Missional Insights from Unusual Places: Lessons from Pope Francis, Joel Osteen and Billy Graham

Almost daily I am asked – privately and publicly – to offer my opinion of various leaders, from politicians to preachers, managers to missionaries. I always preface my remarks this way, “Ask me to evaluate a specific idea, opinion or action, not render judgment on someone’s soul.” Our contemporary fixation of instant evaluation and the rush to judgment keeps us from mining insights and remaining humble.

As we labor to present the gospel of Christ crucified and resurrected in a timely, creative and sensitive way, there are three public figures that are surprisingly helpful for our service to others. They are Pope Francis, Billy Graham and Joel Osteen. Billy Graham may be unsurprising, but there is something in his personal story we often miss as we affirm or adjust his ideas. For the record, while I work with great believers in the Roman Catholic tradition, my Pentecostal proclivities keep me a bit “low-church” for some in this historic stream. Joel Osteen’s methods, persona and philosophies are not mine, but there is one compelling service we need to capture amidst the many distracting ones.

So what can we glean from this unlikely trio?

Pope Francis: engage all issues and types of people with love and speak clearly, even when it makes others uncomfortable. I do not agree with the Pope on climate change and some aspects of his economics; however, engaging atheists, confronting immigration, caring for the divorces and acknowledging the longings of the marginalized are all consistent with the words and works of Jesus.

Billy Graham: Remain faithful while continually learning, even when it costs you friends or prestige. In today’s racially charged climate, Graham’s decision to integrate all his outreaches and his staff in the 1950s was both biblical and way ahead of its cultural time, especially for the South. His lifelong learning, generosity toward global mission and Lausanne legacy is all part of the dynamic tension of timeless truth and timely application.

Joel Osteen (the most unexpected entry): Offer encouragement and hope for people that are bruised by life. Why do tens of thousands of folks gather to hear his rather simple (and sometimes vapid) homilies? For ninety minutes Osteen and his team offer hope, a sense of belonging and significance and some understandable thoughts for feeling better. Without endorsing the theological vacuity in many of the messages, the craving for encouragement matters and missional leaders must consider creating space for unconditional love and edification.

Even when I vehemently disagree with the ideas, methods or principles of particular leaders, there are lessons in their appeal, beyond the manipulative agitprop and image cultivation. The words and works of our Lord demonstrate God’s unconditional love and validation of each person’s significance. A timeless gospel must be communicated in timely ways and will be disruptive to cultural mores. Pope Francis is using his office for global good, though I think his ideas need more nuanced application.

The Pope compels us to engage with eyes open and hands ready to serve. Billy Graham’s life and mission are prophetic as both hearts and communities face their sins and receive our Lord’s atoning grace. And what about Joel Osteen? His gift of encouragement is evident. I only wish it were joined with richer theology and separated from American/Western prosperity formulae. This said, offering environments that are safe and warm as well as prophetic and surgical is part of the missional menu going forward.

These are only three of dozens of similar illuminations available if we remain humble, open and slow to judge.

— [Photo: mayeesherr., CC via Flickr]