On Friday, July 13, 2012, Joel Osteen made an appearance in Cleveland, Ohio. Fourteen thousand people filed into Quicken Loans Arena that evening to take in “A Night of Hope.” I had no desire to attend, but I did want to head downtown and do something outside the gathering as an act of quiet personal protest.
For weeks prior to the event, I pondered what to do. So one night, to find some inspiration, I tuned in the weekly broadcast from Lakewood Church. When channel-surfing I will sometimes briefly watch Osteen, but on this occasion I committed myself to watching the entire show. Within minutes, I knew what I should to do: So I paused the channel, went to my home-office, and returned with a pen and pad of paper. I started writing down the key words and phrases I heard Osteen emphasize in his talk. By the end of the hour, I had over twenty items on the list.
Recalling an interview (was it on CNN?) in which Michael Horton called Osteen’s teaching “Cotton Candy Christianity,” I wrote that term as a heading above the list. I then thought about what alternative words or phrases might be listed alongside each item on the Osteen list. I found this all too easy—and in less than two minutes, I had my companion set of terms representing “Historical-Biblical Christianity.” I returned to my office and typed up the list. Once completed, all I needed was a heading for the flyer. Also easy: “The JOEL OSTEEN Scorecard.” (Download a PDF file of the final product.)
On the morning of Friday the 13th, I printed 250 copies of the scorecard on pink paper (pink struck me as the appropriate color). In the afternoon, I read Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, and I prayed that should God give me occasion to talk to anyone, that I would speak the truth in love. And then early that evening, also equipped with seven copies of Christless Christianity that I had ordered for the event, I headed for “the Q” (or “the Loaner” as one Cleveland friend of mine likes to call it), most curious about what I would encounter.
After parking, I asked a police officer where I was permitted to stand and hand out pamphlets. He directed me across the street, off the private property of the arena. There I joined two Mitt Romney volunteers soliciting signatures (for what I did not know, as Romney had already won the Ohio G.O.P. primary and secured the Republican nomination).
People streamed by me. I quickly had to figure out what to say as my pitch. I tried, “Get your scorecard,” which generated little interest. When I changed it to “Get your Joel Osteen Scorecard,” well, that drew much more interest. And interestingly, when just one person in a passing cluster took a pink sheet, others were much more inclined to take one as well. The flyers went out in bunches. A few people asked what the sheet was for; I simply explained it was for note-taking and “checking off the terms you might hear tonight.” That seemed to satisfy most all takers.
I also had to consider to whom I would give away copies of Horton’s book. I decided to give to the first people I spotted carrying Bibles. I gave away two such copies, but decided to change my criteria after one woman took a copy, crossed the street, but after examining the book, crossed back and returned to me. “I’m not interested in this,” she politely said, giving back the book.
So I decided to give my remaining copies of the book to young adults who appeared of high school age. The highlight here: the final kid to get a copy really lit up in excitement. He looked me in the eyes, really looked me in the eyes, unlike anyone else that evening, and said, “Thank you; I appreciate this.” I said a quick prayer for him as he crossed the street clutching the book, and the kind of clutching one does with something truly valued.
I gave away all 250 scorecard sheets in just under one hour. That’s about one every fifteen seconds. The time flew by, and the experience was much more hurried than I had anticipated—a function I think of the proximity to the arena and the eagerness of most folks to get in. As busy as I was, within a few minutes I had decided to take note of two phenomena: (1) the number of people I saw toting Bibles (those prepared to say, “This is my Bible…”), and (2) the number of people who stopped to engage in a more in-depth conversation. (I was prepared to cease all pamphleteering for just one serious conversation.)
Let me here report the results:
Bibles: 15. That’s not fifteen carried by people who took a pink sheet. That’s fifteen among everyone who walked by. Bear in mind, I was practicing very intentional looking: I looked at every person who passed by my street corner. I noticed a lot in the short amount of time I had. Two carried iPads, for example, and maybe they had Bible software loaded; more likely not (“This is my iPad…”). And I estimated that for every person who took a scorecard, five others did not. By my calculations then, that’s 1,250 who walked by me. Considering my spot was one of about a dozen crosswalks available to get to the arena, the 1,250 estimate also jives with the reported figure of 14,000 who attended.
So do the math: 15 bibles, 1,250 passers by. That’s 1.25% Bible-carrying Osteenites.
Conversation: 2 parties stopped to spend a few minutes to talk. Just two.
The first was a father with his three sons. It turns out the dad was not dragging his boys to hear Osteen; they were on their way to another event. The man was most curious about what was on the sheet, what I was doing, and why. I showed him the scorecard. After studying it closely, he said, “I get it.” He then shared that he had only a slight familiarity with Osteen, that he was Roman Catholic, and that he was from Georgia. He also commented that “down in Atlanta, we have lots of mega-churches and televangelists, and most of them are bad news.” I shared that I was unashamedly Protestant, and was hoping to simply provoke some attending the Osteen event to pause and question what they were hearing. The gentleman’s parting words to me: “Good for you.”
The second interaction was with a married couple, David and Kim. Kim carried a Bible; David did not. After taking a copy of the scorecard and examining it, David got very excited. He shared that he had never watched Joel Osteen, had never read one of his books. “She dragged me here,” he explained, with a nod toward his wife. “Go on in,” I said, “But be sure to check off what words and phrases you hear tonight. And when you get home, I have a suggestion: read the book of Galatians, the whole book. And compare what you read from Paul with what you hear from Osteen. In fact, I’d encourage you to read Galatians every day for one week. It will only take twenty minutes each day.” David looked at me, smiled, pointed at me, and said, “I’ll do that; I will.” Then he crossed the street, with an extra hop in his step.
I did too after I ran out of scorecards.
When I returned home, a bit exhausted, I sat down and turned on the television. A few channels into surfing, I stumbled upon Family Feud. I watched three or four survey questions, and five or six attempts to guess the top responses for each. Each time, regardless of the quality of the guess, family members shouted “Good answer, good answer.” Even when the answer was an obviously bad answer, a decidedly miserable answer, the participants wishfully chanted, “Good answer, good answer.” And it hit me just how much like Family Feud is the spectacle of Joel Osteen and his misguided followers: “Good answer, good answer.”
Make no mistake: A good answer is not the Good News.
If you have a friend who watches Joel Osteen, consider giving her or him a copy of the scorecard (on pink paper, please) and most importantly, follow-up with a conversation.
James Gilmore is the co-author of the bestselling book, The Experience Economy. A prolific speaker and popular business consultant, Jim has also been a guest on White Horse Inn and has recently written for Modern Reformation. Jim is a Batten Fellow and Adjunct Lecturer at the Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia. He is also a Visiting Lecturer in Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, where he teaches a course on cultural hermeneutics