Victoria Osteen made headlines across the country last week with a statement she made in church. Victoria is the wife of Joel and co-pastor with him of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, the nation’s largest congregation with an average Sunday attendance of 44,000 and an international television audience in the tens of millions. The two are arguably the highest profile church leaders in America. They’re also the best known proponents of what’s called the prosperity gospel, the belief that God wants everyone to be wealthy, healthy and happy. Their best-selling books and sold-out conferences describe how everyday people can reach that goal.
Despite the critical theological questions that more orthodox churches and leaders raise about the prosperity gospel, the Osteens have built one of the largest Christian ministries in the world. Victoria’s statement may change all that. It may also have a greater impact than she realizes on America’s larger church culture.
Here’s what she said:
I just want to encourage every one of us to realize that when we obey God, we’re not doing it for God — I mean, that’s one way to look at it — we’re doing it for ourselves, because God takes pleasure when we’re happy. That the thing that gives Him the greatest joy. So, I want you to know this morning: Just do good for your own self. Do good because God wants you to be happy. When you come to church, when you worship Him, you’re not doing it for God really. You’re doing it for yourself, because that’s what makes God happy. Amen?
When I first saw this video floating around Facebook, I almost didn’t believe my eyes. What Victoria said was so wrong, so flawed, so clearly out of place that I almost thought the whole thing had been created by a hacker.
Who would actually say—much less believe—that worship is all about us? That God’s greatest joy is when we’re happy? That what we do for God is really for our sake? How could someone forget that the purpose of creation is God’s glory? How could anyone so misrepresent God’s Word and misunderstand his character? How could anyone so blatantly ignore the first three of the Ten Commandments?
I was surprised that Joel, applauding next to her in the video, didn’t step away and create some distance between the two of them so that when lightning struck he wouldn’t be caught in the explosion.
The more I’ve thought about it, though, the more I’ve realized that this may be one of those moments in public life that changes everything. We’ve all had those moments, when somebody says or does something that brings a new perspective. Or alters our perception. Or exposes an uneasiness we’ve been harboring. Something we’ve been confused about is suddenly clear. An a-ha moment when we say to ourselves, “Now I see it!” A way of thinking or acting is suddenly brought into focus and we perceive things in a clearer light.
I think Victoia Osteen’s statement falls into that category. Her video went viral not just because of the fascination our culture has with celebrity missteps but on a deeper level because it so clearly confirmed the unease many people have with the celebrity-driven mega-church culture of our age.
I’m not criticizing Victoria or Joel. Disputing their teaching, yes. But not diminishing the awesome way God’s grace has touched untold multitudes through them. I thank Him for that. At the end of the day, all of us in ministry are broken vessels through whom God somehow reveals his mercy.
Still, when any person is placed in the kind of position as the Osteens, it’s almost inevitable that they become the face not just of the ministry but of the faith. For people coming to church, the invitation becomes “Come be inspired by the Osteens” instead of “Come be fed by the Word of God.” It’s a subtle but very powerful dynamic. The leaders’ egos become entangled with the congregation’s immaturity and creates a dysfunctional relationship that reinforces the worst instincts of each.
The result is the kind of statement that Victoria made last Sunday. She felt unencumbered by the Bible or Christian teaching and instead simply articulated the congregation’s desire to be happy. She served as their mouthpiece then received their applause. The only thing missing was the truth.
Victoria’s video pulled back the curtain and let us glimpse—briefly but unmistakably—the possible consequences of celebrity ministries and the mega-churches that support them. As her statement continues to play across the country, it will be fascinating to watch its impact.