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The Celebrity Pastor & the Divinity Student

The influence of the celebrity "prosperity gospel" pastor extends beyond theology and includes an approach to ministry.

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