The Oprahfication of the Church

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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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).
  5. “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.
  6. “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.
  7. “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).
  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.
  9.  “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?”
  10. “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.”

Conclusions

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).

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14 thoughts on “The Oprahfication of the Church

  1. Well said Jim I agree with you, thanks for stating the facts and making it clear , you have pointed out some sad realities about the Church and Oprah and her followers.The Truth Lives and doesn’t Compromise.

    • Okay, next to my family and my kids, this is my Passion topic! It’s what gets my juiecs flowing.First and foremost, I believe that those statistics are proof that the church has fallen asleep. The church has narrowed itself into a corner and unless willing to adapt to some change, this statistic I fear will grow. Churches have been doing what they do because that’s the way it’s always been done. Some churches hold tight to Tradition. The church can never compete with culture. They will never win. Its just the way it is. But the church can certainly change from “doing” to having a strategy.If You read my “About” section on my blog, you’ll see a line where I wrote, “I bleed Orange.” I encourage you to check out http://www.whatisorange.com to learn more about that and to see where my firm stance on what the church should be doing.We (as in Us, Moms, Parents, etc) put So much responsibility on the Church for those poor statistics. I see it as a 50/50 deal. Parents need to wake up and realize that they are the primary spiritual leaders in their kids lives. The church is a “Partner” to you as a Parent. Or at least it should be. There in lies the problem. Churches are failing to see that they need to come along side of us as parents and support us and understand that what happens at home is far more important than what happens at church. I am a product of Christian parents, christian private schools and church all my life. I saw friends come and go within the church. From my experience, The leadership within the church are all on different pages. Nursery, elementary, youth and “big” church are all doing their own thing. There is no strategy. They are silo’d. I beg of the church to align themselves together with parents and have a strategy for how to get a child from birth through college not ever wanting to leave the church! It is possible. It just means people are going to have to adapt to change and let some things go. Sorry for the rant. I warned you that it was a Passion area for me. I could say so much more…. : )

    • This is actually something we have been addressing at our church in the past few months. We have been incorporating more activities for our youth, such as– on a specific Sunday night, the youth conducts our entire service; our music director has incorporated some of the new Contemporary Christian music into our services, which the youth absolutely love. We have also brought a young youth minister in which has been such a blessing!Honestly, I think one of the main reasons the statistics are what they are is because a lot of churches are too set in older ways– not so much catering to the older members, but pacifying them by not incorporating newer ideas and technology into the service, etc. It is absolutely critical that we do all we can to make our young people feel a part of the church because they are the future of the church, and they need all the guidance they can get in this harsh and cruel world!!

  2. You’re so awesome! I do not think I’ve read through a single thing like that before. So wonderful to discover somebody with a few unique thoughts on this issue. Really.. thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that’s needed on the internet, someone with some originality!

  3. Hello there! I could have sworn I’ve been to this blog before but after going through some of the posts I realized it’s new to me. Nonetheless, I’m definitely pleased I stumbled upon it and I’ll be book-marking it and checking back often!

    • Well if we are talking about lost kids that don’t have godly ptenras… as a missionary (now SAHM and wife to a missionary) with Child Evangelism Fellowship I must say you (the church) must go to the kids. It’s not good enough to teach sunday school classes of kids “About” Jesus. You MUST share the Gospel with them! Most of our churches teach Bible stories to children… which obviously I have no issues with… but I bet the reason these kids end up leaving is because they never became Christians! As someone who taught kids sunday school for a long time I can tell you most of the curriculum DOES NOT share the gospel… or it does once every 5 weeks or something like that. That isn’t good enough! You can’t expect kids to stay in church if they never accepted Christ as their personal Savior. For kids outside of the church? Go to where they are. Schools (yes you can do it, visit cefonline.com) community centers, parks, wherever kids are and tell them why Jesus came.Kids should know Bible Stories but if they don’t know the Gospel then they can’t be saved and won’t stay in church.

    • As a pastor’s wife- this topic is near to my heart!First of all, I have to say that I do not bveilee that the “Church” is at fault!! The Bible is very clear, that it is to be us PARENTS that are to be training our children in righteousness!!! Sunday School & Youth Group were started many, many years later & really were started for the “non-churched” kids! Those statistics are sad, but I think they are a lot due to the fact that parents have been relying on the church to teach their children about Christ- instead of taking an active role themselves (& actually living what they bveilee)!A couple things our church does that I LOVE are… when children turn 4, they join their parents in “big” church- children younger than that are certainly welcome, but there is nursery & children’s church provided for children under 4. Although I do understand how difficult it can be for some kids to sit so long (we are all about wiggles at our house), we bveilee that having children in the service, plants seeds in their little hearts! :)We also have just started a curriculum (our pastors & elders & teachers have created) that lasts 7 years & walks everyone through the Bible… all Sunday School classes of various ages as well as the sermon are focused on the SAME topic… are memorizing the same verse, etc. In this way, children (along with their parents) will go through an in depth study of the whole Bible twice.Sorry, this is getting way too long! ;)Great question!Jessica

    • Well, I learned something new. Only 4% of my generation believes the Bible!? Praise the Lord for Godly parents! Thank you Jesus! The kids need to be in Church… not youth group, not children’s church, but Church. I don’t me do not have these things, but a saved child, no matter what age, needs to be in “big” Church in my opinion, and the youth can STILL have their own group and attend regular services. Also, we HAVE to teach about having a RELATIONSHIP with our Maker and Saviour. If you are best, best friends with the God of our salvation, it won’t be so easy to walk away:) I pray my kids stay in Church…

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