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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. Tony Formaggio

    Joel Osteen -the greasy hairmop, the squinty eyes, the cheesy smile and the fake white teeth, where have I seen that before???

    Ah yes, that sleazy used car lot in East Boston.

    Joelly, little man, how's it going? Nice new gig you got. You can give the money you owe to us now. You don't need to worry about your old friends Big Willy and Guido. They're just here to make sure.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  2. merecat

    "Blind leading the Blind and both will fall into the pit... He preaches for MONEY... Unlike Jesus and his Apostles.. they had little or nothing.. They focused on preaching village to village and NEVER asked for MONEY!!!! Matter of fact Apostle Paul said that what he had before was a lot of Refuse... and said to be happy with sustenance and covering.. Olsteen come in w/a ZERO on both counts.. Squeaky clean shyster..

    October 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  3. jabjib

    You are a damed FOOL...

    October 7, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
  4. Catholic4Ever

    I have great admiration for a man like Osteen. He will always have critics. We all do. Jesus did and so his disciples. He's doing no harm but bringing a positive message to those who want to lend an ear. If you don't like it, you're free to watch others. I understand, Christianity is not only about having success and wealth in life because that's not real life. However his message is soothing to the souls of many. Part of his job is completed by him shining a light onto those who accept the message from a Christian point of view. If I want to hear the message from a theologist, I could find one too however many theologists preaching lack the true message of the messiah which is to LOVE each other, to love your enemy, to be one like Jesus was with the Father. The law condemns you, Jesus does not condemn anyone, YOU condemn yourself. Jesus wants us to be the light of the world. Joel does his part and everything else is between him and God.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  5. John

    Sorry Joel, but that is just exactly what you do.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  6. Donald in CA

    I'm sure the good rev. ment well but i was really disapointed in his answers on gays and politics. Even admitting being a good friend of racist right winger, gov. perry of texas. Then he says he's not political. I think after that interview with peirs morgan people can see thru all that feel good stuff. He portrays himself as someone perfect. I guess if you have no job and losing your house you can pray your way out of it. There are a lot of christians, who pray every day but still lost their jobs and their houses. Can you say barnum and bailey.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  7. MrJeckyll

    He is not a man of God. Test his spirit and you will see a wolf in sheeps clothing. I have the spiritual gift of discernment and I don't sense the Holy Spirit with this man.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Chaos

      "I have the spiritual gift of discernment and I don't sense the Holy Spirit with this man."

      I have common sense and can tell you are a deluded kook.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • MrJeckyll

      Wisdom comes from God, not common sense. Of course, you probably know nothing about God. Too bad. He tells all about Him in the Bible.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  8. infonomics

    Joel Osteen
    Oprah
    Rachel Maddow
    Rush Limbaugh
    Madison Avenue
    Democratic Party
    Republican Party

    The unUnited Nation of Hucksters. BS is our product and economic misery is our reward.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • steveinmo

      LOL, never thought I'd see the day when Rush Limbaugh (phew) and Rachel Madcow were side by side on the same list. Sorry, guess she's on top.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • John

      SHOW ME THE MONEY!

      October 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • infonomics

      "She's on top." Hmm, interesting.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Spencer

      I think that Mr. Osteen may be a positive influence for the world. Whether he is a influence for the kingdom of Heaven or not is not my call, that's God's. However, I will say this...As a someone who calls Jesus Christ my Savior, I believe that we have to address hard and uncomfortable issues in life. Life IS messy. Life IS hard. Life is NOT perfect. Positive thinking is meant for the golf course, but to combine positive thinking with the word of God is NOT biblically correct. And if you read the Bible and LISTEN to what God says, you will see that there is no "fluff" about what He says. I want to be an advocate for Christ, not somone who pretends to be one.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
  9. RIcky

    Osteen gets on national TV and refuses to speak the truth of God's Word. He is afraid of offending someone, but I have news for you. The message of Jesus is very offensive to sinners, and unless you confront sin head on it grows and kills. He is just a Dr. Phil with a pulpit. I know lots of people who don't believe in Jesus, the virgin birth, or the death burial and resurrection, yet they LOVE Joel Osteen. I think that says it all.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • RickyN66

      "I know lots of people who don't believe in Jesus, the virgin birth, or the death burial and resurrection, yet they LOVE Joel Osteen. I think that says it all."

