The Worship of $elf
Watch this clip. It’s Victoria Osteen, the co-pastor of Lakewood Church, the nondenominational Houston megatemple that’s America’s largest congregation. It claims over 40,000 in average weekly attendance at their church, located in a former basketball arena:
“I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God — I mean, that’s one way to look at it — we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That the thing that gives Him the greatest joy.
So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?”
When I saw that clip last week on my Facebook feed, I rolled my eyes, but I didn’t bother posting it here. This is nothing new for the Osteens. But a Baptist reader sent it to me today, and said it seems to have galvanized Protestant leaders to speak out against Osteenism. If so, good.
The Osteens are easy targets, of course, but it’s worth asking why it is that so very many people follow this pair, when their preaching seems completely opposed to the Gospel. They live in a $10.5 million, 17,000 square foot mansion. They are reportedly worth $40 million (Joel Osteen says he has not taken a salary from his church since 2005; he lives on royalties from his bestsellers, and related material).
Back in 2006, Time magazine published a cover story on the prosperity gospel. I recently found it, and was startled by this:
For several decades, a philosophy has been percolating in the 10 million–strong Pentecostal wing of Christianity that seems to turn the Gospels’ passage on its head: certainly, it allows, Christians should keep one eye on heaven. But the new good news is that God doesn’t want us to wait. Known (or vilified) under a variety of names–Word of Faith, Health and Wealth, Name It and Claim It, Prosperity Theology–its emphasis is on God’s promised generosity in this life and the ability of believers to claim it for themselves. In a nutshell, it suggests that a God who loves you does not want you to be broke. Its signature verse could be John 10: 10: “I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” In a TIME poll, 17% of Christians surveyed said they considered themselves part of such a movement, while a full 61% believed that God wants people to be prosperous. And 31%–a far higher percentage than there are Pentecostals in America–agreed that if you give your money to God, God will bless you with more money. [Emphasis mine — RD]
I knew that prosperity preaching was a big deal, but I didn’t know that it was such a big deal. More from that story:
The movement’s renaissance has infuriated a number of prominent pastors, theologians and commentators. Fellow megapastor Rick Warren, whose book The Purpose Driven Life has outsold Osteen’s by a ratio of 7 to 1, finds the very basis of Prosperity laughable. “This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy?”, he snorts. “There is a word for that: baloney. It’s creating a false idol. You don’t measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn’t everyone in the church a millionaire?”
Great line. One more bit:
Most unnerving for Osteen’s critics is the suspicion that they are fighting not just one idiosyncratic misreading of the gospel but something more daunting: the latest lurch in Protestantism’s ongoing descent into full-blown American materialism. After the eclipse of Calvinist Puritanism, whose respect for money was counterbalanced by a horror of worldliness, much of Protestantism quietly adopted the idea that “you don’t have to give up the American Dream. You just see it as a sign of God’s blessing,” says Edith Blumhofer, director of Wheaton College’s Center for the Study of American Evangelicals. Indeed, a last-gasp resistance to this embrace of wealth and comfort can be observed in the current evangelical brawl over whether comfortable megachurches (like Osteen’s and Warren’s) with pumped-up day-care centers and high-tech amenities represent a slide from glorifying an all-powerful God to asking what custom color you would prefer he paint your pews. “The tragedy is that Christianity has become a yes-man for the culture,” says Boston University’s Prothero.
This was important for me to read, I think. I am so cut off from prosperity gospel Christianity, and from Evangelicalism, that I really didn’t see that this stuff was such a threat. When I’ve seen prosperity preachers like Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and T.D. Jakes on TV, I’ve wondered, “How could anybody believe this stuff?” Well, a lot of people do, many more than I thought. I better understand what my Baptist friend was telling me a week or two ago, about how he thought Evangelicalism faced a crack-up in the near future over an inability to deal with the moral challenges of wealth and materialism.
I believe that much of Mainline Protestantism and liberal Catholicism have become yes-men for the culture, but when confronted by the popularity of prosperity and prosperity-lite forms of Christianity, it’s hard to gainsay with Stephen Prothero of BU says.
Here’s an interesting twist: you wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most people at the Osteens’ Houston church vote Republican (I don’t know if they do; I’m only saying that it wouldn’t be surprising if that were true). The idea of “prosperity gospel” and “Republican” go together in the minds of many people.
But I think it’s a safe bet to say that most people at black pastor Bishop T.D. Jakes’s Potter’s House megachurch in suburban Dallas do not vote GOP. Same deal with the crowd at World Changers Church, the magnificently named black pastor Creflo Dollar’s Atlanta megachurch (which he co-pastors with his wife Taffi). Here’s an interesting bit from a 2006 Texas Monthly story on Jakes (which is actually fairly complimentary to Jakes; he sounds like a much more grounded preacher than the Osteens, though still in the prosperity mold):
The Potter’s House is still largely a black church, reaching down to rescue the fallen and disadvantaged but devoting much of its effort to providing support and encouragement to upwardly mobile African Americans—an extremely important cultural task. It seems easier and is certainly more common for a white preacher such as Houston’s Joel Osteen to attract large numbers of blacks and Hispanics than for a black preacher such as Jakes to attract significant numbers of whites and Hispanics.
Would you have guessed that Joel Osteen pastors an ethnically diverse congregation? Texas Monthly‘s Martin said in a related interview that Osteen’s church has equal numbers of whites, blacks, and Hispanics. What I don’t know about megachurch Pentecostal Christianity is a lot. That’s a world that is so alien to me. I need to understand it better, and why it is so powerful.
Let me ask you Evangelical readers: Do you see the prosperity gospel as a threat to the integrity of your churches? Why or why not?