BY CHARLES WOODRUFF
On a recent Sunday morning as I was preparing for church, I had the TV on, and Joel Osteen was on the air. In case you have been on Mars for the last year and don’t know it; Joel is pastor of America’s largest congregation, the 47,000 member Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. He is author of two best selling books Your Best Life Now, and the newest (released in October 2007), Become A Better You.
Actually, though I have seen him a couple of times in brief TV interviews, and have seen his photo on books and ads, I had never viewed his program. I met his father, John Osteen, once when I was in mission work with ECL/Door of Hope. John was a Southern Baptist pastor who came to embrace charismatic views and started the church Joel now pastors. Under John’s preaching the church grew to 6000 members. John died of a heart attack in 1999. Joel stated that though he was in the church there, he had never preached in his life until one week before his father died. Upon John’s death, Joel assumed the role of pastor.
Just watching this pleasant, nice looking, energetic young man as he spoke, I wanted to like him, listen to him and not criticize him. He really seems like a “nice guy”. I listened for some good word from the scriptures, some exposition, some admonition, some doctrinal content, or at least a verse I could meditate on. Something that might help the estimated total for two services of over 40,000 people in the audience that resembled the crowd at an NFL game; or that might help his millions of TV watchers with scriptural truth. I heard -- nothing! I think Joel was just giving some highlights of his book. He was telling everyone they shouldn’t feel second rate because of lack of success. He said “God wants you to succeed”. “If you fail, don’t take it so hard -- try again”. “Always look at the positive side”.
What makes his teaching different than the Schullers, or the late Norman Vincent Peale and their “positive thinking”, or “possibility thinking” theology? They have also pastored very large churches. Basically, Osteen’s teaching seems to be the same as theirs with a “name it and claim it” charismatic edge. Lakewood Church (as of October 2007), was almost twice as big as Willow Creek Church in S. Berrington, IL pastored by Bill Hybels, or Saddleback Church in Orange County, California pastored by Rick Warren, writer of The Purpose Driven Life. (These two pastors with their “seeker sensitive” philosophy could be discussed also, but another day perhaps).
I do not know if it is this way every service for him, but when Joel got to the end of his message that Sunday morning, with almost no quotes from the word of God for his great sea of possibly 25,000 faces, he took about 30 seconds to say “if you need to trust Jesus Christ as savior, ask Him right now to come in your heart. Now you’ve done that -- you are now born again. Contact us and let us know”. So divine “magic’ here. Just a few hocus-pocus words and men are “born anew”. Such a “just prayism” gospel! Such an “easy believism” gospel! I want to tell you, my friends, that isn’t the gospel! It is not the gospel that Christ Himself preached -- or that Paul preached -- or that Peter and John preached -- or that Spurgeon preached -- or that true Bible preachers preach today. Beware! It is another gospel! “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:6,7 ESV)
Some will think me overly critical, and probably say “Who do you think you are?’ Well, I am nobody. I am not a pastor. Most of my ministry has been as a missionary, Bible teacher, evangelist and writer. Most of the large crowds I have addressed have been overseas. But brothers and sisters, is our goal simply to have a large crowd? It would be nice to have a large crowd if they mostly came with a desire to hear the gospel. John MacArthur and John Piper have pretty large congregations. There is nothing wrong with that. These two men preach the gospel of grace to their crowds. Yet, having a crowd is not to be an end in itself. Better to have a handful that love Christ, and a desire to hear the word of God and grow, than to have a huge crowd of worldlings that have to have multiple programs and entertainment to keep them coming. Remember, if entertainment brings them in, you will have to get better entertainment to keep them! If all you want is a large crowd, and the money they can give, and the fame it will bring you, you are playing games with the souls of men and women! Now hear the late Vance Havner, that old down to earth man of God on the subject of crowds.
FIGURES CAN LIE- VANCE HAVNER
Of the many delusions from which the ministry needs to be delivered today is the notion that a preacher may be judged by the size of his crowd. There are some prophets in every generation who are called and gifted for leading the multitude and attracting the throng. More power to them. But straightway we get out on a limb and conclude that every brother who is not speaking to packed houses is a failure and that something is wrong with him.
Something may be wrong with him and he should check up on himself, search his heart and take stock. But if he finds nothing after an honest inventory, then he need not get under the juniper because he is not preaching to overflow audiences. Once in a while some successful preacher is held up and this lesson is drawn: “This man gets crowds because he preaches the Gospel. If Christ is preached, the crowd will still come, for He will draw all men unto Himself." Thus the inference prevails that an unfilled house means unfaithful preaching.
Such argument is a lot of hocus-pocus. For one thing, some men who are not preaching the Gospel are having crowds for, having itching ears, men are heaping to themselves teachers and the Athenians turn out for their kind. Then, again, there are true and faithful pastors ministering to small flocks who are as consecrated to God, and sometimes more so, than some of the headliners. It is true that Christ draws, but men resist His drawing and they resist the Gospel and going to church.
Concerning the true preacher, Alexander Whyte wrote:
“He may have, he usually has, but few people, as people go in our day, and the better the preacher, sometimes, the smaller the flock. It was so in our Master's case. The multitude followed after the loaves but they fled from the feeding doctrines till He first tasted that dejection and that sense of defeat which so many of His best servants are fed on in this world. Still, as our Lord did not tune His pulpit to the taste of the loungers of Galilee, no more will a minister worth the name do anything else but press deeper and deeper into the depths of truth and life, till, as was the case with his Master, his followers, though few, will be all the more worth having."
Matthew Henry lamented over the poor response to his ministry and felt that his labors in his parish were done, since many had left and few had been added. But he still feeds us with messages not too well appreciated in his own time.
This worship of crowds is part of our Americanism, and a poor part. We are such confirmed lovers of big statistics, quantity production, and mass movement that we low-rate anything that does not run into big figures. The great god Ballyhoo has most of us on our faces, and any Hebrew children that will not prostrate themselves before him land in a fiery furnace. But in that furnace there is a fourth party “like the Son of God."
The Son of God trod this road. He had crowds at the beginning, but the closer He came to the cross, the thinner His crowd. And the closer we come to the cross and all it means, the fewer the people—but the better they are!
All of this can be twisted into an excuse for laziness on the part of some preachers who will not work. They are a different sort and must give account. But if a man be honest, right with God and men, and faithful, let him watch for souls and not for statistics. God keeps the books.
Vance Havner-excerpt from Pleasant Paths; Baker edition, 1983; now out of print; original publisher-- Fleming Revell in 1945