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Joel Osteen takes on his critics
Is Joel Osteen underestimated? One religious scholar says yes.
October 7th, 2011
12:26 PM ET

Joel Osteen takes on his critics

By John Blake, CNN

(CNN) - He peddles “gospel lite," a watered-down Christianity that mixes prosperity with piety.

That's how critics have described Joel Osteen's message. The televangelist may be the pastor of the largest church in America, but he still doesn't get respect in many parts of the religious community.

Osteen, a college dropout who never attended seminary, has built a huge international audience with inspirational messages that blend positive thinking and personal transformation. But is he preaching "gospel lite" messages devoid of any mention of sin and hard choices?

Osteen rejects that charge with the same honey-toned voice and unflappability he displays in the pulpit at Lakewood Church in Houston. There's no hint of defensiveness.

“I deal every day with life issues and sin in our church every week,” he says. “I deal with people who have cancer, talk to people about how to forgive when they’ve been hurt. I don’t think that’s light. That’s everyday issues.”

Osteen is promoting his latest book, “Every Day a Friday,” in which he shows readers “how to be happier seven days a week.” The book dispenses much of the same pulpit advice Osteen has given to the tens of thousands of members of his Texas church.

Much of that advice centers on attitude. Some samples: Playfulness is as important as sleep. After you climb, reach back. Give up your comfort to comfort others.

It’s not the traditional “turn or burn” pulpit message, and Osteen is OK with that.

“I don’t beat people down,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of condemnation in my message. I don’t believe that we’re supposed to be depressed and broke and poor and suffering. God wants us to be happy and to be a blessing to people.”

Osteen’s phrase “God doesn’t want us to be broke” sets off theological alarm bells for some critics who say that's code for preaching the prosperity message. Critics of that message – that God promises wealth to the faithful – say it transforms Jesus from a prophet to a financial adviser.

Go online, and there are plenty of pastors and scholars who go into detail about Osteen’s message. One of them is the Rev. Gary Gilley, senior pastor of Southern View Chapel in Springfield, Illinois.

Gilley says Osteen preaches a “gospel lite” message that avoids anything controversial such as judgment or sin.

He says Osteen also preaches that wealth is a sign of God’s pleasure. There are plenty of heroes in the Bible, such as the Old Testament prophets Jeremiah and Habakkuk, who were poor, Gilley says.

“Someone might counter that David and Solomon were wealthy, but this was not the case for Jeremiah and Habakkuk, both godly men who lost everything,” Gilley says. “So where does Osteen come up with the idea that 'God wants to increase us financially'? Of course, millions of examples throughout the world and throughout history could be given of godly people living in poverty.”

Osteen doesn't deny preaching about prosperity, but he defines it in broader terms than do his critics.

“When they say prosperity, that’s some guy on TV asking for money,” he says. “Our ministry is not about that. We’re about helping people. When I hear prosperity, it means to have good relationships, to be a blessing to people, to have peace in your mind.”

Shayne Lee, a sociologist at the University of Houston, says Osteen has been misunderstood. Lee has been a blunt critic of televangelists. In his book “Holy Mavericks,” he examines how Osteen and other televangelists use branding to sell themselves to a mass audience. Lee spent a year studying Osteen's church.

He came away impressed.

“He’s underestimated,” Lee says of Osteen. “He’s got tremendous skills that people will never give him credit for.”

Osteen’s skills quickly became apparent when he took over from his father, John Osteen, Lakewood's founder and longtime pastor. Joel Osteen had run the media department for his father, Lee says.

Osteen had to give his first sermon a week after watching his father die, Lee said.

“Few thought that he was up to the task, and some thought the church would fall apart,” Lee wrote in “Holy Mavericks.”

Lakewood now has 45,000 members, Osteen preaches to sold-out arenas across the country, and his television ministry draws millions of weekly viewers.

Lee cites three factors for Osteen’s success:

Marketing: He says Osteen’s previous work behind the camera taught him how to brand a ministry and create a visually appealing and quickly moving worship service.

Timing: When Osteen hit the pulpit in 1999, people had already grown tired of the smooth-talking televangelists who were often caught up in scandal. Osteen was the boyish-looking pastor who exuded sincerity and never pretended he had all the answers, Lee says.

Preaching: Osteen may not have the grasp of theology and church history that some pastors have, but he knows how to connect with ordinary Americans through a therapeutic message that draws heavily from pop culture, Lee says.

“His lack of seminary training is part of his appeal,” Lee says. “He’s not saying big words he learned from seminary. He’s speaking in a language that contemporary Americans understand.”

Lee says Osteen’s church is also underestimated. He says that Lakewood arguably has the most diverse congregation in the nation in terms of race, income and age, and that it does a lot for the poor.

Critics who complain that Osteen waters down the gospel are suspicious because of his “lack of rigid dogmatism,” Lee says.

Yet Lee says Osteen’s preaching honors the example of Jesus, who told stories more than he issued dogma. He says many of Osteen’s sermons are built on insights extracted from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount.

