Packing Them In, But For What?
An article entitled A Church That Packs Them In, 16,000 at a Time is always going to get my attention; first because my early ministry was influenced by church-growth ideas (which I abandoned in 1998) and second because the sociology of any church that grows to such numbers always seems to carry with it interesting […]
An article entitled A Church That Packs Them In, 16,000 at a Time is always going to get my attention; first because my early ministry was influenced by church-growth ideas (which I abandoned in 1998) and second because the sociology of any church that grows to such numbers always seems to carry with it interesting Theological questions. The times article gives us an interesting picture,
“The nondenominational Lakewood Church, the nation’s largest congregation, moved into the Compaq Center, once the home of the Houston Rockets, over the weekend. After $95 million in renovations, including two waterfalls and enough carpeting to cover nine football fields, the arena now belongs to a charismatic church with a congregation of 30,000, revenues of $55 million last year and a television audience in the millions.
Like many new evangelical churches, the building has no cross, no stained glass, no other religious iconography. Instead, it has a cafe with wireless Internet access, 32 video game kiosks and a vault to store the offering.”
Lakewood and its pastor Joel Osteen have generated a lot of blogheat, largely for presenting a one-sided pragmatic and positives-oriented version of the faith. For example, Life of Bryan, My Heart Waits, The Christian Mind and Jesus Politics have thoughtful comments. However, two blogposts that stood out were Michael Spender’s Outing Joel Osteen: A Challenge to the Evangelical Blogosphere and Verbum Ipsum’s Law and Promise, which quotes a Christian Century article by Jason Byassee entitled Be happy: The health and wealth gospel,
“Osteen’s version of the gospel is full of “ifs.” If we enlarge our vision, if we choose to be happy, if we think thoughts and speak words of victory and blessing, if we give of ourselves abundantly‚Äîthen God will bless us with everything we want. The conditional nature of these sentences is telling. This is not a gospel of grace, in which God acts in spite of our lack of faithfulness to redirect our wants. Instead this is a gospel of reward in which God does nothing until we get our act together. In traditional Christian theology, Protestant and Catholic alike, we can do nothing in and of ourselves to merit God’s favor. Rather, God comes to us in Christ when we are without merit, without ability to please God and without reason to think we can be saved or helped. Such a view of grace is surely part of the grumpy theology Osteen seeks to upend‚Äîbut it is central to Christianity.”
I am keen to understand this church and its message better (e.g., what does “discover the champion with you,” something their website beckons me to do, really mean?). However, it is clear that the criticisms we find of Olsteen and the Lakewood’s approach are exactly those that have made me and others from my generation suspicious of the church-growth approach (and what it does to ministers). Again, from Byassee,
“Osteen is an easy theological target. He merits attention mostly as an unreflective exemplar of temptations all ministers face‚Äîto translate the charged political and theological language of the scriptures into a vague religiosity, or into more easily digestible categories of self-help and self-improvement. His unending smile also reminds us of the ministerial temptation of relying on personal charisma, an upbeat attitude or an eagerness to please rather than the more difficult claims of scripture.”
It is not that large churches are wrong, or that an upbeat interpretation of the faith are wrong. Rather, it just seems that when growth is the key agenda, when attraction becomes the sole focus, it is all to easy to dilute or even alter the message of Christianity. By selectively reading scripture, rejecting both deep theological reflection and historical reference points Joel Olsteen and Lakewood church are making the same mistake many relevance-seeking church growthers are prone to making; cutting themselves off from the best critiques they have of their approach, the witness of the countless believers who have followed Christ before them.