For a recent radio show, I did some crack research as I never have before. I not only subjected myself to listening to one Joel Osteen sermon many times, I actually listened to it one sentence at a time with a particular task in mind: I wanted to know how many times he said the word “you.” So I listened, pen and hand and paper at the ready. And using a standard tally method, I counted. Sometimes, they came so fast, had to rewind to catch them all. I’m still amazed I did not run out of ink.
Even though I already possess a pretty low view of Pastor Osteen, that doesn’t mean I am not fair. I try to ask the same kinds of questions I would ask of any pastor and I judge myself by the same standard I judge him. My questions this time around were, “What really is his message” and “How and why does he appeal to so many?”
Without keeping you in suspense, I’ll tell you the number: 270. That is, give or take about 10 and not including his terrible joke, how many times the word “you” or a derivative of it (your, yours, yourself, etc.) in one 27-minute sermon. That does not include all of the times “you” was the assumed subject of the sentence. For example, in the sentence “Don’t give up on God”, “you” is the assumed subject, but the word is not said. It also does not include all of the times he speaks hypothetically and uses the words “I”, “we” or “us.” As in the sentence, “You can say to yourself, “I am good enough, smart enough and doggonit, people like me!” The word “I” is used but it is the same person: the hearer.
270. That is shockingly high, right?
So, a few questions: who, really, ought to be the subject of a sermon? How many times might “you” be said in a normal sermon? (After all, it is an unavoidable pronoun in the English language). And what does this tell us about Joel’s brand of Christianity?
I hope the answer to the first question is rather obvious: God ought to be the subject of the sermon. Sure, we speak to our own lives and context. But in the end, God is the hero of the story. He created, became flesh, saves us from our sin, sent Holy Spirit, won military victories, smites enemies, and on and on. The reason we gather as followers of Jesus is, well, Jesus, and all persons of the Trinity. The story of God is not a pretext for us to talk about ourselves as in, “You know, I’m so glad you mentioned David and Goliath. Let me tell you how that entire story is about me!”
No, the Story of God is God’s story and it is the only story that really matters. So preaching should assume and clearly reveal that we are present at all in worship because of God and to honor God. Our story is at best secondary to His. But when “you” is stated 270 times, or 10 times per minute, the message is clear: whatever God has done or will do is ultimately about you.
Now, I confess I wasn’t sure what was normal in this matter. What if I said “you” 100 times in a sermon? Could any of my critiques be considered fair? So I chose six of my own sermons at random and found that the average use of the word “you” was about 16 times per sermon. In a sermon I just finished for Lent I included the use of “you” 27 times. To be fair, my sermons are not as long as Pastor Osteen’s so if you doubled my average that would be about right. Still, he used the word 9 times more than I.
But just using the word isn’t the only thing that matters. It is how it is used. Joel Osteen should be sued by Al Franken for literally ripping off his Stuart Smalley character from SNL back in the day. Osteen says in his sermon to his hearers: “you are good enough, you are smart enough, you are talented enough.”
In my sermon this week, this is an example of my use of “you”: “You will never be offered a drug with the caveat that taking it will destroy your life. You will never be offered unearned money with the threat it will eventually destroy your marriage. You will never be promised companionship with the warning that it will cost you your relationship with your own children.” That was a particularly large batch of “you”s. The point I was trying to make is that when it comes to temptation, it comes with good promises and subtlety, the lies of the devil. It is not exactly a commendation to be the best “you” you can.
What this tells us about this brand of Christianity is that it has appeal for one very basic reason: it appeals to our pride. It not only puts God in our corner in the fight of life; it pretty well makes God our servant. God is of such minimal importance in this preaching that the demands of repentance, sacrifice, humility, and death to self cannot and will not ever be made. I don’t know how it could even be defended that this is Christian preaching at all, even a deficient form of it.
270. Remarkable, isn’t it? Perhaps this can be used as one piece of evidence that Joel Osteen has only one goal: to appeal to his audience rather than bring them to God. Perhaps it can also be used as a reminder to pray for those who love having their ears itched. Might they leave the preacher of sweet words behind and seek the truth of God instead.
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