“Jesus used parables to speak in a compelling way that his contemporaries could understand,” Lee said. “Osteen is speaking the language of the people in the same way that Jesus did.”

- CNN Writer

Filed under: Belief • Books • Celebrity • Christianity • Church • Faith • Pastors

soundoff (1,331 Responses)
  1. craiglock

    Reblogged this on WHO IS THE "REAL, THE TRUE, THE LIVING" JESUS?.

    June 29, 2014 at 2:59 am |
  2. dapher duck

    This Kinda thang iz why I have no salvation-We're threwed into this- Listen to Howard pitman-DEMONS- Plycebo- There Iz no HOPE WHen ONE tells YoU One way- AND another the -OTHER WAY .. !! CONFUSED ?

    February 10, 2014 at 2:47 am |
  3. Another Steve

    I heard on the local news that Olsteen was doing a book signing in my area. My wife likes this guy and her Birthday was coming up so I thought she would like a signed book from him (like a stocking stuffer). At the Olsteen’s “Break Out!” book signing on 10/14/2013 at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena CA, the person getting us ready for Olsteen’s signing said that I would be able to take pictures as long as I did not impede the rate at which Olsteen was able to sign books. However this BIG tall baldly bodyguard dressed in all black, told me to put my camera away. Confused at the contradiction, I continued to shoot. Understand, for some reason, Olsteen came outside of the store and was signing books along the public walkway. I promised a guy that I would take a picture for him. As I did, this huge bodyguard lowered his towering face into mine and whispered, “you need to do what I told you sir”. Olsteen was about 5 feet from me while this was happening. When Olsteen got to me he asked “how are you?” I was speechless. Not because of the aura of God around Olsteen, but because had I not needed this dudes signature for my wife. I would have told he and his cronies to go (bad word) off. I would have gone on to explain that being a nice person to be around, doing your best, and LOOKING for opportunity will benefit anyone WITHOUT having to highjack God and the Bible to backup your prosperity message. Even though I told him that this was for my wife (I gave him her name), he ignored me and signed only his name while he maintained the perpetual grin.
    You might ask “then why would you get this book for your wife?” For the same reason that Olsteen gives his messages- It doesn’t matter if what you are giving is true or not, what matters is that it makes the recipient FEEL good/better. In my case I can directly discuss my opinion of this guys book with my wife. In Olsteen’s case he only gives sound bites of sunshine (I’m thinking sphincter). He never sits down to a long face-to-face discussion with someone who knows their stuff- theology matters. He asserts that doing so only brings division. I would add that God’s first acts were to divide this from that, He removed Adam and Eve from the garden, He had His people kill none-worshipers, there are sheep’s and goats, believers and nonbelievers, and TRUE believers and in the end there are the hell folks and the heaven folks- lots of division in the Bible…

    October 17, 2013 at 9:30 pm |
  4. Renee Sharp

    As my mother would say, "You can't get rich counting your neighbors money".

    August 6, 2012 at 12:30 am |
  5. Joshua Trumpy

    Thank you Steve for your insight on this. I too have been a "critic" of Mr. Osteens ministry, but your comment made me realize that I'm only passing judgement with a PLANK in my eye. Thanks for helping me remove it friend.

    June 30, 2012 at 8:55 am |
  6. Scaelon

    Joel Osteen is a false teacher. Never was a wolf wearing more wool than this man. Don't be fooled!

    April 24, 2012 at 7:18 pm |
  7. GH

    I haven't watched Joel Osteen very long but I intend to start watching him. Based upon my research of Joel and his wife and the few sermons I have heard him speak, I applaud him. Joel seems to take the view that he is speaking to encourage people to look to God for guidance. He is not political or critical. Politics and critical sermons have taken a toll on my support for any specific religion. I like what Joel has to say and will watch him.

    April 8, 2012 at 9:09 am |
  8. Steve

    STLDan: it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven.

    Mate, I'm confused. So if I'm earning 50K/year and I know someone who is earning 100k/year, does it make him a rich person hence will be going to hell? If Joel has $72mil does it make him rich although there are billionaires out there who are far richer than Joel. Does it mean that all of them will be going to hell?

    All in all, I can only say that the person crucified next to Jesus was a criminal (hence why he was crucified next to Jesus). He has done bad things throughout his life. But when he said:
    ==
    LUKE
    23:42 Then he said to Jesus, "Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom."

    Jesus then said:
    23:43 And Jesus said to him, "Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise."
    ==

    On the other hand, the high priests and Pharesees are the ones who know about the bible inside out but they are the ones who are quick to point out people's mistakes, condemning and judging. Do you think they will end up in heaven?

    Mate, we cannot judge who is rich and who isn't, who will be going to hell who won't. We are all saved only because of the grace of God.

    And to all of you, may I encourage you to just mind your own business and leave the Joel guy alone? The saddest thing is to become one of the Pharesees or these high priests thinking that we are the ones who are righteous while in fact we are the ones whom are hated by God. Let God be the judge and let's live our lives the best we can.

    God bless,
    Steve

    January 3, 2012 at 1:48 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.