Ok, so there's been a lot of hullabaloo surrounding the Osteen Empire following the viral spread of a video showing Victoria Osteen putting on a clinic of how to insert your foot into your mouth. Of course, the theological landscape has been ablaze with blogs, articles, and status updates decrying the Osteens as "heretics," "liars," and "probably responsible for all the world's problems." Okay, maybe that last one is a bit of an overreaction...
This got me to thinking, and there's a few things I'd like to address in light of "Happy-gate 2014."
1. This is nothing new for the Osteens.
I can only assume from the reactions I've seen that some people have simply never heard of the Osteens before, or if they had heard of them, they have never bothered to look into their theology (or lack thereof) or their practices. If they had bothered to investigate them, if only briefly, they would know that this kind of message is business-as-usual for the Gospel-according-to-Osteen. A quick glance at his page on Amazon shows that the words "You" or "Your" appear 15 times in the titles of his top-12 best-selling books, while the word "God" appears once, as does "Bible," while "Jesus" and/or "Christ" are completely absent. What does this tell me? That Joel and Victoria are much more interested in "you" getting to know more about "you" than they are interested in God. In the Gospel according to Osteen, life is all about "you," so why shouldn't worship also be? Cue my lack of surprise when I saw the video diminishing God's importance in the act of worship.
2. Prosperity Gospel works for a reason.
Well, actually two reasons. 1) It is the natural evolution of theology in an American culture that has become completely self-obsessed. Turn on daytime TV one day or look at the cover of a magazine and tell me I'm wrong. Everything is about "How to lose those 5 pesky pounds" or "How to go from poor to powerful," so why wouldn't churches try to follow suit? The Osteens have tapped into the reality that most people really aren't that interested in anything outside themselves, and they've managed to turn selfishness into a religion. Instead of living the difficult life of a disciple of Christ, you can follow 3 easy steps and begin the waterfall of blessings from God. Who doesn't want that?! This attracts a lot of people, but it's not the only reason Prosperity Gospel is thriving.
The other reason I see is 2) For the millions of persons living in poverty in America, false hope is better than no hope. Now, I'm not saying the Prosperity Gospel is good for those in poverty, in fact I think it's incredibly harmful, but I am saying if you are in poverty, the Prosperity Gospel is an easy sell. "If you pray a little more, go to church a little more, and (most importantly) give a little more, God will grant you blessings like you've never known." And when those blessings don't come? "Don't lose faith now, the blessings are right around the corner, just keep praying, attending, and giving."
3. We can learn something.
The Prosperity Gospel drives my ministry friends crazy, and it makes me furious, to be sure. But then I have to wonder, what are we, the mainline & evangelical churches, saying to the millions in poverty and the millions more who hate themselves and the lives they live? What truth are we proclaiming? What hope are we offering? Because clearly people are hungry for hope, thirsty for something to help them get through their difficult days, and I can't shake the feeling that Prosperity Gospel works, in part, because mainline & evangelical churches remain largely silent on the subjects of poverty, depression, and self-loathing. While it might be easier for me to simply throw stones at the Osteen empire, the more challenging and ultimately life-giving response would be to look critically at my own ministry and ask the difficult questions. The reality is, you can be a church that focuses on God, but ignores the difficult realities of life. You can be a pastor that offers theologically-sound teaching, but not hope to hopeless. The Gospel is, has, and always will be the Good News that asks us to "take up your cross," yet also to "take heart." We must be willing to offer Gospel-centered responses to those things that occupy the lives of so many. We, myself included, cannot speak out against Victoria Osteen if we are not also willing to speak out on the subjects that matter most to our communities.
Even if it lands us on YouTube.