'Did you hear Joyce last week' is a question being asked over the post service cup of coffee in many churches throughout the UK. The 'Joyce' in question is a fast-talking, take no prisoners, Bible believing, faith proclaiming, smart dressing American.
How did the TV evangelist averse British churchgoer come to embrace this 'faith teacher' and help propel her book sales towards the numbers you would normally expect of a Alpha course related Nicky Gumbel title? And should we be worried?
Joyce Meyer has a simple formula. She hires a stadium about twice a month, imports a familiar stage set - that is cleaned every day - and lets up to 15,000 people in for nothing. Her worship team lead the congregation in an eclectic mix of Pentecostal balladry, foot stomping praise and the occasional Matt Redman or Robin Mark song. She preaches four or five times, often for up to an hour and takes 10 minutes to sell her books and teaching tapes. Then she takes some offerings. Ministry lines are a rarity and simple appeals for those needing salvation are not long drawn out affairs.
Her talks are edited into TV and radio programmes and then broadcast via landlines and satellites that have the potential to reach over two-thirds of the population of this planet. Joyce and her team are reputed to be among the biggest buyers of airtime in the world. While her total weekday audience is hard to measure it seems likely to be at least 250,000 and perhaps as much as 1 million. She receives 15,000 letters a month from India alone.
Imagine the daily combined readership of: 'My Utmost for His Highest', 'Every Day with Jesus', 'Streams in the Desert' and 'The Word for Today', and you begin to see that Joyce could be to discipleship what Billy Graham was to crusade evangelism. In the late 19th Century Phoebe Palmer ignited an interest in holiness that was to give birth to several denominations, countless publications and via Hannah Whitall Smith the Keswick Convention. Is Joyce Meyer a Phoebe or Hannah for this generation, armed this time a TV and radio editing suite and a staff of 510?
On the face of it she's not the obvious candidate. Bought up in an abusive household, she suffered for many years at the hands of her sexually predatory father and was abandoned by her first husband. She found faith in a mainline denominational church but all was not well, as she told the American Christian TV show the 700 Club.
"I was going to church (but) I had a lot of problems in my own life and a personality that I was not overcoming - anger, bad attitudes, bitterness, things like that, so I just began to say to the Lord, 'Something is missing. I'm doing what I think I'm supposed to do, but I don't see the kind of victory in my life that I see any of the people of the Bible having. Something is missing. You've got to do something in my life.' As a result of that prayer, God filled me with the Holy Spirit. He touched my life in February 1976 in just a really powerful way. My life was radically different, and it really gave me a hunger for the Word of God."
That hunger for the Word of God was to draw her to a 6am daily Bible study and eventually to Life Christian Church. She started a small early morning home Bible study for women, which grew to 500. A belief that deliverance was vital to growth drew Joyce and her husband into daily deliverance ministry to people. Fighting the devil remains a motif in her preaching but she has told journalists that she is no longer involved in this type of ministry.
She began to make radio programmes, then moved to television in 1993, using the tried and trusted formula of editing her convention sermons. In 1998 she featured on the front cover of Charisma magazine, the leading Pentecostal/charismatic magazine in the US and her ascent to worldwide visibility began. ??
Word of Faith roots
?A prolific author, with over 55 titles in print, Meyer was published for many years by Harrison House, the leading 'Word of Faith' publisher. In recent times the rights to all her books were sold to mainstream publisher 'Warner', for their 'Warner Faith' imprint. With annual sales of 1.2 million she is in the sales stratosphere occupied by TD Jakes, Rick Warren and the 'Prayer of Jabez' and 'Left Behind' phenomena.
Meyer's early profile was not unrelated to the support of faith teachers such as Kenneth Copeland of the 'Word of Faith' movement and it was from within this movement that she was to emerge into the wider consciousness of the Pentecostal/charismatic movement. The faith teachers, often characterised as 'health and wealth' teachers propounding a prosperity gospel, have drawn criticism for several of their emphases.
These include an emphasis on 'positive confession' and an almost legalistic or even superstitious fear of any kind of negative speech. Other keynote beliefs suggest that all illness is demonic, and include a cornerstone belief derived from the writing of E W Keynon that Christ had to go to hell to purchase our salvation, along with the concept of 'revelation knowledge' whereby the Spirit reveals the meaning of a Bible passage. This approach can of course generate even more contradictory understandings of a passage than the more mainstream 'grammar and context' method.
Meyer has been identified with several of these schools of thought. The automatic reaction of the mainstream evangelical would therefore be to dismiss her as a sub-biblical heretic and get back to reading to reading their own teacher of choice, if they can indeed find one who doesn't have a theological achilles heel of some sort! There are many flavours of evangelicalism so few people will satisfy the theologically safe criteria of them all.
Dare I suggest however, that Meyer is sometimes ambivalent about her spiritual roots. Could I take that further and suggest that huge swathes of her 2.5 million word written output are in the mainstream of evangelical/pentecostal thought.
She may even be making a positive contribution to spiritual maturity in the UK. Somebody will one day do a PhD on her books and perhaps flesh out what I suggest below. A magazine-length article can only point that her theology isn't quite as black and white as we might assume.
