TV Evangelists And The Positive Thinking Movement

By Ron Halbrook

By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John teaches three vital lessons in 1 John 4:4-6.

Ye are of God, little children, and have overcome them: because greater is he that is in you, than he that is in the world.

They are of the world: therefore speak they of the world, and the world heareth them.

We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby know we the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error.

Lesson One. Truth triumphs over error. God works in His people through the power of truth, just as Satan works in his people through sin and error. Satan’s power cannot withstand God’s. Lesson Two: False teachers appear to have great power because of worldly success. They are more popular than those who uphold the simple truths of the gospel, but this popularity is based on carnality. The taproot of all false doctrine is carnality in some form: “the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” (2:16). We must not be deceived by the trappings of success associated with error – persuasive and entertaining speakers, large audiences, big bucks, expanding power, and related success symbols. Lesson Three. The only way to know the difference between truth and error is by the standard of God’s Word.

PMA In American Society and Religion

To further the ends of his kingdom, Satan has given media ministers a powerful tool – the positive mental attitude or PMA approach to religion. Religious historian Sydney Ahlstrom traces the steps in the development of a religion of health and harmony during the last 100 years. It is “a vast and highly diffuse religious impulse that cuts across all the normal lines of religious division” (A Religious History of the American People, p. 1020). Man is taught to look inward to find the solution to life’s problems, to find God, to find peace or health or wealth or whatever he seeks. Mind control is the key to all.

This rising impulse included the techniques of mind-cure in “The Science of Health” as represented by Christian Scientists, and parallel but broader concepts called “New Thought” emphasizing man’s infinite possibilities to attain all his needs by the power of constructive thought. Such notions found new variety in both secular and religious forms as “Positive Thinking” until they were unified and promoted in “The Phenomenon of Peale.” Norman Vincent Peale perfectly blended the secular interpretation of PMA by Dale Carnegie with a religious accent to highlight peace of mind for middle-class Americans who had health and money but suffered from materialism’s emptiness of spirit. Positive thinking had become a form of psychological therapy.

The PMA movement had so saturated American religion by 1960 that its prescriptions were “as common as aspirin” (Ahlstrom, p. 1031). A major study of the American pulpit entitled Ministry in America (Harper & Row, 1980) confirms what any alert observer can see: strong Biblepreaching and otherworldly concerns have taken a backseat to pop psychology, salesmanship jargon, “interpersonal relationships and group dynamics” (Time Mag., 29 Sept. 1980, p. 85). Among modem-day variations of positive thinking promoted on TV, none is so well known as Robert Schuller’s “Possibility Thinking” – the good things of this life are available on an unlimited basis to all who truly believe they can have them. Both material prosperity and psychological fulfillment can be found by faith in faith, faith in one’s own possibilities, faith in oneself! The answer lies within.

The positive thinking and the charismatic or neo-pentecostal movements share much in common. Each has focused on healing and health, then expanded to include other this-worldly concerns such as wealth. Each causes man to look within himself to find God or a divine potential at work. Neopentecostal religion as represented by Oral Roberts attracts middle-class people seeking peace with God or some assurance of His presence in the midst of prosperity and plenty. In short, the PMA philosophy was an idea whose time had come. It is closely associated with a culture of plenty and and prosperity – it is an effort to sustain a sense of optimism and inner peace in a society aching with the emptiness and dissatisfaction of materialism. The PMA message comes in many versions and packages, but none meet man’s true needs. Its positive platitudes about prosperity and peace are false to the core and will leave man emptier still.

Robert Schuller and PMA

Robert Schuller’s “Hour of Power” and Oral Roberts’ “Expect a Miracle” are two of the most popular TV ministries which reflect the positive thinking movement. Schuller grabbed onto Peale’s coattails (both are members of the Dutch Reformed Church) and held on until the prophet’s mantel fell on him. His Garden Grove, California ministry began in 1955 and the $18 million Crystal Cathedral which opened in 1980 near Disneyland now claims some 10,000 members. Dennis Voskuil, a professor at Schuller’s ahna mater (Hope College in Holland, Michigan), surveys and analyzes the Schuller phenomenon in Mountains Into Goldmines. Central to Schuller’s “possibility thinking” or positive philosophy is the concept that man’s problems of sin, guilt, and failure are all rooted in poor self-esteem, too little love or self. We inherit this sinful nature and it is not wilfull rebellion. Therefore, all true gospel preaching affirms a positive self-image to prop up man’s insecure ego. Schuller’s theology of self-esteem is “the North Star of his entire system” (p. 139).

