When Oprah Winfrey launched her OWN television network with a series of star-studded interviews, she sat down with Joel Osteen in his Houston mansion for a chat about fame, critics, money, and ministry in the public eye.
“I was reading some of the critics,” she began with a huge smile, “and I was thinking, why would anyone criticize you for preaching prosperity, because what kind of God wants you to be poor and miserable?”
“That’s how I feel!” Osteen exclaimed. “I can’t be a blessing to others if I’m poor, broke, and depressed and I don’t feel good about myself.”
Joel Osteen has certainly mastered the art of spiritual self-esteem. The man known as the “smiling preacher” leads the largest church in America. He crisscrosses the country with his wife, Victoria, leading packed conferences dubbed “A Night of Hope.” His books—Your Best Life Now, Become a Better You, and Every Day a Friday—climbed the best-seller lists, and an estimated seven million viewers tune into his weekly television broadcast. Joel Osteen is not only America’s most-watched religious figure but also one of the most powerful representatives of a new kind of pastor: the celebrity pastor and reality star.
Millions of Americans are turning to pastors like Joel Osteen for solutions, and as people who are training young pastors, we should pay attention to this trend. To be sure, few graduates of Duke Divinity School will become theological apologists for Osteen’s kind of Christianity. As a prosperity preacher, he emphasizes the use of faith as a spiritual force that turns positive speech and thought into good health, abundant finances, and mastery over all of life’s obstacles. But the prosperity gospel’s influence extends far beyond its particular theology into ways of thinking about church and ministry.
There is certainly much to admire. Unlike many historic denominations, prosperity preachers expect their churches to grow. They are determined to be relevant to a distracted culture and to spread their message as far as technology allows. They are convinced that they can effectively organize strategies that bring those dreams of growth to fruition. That the prosperity gospel dominates the upper echelon of national megachurches is a testimony to their enterprising spirit. (Though I could certainly do without church-growth manuals like R. A. Vernon’s book, Size Does Matter.)
This desire to be relevant is often revealed in their sermons, which include thoughts on topics like sex, work, entrepreneurialism, family togetherness, and child rearing. Last Sunday, for example, I heard helpful suggestions on time management. Perhaps it was not exegetically derived from Scripture, but it was definitely useful. Many people find that they enjoy a little less theological grist and a few more tips on how to make the daily grind more bearable.
But when it comes to church leadership, prosperity preachers utilize celebrity in a way that can create unhealthy models for young pastors. First and foremost, the senior pastor tends to hog the spotlight. Their likeness is everywhere. No matter how large or how small the church may be, the prosperity pastor is the primary advertisement for an emphasis on achievable results and success. In my survey of 115 prosperity megachurches, more than 80 percent used an oversized image of the pastor to market the church on their website. In fact, an omnipresent image of the pastor is probably one of the quickest informal ways to identify a prosperity preacher. If his or her picture is in the church foyer, on the bulletin, on the website homepage, and on the welcome sign, you should start to suspect that the pastor’s personality is carrying theological weight here. The trend of bare sanctuaries flanked by colossal screens only exacerbates their tendency to use a glamor shot of the pastor more often than the image of a cross.
Consider, for example, how many Christians would recognize the names Kerry Shook, Ed Young, Craig Groeschel (Jr. or Sr!), or Dave Stone? Very few, I imagine, would realize that each of these people lead one of the 10 largest churches in the United States. But names like Creflo Dollar, Eddie Long, Frederick Price, and Rod Parsley have supersized reputations with far smaller congregations. Why? Certainly it has much to do with prosperity pastors’ use of television and digital streaming to cultivate far-flung audiences. But prosperity pastors like Frederick Price are far more famous than their nonprosperity counterparts in large part because their reputations are the centerpiece of the church. People chat about Joel Osteen’s church or Eddie Long’s church or Creflo Dollar’s church, not Lakewood, New Birth, or World Changers, respectively.
Second, prosperity preachers erase any distinction between biography and apologetics. They fully expect their lives to be living proof of the prosperity gospel. Every time reporters harp on a prosperity pastor’s designer duds or personal jet, they miss the point entirely. These accoutrements of success validate that the prosperity gospel is supposed to be good news. “The gospel to the poor,” summarized televangelist Kenneth Copeland, “is that Jesus has come and they don’t have to be poor anymore!” Or as Oprah and Joel Osteen agreed, God doesn’t want you to be poor, broke, or miserable. And the job of the senior pastor is not only to tell you how but to show you how. Their beautiful families and their lavish homes and their robust health are supposed to inspire you to do better. They have a theological reason to hog the spotlight!