The spiritual journey of Joyce Meyer
Meyer, like many of her positive confessing peers was very taken with the E W Kenyon message about, 'What happened from the cross to the throne'. His belief that Christ had to go to hell and that without this, the sacrifice of the Cross was not enough, rankles the mainstream church who feel it undermines the work of the Cross. She wrote on these themes in her 1991 book, 'The Most Important Decision You Will Ever Make'. The 1993 edition carried changes to that section and her tape set on the subject was later withdrawn.
With a background in deliverance ministry, Joyce could also be forgiven for being a 'sickness is demonic' stalwart. But she doesn't appear to be. Her own treatment for breast cancer and the overall emphasis of her preaching would suggest a healthy respect for the 'Christ the Victor' metaphor of the Cross, but not a 'demons everywhere' perspective. She speaks often of the attacks of the Devil, but rather more sparingly of the activities of evil spirits and their attacks on believers.
Meyer has never quite let go of the revelation knowledge idea and will lapse into 'the Lord has shown me' language. Nevertheless she has grown into her ministry, adapting her thinking as she goes. In her trademark self-depreciating way she will quickly admit that there have been some extremes along the way. Writing in her major overview of the work of the Holy Spirit 'Knowing God Intimately' (Warner Faith 2003) she admits; 'For several years I was caught up in a teaching that overly emphasized the gifts of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit… seriously began to deal with me about the fruit of the Spirit and walking in love.'
Like many of the second generation Faith Teachers, Meyer has relegated the faith emphasis to the background. Creflo Dollar speaks of Christian identity and relationship, Ulf Ekman tells people he leads a mission church, not a faith church and Joyce Meyer dwells on the fruit of the Spirit.
Whatever her roots, Meyer has read widely and cites Watchman Nee, Madame Guyon and Brother Lawrence among her influences. Do her writings reflect the themes of other evangelical groups? In 'Conformed to His Image' (Zondervan 2001), respected evangelical writer Kenneth Boa outlines several traditions that he believes help contribute to healthy discipleship. We find echoes of several of them in the teaching of Joyce Meyer.
Disciplined Spirituality?The healthy regard for positive habits of prayer and contemplation popularised by Richard Foster has found many disciples. Meyer notes the prayer habits of the early disciples and comments, 'this is good self discipline and there is nothing wrong with it.' She urges the readers of 'Straight Talk on Fear' (Warner Faith 2002) to discipline themselves 'to establish a prayer schedule that is individually suited to us and then stick to it until it becomes such a part of our lifestyle, that we do it without even thinking.'
Boa notes that that facets of the discipleship diamond include the following… are they part of Joyce Meyers theology?
- Motivated spirituality - Meyers belief in God's rewards.
- Warfare Spirituality - Her frequent reference to the attacks of the devil.
- Spirit Filled Spirituality - A constant theme and the subject of 'Knowing God Intimately'.
There are several other themes that Boa explores, that Meyer may or may not include in her writing, but one emerges as a Meyer keynote.
Exchanged Life Spirituality
While she urges her listeners to remind themselves what Christ has done for them and avoid habitual negativity, Meyer is often calling people to affirm their 'identity in Christ' in much the same way as Neil Anderson or the discipleship class of a New Frontiers church. This exchanged life view, was described by theologian Howard Hendricks as 'the life of Christ reproduced in the believer by the power of the Holy Spirit in obedient response to the word of God'. This has found expression in the work of Andrew Murray, Oswald Chambers, A B Simpson and Watchman Nee.
Close study of her writings may reveal that this is in fact the distinctive note of much of her presentation. Boa notes several specifics of this view. Here they are, with quotes from Meyers writings:??Our freedom from the law of sin and death (Romans 8:2).
'I went though torment and agony over legalism… I was afraid I would make a mistake and not hear from God. I felt safe when I followed rules and regulations but I also felt condemned. Jesus came that we might have and enjoy life to the full, until it overflows.'??We must know these truths, acknowledge them by faith to be true regardless of feelings to the contrary. Romans 8:6-13
'God began dealing with me about not staying angry …. I did not feel like it …. I finally got to the place where I wanted to please him more than I wanted to please myself'??The bankruptcy of our own resources (Romans 7:14-25)
'Our mind tells us what we think, not what God thinks. The Holy Spirit works with us to change that.'
Setting aside for the moment the theological nuances of her teaching a significant part of the Meyer appeal lies in her honesty and vulnerability. She talks of trying to fit the demure Christian woman mould, dressing in florals, staying at home, sewing and training herself to speak an octave higher. She gave up and settled for being a smart dressing, direct talking iconoclast.
Talking in Belfast earlier this year of her own selfishness, she was urged by the crowd to do her sulky robot illustration, which she did to roars of approval and laughter. She homes in on every detail of life, urging her listeners to express their discipleship by returning shopping trolleys to the designated bays. She told an August 2004 TV audience that even three years ago, news that her husband David was off for a day of golf, would have sent her into a 'what about me' rage. The Meyer ability to help her audience feel that they are in a 'we' learning experience, not a 'you' situation also adds credibility and plausibility to her advice. It's an unusual quality in a TV preacher.
So what are we to make of Joyce Meyer? While her diamante dominated dress sense and plastic surgery make never quite cut it with Home Counties charismatics and most of us will never quite understand the way the money is used, many British pentecostals and charismatics who've never had the innate anti-American-TV-preachers reflex of many British Christians, will continue to receive her down to earth discipleship advice and press it into action in their own lives.