Schuller’s “Hour of Power” TV ministry began in 1970. Its format explained below is built around positive thinking (pp. 49-69). (1) Offer trinkets as incentives for people to write in and make a donation. “The minute we stop offering gifts, our revenues go down dramatically,” an advisor noted. (2) Always speak of health, happiness, and success. (3) Be as broad as possible, never narrow, in message and appeal. (4) Entertain to overcome the idea that church is boring and negative. Sermons must be short and make people “feel good” rather than guilty. Songs and sermons avoid reference to such “negative” things as penitence, confession, or the church. Positive preaching stresses the heart rather than the head, makes generous use of “personal experiences,” and abounds in “success stories.” Above all, it avoids controversial subjects such as adultery, the second coming of Christ, or even Christ himself (who can be mentioned “at the end of the message” as a matter of distrategy”).

In short, Schuller’s PMA approach “tells people exactly what they want to hear in the manner which pleases them most. He doesn’t insult people by telling them they are sinners” (p. 68). Schuller believes Jesus was the greatest possibility thinker of the ages – “positive and nonjudgmental. ” “Jesus never called any person a sinner!” Never would he preach, “You are sinners. Repent and be baptized” (p. 104).

Schuller spreads his concept of church growth through seminars, films, and books such as Your Church Has Real Possibilities. Voskuil summarizes the plan for growth (pp. 37-47). (1) There must be no “negativism” – we must dream of such great successes that nothing is impossible. (2) The leader is the preacher-pastor and he cannot leave leadership “in the hands of the lay people. ” (3) The whole ministry of the church must be geared to attract people. The end justifies the means. Affluent people do not want the emphasis on “biblical preaching” but prefer stress on immediate “human needs.” Voskuil further explains Schuller’s view that though unbelievers need “salvation from sin,” they are not interested in “biblical pronouncements” and a “God-talk” but are more attuned to the language of social scientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists (pp. 94-97). Says Schuller,

I don’t deliver Biblical expositions. I don’t jam the Bible down people’s throats. I believe in the Bible, but if people want Bible preaching, they can get it elsewhere (pp. 128-129).

(4) If the church is to grow, we must be non-controversial. Grant that sincere people may disagree on a wide range of issues. “The possibility preacher must therefore be a positive preacher – inoffensive, uplifting, and affirming,” Voskuil notes (p. 43). (5) The church needs a staff that can administer a wide array of social and community service programs in keeping with the above objectives. Programs for counseling, literacy, day-care, relief, senior citizens, single and divorced persons should be included.

Oral Roberts and PMA

As old-line holiness and pentecostal people began to taste the sweets of prosperity, in the middle 1950s and the 1960s, Oral Roberts “expanded his evangel . . . to include ‘God’s Formula for Success and Prosperity … (Donald Meyer, The Positive Thinkers, p. 256). In fact, as Roberts “increasingly associated health with a positive mental attitude and the belief that ‘God is a good God,”‘ he was perfectly in tune with the multiplied thousands of successful middle-class Americans all across the religious spectrum who suffered from a growing sense of anxiety and emptiness (David E. Harrell, Jr., All Things Are Possible, pp. 156, 148). Oral was ordained in the Pentecostal Holiness Church in 1935 and joined the Methodists in 1968, reflecting the broadening of his appeal from the dispossessed to the affluent. His healing campaigns began in 1947 and he has effectively used the media to build his empire. Tents, journals, books, radio, and TV have been utilized. He has been on TV since 1954, with a brief absence during part of 1967-69.

Aspects of the PMA approach are apparent in his constant claims of healing, divine revelations, and other miracles. His message has increasingly proclaimed immediate happiness, wealth, and success to his followers especially his contributors! The old-time message of salvation and healing are still intact, but he has expanded the idea of healing to embrace “the whole man” – body, soul, mind, finances, and every other aspect of life. God wants us to prosper in every way avers Oral, though he concedes some cases of sickness and failure to the mystery of God’s sovereignty (Harrell, Oral Roberts, pp. 461,455).

Since at least 1954 Roberts has promised that God will financially reward those who give to his ministry. This is called a “blessing-pact” or “seed-faith.” The seed-faith gospel blossomed as Oral’s main fund-raising appeal in the 1970s, fmancing the huge expansion of his ministry later in the decade. Oral says his September 1980 report of a 900-foot-tall Jesus and his January 1987 report that God would take his life by late March unless $8 million were collected offer projects for people’s seed-faith and so do not constitute crass fund raising (Harrell, Roberts, pp. 418, 460-63). Was Simon the sorcerer or Satan himself ever shrewder than that?!

