It’s easy to love Oprah Winfrey. This incredible American success story has shaped our culture the past 20 years perhaps more than any other person.
Born in Mississippi to unmarried teen parents, Oprah spent her first six years living in rural poverty with her grandmother. She was ridiculed by the local children for wearing dresses made of potato sacks, but that’s all her grandmother could afford.
Beginning when she was nine years old, Oprah was molested by her cousin, her uncle, and a family friend. After suffering years of abuse, she ran away from home at age 13, became pregnant at age 14, and her son died shortly after birth.
Despite this extremely dysfunctional foundation in her early life, Oprah has gone on to positively impact the world through her example of compassion and philanthropy. Various publications have called her the most influential woman in the world, and she’s also one of the wealthiest.
But Oprah hasn’t just affected the entertainment media or secular culture—she also has deeply impacted the world’s view of spirituality. A 2002 article in Christianity Today noted that Oprah has emerged as an important spiritual leader: head of “The Church of O,” “a modern priestess,” and “an icon of church-free spirituality.”
On the premier of Oprah’s 13th season, Roseanne Barr told her, “You’re the African Mother Goddess of us all!”—an accolade that brought an enthusiastic response from the studio audience. And the animated series “Futurama” predicted that “Oprahism” would be a mainstream religion in 3000 AD.
It’s not an exaggeration to say Oprah led the largest church in the world, with a congregation of more than 22 million viewers. No other TV preacher even comes close, either in numbers or in impact.
So how should Christians respond to the Oprah phenomenon? Has she been a positive or negative influence…or both?
Positive Impact on the Church
Oprah’s message isn’t all bad. Certainly not. The church can rightfully learn some very positive lessons from her:
- Our message must be manifested in our deeds. Oprah not only preaches altruism, but she also demonstrates it. This example should challenge us to regain the Biblical teaching that our faith must be demonstrated by our works (James 1:22-27, 2:14-26). Because of Oprah, 21st-century churches are held to a higher standard in our culture in this regard. Particularly in the younger age groups, people expect churches and individuals that are truly spiritual to engage the culture and work to alleviate human suffering.
- Spirituality must be a 24/7 quest, not just an activity we do on Sunday mornings. Oprah has consistently promoted a view of spirituality that transcends involvement in once-a-week religious exercises. According to the Church of Oprah, it’s not good enough just to have great sermons and worship on Sunday mornings. People must embrace principles that transform their lives all week long—in their families, health, jobs, recreation, finances, and relationships.
- The media can be a powerful force for communicating our message—no matter what “gospel” we may be preaching. Make no mistake about it, Oprah is preaching a “gospel” message—promising her followers hope, change, and transformation. However, she freely preaches a “Gospel According to Oprah” rather than being constrained by the gospel found in the Bible—which is “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16).
- Spirituality works best when it’s interactive, not centered only on lectures or pulpits. Oprah’s “preaching” isn’t an hour-long sermon from a stage or lectern, but rather an interactive discussion with involvement by her guests and audience. This kind of format may seem foreign to most churches today—but it’s very much akin to the interactive ways Jesus taught His disciples and the crowds that followed Him.
As you can see, these positive influences are actually just pointing us back to what the church was always meant to be. It’s not that Oprah has discovered ground-breaking principles that have never been tried before. Where she’s succeeded most, she simply has recaptured Biblical principles that have been in God’s Word from the beginning.
A Dangerous Mixture
Although the Church of Oprah can help us rediscover some Scriptural principles we’ve neglected, we must also recognize the toxic mixture her “gospel” represents. Oprah no doubt considers herself a Christian, but she has liberally adopted and promoted many dangerous non-Christian influences. Sadly, though, many Christians are so Biblically illiterate that they cannot discern the ways Oprah has strayed from true Christianity.
I believe Oprah is a sincere seeker of the truth, yet that doesn’t mean she’s always correct in the messages she promotes. Here are just a few of the red flags believers should note in Oprah’s message, whether explicitly stated or implied:
- “Good works are the equivalent of true spirituality.” While the Bible teaches that good works should naturally flow from genuine spirituality, that doesn’t mean the converse is true. Sometimes people clearly do good deeds from motives other than true love for God or for humankind (1 Corinthians 13:3). Such people may be seeking honor and praise from other people, or they may even hold the misguided belief that God will accept them into heaven some day if they do enough humanitarian deeds during their time on earth. Either way, these incorrect and self-serving motivations actually lead us away from authentic spirituality.
- “All religions and philosophies are equivalent.” Oprah recently stated that although she was brought up to believe Jesus is the only way to salvation, she no longer believes that. And thanks to the influence of Oprah and other philosophers of our day, this “spiritual universalism” has become an increasingly common view among professing Christians. “I believe in following Jesus,” they say, “but I’m sure there are many other ways to heaven as well.” This is blatantly contrary to what the Bible teaches (John 14:6, Acts 4:12, etc.), but it’s an accepted precept of the Church of Oprah.
