Monday, May 15, 2006

What Many Rightly Think of the Church: It’s Self-Help in the Language of God

Dovetailing corbrusier’s post below about our culture of self-esteem, I can’t help but chime in on the embarrassment I feel when I hear what popular preachers are saying. The culture of self-esteem has so engrained our language that many in the church have adopted it as the gospel itself, disguising the power of faith in the “power of positive thinking.” It embarrasses me because these preachers do not see the way they are spreading a false gospel, and furthering the myth that we can achieve salvation or joy on our own. In short, they spread completely secular ideas couched in enough “religious” language to “legitimize” it. It’s sickening.

Being a Protestant, I can’t help but sympathize when Catholics lump all Protestants into the camp of the televangelists like Joel Osteen, Bishop TD Jakes or Harvest Church’s Rod Parsley. Many Catholics I know just assume that if you’re not Catholic, you attend a mega-church, consider the sacraments optional, and preach a self-esteem mantra instead of Paul’s message of “Christ crucified.” Paul wasn’t well-received by the Corinthians when he spoke this particular gospel, and undoubtedly if the preachers of today spoke as much about what we could do for Jesus instead of what he can do for us, they would be just as poorly received.

And I’m not saying Catholics get it right all the time either (who am I to say who gets it right?). Catholics invented the polka mass after all. But the Roman Church has a better, and more unified understanding of the role of the church in the world. Do we hear Pope Benedict XVI speak of self-esteem? No, he’s too busy speaking about the role of the church in destroying the “dictatorship of relativism.” Do we hear the Roman Church preach on relationships and self-image problems? I haven’t, but I generally hear them preach on the appointed texts.

What’s really interesting to me is not just that so many pastors have adopted the self-esteem gospel, but how much pastors and secular self-esteem icons are starting to resemble one another. The pictures above make it clear that Oprah and Joel Osteen’s messages are essentially the same. But pastors are not only becoming self-esteem boosters, Oprah is apparently heading up a religion these days. Consider these quotes from a recent USA Today article on the religion of Oprah:

"Oprah Winfrey has risen to a new level of guru. She's no longer just a successful talk-show host worth $1.4 billion. Over the past year, Winfrey, 52, has emerged as a spiritual leader for the new millennium, a moral voice of authority for the nation."

“Love her or loathe her…Winfrey reaches more people in a TV day than most preachers can hope to reach in a lifetime of sermons.”

“In a November poll conducted at, a site that looks at how religions and spirituality intersect with popular culture, 33% of 6,600 respondents said Winfrey has had "a more profound impact" on their spiritual lives than their clergypersons.”

What we get from this confusion of roles in culture is a tragic dilution of the truth, a distortion of the gospel, and a weakening of the Word of God that, by the way, holds far more power than helping us feel good about ourselves. I have already written that I think self-help leads to self-hate because it leads us down a narcissistic road that is ultimately futile. But the USA Today article along with corbrusier’s piece gets to the core of the limitations of the self-help movement: it has turned us into 30-year-old children who look for God, the government, or society -at-large to be our sugar daddy.

A final irritation: Osteen (and his cronies) and Oprah have the luxury of preaching their gospel of self-esteem without doing any work in the trenches. They can seem to hold all the answers for self-fulfillment, but when their answers reach their inevitable dead end, who is there to clean up their mess? If those who are broken because of their futility (a condition we all must admit eventually) even know where to turn, an entirely different theology will have to be presented, one based on the real human condition of sin, and one that does not make easy promises. I wonder if after years of the self-esteem gospel, they will want to hear it?

Looking back on Billy Graham’s sermons, we should be careful to never lump today’s self-help pastors with him. He preached very biblical sermons, made explicit reference to Jesus Christ, distinguished law and gospel, and was never afraid to speak of our brokenness and weakness as a fallen humanity. He had a different luxury from today’s self-esteem preachers: he did not have to maintain a congregation, and the bulk of his sermons are aimed at getting non-believers to believe, not to maintain a life of faith. But Osteen, and even Oprah, are not the descendents of famous preachers like Billy Graham. They are thieves in the night, wolves in sheep’s clothing, inventors of an entirely new, and utterly false gospel.

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