Positive messages and Joel Osteen type preaching

There has been a trend towards sticking to “positive preaching” and trying to avoid ever saying something that might upset the sons of this present age. Robert Schuller and Norman Vincent Peale pioneered this approach years ago, and the accolades they received from both the world and the church probably encouraged a lot of other preachers to adopt a similar strategy.

One prominent preacher today who sticks to “positive preaching” would be Joel Osteen, the smiling pastor of the largest church in America, and author of “Your Best Life Now”, a book which encourages saint and sinner alike to get richer through having a better attitude. Joel preaches sweet encouraging things to people who have been bruised by life, and of course this is very appreciated by many. Things like “if your wife leaves you the Lord can get you a better one” – I heard something very close to this on one of his TV programs I happened to be watching in passing. People have been flocking to hear Joel’s messages, and buy his books, and his large church budget definitely enables him to take his message to the world through satellite and cable TV. Joel seems like a really sweet guy. And if the goal of a minister is to have influence and make people feel happy then Joel has been doing really well. His listeners can be pretty sure that they will go away feeling better about themselves, and more upbeat about their prospects than they did before. At times this may be helpful to people. I am not saying we can learn nothing from this man. But I am going to say that a diet of this kind of preaching alone is about as healthy for your spiritual life as a diet of marshmellows and coca-cola would be to your physical body. It picks you up in the short term but leaves you malnourished over time. This sort of stuff is not really the preaching of the Word of God, but rather the preaching of self-help psychology using isolated texts from the Bible as supporting evidence. If you wish, you can read one rather insightful review of “Your Best Life Now” here.

I want you to get a clearer picture of Jesus Christ. Our Lord and Savior was not a motivational preacher in the modern sense of the word. His preaching undoubtedly did motivate some people towards righteousness and a forsaking of their own life, but it infuriated others who were unwilling to do so. Jesus said to his brothers who were urging him at the time to make a big name for himself, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates Me because I testify of it that its works are evil. “ (John 7:7) This is what we too must do (under the leading of the Holy Spirit of course) if we are to follow Jesus fully today in this wicked and adulterous generation in which WE live. We are not simply called to tell the people of the world how they can have “THEIR best life NOW” – meaning a life of health, wealth and comfort in the present age. We are to preach REPENTANCE from sIn. And the word “I” was and always will be right in the centre of “sIn”.

Think about it. Even the title “Your best life now” suggests a focus on what you can get here and now rather than what you can get in eternity by patiently enduring with Christ. The title also suggests that your life is somehow your own (“YOUR best life now”), whereas for a true Christian “you are not your own, you are bought with a price”. Does this sound too negative to you? I think it would sound very negative to someone who loves his own life more than Jesus Christ and His Kingdom. But for someone who loves Jesus and recognises who He is, the idea that we now belong to Him is very exciting, even romantic.

Yes, there are principles and attitudes you can take on which will make you feel more upbeat in life, help you to achieve some temporal ambitions and get on better with people, and make more money too, but you can find these things in many books written by non-Christian motivational speakers such as Napoleon Hill also. And probably Napoleon Hill does a better job in teaching these things, too. You can glean a lot from non-Christian authors, and no doubt many of today’s preachers have done this and adapted their ideas in their public messages. Its just that when you do, you have to be careful that you are not taking on the philosophy and values of these authors, which is often intermixed with the teachings they are giving. And such values ARE often intermixed with the teaching of many of today’s popular Christian leaders. This kind of thing cannot rightly be regarded as the faithful preaching of God’s Word.

The apostle Paul gave a parting message to the Ephesian elders, who were the leaders of congregations of churches in the city of Ephesus – at that time the term “senior pastor” did not exist. But every “senior pastor” should take note of what Paul said here if he wants to be in harmony with the heartbeat of true apostolic Christianity as Paul knew it. The whole passage is very instructive here, but I want to draw your attention particularly to Acts 20:26,27:

“Therefore I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God.”