- “Although the Bible teaches many good lessons, we must also embrace other religious and metaphysical traditions in order to understand ‘all truth.’” In recent years, Oprah has aggressively promoted New Age philosophies such as The Secret and A New Earth. These mark a serious departure from a biblical worldview, but Oprah is on a search for some kind of “spiritual reality” that she has apparently not experienced yet through studying the Bible.
- “It’s all about life on this earth.” Even though Oprah doesn’t explicitly say that life on this earth is all that matters, she seems to consistently discount an afterlife or muddle it with New Age concepts. The thrust of Oprah’s TV program and magazine is clearly to help people have better lives on earth—a noble objective, but one that must always be balanced with an eternal perspective (Colossians 3:1-2).
- “It’s all about ‘finding your own way.’” While her shows sometime contain dogmatic theological assertions from Oprah or her guests, she tends to encourage her audience to seek their own way and pursue “the truth that is right for them.” This relativism, tolerance and “open-mindedness” is running rampant in our culture, but it reflects the apostle Paul’s warning about “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). Yes, Oprah, there IS such as thing as TRUTH.
- “It’s all about ‘getting along.’” The Church of Oprah is a non-judgmental place, preaching tolerance toward people with different lifestyles, sexual orientations, and religious beliefs. This has become the prevailing view of our society, and Oprah has certainly done nothing to stem the tide. Again, biblical teachings have been jettisoned in favor of a twisted form of humanistic tolerance.
- “It’s all about positive feelings.” The Church of “O” is a feel-good congregation, where “all things are possible” for those who believe the message and “drink the Kool-Aid.” There’s no need to address sin, repentance, the cross, or Jesus’ lordship, because such things would just get in the way of people feeling good about the Oprah Experience. However, before we’re too hard on the Church of Oprah, let’s be honest: Many, many churches today have opted for similar priorities, placing feelings above truth. We encourage people to “love their life,” while Jesus told us to hate our lives in this world. We tell people they can “live their best life NOW,” while the Bible says to also prepare ourselves for “the life to come” (2 Timothy 4:8).
- “It’s all about the results.” I confess, I have a certain degree of respect for this precept of Oprah’s church. Pragmatism isn’t all bad. If something isn’t “working,” why should we stick with it? From time to time, I find myself asking people the famous question popularized by Oprah’s protégé, Dr. Phil: “And how’s that workin’ for you?” Yet pragmatism is fraught with dangers. If we took snapshots of Bible heroes at many places in their lives, it certainly could seem like their faith in God wasn’t working out very well (e.g., see Hebrews 11:32-40). Even Jesus Himself would have seemed a failure at times (e.g., see John 6:60-71, Mark 6:1-5). The moral of the story is that we must trust and obey God, whether it seems to be “working” or not.
- “It’s all about the celebrities.” As popular as Oprah is, her show would have no longevity without a constant stream of celebrity guests. Sadly, this should be a warning to us as Christian in the age of media. Even the early church had its popularity cults (“I am of Paul,” “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Peter” – 1 Corinthians 1:12), and the dangers of this have become even greater in our slick, media-driven culture. The question shouldn’t be, “Where are the men and women with the most flamboyant style or communication skills?” but rather, “Where are the men and women who seek the face of God and exemplify His character?”
- “We don’t really need the church.” Why would we need traditional churches—with all of their narrowness, hypocrisy and outdated mores—when we can have the Church of Oprah on our DVR 24/7/365? No need to tithe, get involved, leave our house, or even change out of our bathrobes! Just sit back and receive Oprah’s feel-good inspirational messages, with no accountability to God or to a group of believers. Once again, Oprah seems to be riding a popular wave in our culture. As George Barna and other pollsters have documented, a vast number of professing Christians are exiting traditional churches and looking for new ways to express their spirituality. No doubt, the church has its problems—and how can it compete with the carefully produced sights and sounds of the Church of Oprah? However, God’s plan is—and always has been—to save people from darkness and add them to the church (Acts 2:41-47). And even if Oprah’s gospel was based firmly on the Bible, God is looking for more from us than participation in a “TV church.”
We live in exciting times, with incredible opportunities to preach and practice God’s kingdom upon the earth. But these also are “perilous times” (2 Timothy 3:1), when we will need great discernment to hear God’s voice and expose the voices of impostors—well-meaning as the impostors may be.
Oprah has significantly impacted our culture, and the church has been “Oprahfized” much more than we’ve realized. The Church of Oprah is an appealing counterfeit of the body of Christ—but it’s a counterfeit nevertheless.
While many people no doubt crave a feel-good spiritual experience, God makes it clear that He’s still seeking a “holy and blameless” church, “having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27).
Instead of being a bastion of relativism, humanism, and so-called tolerance, such a church will once again be “the pillar and support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Only then will we be empowered to again turn the world upside down, proclaiming the uncompromised lordship of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:6-7).