Do Ministers Like Joel Osteen and Charles Finney Help or Hinder the Church?
Daniel Harrell, Senior Minister at Colonial Church, in Edina, Minnesota, wrote a column for Patheos.com entitled, “Meet Joel Osteen’s Forefather, Charles Finney,” offering a general portrait of the nineteenth-century revivalist preacher, and highlighting certain parallels with the twenty-first century Word-Faith televangelist. For example, just as Osteen markets his ministry for the masses, investing $95 million to renovate the Compaq Center into a modern evangelical church without crosses, stained glass, and religious iconography, but with a café, wireless Internet access, videogames, and a vault for tithes, Finney similarly used theatrical preaching, introduced the altar call (perhaps to recruit new converts to assist in his anti-slavery campaign), called sinners out by name, prayed in “colloquial language,” which many considered “vulgar” at the time, and utilized publicity and mass media to promote nightly meetings.
Finney’s ideas, according to Harrell, were derived from a commitment to natural theology. Seeing that God endowed humans with rational faculties, the nineteenth-century preacher believed God could be known through human reason, volition, and ability; yet, Finney also found the doctrines of total depravity and original sin senseless, and taught that one could attain perfect sanctification. Harrell is right to point out “Finney’s take is not the Biblical gospel of grace.” Finney simply took human freedom to an unbiblical extreme, and the idea of Christian perfectionism is simply an error.
Harrell, having mentioned Finney in a sermon, received an apoplectic e-mail from a church elder complaining that the nineteenth-century preacher was responsible for much of what is wrong with American Christianity, to which Harrell agreed in part; yet finds “heirs such as Lakewood’s Joel Osteen, while at times terribly misleading and deserving of critique, are also the very messengers through whom thousands upon thousands of people first consider the possibility that they matter to God.”
It is true that people need to know they matter to God; however, can the message of Joel Osteen direct them to the God who cares? Osteen is in reality a new generation of Word-Faith teachers who teach a theologically aberrant prosperity gospel. Just as Word-Faith luminaries like Essek William Kenyon, Kenneth Hagin, Kenneth Copeland, and Benny Hinn propagate the idea that faith is a force, words are containers of the force, and through the force of faith man can speak into existence their health and wealth, Osteen likewise teaches, “Your words have creative power. One of the primary ways we release our faith is through our words. And there is a divine connection between you declaring God’s favor and you seeing God’s favor manifest in your life. And some of you are doing your best to please the Lord. You’re living a holy consecrated life but you’re not really experiencing God’s supernatural favor and it’s simply because you’re not declaring it. You’ve got to give life to your faith by speaking it out.” 
Harrell appeals to the principle of becoming all things to all people in 1 Corinthians 9 as justification for starting a contemporary worship service at his church, but also values Finney, Osteen, and other megachurch ministries as examples of ministers following the same principle. Is this what Paul really had in mind? Yes, a church designed like a popular entertainment venue or shopping mall with a practical life lesson delivered by a proficient orator attracts crowds, but is that really why believers gather together to worship? Who is the object of worship?
Are crowds really the “proof”? Many flock to so-called revival meetings to witness so-called signs and wonders performed by revivalists like C. Peter Wagner, Kim Clement, Bill Hamon, Bob Jones, Rick Joyner,and other associated with Joel’s Army, a part of the latter rain movement that believes the church is presently experiencing an end time restoration of super apostles and prophets; however, what they are really getting is spiritual counterfeit, which utilizes hypnosis to produce altered states of consciousness to induce bizarre behaviors like being slain in the spirit, or sardonic laughter. One can even argue that the hypnosis, altered states of consciousness, and induced bizarre behaviors were at one time relegated to the occult mystical practices associated with Hindu gurus and their ashrams, but now have entered into the church by the rock star like revival preachers. Some churches may attract the crowds, but are we witnessing the transformative work of the Spirit, or simply reproducing Counterfeit Revival?
Christianity in Crisis 21st Century (B995/$22.99) by Hank Hanegraaff further expounds on the problems on the problems with the Word-Faith movement, and Joel Osteen in particular.
Counterfeit Revival (B614/$12.99) by Hank Hanegraaff examines false revivals led by teachers purporting an end time restoration of super apostles and prophets manifested in bizarre signs and wonders such as being slain in the spirit and sardonic laughter.
1. Discover the Champion in You, Trinity Broadcasting Network, May 12, 2003. Cf. “Promoting the Gospel of Self-Esteem,” and “Osteen’s ‘Gospel-Light’ Message” by Bob Hunter.
2. Cf. “The Counterfeit Revival (Part One): Rodney Howard-Browne and the Toronto Blessing,‘ ” “The Counterfeit Revival (Part Two): Visionary Hoaxes And Revisionary History,” “The Counterfeit Revival (Part Three): Separating Fact from Fabrication on the Pensacola Outpouring,” “The Counterfeit Revival (Part Four): Modern-Day Mesmerists“The Counterfeit Revival Revisited,” and “Counterfeit Critique.”