Joel Osteen will be thrilled, I’m sure, to know that he’s made someone a little bit happier today (since I’ve never heard him say anything that scratched much deeper than wanting people to be a little bit happier today).
You see, Joel Osteen doesn’t speak in tongues. OK, so I don’t know what he does in private, but if you tune in to his multimedia self, although you’ll get a lot of gibberish, none of it will be of the glossolalic variety. Osteen comes from a charismatic background. He leads a church with a charismatic background. They’ve put tongues on the back burner. And Osteen is not doing this for theological reasons (duh). He’s putting tongues on the back burner because the consumers to whom he is marketing have done so, he thinks.
The back burner. I think that’s where tongues-speaking is going. Quickly. The people I encounter who have burning questions and great curiosity about tongues-speaking and sign-gifts are all my age or older. From my experience, that’s not something that younger Christians value very highly. In fact, I sometimes hear Pentecostals and charismatics pining away for “the good old days,” remarking about how the young people in their own churches aren’t sufficiently interested in the charismata. They tend more to value expressiveness in worship in conjunction with songs written in actual language and comprehended by them. Even within those songs, we’re witnessing a move back to hymns (arranged differently)—a trend toward content and substance. That’s a trend (substantive content) that runs pretty much diametrically against glossolalia, which is devoid of substantive content that any of us are able to discern.
I think that the actual priority younger Southern Baptists are pursuing is not so much an embrace of charismania as a desire to be seen as cosmopolitan and tolerant. Jerry Rankin’s generation would (some of them) find it important actually to experiment with glossolalia; David Platt’s would just find it important to be able to tell people that one isn’t one of those nasty legalistic fundamentalists.
I am not, however, without worries. Osteen makes me worry less, but he doesn’t obliterate my worries altogether. Although I believe that Charles Fox Parham’s peculiar contribution to recent Christianity is waning in America, I’m not sure that the same is true across the nations where we are sending missionaries. My concern has always been less about what a missionary might be doing in private and more about what a missionary might be encouraging in his or her work among young churches and immature believers.
It is a fact, documented with angst even by some leaders in American charismatic circles, that the spread of pentecostalism in Latin America and Africa has been part-and-parcel with the spread of the prosperity gospel in Latin America and Africa. This tongues-speaking, miracle-purporting, blessing-seeking faith is nearly as amenable to syncretism with animistic religions as is Roman Catholicism. This is not a victim-less theology; it produces weak, pseudo-churches that are a thin veneer over the animism that has been present in these tribes for centuries. Animism is, after all, at its heart, a form of prosperity religion. It adapts pretty well to some of the errors in portions of Pentecostalism. What amounts to small errors here often swells into serious theological deformities in environments of first-generation Christianity.
We do not need missionaries to be cosmopolitan about THAT. We do not need missionaries to be tolerant of THAT. We need missionaries who are on a mission to combat and correct such things, for being on that mission is exactly the same thing as being on a mission to strengthen churches and advance the true gospel of Jesus Christ.
My hope is that very few actual practitioners of glossolalia will seek IMB appointment, which probably surprises nobody and secures the agreement of very few. It’s not that I want the number of missionaries to decline; it’s just that I want the practice of modern glossolalia to decline. And I hope that our cosmopolitan, tolerant young appointees, once they get a close look at the prosperity churches abroad, will experience sufficient revulsion toward the phenomenon to harden their opposition against it and to influence the leadership that they give to churches overseas.