This Sunday America’s most popular televangelist—Joel Osteen—will host America’s biggest rapper—Kanye West—at America’s largest church—Lakewood Church in Houston.
During Lakewood’s morning service, Osteen will conduct a 15- to 20-minute conversation with the hip-hop artist who recently became a “born again” Christian. Kanye will return in the evening with his 100-person Gospel choir to put on a free concert for 45,000 fans. “Kanye and Joel are friends,” a representative for the church said. “He’s been wanting to come out for some time, and it just worked out for this weekend.”
Before Kanye heads to Houston, though, there are a few things he should know about his friend. The most important is that Osteen, as Christian rapper Shai Linne famously noted, is a “false teacher.”
The apostle Paul warned, “[T]he time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Tim 4:3-4). Osteen is a mainstream example of a false teacher promoting the myth of the prosperity gospel. The essential message of the prosperity theology, Albert Mohler says, is that it’s a “theology not centered on God and his glory, but an anthropocentric psychological message aimed at making individuals merely feel better about themselves.”
Prosperity Gospel for Positive Thinkers
Osteen appeals to so many because he offers a version of the prosperity gospel that is not as crass and money-grubbing as that of other prosperity preachers, such as Paula White. Perhaps that’s because he stumbled upon the vocation of false teacher by accident.
Osteen was working for his father’s television ministry in 1999 when he reluctantly preached his first sermon. Joel’s father, John, died a few days later, and by the end of the year the 36-year-old TV producer was made the senior pastor of Lakewood Church. He’s admitted that he has no formal theological education, and that before he preached his first sermon (on TV, of course) he had no interest in being a pastor.
Maybe that’s why Osteen tends to downplay his title of pastor. He doesn’t refer to himself as a pastor in the bios of his social media or on the website of his ministry (in contrast, his wife, Victoria, is more eager to list herself as a “co-pastor”). In an interview with Larry King, Osteen said, “I see myself more as a [life] coach, as a motivator to help [people] experience the life of God that God has for them.” His books and sermons certainty give the impression that he is more comfortable with the concepts of the self-help movement than with Christian doctrine.
The Osteen version of the prosperity gospel traces its roots back to the 19th century spiritual movement known as New Thought or Higher Thought. As the Encyclopedia Britannica explains, New Thought advocates believed in the “immanence of God, the divine nature of man, the immediate availability of God’s power to man, the spiritual character of the universe, and the fact that sin, human disorders, and human disease are basically matters of incorrect thinking. Moreover, according to New Thought, man can live in oneness with God in love, truth, peace, health, and plenty.”
In the 20th century, the Christianized version of the New Thought philosophy was spread by Norman Vincent Peale, pastor at Marble Collegiate Church in New York City. Although Peale was ordained by the Reformed Church in America, he focused less on the gospel and more on “positive thinking.” Peale’s most successful book, The Power of Positive Thinking, was first published in 1952, and would go on to become one of the all-time best-selling books of nonfiction.
Since then, Peale’s philosophy has been adopted and advanced by secular gurus like Oprah and Marianne Williamson. But Peale always believed the tools of positivity—such as “positive imaging”—were most effective when connected to religion.
“It works best when it is combined with a strong religious faith, backed by prayer, and the seemingly illogical technique of giving thanks for benefits before they are received,” Peale wrotes. “When the imaging concept is applied steadily and systematically, it solves problems, strengthens personalities, improves health, and greatly enhances the chances for success in any kind of endeavor.” Peale even claimed positive imaging was taught in the Bible: “Jesus Christ himself said, ‘Therefore I say unto you, What things soever ye desire, when ye pray, believe that ye receive them, and ye shall have them.’”
New Thought for a New Era of Ear Ticklers
While Osteen brings Peale’s message into the 21st century, it’s the same Christian gloss on New Thought from a hundred years ago. A prime example of Osteen’s teaching is his sermon “Have a Positive Mindset,” where he says,
When your mind is set, positive, hopeful, expecting good things, that’s when you’ll go places that you’ve never dreamed. New doors will open. The right people, the right opportunities, will come across your path. But if you don’t set your mind, negative thoughts will set it for you. . . . Here’s my challenge to you: keep your mind going in the right direction. Learn to think thoughts on purpose, “Something good is going to happen to me; 2018 is my year.” If you’ll develop this habit of having a positive mindset, you cannot be defeated. You’ll not only live healthier, happier, have more energy, but I believe and declare you will accomplish more than you ever imagined. You will overcome obstacles that looked impossible, and you will become everything God’s created you to be. In Jesus’s name.
There is nothing inherently wrong, of course, with having a positive mindset. But Osteen’s “sermon” gives the impression that the good news is about overcoming bad times by thinking happy thoughts, rather than about how Christ overcame sin and death. The claim that by having a positive mindset you “cannot be defeated” is the gospel of Tony Robbins, not the gospel of Jesus.
No Nourishment in a Cotton Candy Gospel
This is a dangerous message, especially for new believers like Kanye who are already prone to falling for second-hand New Thought philosophy. In a video last year Kanye said everyone has an “inner divinity” and that you can “unlock [energy]—quickly—using positive affirmation.” Osteen merely offers a way to speak about such New Age nonsense using Christianese.
Some people, though, may think such concern is unwarranted. After all, can’t God use Osteen to lead Kanye and other believers to a true vision of Christ? Perhaps. But such believers need, as the writer of Hebrews says, “the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!” (Heb. 5:12).
What they don’t need is to be malnourished by feeding them what theologian Michael Horton calls Osteen’s “cotton candy gospel.” Seekers like Kanye shouldn’t be given croutons of positive thinking when they are looking for the “bread of life” (Matt. 6:35).