Speaking as a TV writer and producer for Roberts during 1975-78, Jerry Sholes notes that Oral’s sermons play upon “the desires we all have to succeed, get ahead financially, and live healthy lives,” rather than stressing traditional Bible themes such as sin and guilt (Shoals, Give Me That Prime-Time Religion, p. 47). Oral himself says, “I don’t believe in the judgmental gospel that Billy [Graham] preaches,” “I can’t go around preaching against alcohol all the time. I preach Christ,” and, “I’m determined that I’m going to preach a positive gospel” without fighting the errors of Mormons, Baptists, Catholics, or the World Council of Churches. The ecumenical “inclusiveness” of Methodism was his main reason for joining it (Harrell, Roberts, pp. 442-46). He endlessly dispenses the elixir of a “positive and joyous mental attitude” as God’s power for man’s wholeness (p. 452). His sermons are light on Scripture but heavy on personal experiences, anecdotes, illustrations, and stories holding out the promise of healing and happiness to the whole man.

Roberts’ brand of PMA religion is reinforced in other ways. Typical prayers at the end of his programs say,

. . . and I pray that as I stretch forth these hands which I’ve given to God, that a miracle in your finances, in your health, in your marriage, and in your relationship with people will begin to happen now, this very day, at this very moment. Amen and amen (Shoals, p. 57).

He accents blessings here and now rather than suffering, service, and sacrifice followed by blessings in eternity. His slogans exude “Possibility” and “positive thinking” by “appealing to people’s universal desires to improve their station in life” (Shoals, pp. 58-59). “Miracles from Heaven in ’77,” “God won’t be late in ’78,” “Miracles will be mine in ’79,” “Our God is a Good God,” and best of all, “Something Good is Going to Happen to You.” That last one, a Roberts’ trademark, is a public relations man’s dream, no matter what the product, message, or medium. It perfectly captures the yearning of people in our culture to “feel good about yourself.”

Objections to the PMA Gospel

PMA error is rooted in carnality and the elements of this world (1 Jn. 4:5).

1. Carnality as religion. The PMA gospel sanctifies covetousness, glorifies selfishness, and makes religion a way of gain (I Tim. 6:5). It is an idea whose time has come in an age when men are “lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, . . . lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Tim. 3:1-5). Success is wrongly defined as wealth, health, power, prestige, status, and happiness in the sense of prosperity and pleasure. True success means serving God without regard to such symbols and not one of them is included in Jesus’ description of the man truly blessed (Eccl. 12:13; Matt. 5:1-12).

2. Carnality as worship. Worship services are remade to appeal to the carnal mind. Rather than deep devotion arising from the inner man and finding expression in ways ordained by God, the carnal appetite for entertainment is gratified in the name of worship (Eccl. 5:1-7). Testimonials of “success,” celebrity appearances, musical extravaganzas, theatrics, dancing, and every possible enticement to the eye and ear are offered. “The people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play” (Ex. 32:6). The mood is not one of humble devotion, penitence, and thanksgiving. A circus, carnival, or party atmosphere is created. The scene is punctuated with clapping and laughing. People go to church to “have a good time.” Such “worship” pleases and satisfies man, but does not please and glorify God (Gal. 1:10). The god of navel gazers is their own belly (Phil. 3:19; Rom. 16:18).

3. Carnality as preaching. PMA preaching is more concerned with what man wants to hear than with what God wants him to hear. So-called “felt needs” are not always true needs as defined by God. “After their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears” (2 Tim. 4:3). The vague generalities and inspirational vaporings of pop psychology may meet man’s “felt need” to “feel good about himself,” but such teaching does nothing to address his real need to be convicted of sin, righteousness, and judgment to come (Jn. 16:7-11). True gospel preaching exposes sin, pricks the heart, and causes people to tremble, while pointing to Christ as our only hope for eternal salvation (Jn. 4:16-18; Acts 2:36-38; 24:25). When sinners are made to feel “accepted” and “comfortable” in their sins, they may fill church houses and media ministers’ coffers, but they will not be converted to Christ.

Voskaills Views

Though Voskuil is sympathetic to Schuller, he admits that “positive thinking” has many weaknesses (Mountains Into Goldmines, pp. 139-60). With slight modification, the same criticisms apply to Oral Roberts’ promises of endless miracles, healing for the whole man, and seed-faith. (1) The gospel of success centers man upon self rather than upon God. True success is not measured by this-worldly terms such as fame, wealth, or physical comfort but by doing God’s will. (2) The gospel becomes a vehicle for self-love rather than for giving of oneself to serve God and our fellow man. (3) Possibility thinking says sin is rooted in man having too little self-love and self-esteem, when actually the root is too much! Man’s problem is not a lack of ego but the constant tendency to glorify or deify himself (Rom. 1:23).

