With the close (for now) of the Prosperity Preachers series, I deemed it a good time to pause for reflection. But there's another reason to pause, too, and that happens to be an assignment I was given by the Christian Research Journal this past few weeks.
It was a very interesting assignment. I was asked to read books by non-Christians who decided to take in a "Biblical" or "Christian" experience. I'll mention just one by title: A. J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically, which is about how a journalist tried to live by the Bible's laws for a full year.
I won't spoil the article by telling you more about it than this, which relates to the Prosperity Preachers series: All of the authors, to some extent, had an eye on Christians as part of their experiment. And with that in mind, it brings to the fore an important matter when it comes to the Prosperity Preachers.
In Osteen, Meyer, and Jakes, I found three very popular teachers who are not living up to their Biblical responsibilities as teachers. While I did not find them to be as guilty of error as they are often charged to be, it was bad enough that even their teachings which were not in error were essentially pablum.
We have already noted the damage this can cause within the church. A question also to consider is: What do these teachers, and their popularity, say to those outside the church?
This hit home especially when I got this message from a gentleman named Darrin Rasberry, who is a professed ex-Christian, though not one given to hostile expressions after the manner of Dan Barker. (Update Jan. 2013: Darrin became a Christian again a few months later.) He gave me permission to use these comments, which are as follows:
I don't know if you remember that it was running headling into Calvinism that challenged my faith a dozen years back, but in retrospect, I think I should change my opinion. It wasn't a foreign and seemingly hostile Biblical hermeneutic that made me abandon Christianity when I was 18 - it was the awful "preparation" that I had for it in the services, Sunday schools, and espectially "special paid speakers" that sounded exactly like THIS GUY: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LYKa9E1xzao If you don't feel like looking at a Youtube today, search out Rob Bell. I can say, in all honesty, that people like him are the reason (ultimately) that I was unprepared for challenges and ended up blowing over like a house of straw. And I believe it's the reason there are so many God-hating, science-worshiping dunderheaded atheist apostates (like I used to be) who don't know a bit about respect or theology today.
As it happened, of course, I had already heard of Rob Bell before. He is of that species of "emergent" teachers, and though not the worst of all of them (Brian McLaren occupies that dubious position), he is bad enough -- and like all emergents, he tries to avoid answering questions, especially about things related to doctrine and facts of the faith, as much as possible.
Bell is of course not one of the "prosperity preachers," but the lesson from Darrin's message to me applies just as much to these, for they are no more apt to deal with serious questions than Bell is. We have seen Osteen embarrass himself (and the church) with his inability to comment on Mormonism. We have seen Meyer do the same with equally embarrassing displays of ostentation, and with a defiant refusal to be corrected. We have seen Jakes do the same (and come closest to an "emergent" attitude) with his (perhaps unwitting) espousal of a heretical view of the Trinity, and a stated refusal to get involved in matters of doctrinal dispute.
The question: How many Darrins or near-Darrins will it take for us to stop giving Osteen, Jakes, and Meyer prominence as teachers? Why are they even popular at all?
The obvious answer is that these teachers make their viewers feel good about themselves -- they provide viewers and readers with "hits" of emotional highs, analogically similar to dealers dispensing cocaine. If this seems a harsh analogy, it is not. Platitudes and emotional highs can be as therapeutic and addictive as any physical drug. Moreover, as drugs can become a substitute in the addict's life for something more nourishing (food, for example), so likewise the teachings of these preachers can become a substitute for deeper and more profitable teachings.
The teachers alone are not to blame, by far. They have a roster of highly receptive viewers, donors, and church members who encourage them to be, and remain, what they are. Our own brethren (and alleged brethren) are trading away sound doctrine for this mess of pottage. It happens on the national level, and it happens on the local level: Here where I live, not 5 miles away, there is a church with thousands of attendees, with a "pretty boy" pastor who delivers sermons that might as well have come from Osteen, except they're more organized -- and this is a Southern Baptist church, mind you.
What can be done? It may be that some of us will have to start churches of our own. Obviously we can continue (and heighten) informational campaigns. If it gets bad enough, we may have to do things like confront these mega-teachers if they won't change. If an organization like "Soulforce" is doing what they do for something like homosexuality, can we do any less for something that is rotting the church from within?