Church Historian Calls Joel Osteen ‘an Ecclesiastical Phenomenon’ – the Future of American Evangelicalism

Joel Osteen-YS

Megachurch Pastor Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in Houston offer a high-profile case study in the “nondenominationalizing” of 21st century evangelical American religion, says church historian Bill Leonard.

Osteen manages to be “modern and postmodern, traditional and experimental, in his approach to the church and the gospel itself,” and his congregation may represent a bridge between how American evangelicalism has reached one generation and what it may become as it attempts to reach the next, said Leonard, the James and Marilynn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and professor of church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas sponsored a lecture by Leonard at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas.

“Joel Osteen is an ecclesiastical phenomenon — an American, evangelical, charismatic, postmodern, megachurch, media-savvy, health/wealth motivational speaker, gospel preacher phenomenon,” he said.

Leonard characterized the 40,000-member Lakewood Church as “one of the most mega” of American megachurches, as well as one of the most racially diverse congregations in the nation. Osteen inherited the mantle of leadership at the church from his father, John Osteen, but he grew it exponentially through a combination of marketing techniques, motivational entrepreneurship, charismatic worship and positive-thinking preaching, he said.

“Osteen himself seems made for the media, a new generation of televised, Twittered preachers — razor-thin, self-effacing, pragmatic and guileless to a fault. I call him ‘Tom Sawyer with mousse,’” he said.

Osteen typically begins his sermons by holding up the Bible and affirming its full authority, he said, but his motivational messages focus on personal improvement and positive thinking.

Leonard noted Osteen’s 2005 interview on CNN with Larry King, in which he affirmed repentance and faith in Christ as the basis for salvation. However, Osteen insisted he does not dwell on sin and guilt because the people at his church arrive already feeling burdened and broken by failure, and he wants to encourage them to discover their God-given potential. Furthermore, when pressed to answer questions about the eternal destiny of people who follow other religions, Osteen said he could not presume to “know the mind of God.”

“Joel Osteen is either the future of one powerful segment of American evangelicalism or an illustration of the captivity of evangelicalism to a form of popular religion more akin to American enterprise than Christian theology — a motivational speaker for Jesus,” Leonard said.

“Yet, his influence is so widespread and his national reputation so significant that he and his church cannot be overlooked by students of contemporary religion. … Osteen represents something of a bridge between the second-generation megachurch and the relatively new emerging-church movement. He is at once modern and postmodern, traditional and experimental, in his approach to the church and the gospel itself.

“Because of that, Lakewood Church clearly reflects the nondenominational tendencies of much of American Protestantism — a phenomenon in which congregations distance themselves implicitly or explicitly from traditional denominational alliances, with some even creating in one church a mini-denomination that incorporates many of the services once provided by denominational networks.”

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SOURCE: Associated Baptist Press
Ken Camp

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