Osteen illustrates nondenominationalizing of U.S. religion, says church historian

Joel Osteen is either the future of American evangelicalism or an illustration of its captivity to a form of religion more akin to American enterprise than Christian theology, says Bill Leonard.

By Ken Camp

Megachurch Pastor Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in Houston offer a high-profile case study in the “nondenominationalizing” of 21st century evangelical American religion, says church historian Bill Leonard.

Osteen manages to be “modern and postmodern, traditional and experimental, in his approach to the church and the gospel itself,” and his congregation may represent a bridge between how American evangelicalism has reached one generation and what it may become as it attempts to reach the next, said Leonard, the James and Marilynn Dunn Professor of Baptist Studies and professor of church history at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Texas sponsored a lecture by Leonard at Texas Christian University’s Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas.

Osteen Church“Joel Osteen is an ecclesiastical phenomenon — an American, evangelical, charismatic, postmodern, megachurch, media-savvy, health/wealth motivational speaker, gospel preacher phenomenon,” he said.

Leonard characterized the 40,000-member Lakewood Church as “one of the most mega” of American megachurches, as well as one of the most racially diverse congregations in the nation. Osteen inherited the mantle of leadership at the church from his father, John Osteen, but he grew it exponentially through a combination of marketing techniques, motivational entrepreneurship, charismatic worship and positive-thinking preaching, he said.

“Osteen himself seems made for the media, a new generation of televised, Twittered preachers — razor-thin, self-effacing, pragmatic and guileless to a fault. I call him ‘Tom Sawyer with mousse,’” he said.

Osteen typically begins his sermons by holding up the Bible and affirming its full authority, he said, but his motivational messages focus on personal improvement and positive thinking.

Leonard noted Osteen’s 2005 interview on CNN with Larry King, in which he affirmed repentance and faith in Christ as the basis for salvation. However, Osteen insisted he does not dwell on sin and guilt because the people at his church arrive already feeling burdened and broken by failure, and he wants to encourage them to discover their God-given potential. Furthermore, when pressed to answer questions about the eternal destiny of people who follow other religions, Osteen said he could not presume to “know the mind of God.”

“Joel Osteen is either the future of one powerful segment of American evangelicalism or an illustration of the captivity of evangelicalism to a form of popular religion more akin to American enterprise than Christian theology — a motivational speaker for Jesus,” Leonard said.

“Yet, his influence is so widespread and his national reputation so significant that he and his church cannot be overlooked by students of contemporary religion. … Osteen represents something of a bridge between the second-generation megachurch and the relatively new emerging-church movement. He is at once modern and postmodern, traditional and experimental, in his approach to the church and the gospel itself.

“Because of that, Lakewood Church clearly reflects the nondenominational tendencies of much of American Protestantism — a phenomenon in which congregations distance themselves implicitly or explicitly from traditional denominational alliances, with some even creating in one church a mini-denomination that incorporates many of the services once provided by denominational networks.”

Denominations in the United States find themselves “in a state of permanent transition — realigning, reassessing, reconfiguring and coming apart in a variety of ways,” Leonard noted. While denominations remain one way religious communities organize themselves, congregations increasingly disconnect or distance themselves from them, and fewer individual Christians think of their religious identity in terms of a denominational label, he noted. Many churches that remain a part of denominations minimize those relationships — particularly in how they name themselves.

billleonardmugAt the same time, an increasing number of Americans characterize themselves as religiously unaffiliated, he added. While many remain open to spirituality, they reject religious membership and may seldom participate in religious services.

Megachurches offer one alternative to traditional denominations. Leonard defines a megachurch as “a congregation of several thousand members led by a charismatic pastor/CEO who is often the centerpiece of the church public persona, providing specialized ministries for targeted constituencies and organized around intentional marketing techniques.”

These “full-service faith communities” have adapted their methods — and sometimes their messages — to contemporary culture as a way to reach unchurched spiritual seekers, and they have influenced many denominationally connected congregations whose leaders have attended their conferences or read books by their ministers, he observed. However, as founding pastors approach retirement, some megachurches struggle to retain members, maintain funding for programs and transmit spiritual identity to a new generation.

Emerging churches offer another alternative to denominations, Leonard said. These congregations blend ancient and modern traditions, stress participatory worship, appeal to postmodern sensibilities that question authority, and emphasize localism, regionalism and individualism.

In light of the changing landscape, Leonard offered several suggestions for congregations and the ministers who serve them:

• Reaffirm identity. Rather than adopting generic Christianity, congregations should find a place to stand theologically. He suggested a “hospitable traditionalism” that helps people develop their Christian identity but that turns outward to the world rather than inward.

• Be shaped by localism. Nurture identity and spirituality in the context of a specific community.

• Reclaim rituals. These include local rituals that mark a congregation’s distinctive identity, as well as global rituals — the Lord’s Supper and baptism, observance of Advent, Lent and Easter — that unite Christians around the world and connect them to the past. Regular affirmation of church covenant offers a starting point for creating congregational identify and cultivating community, he suggested.

• Reconsider the importance of dissent. “Congregations might rethink the role of dissent and conscience as a source for its voice in the public square,” he said.

• Affirm pluralism and particularism. Faith communities can celebrate a pluralism that gives voice to everyone but does not demand that one particular approach to faith and practice be granted privilege in society, Leonard said.

• Develop signature ministries. Congregations should discover or reaffirm those ministries they do best or that their communities need most, while being willing to “let go” of those that have ceased to serve any purpose, he said.