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Joel Osteen and Family Feud

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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
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  • Guest - LastManStanding

    Robin: One more thing. Do you really think that Osteen's book "Your Best Life Now" is saying that this life can be better than eternal life with Jesus? Either you are so shallow as to believe that, which if so, "Bless your heart," or you are intentionally trying to get others to think Osteen is teaching that so you can argue with him (in which case... Shame on you.).
    For those who did not read the book (like Robin), "Your Best Life Now" helps people to understand who they truly are once they become Believers. It helps one to develop a closer realtionship with God... a daily reelationship... that permeates your life, draws you closer to God and allows you to live this life in the BEST way possible.

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  • Guest - glen soikie

    joel saved my life and gave me new hope when i had none

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  • Guest - Glynne

    WOW! Can I just boil some comments down to this: can't we just all get along?

    OK, that was my feeling. Hey, if it does not matter what Gospel someone preaches. If it does not matter what Jesus someone preaches. Then what good is the Bible? What good is the Gospel? What good is preaching of the word? If someone comes along and just says nice things about God and Jesus does that make it OK? Really? You want to go with that. Sure, we can disagree about methods on how to reach people. But if, in it all, the truth does not matter. Then I have to ask some of you, why be a Christian? Does it just make you feel warm and fuzzy? Hey, there are plenty of cults with a Christian bent to them that will work just as well, in that case. Or hey, skip the God thing altogether. There are plenty of motivational speakers out there that can fill that perceived void. Since, for some here, it is a bone of contention, I will not name names. And there are many of them then mentioned here. But I can say with certainty, there are those out there who wear a christian label and they are purely a motivational speaker. They don't preach God's word, they have not good news other then what this world claims. Skip the middle man, if you feel that works for you.

    But, as for me, I want to hear from God's word. Not someones good word where they strip God's word out of context. If that bugs you, so be it.

    Sorry for the length and rambling. Unlike another poster I'm not trying to open a new blog here. I just found some of the comments a bit over the top and felt I had to say something.

    Oh, and I hate captchas! (grin)

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  • Guest - mike hill

    The real issue beyond the fact that his gospel is no gospel at all, is this. How can you preach God is pigging bank waiting to fulfill our every need and then think the people who were loving that would ever listen to a foreign concept like "suffering for Christ?" Not only is he teaching heresy, He is making it much harder to teach the truth to these people who have been fooled.


    "For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions," 2 Timothy 4:3 ESV

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  • Guest - nicole

    Today is the first day I listened to anything from Joel Osteen. I was intrigued by a very motivational talk he gave- maybe it was a sermon, I don't know- and I wanted to learn more about his background. I skimmed the internet, read a bit & found myself here. What a disappointment. I can see the perspective of using traditional terms, and preferring to keep with a format you have been raised on & believe; maybe you find it more true than the 'cotton candy' equivalents that were listed. But here's what I took away from each experience I had this morning:

    Joel Osteen: great speaker, good message, over all advising to trust God. Try to live the life God has set out for me. I like it. Also, made me want to check out a bible. Learn a little more. (*I was raised Roman Catholic, we didn't really have to read the bible to be ok with our church.)

    This Scorecard Guy: pretty much knocked me back a notch, because I got such an overall feeling of hate, or at least heavy duty judgement, directed towards another person that I remembered why organized religion doesn't appeal to me. The point of emphasizing the use of "pink paper" was truly telling about the authors personal maturity level. Did I miss the part where he said he was in junior high? If so, I apoligize. But I can't help but mention a funny shirt I saw while visiting an actual junior high school; a really big, tough-looking boy was wearing a pink t-shirt with something written on it. The shirt said: "Laugh all you want, it's Your Girlfriend's shirt." Maybe Mr. Scorecard is a little jealous because Osteen is getting attention?

    I'll tell you, in the way that people use the term "gateway drug" to describe some light experimentation that leads to heavy drug use, I would say that Joel Osteen can -and probably does- serve as a "gateway Christian." This potentially could lead to someone delving much deeper into the faith, learning more, turning over a new leaf, maybe even moving along to a church that speaks primarily in all those traditional terms. Isn't Christianity about spreading the word of God?

    However, judgemental demonstrations of a 'holier than thou' Christian like the producer of the scorecards serves as a reminder for me to keep my faith practices safe & study on my own, and not in a curch where people look for ways to keep score of how much more saved they are.

    God is the scorekeeper. Not you.

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  • Guest - nicole

    I correct myself: God is the scorekeeper, not US. ----and from the sound of it, He's a lot more forgiving than some of the voices I'm hearing here.

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  • [...] author of The Experience Economy, has produced a scorecard by which to evaluate Osteens message. The key phrases under the Osteen column are telling. More pointedly, Mike Horton writes: Make no [...]

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  • [...] Joel Olsteen and Family Feud, HT to Challies. Be sure to check out the scorecard. [...]

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  • [...] like the score card Tim Challies put out. http://www.whitehorseinn.org/images/..._Scorecard.pdf Joel Osteen and Family Feud - White Horse Inn Blog it isn’t our spouses, though kids are a challenge, their sinning is countless, but: I’m [...]

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  • Guest - Susana

    Joel Osteen would lose his income if he told those people they are sinners by nature and they are virtually incapable of doing good unless they have God to help them.
    He tells them basically they are capable and God will help them if they realize how capable they are.
    In truth he tells them it is all about them.
    Money it is about money but anyone who listens to this uncalled by God man.deserves what he gets.

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