The implication here is that as a preacher, Paul WOULD have been guilty of the blood of some people had he held back certain important pieces of information from his hearers, information that form part of the whole counsel of God. And what more relevant “piece of information” is there than the one which tells us that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) and that God will punish those who do not know God with everlasting destruction (2 Thessalonians 1:8,9)? Surely these things and the idea of “fleeing from the wrath to come”, and to “save yourself from this perverse generation” (Acts 2:40) form an important part of the counsel of God to people today! We HAVE TO warn people. And how can we call a people who have little idea of God’s meaning of the word “sin” or perversion to forsake their sins and perversions? Its very hard if you never stop to explain what it is that people must turn away from.

Paul said, “Therefore watch, and remember that for three years I DID NOT CEASE TO WARN everyone night and day WITH TEARS.” (Acts 20:31). Its very convenient to tell people to merely turn away from self-defeating negative thinking – very few would really persecute you for saying THAT – but God calls us to turn away from SELF period. As true servants of God we are not calling people to improve themselves through the powers of the mind. We are calling people to follow Jesus. And that means saying “no” to ourselves, take up our crosses and walk as He walked (Matthew 16:24; 1 John 2:6). And, like Paul, we ought to WARN people, including Christians, without ceasing, concerning the dangers of sin. And yes, let us do it WITH TEARS.

There would have been pressure on Paul to refrain from saying certain things which would offend his listeners. In Paul’s day it was offense to preach that a crucified outcast Jewish preacher was the Son of God who died in their place, through whom they must be saved. It was deeply offensive to tell religious Jews that despite all their religious works they were guilty of crucifying the Son of God; that they were lost and condemned before God! Paul was not “winning friends and influencing people” in his approach to these religious people.

I think there is a place for Christian motivational speakers, but it is not to ply their trade in the congregation of the people of God representing what they offer as the “word of God’s grace which is able to build you up and give you an inheritance amongst those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).
If someone is truly called to be a pastor they cannot ignore the instructions and exhortations of the apostle Paul to the pastors of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20. It should be very sobering to us that pastors will actually have to GIVE an ACCOUNT to the Lord for the people they are shepherding. These are people bought with the blood of God that pastors have to protect from the wolves. Even “mega-church pastors” should take this seriously, because they WILL answer to Jesus Christ, just as we all will.

There is a need today for preaching and teaching that will stir people’s consciences – their God-given sense of right and wrong – with the truth of God’s Word as it applies to their internal and external life. When sin is rampant, as it is today, there are better things to talk about than how to get what every unregenerate person desires. In order to preach God’s word fully we have to have a correct balance of “positive preaching” – preaching on faith towards God, and the love of God, for example, with so-called “negative preaching” which tells us the things from which we must flee if we are to please God.

Eli the priest was an example of a weak leader that was ultimately rejected by God. Eli had sons that were committing adultery with the women coming to the temple and taking the things that did not belong to them from the offerings given to the Lord. But Eli never stopped his sons from doing this. If we follow the example of Eli the priest (see 1 Samuel 1) and offend God by refusing to REBUKE sin in our spiritual sons, then God may well ultimately take his protection from us and finish our once pre-eminent ministries. In some cases, the Lord may send a strong delusion against us so that we will be very comfortable in the deception in which we are shortly to eternally PERISH ( see 2 Thessalonians 2:11,12).

Wordly wisdom tells us that “you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar”, and that may be true, but the elect of God are not “flies”. We are called to put off the old man with its corrupt deeds. In order to do that we have to KNOW what these corrupt things look like. We have to know that cheating and dishonesty in business is wrong. We have to know that watching hours of worldly television promoting lust, pride and greed is wrong. We have to know that selfish indulgence and refusal to take an interest in others and their welfare is also wrong. We have to know that obedience to Christ involves taking part PERSONALLY in the Great Commission and it is not enough to simply promote the local church. And it is part of the job of preachers and teachers today to show us what these things are that God requires. Preachers must address our consciences in such a way that it becomes too painful to hold onto the things that God hates, and it becomes desirable to conform our lives to the will of God. And yes, at times, like Jesus, we must testify to the world that “its deeds are evil” even though it means we may be hated by them for it.

May God give churches everywhere courageous pastors that will not be afraid to do the things which God surely requires of spiritual leaders.

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