God wants you to be a millionaire

osteenI have a friend, and former editor, who used to watch televangelists with a drinking buddy. They would come home from a night on the town and keep drinking while watching CBN or some other preacher network. It was all fun and games until one night they accidentally donated $50 to Pat Robertson. The good news is that they realized they needed to cut back on their drinking. I confess that I also like to watch televangelists while imbibing. And one of my favorites is Joel Osteen. I have been watching the ubiquitous preacher for years now, waiting for him to say anything uniquely Christian. If you watch him, you'll know he has GREAT NEWS where other preachers just have Good News. Did you know God wants you to be wealthy and get a great-looking spouse? It's true. Did you know God wants you to get a killer job and a fast car and the respect of your peers? True again.

Osteen is everywhere. His book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, sold more than 3 million copies. He packs the former Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play, with 40,000 devoted fans every week. The New York Times' Ralph Blumenthal wrote a fascinating profile of Osteen, who just signed a huge contract for a new book, possibly as much as $13 million.

"You know what, I've never done it for the money," he said in an interview after Sunday's service, which he led with his glamorous wife and co-pastor, Victoria. "I've never asked for money on television." But opening oneself to God's favors was a blessing, he said. "I believe it's God rewarding you." . . .

Or, as he also puts it: "God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner."

He is not shy about calling on the Lord. He writes of praying for a winning basket in a basketball game, and then sinking it; and even of circling a parking lot, praying for a space, and then finding it. "Better yet," he writes, "it was the premier spot in that parking lot."

The article is all about Osteen's teaching of the prosperity gospel, so it includes a lot of details about money. He shows how much money Osteen brings in at each week's services ($1 million), how much money via mail ($20 million), the size of his staff (300), how much it cost to turn the Compaq Center into a church ($95 million) and the state of the church's financial statements (notable for their accountability). The most interesting detail by far is that the church put a globe instead of a cross in what would be the apse.

What's nice is that Blumenthal treats Osteen respectfully while giving a voice to Osteen's critics:

In "Your Best Life," Mr. Osteen counsels patience, compassion, kindness, generosity and an overall positive attitude familiar to any reader of self-help books. But he skirts the darker themes of sin, suffering and self-denial, leading some critics to deride the Osteen message as "Christianity lite."

"He's not in the soul business, he's in the self business," said James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of a forthcoming Simon & Schuster book on megachurches: "Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to in Your Face."

"There's breadth but not too much depth, but the breadth is quite spangly, exciting to look at -- that's his power," said Dr. Twitchell who called Lakewood "the steroid extreme" of megachurches. He said church critics fault Mr. Osteen for "diluting and dumbing down" the Christian message, "but in truth," he said, "what he's producing is a wild and alluring community."

The article is really interesting and informative, and I'm sure Osteen's fans and critics would both agree. I would have liked a bit more comparison between Osteen's theology of glory and the theology of the cross, but that it was alluded to at all is a great start.

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