It is more than likely that by this time you have seen the viral clip of Victoria Osteen, “co-pastor” of Lakewood church in Houston Texas declaring the purpose of worship and obedience, but in case you haven’t here it is. [And if this seems like it is old news, forgive me I recently spent two glorious weeks completely unplugged from the media, so it is still fresh in my mind.]
If your brain involuntarily blocked out the words on hearing them or simply shut down entirely, this is what she said: “…when you come to church, when you worship Him, you are not doing it for God really, you’re doing it for yourself…”
Now make no mistake this, and all of the blather that surrounded this quote is horribly blasphemous. It is evil, and it is wicked, and it is from the deepest pit of hell, but I suspect that Victoria was right. She knows her audience, she asked for an amen after she uttered her blasphemies, and she got one from the people that filled her basketball arena…er her “church.” I know I am breaking out the broad brush here, but the people who pack the former home of the Houston rockets to see the Osteens are there for themselves, and not for God.
Outrage among professing believers swept across social media at this statement, even cropping up among those that often dismiss any criticism of any false teacher or teaching as needlessly divisive. The naked self idolatry of this statement is absolutely stunning and impossible to ignore. I even had a social media interaction with an unbelieving friend about this video that concluded with him saying that he knew it wasn’t right to put yourself “up there” with God.
Most people who flock to hear the Osteens’ sickeningly sweet messages of self affirmation (and pay top dollar to do so) are there for themselves, and I suspect most people reading this blog would readily agree
. But my fear is that this is the case not only at places like Lakewood and other easily identified outposts of the prosperity gospel but also in many gospel preaching “evangelical” churches too.
When we carry a consumer mindset to a church, we are really no better than Victoria Osteen, just less honest or at least less self aware. I had occasion to visit one large mega-church in Southern California several times. I heard many people refer to this church as solid and as a bible teaching church but there was something quite odd about the ministry there. This church, although not a true multi-site church, purposely divided its congregation across several “venues” on its campus. The reason they did this was so that “worshipers” could choose the style of music and atmosphere that was most conducive to their own brand of “worship.” If you liked hard rock there was a venue for you, if you liked country gospel they had a place for you, if you liked mainstream CCM tunes they had a place for you, and if you hated worship music all together, but loved gratis espresso drinks they had a venue for you too. They neatly divided the congregation so that people would feel freer to worship…themselves and their preferences. The only reason that someone would be impeded from worship if the music was not exactly to their liking is if they are not there for God but for themselves. And the biblical term for that kind of worship is idolatry, only instead of a golden calf, they have their favorite kind of music or a half-caff latte.
While it is easy to spot the error in a church that caters to every possible whim of preference so that no one is ever the slightest bit uncomfortable (and that includes, in this case, being offended by the gospel; in five to ten visits I never once heard the biblical gospel proclaimed) this is a log in the eye situation for many. Many wander from church to church looking for the kind of music, or youth ministry, or small group program, or women’s ministry etc. that exactly suits their tastes. In other words, they church shop.
Once that consumer mentality is adopted it is a very short slide to Osteenesque self idolatry. When preferences and tastes are served instead of God and His people He is not truly being worshiped. Musical styles, bible versions, small group ministry, youth ministry (or the absence of small group or youth ministry) functionally become more important that actual worship of God.
I want to share with you an excerpt of an email I received from a visitor to our church, that hit my inbox less than 20 minutes after the conclusion of the service:
My name is XXXXX and was a first time visitor. I really didn’t feel that welcome and sorry to say that I didn’t really feel the uplifting joy or presence of the Lord. Granted you have a little different format that I am accustomed to I was looking forward to an uplifting service…
In all fairness, I doubt anyone left feeling very “uplifted” that day; the passage I preached was Mark 9:42-50, Jesus’ call for the radical amputation of everything that might cause you to sin. While that passage doesn’t lend itself to making the people feel better about themselves, it does lend itself to a message that convicts and spurs people on toward sanctification and greater obedience to God.
When I read of this person’s disappointment with the format (which included prayer, the singing of worship songs, the reading of scripture and the exposition of the Word) and the emotional impact of the service, I was crestfallen. Not because a visitor wouldn’t be returning, but because the state of the Church in North America is such that sending a consumer complaint letter about the format of the service seems acceptable to someone who claimed to be a lifelong evangelical Christian. The Church had failed this man, if it taught him that the purpose of a worship service was to produce in him the effect he desired, instead of to offer God the adoration that He alone deserves.
The real problem is the expectation that every service is going to be uplifting. The one who should be lifted up in a worship service is God Himself. While worship can at times be uplifting, true worship always draws our attention to the vast gulf between God’s holiness and our sinfulness, a gulf so vast that it could only be bridged by the atoning sacrifice of Christ. It calls us to meditate on the Gospel and to respond in faith in and adoration for our loving savior and glorious God. Anything less is nothing more than self idolatry. In too many cases and too many places Victoria Osteen is right about why people come to church, and it breaks my heart.