Osteen, Shuller, and Thermometers

I’ve recently been reading fairly extensively on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement and have been really captured by King’s personality, convictions, and commitment to endure great suffering for a cause he believed in. While I will probably say more about all that later, this morning there’s a line from King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail that seems applicable to a couple of recent news items. In April 1963 while sitting in a jail cell, King responded to white pastors’ concerns that the timing wasn’t right for protests, “sit ins,” and boycotts in the South. In the context of that letter King rebukes the church in his day by comparing it to the church in the first century: “The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.”

Two recent news stories confirm that the modern church, at least in America, often looks more like a thermometer than a thermostat in that it reflects modern values instead of transforming them. The first story, reported in the October 26th and 27th editions of the L.A. Times, informs readers that Robert H. Shuller recently removed his son (Robert A. Shuller) as the teacher on the “Hour of Power” broadcast. According to the paper,

The schism between the Rev. Robert H. Schuller and his son at Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral arose over a disagreement about broadening the church’s long-running television show, “Hour of Power,” beyond a single personality — a move opposed by the younger Schuller, pastors involved in the matter said Sunday.

But here’s the part of the story that I found interesting…

Schuller built his worldwide ministry over a half century on the psychology of positive thinking and appealing to people turned off by the formality of traditional faiths. In contrast, his son’s sermons have been full of direct references to the Bible.

“I was called to start a mission, not a church,” Schuller told his audience Sunday. “There is a difference. . . . You don’t try to preach . . . what is sin and what isn’t sin. A mission is a place where you ask nonbelievers to come and find faith and hope and feel love. We’re a mission first, a church second.”

It seems that the elder Shuller wasn’t happy that his son was acting as if the Orange County Crystal Catherdral was a church in which it was appropriate to preach from the Bible instead of focusing on positive thinking and self-esteem.

The second story is from Lisa Miller in the October 20th Newsweek. There she reviews Victoria Osteen’s new book Love Your Life with more insight that many Christians have. Of course Victoria’s husband is Joel Osteen who is the pastor of our nation’s largest church. In an article in which the title (What’s God Got to Do With It?) tells you all you need to know, she writes…

“Joel Osteen is one of the most popular pastors in the country, but both he and Victoria seem, from the outside at least, to be spiritual midgets. More than 40,000 people come to hear them preach each week in a sanctuary that used to be the home of the Houston Rockets. Millions more watch them on television. Joel’s books are best sellers, and Victoria’s new one, though arriving in stores this week, is already high on Amazon’s spiritual book list. But the theology driving all this success is thin. Over and over, in sermons, books and television interviews, the Osteens repeat their most firmly held beliefs. If you pray to Jesus, you’ll get what you want.”

And then later…

“Prosperity preachers are neither new nor unique in America, but the Osteens’ version seems especially self-serving. Victoria’s book betrays her interest in the kind of small gratifications that rarely extend to other people, let alone to the larger world. She recommends that women take “me time” every day, and indulge occasionally in a (fat-free!) ice cream. She writes repeatedly about her love for the gym. Her relationship advice is retrograde dross: submit to your man, or at least pretend you’re submitting, and then do what you want anyway. “I know if I just wait long enough,” she writes, “eventually my idea will become Joel’s idea, and it will come to pass.” When I asked her how she kept her two children interested in church, she answered that even though they were a broccoli and lean-meats household, she gave them doughnuts as a special treat on Sundays. All this is fine, in the pages of a women’s magazine or a self-help book. But what has God got to do with it?”

If the church hopes to recapture it’s rightful status as change agent (thermostat), then it must first recapture the gospel from those in the self-help movement who have hijacked it and hid it under their message of positive thinking, self-esteem, and self-improvement. What these philosophies have in common is that they put people at the center and depend on human wisdom. They are man’s attempt to solve man’s problems. The more the church’s message blends with this kind of cultural thinking, the more impotent it becomes.

But the gospel of God offers a hope that isn’t built on human wisdom or human power. It’s not built on human beings at all. In fact it says that human beings are morally and spiritually bankrupt and are therefore unable to fix themselves. The gospel is good news because it doesn’t depend on us. It’s not about what we do for God but what God does for us in Jesus. This is the gospel that changes individual lives, families, cities, and cultures. By God’s grace may we build our lives and our church on God’s gospel and not man’s.

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