Impressions from Osteen’s Night of Hope
I’ve heard a lot about Joel Osteen. You probably have too. If you’re in the church world for long, then, sure as potlucks and committees, his name is bound to come up as you journey the pilgrim pathway. Some say the pastor of America’s largest church is like Jesus with flawless, gel-covered curls. Others say he’s the devil in disguise, preaching a false message that tickles people’s ears but leads them away from the truth. Me being a rather curious United Methodist pastor, I decided to go see for myself, along with a couple new friends who were kind enough to let me carpool with them. Thanks to a friend at my church scoring me free tickets, we went to Bridgestone Arena in Nashville as part of Joel and Victoria’s Night of Hope tour. Here are some of my thoughts on the event:
What I Enjoyed
There were many positives I took away from the experience. I enjoyed seeing the diversity of the worship team. Men and women of different ethnicities were on the stage, the music was dynamic and celebratory in tone, and their musicianship was top notch. Osteen was able to draw a diverse crowd. I noticed a good mix of African Americans and white people as I scanned the audience, and I even sat next to an Asian couple. In Alabama, it’s a rarity to have a significant presence of different ethnicities at church gatherings. Osteen’s ministry has the boon of communicating across racial lines and empowering people of different ethnicities. I also appreciated how both men and women were enabled to preach—Victoria and Joel taught from the stage—which embraces the Bible’s vision of women and men ministering in the Spirit’s gifts. The production quality was excellent—all the videos were high definition and artsy. The Osteens also have a partnership with World Vision, and a significant plug was given for sponsoring children and families living in poverty in third world nations. World Vision does vital work, and I’m glad the Osteens lend their publicity and influence to benefit World Vision’s mission. Also of note: there was an appeal to the importance of the Bible before Joel’s main message, people on the stage regularly confessed the power of Jesus as our risen Lord, Joel invited people to accept Jesus as their Lord and Savior at the end of his message, and he encouraged people to get plugged in to local churches in their area. Joel is a very gifted speaker, whose pace is very easy to follow, he tells a lot of good stories, and he has learned to preach right into the camera so it looks like he’s staring straight into the soul of everyone looking at the screen. In short, there were many good things to take away from the night.
There were also some concerns I had about the night.
Separating God’s Power from God’s Purpose
Joel’s message was based on Gideon in Judges 6-7, how even if it looks like the odds are against us, God can give us a breakthrough no matter the chances. He regularly made mention of “pursuing our dreams,” of “stirring up the gifts within us” so that we can pursue our best life. His focus appeals to the self-serving side of us, putting our dreams and aspirations in the driver’s seat with God being another tool at our disposal in the pursuit of our ideal selves. I did not hear much about God’s dreams for our world, nor do I remember hearing much about the Lordship of Jesus Christ over our lives. Yes, God can best the odds of any difficult situations put before him, but he does it according to his purpose, not ours. We can’t disconnect the power of God from the purpose of God. The examples he used in his talk were of people becoming stars—a pizza delivery guy who became an NFL player, a kid in the foster care system who grew up to be a country music artist, and a woman who earned a very selective scholarship to a prestigious institution. Couple these stories with Joel’s celebrity pastor status, and it seems like the unspoken message is that your best life is a life of fame and fortune. The reality is, God’s purpose for most of us probably doesn’t involve us becoming a celebrity, getting uber rich, and having tons of power. It might look like humble service.
No References to Sin?
Another concern I have heard others raise about Joel is he does not talk about sin all that much. If my ears and memory serve me correctly, he never mentioned sin throughout the night, instead preferring to talk about failure and being held back from our potential, which can be some of the effects of sin. I’ve had sermons where I haven’t talked about sin all that much either, but I still very much believe it’s a reality. I’m not sure where Joel is on this in his preaching, but if he never talks about sin, that is problematic. Sin pervades our world, and, if we’re honest, it often more present in our lives than we like to admit. If our view of the Christian life does not come to grips with the reality of sin, then we are living a truncated, unbiblical vision of the faith that isn’t going to reflect reality very well. In fact, some of our dreams of success, of being the celebrity, of being the star that everyone adores, cheers, and serves, though deeply wrapped in the American psyche, can actually lead to sin. Jesus’ attitude during his earthly ministry was not “How much fame and adulation can I get while pursuing my dreams,” but “How can I best love and honor my Father and serve others?” (Mat 20:28; John 13:12-15). Instead of God cheering us on toward all of our dreams, God might judge some of our dreams as damaging, misguided, perhaps even evil. Calling people to Christ without calling them to recognize and deal with sin will not set them up for the fullness of God’s desires for life.
