upanishads spiritually invigorating, let’s accept it as a matter of his experience and therefore as something incapable of being contradicted or corrected.

    When someone says in his experience Muhammad and Buddha are more attractive spiritual figures than Jesus, let’s not suggest that there are objective criteria that might enter into assessing whether what he regards as experience is valid.

    Let’s consider the manner of divine worship to be a matter of taste, not truth, and therefore not suseptible to any sort of self-examination or thoughtful discussion.

    I know such a response would be dismissed by some folks as ironic if not sarcastic. But it seems to me exactly what is being suggested if, in principle, we aren’t allowed to question an approach to worship that treats satisfying the desires of the congregants as the primary criterion for measuring the fidelity of worship.

  • CTImike

    Bob, I stand corrected, IF, someone who attended Osteen’s church accurately understood — from the pulpit — that our LORD is both good and very dangerous.

    I haven’t heard it yet from Osteen, but I’ll admit, I don’t watch/listen to him, um… religiously.

  • Bob K

    Mark (and All)

    Thank for your reasoned and measured responses. My intent in responding here was to present the point that the _manner_ of divine worship might very well be a matter of preference — if the _substance_ of what is experienced and taught in the context of the worship is True. I’m not speaking of some etheric, mutable truth born of personal interpretation and experience. I speak of the Truth as revealed by Christ through His life, teachings, death and resurrection. Please don’t imply that I’m advocating New Age relativism – them’s (figurative) fighting words with me.

    Consider the following (widely divergent) expressions of “divine worship”:

    1. An early Quaker service, in which the entire time (lasting hours) might pass without a single word being spoken – and many of the congregation trembling – “quaking” – in the presence of the Lord.

    2. A Southern Baptist Christmas service, with an amazingly energetic gospel choir belting out “Go Tell it on The Mountain”, followed by a sermon punctuated by raucous shouts of “Hallelujah!” “Praise the Lord!”.

    3. A Korean charismatic Catholic mass (I’ve seen this myself), presided over by Roman Catholic priests, where a significant minority of the congregants were overcome by the Spirit – speaking in tongues, etc.

    4. A non-denominational Christian “outreach event”, where an “unchurched” person is moved to tears and genuine repentence in the midst of Darlene Zscheck’s “Worthy is the Lamb”.

    Which of these experiences of worship is valid? Which is not? And who are we as Christians and sinners to judge?

    One final example: I have heard that early Catholic missionaries to Polynesian cultures substituted coconut milk for wine in the context of Holy Communion, initially as a matter of necessity (the lack of readily available supplies of wine), but continuing – and here’s the kicker – because of it’s cultural relevance to the Polynesian people. If true (and I can’t vouch for it…), was this clear submission to cultural relevancy “divine worship”?

    Are there “Christianity-Lite” churches? Speaking personally, I consider the “traditional” service at my own United Methodist church to be just that. “Sin” is rarely mentioned (it makes the congregants distinctly un-comfortable). “Salvation” is generally understood to be equivalent to “Tolerance” (“Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors”). All of this to the organ-laced strains of Charles Wesley’s “Christ the Lord is Risen Today”.

    “Christianity-Lite”? Perhaps, but generalization is always dangerous. I know that I’m not qualified to be the Ultimate judge.

    In Christ,


  • jude+

    Whenever I watch Osteen, I find myself getting very uneasy. He says virtually nothing, SMILES all the time, and yet seems to ‘pack ‘em in’. I frankly do not understand.

  • Nikki

    I have read a lot of the blogs about Joel Osteen. I believe his message is good, but yes he needs to remind people to turn away from sin and to repent, to remind them to do Jesus work and to love like he wants us to love. I beleive that he needs to make God more relevant, but I also remember from what I have read of him is his inexperience. I am putting myself in his shoes, as we are told to do as Christians at that time in his life when his dad died. He was pressured into service, and he is now serving. 2 years into it, the church has grown and I do believe it is due to his obedience. No, he is not Moses, nor is he David, and he may need guidance. He may need sound counsel. I do not know the exact scripture, but are we not suppose to gently confront our brother and tell him how we feel wronged? Perhaps, all the Christians that are responding and are dissatisfied with what they are hearing in his sermons and in his books could merely do what you are suppose to do, write him and gently confront him to do better, to tell the people who listen to him the truth about the wages of sin, who we serve, who we praise and why and why we will never be worthy. Positivity and his smiling is not really the issue, and truly his message is not bad, though it takes more than a positive outlook to be a good Christian. However remaining faithful to God and remembering he is there in the midst of all storms, storms past and God is there as your rock and shall never leave you and will make sure your needs are taken care of is a good message to send as well. Remind him of that responsibility to tell God’s entire truth, reach out and tell him that if you are so inclined. Remember to treat him as you yourself would like to be treated. As I recall from my bible study, it is our Christian duty. Better yet pray for him and that he begins to include the doctrine that is clearly missing. Is that not our jobs as members of the kingdom? You know as I know that it is. Behave as the Christians you claim to be, read James again and then do what you must. Speak the truth and your concerns with love, and pray then let’s watch God work. We are in no position to change him, only God can, and seeing that he is a shepherd of God’s people irregardless of how we feel about the message he is currently sending, I know that God’s will changes things. I trust God, not man, I listen to my preacher and I read my bible to be sure that what he preached is also what God says. That is the responsibility of us all, even those memmbers of the Lakewood Church. I pray that they too begin to demand more God centered sermons. However, whether we like it or not, he is currently in a position as an appointed man of God, and it is our duty as Christians to pray for him and to also gently voice our concerns about his sermons and his congregation.