Prosperity pastors have become reality stars due to their propensity to use their personal lives—their style, habits, spouse, children, education, friendships, sense of divine calling, and so on—as the evidence that their message works. Churches are no longer churches but barometers for the pastor’s divine calling. Congregations bursting with activity and new building projects become ministerial necessities. In fact, when I interview former staffers of prosperity megachurches, they frequently say that they experienced pressure to inflate membership estimates to match soaring expectations. The theology of perfection leads to constant stress for many staff.
Third, prosperity preachers place a tremendous weight on their families to be just as perfect and as visible. First Families of ministry have become the new gold standard for theological leadership. The prosperity gospel teaches that people ought to be able to look at their personal lives to see whether their faith is working. This logic is amplified significantly when it comes to the pastoral family, who must hover close to perfection as a perpetual confirmation of God’s approval of their ministry.
After the televangelistic scandals of the 1980s tested the public’s confidence in stand-alone pastors, more and more male pastors began to ask their smiling wives to join them on stage as co-pastors. It made ministerial marriages into examples and testimonies. These husband-and-wife teams were a match made in heaven (albeit a rather conservative heaven). These couples would follow the precepts of male headship, upholding the husband’s spiritual oversight while encouraging women to exercise a narrower expertise. Frequently this relegated women to spiritual authority over gendered topics like self-esteem, communication of feelings, child rearing, women’s spiritual and physical health, and marital advice. Victoria Osteen, Joel’s wife and co-pastor, is the consummate co-pastor. She is a vision of blond curls and ruffled tops with DVDs and books to brand her expertise in health, beauty, self-fulfillment, and being a role model to her family. Audiences love their public relationship, and cheer as Victoria and Joel close every conference with love the couple’s public fingers interlaced in a joyful salute to the crowd.
While ministerial domesticity suits some, it creates unbearable pressure for others. When televangelist Paula White’s marriage to her husband and co-pastor, Randy, fell apart, audiences were reluctant to forgive her. During her interview with Larry King, an email question from a San Antonio viewer put the matter bluntly: “How can you preach from the pulpit regarding marriage when yours failed?” Though White replied that she was committed “never to waste my trials in life, to find purpose in all things,” many followers could not forgive such personal failings. Whole families struggle to embody the ideals embedded in the pastoral role. Recently when Creflo Dollar’s 15-year-old daughter wanted to attend a party, her argument with her famous father led to allegations of child battery and his arrest and brief detention. When every family member lives under such close scrutiny, a rumbling of teenage angst can become a powder keg. The validation of the entire ministry is at stake.
The Joel Osteens and Creflo Dollars cast a long shadow over our budding pastors. The ministerial world is dominated by celebrity pastors who invite the American public into their luxurious homes and ask them to see God at work as they take a look around. People in the pews increasingly want their spiritual leaders to account for whether they are poor, broke, or depressed. Whether they acknowledge it or not, many people expect their leaders to carry their ministries on their backs like Osteen does, centering the church on whatever special gifts or abilities they have been granted.
Our new pastors need to know that the church must not be confused with a fan base. Without question, ministry can seem like a reality show. The lives of pastors and their families are perpetually put on display for public consumption. Every aspect of their lives will be picked apart and analyzed. But however difficult, pastors must resist the temptation to use their image, their families, and their churches as the primary basis for either experiencing revelation or evaluating the gospel. We must be able to say with Paul, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). We don’t want to seek the spotlight that should be reserved for the person and work of Jesus Christ. We follow a Savior who was, after all, often both broke and brokenhearted.
The reality-show obsessed world we live in does not usually recognize righteousness when they see it. They tend to want a star they can vote for and a leader they can admire for being as successful as any baseball player or character on Jersey Shore. For that reason I will not consider it a failure if none of our graduates ever sit across from Oprah or lead a church so large that it used to be a sports arena. After all, the first and last time Jesus was put to a vote, the people picked Barabbas.