Prayer, Healing, and the Danger of Universalizing Personal Experience
Earlier in the night, Joel told a story about his mom, Dodie Osteen, getting diagnosed with metastatic liver cancer in 1981. He recounted hearing that the doctors had given her only a few weeks to live, and he remembered seeing how yellow she was turning due to jaundice. Dodie surrounded herself with pictures from earlier in her life when she was healthy, and she prayed for healing and visualized herself getting well, just like she was in the pictures. Eventually, Dodie was healed and the cancer was gone, despite near impossible odds. Later, Dodie came out onto the stage and said what God had done for her, he could do for you. Just keep praying in faith and visualizing your body getting healthier.
I celebrate how God miraculously worked in Dodie’s life. I fully endorse God’s power for miraculous healing and the gifts of the Holy Spirit for today. But sometimes, no matter how much you pray and how much faith you have, you don’t get healed.
What made this example so personal for me is that my mother recently died from liver cancer on October 25 of this year. My wife and I prayed for my mother’s healing ever since we learned the cancer had spread to her liver and other parts of her body in 2015. My mother prayed and fought to get well the whole time. We had people in our local church praying for her. We had friends all over the nation who were praying for her. But she didn’t get better. She died.
I don’t know why things played out the way they did for us, and I won’t pretend to solve all the mysteries of death, suffering, and God’s will. But I don’t think Mom’s death happened because we didn’t have enough faith in God or Mom didn’t visualize and pray hard enough for her health. I take a lot of comfort in reading about David’s unanswered prayer (2 Samuel 12:15-23), about Jesus’ unanswered prayers (Mark 14:32-42; John 17), and about Paul’s unanswered prayers (2 Corinthians 12:7-12). Teaching people that if you believe hard enough, God will make you well is insufficient and can set people up for shattered expectations and an extra layer of guilt on top of grief–“Did I not have enough faith?” While I celebrate God’s healing power in Dodie’s life and know others who have experienced God’s miraculous healing, taking your experience and universalizing it can be dangerous.
All in all, I was grateful for the experience and the chance to see a big name speaker in the American church world. Joel has a lot of strengths and there is much that I learned from him. I can see how his message appeals to people going through struggles and who feel like life is pushing them down. Joel is right to highlight that Christianity is a positive religion. God is a good Father who gives good gifts. Jesus cares for us deeply and watches over our lives. We are better people when we follow Jesus, or at least we should be. It’s even in our best interests to follow Jesus. But sometimes following Jesus can lead to suffering and delaying gratification in order to choose a later, greater good. Following Jesus calls us toward humility, toward loving and serving others, toward simplicity and generosity with our possessions. It doesn’t guarantee all our dreams will come true or that our life will be easy. Sometimes we have to lose our lives to find true life in Jesus Christ, which really is living our “best life now.”
It can be unfair to evaluate someone based on one sermon (we preachers know this), so I acknowledge I could be wrong. Some of my concerns might be put to rest if Joel was given the opportunity to give a fuller exposition. Still, I share these as my impressions after the Nashville Night of Hope. But I haven't shared everything about that night. At the end of the service, several people stood up to give their lives to Christ after Joel’s message. He directed them to get plugged in to local churches in the area and to start reading the Bible and praying. There were multiple children and families who got sponsored through people partnering with World Vision. Some of the people were saying they felt inspired as we were leaving. If that had happened at my church, well I’d say we’d had an amazing day. I pray that Jesus continues to use and guide Joel Osteen, and I celebrate that people are coming to follow Jesus through his ministry.