(4) Presenting psychology as religion distorts the gospel because psychology views man as absolute and autonomous, not in his relation to God. Psychological tradition and its terminology obscure and deny many biblical principles. It replaces Bible concepts such as duty, sin, and judgment with more fashionable “felt need” notions such as “fear, frustration, and anxiety.” (5) PMA is made a panacea for all life’s problems, but it is fatally flawed. It is not grounded in teaching on man’s limitations and finiteness before an infinite God. One symptom of this error is its evasion of the enigmas and negative realities of fife. (7) Fascination with the PMA, possibility thinking, and felt needs approach is cultural captivity – subjection to a worldly mind set. It lets the world rather than the Word set the agenda for the church and for gospel preaching.

“Pence, Pence” vs. “The Old Paths”

Prophets sent from God were not PMA men. They were persecuted and castigated, not prosperous and comfortable. they were, both positive and negative, preaching a message which would both pull down and destroy, build and plant (Jer. 1:10). When the culture was saturated with materialism and covetousness, and people cried for someone to meet their “felt needs” with a positive message of “peace, peace, Jeremiah instead addressed their real needs:

Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls. But they said, We will not walk therein (6:16).

Such preaching was out of season and such prophets out of date. How boring, what a “burden” to listen to them. More popular men arose to proclaim, “Ye shall have peace,” but God said they spoke from their own imagination, stole the truth from people’s hearts, and “perverted the words of the living God.” “Is not my word as a fire? saith the Lord; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces” (23:16-40). Those who “seduced my people, saying, Peace,” built an attractive wall with a positive image, but God promised to expose its defective workmanship and materials by tearing it down (Ezek. 13:10-16). The beautiful walls built by Schuller, Roberts, and other PMA preachers serve the Devil’s purpose by soothing the troubled conscience of sinners, but God will raze these gleaming walls to the ground (Matt. 15:13).

Jesus Christ did not promise endless miracles ofpleasure, profit, power, and prestige for the whole man. As to the seed-faith theory, Jesus invested his fife by serving others, suffering at the hands of others, and sacrificing himself for others (Matt. 20:20-28). Our Lord was born into a carpenter’s family, laid in a manager, conducted his work in borrowed houses because he had none of his own, and died on a cross, leaving no earthly inheritance for his loved ones.

Jesus was not oriented toward rewards in this life nor did he teach such crass materialism. This world rewarded him with hate and he promised his disciples no better fare (Jn. 15:18-21). The blessings of the Beatitudes are spiritual, not carnal, and are promised to those who empty themselves of self to please God, not to those who abound in self-love (Matt. 5:1-12). Jesus warned that torment in the next world awaits people whose hearts are set on the material things and comforts of this world (Lk. 12:13-2 1; 16:19-3 1). In fact, Jesus redefined success, showing that the rich ruler forfeited heaven for earthly treasures while followers of Christ forfeit earthly gain in serving God to “inherit everlasting life. But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first” (Matt. 19:16-30).

The Master Teacher cared nothing for the methods of positive thinkers but balanced the beautiful promises of heaven with severe and repeated warnings of hell (Matt. 5:10-12,22,28-29; 6:20; 25:34,41,46). No one ever confronted sin or debated the merits of truth and demerits of error more directly than the Son of God (Jn. 8). Rather than flocking to sit on a platform of unity-in-diversity with Jesus, false teachers were offended by his condemnation of error. Even the disciples of Christ advised him to break out of such growth-restricting negativism and to project a more positive image, to no avail (Matt. 15:1-20). He never expected to draw great masses and majorities, but said, “Few there be that find it” (7:13-14). The Holy Spirit came to reveal the truth in fulness in order to perpetuate the message and the method of the Master (Jn. 1:7-13). We cannot improve upon it today!

Is “positive preaching” more powerful or motivational than negative? God’s Word to Adam was both positive and negative, as was his Law to Israel (Gen. 2:16-17; Ex. 20). The Psalms of worship reflect the same rich balance, as can be seen in Psalms I and 2. The spirit of praise for God and of hatred for error are one and the same. “Let the high praises of God be in their mouth, and a two-edged sword in their hand” (Psa. 149:6; cf. 119:103-104, 127-128). The device of antithesis or opposites which characterizes Proverbs makes the difference between right and wrong crystal clear (cf. v. 1 of chapts. 10- 15). Do we need any less teaching on the dangers of “the works of the flesh” than on the benefits of “the fruit of the Spirit”? Are the “put off” passages any less imperative or powerful than the “put on” passages (Gal. 5:19-23; Eph. 4:17-32)? “Positive preachers” cannot declare “all the counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). They mutilate and emasculate the gospel.

True gospel preachers take their cue not from positive thinkers but from truth lovers, not from crowd pleasers but from soul savers, not from the Schullers and Roberts in the world but from the inspired Apostles in the Word. The charge of 2 Timothy 4 was never more needed than it is today:

Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.

For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;

And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.

But watch thou in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, make full proof of thy ministry.

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 12, pp. 355-358, 367
June 18, 1987