      I am no fan of this slick used car salesman, but those that don't believe in a virgin birth or your zombie god say to me they don't believe in FAIRY TALES.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:25 pm |
  10. The self appointed teacher

    "His lack of seminary training is part of his appeal”... His appeal to the anti-intellectual, anti-education, under-educated crowd. America, the the laughing stock in the 'developped world', 6,000 yr earth history, anti-evolution, anti-science. Never mind that the same scientific method took us to the moon, created television, the internet and more, the same tools that those anti- folks use for their anti-science message. Hillarious.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • RIcky

      You hate Christians and make fun of their belief systems, but you like Joel Osteen. I think that says a lot about Mr. Osteen.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • CHUCK

      Huh? I'm a conservative and a Christian, and none of the venom you just spewed applies to me or mine. Most of us don't CARE how old the Earth is–6,000, or 60,000,000 years old. Whatever. that's not the most important issue around! We are concerned about following the Lord, ministering to those who are in need, doing what is right, being faithful to our spouse, being honest in our dealings with others, AND not being racist toward others. I know people who don't like certain races, but I still associate with them if for no other reason than to witness and minister to them. You hate blinds you; how sad.......

      October 7, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
  11. mrgup2

    Turn off the television and READ YOUR BIBLES!
    Do you believe it has authority? That should be your first question. If not, then why even bother. It'll just be a LIFE TEACHING or a RELIGION...which true Christianity is vehemently set against.

    not turning over a new leaf...NOR attempts by man to get to God will suffice. WE NEED TO UNDERSTAND THAT WE ARE BORN HATING GOD AND ONLY THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF HIS ONE AND ONLY SON CAN CHANGE THAT!

    October 7, 2011 at 4:23 pm |
    • lorne

      How come God only had 1 son. What's the deal with Mrs. God anyway?

      October 7, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
    • RIcky

      AMEN

      October 7, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • RIcky

      Lorne – Why do you pagans troll for stories about Christianity and religion?

      October 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Tom

      Allah needs to have a talk with you Mr(s) self righteous.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
    • Nonimus

      Who's a pagan? Perhaps you mean non-Christian?

      October 7, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
  12. sargeanton

    I have no problem with Osteen himself...only that he calls his club a church. It's not even close to being a church.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Mark

      define church?

      October 7, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  13. Mikeg

    Colin - I have no idea who you are, but that is a very well written summary. One might say that it is easy to compliment something with which you agree, but even a serious Christian would have to accept that you make good points.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  14. Enlightened4

    Naysayers stay damned, I'll take Joel's Positive message from Jesus everyday of the week and twice on Sunday. There is nothing that Joel preaches that is contrary to the Word of God. Guess if you aren't familiar with what God said, you would guess WRONG about Joel. Your misfortune. Be it unto you as you believe.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • RIcky

      If you believe this, then you know NOTHING about the Bible and God's Word.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  15. Tony

    I like the guy. I don't care if he's rich.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
    • Enlightened4

      Most of God's leaders are rich. Streets of GOLD are Not an indication of poverty.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • Mark

      for Enlighted4,

      "MOST of God's leaders are rich," wheres your information coming from? Define God's Leaders? Missionaries and other advocates sharing about "Jesus" all over the world are not rich. THEY are also God's "leaders."

      Bible reads, "Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven where moth and rust do not destroy....." MATT 6:20. This verse doesn't talk about the gold. God doesn't need Gold or your money to build his kingdom. For goodness sakes! He uses Gold as asphalt!
      The verse speaks about souls. People. The "stored treasures," in Heaven are people. Giving finances reaching out to people in the US and Internationally. Look through biblical scriptures and you see when Jesus met them, he took care of their needs before he shared the gospel/preached to them.

      I believe Pastor Joel Osteen and his church is legit. They reach out to people and help them with their needs and share the gospel.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
  16. ALMIGHTY SUN

    MAY THE LIGHT SHINE UPON YOU ALL AND LET ITS WARMTH FULL YOU BODY.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:21 pm |
  17. hippypoet

    sell off his jet, his houses, his cars, and all those fancy suits... then i might have cared more for this salesman...thats all he is, a fluffed up salesman!

    October 7, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Mark

      Sell all your belongings and maybe you'll have a say.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • Tom

      he's a hippy and a poet, more than likely he did already.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
  18. mrgup2

    Well, its obvious that this guy doesnt know what the gospel is. Not just a bunch of parables, but the story of how GOD became MAN and DIED for ALL OF US and how his GRACE for MANKIND is tapped into ONLY by FAITH in HIM. This CHANGES a person.
    CHEAP GRACE has completely infiltrated all aspects of church today. We can IGNORE any other part of the New Testament as long as we adhere to the current WATERED DOWN and IMPOTENT version of JOHN 3:16.

    EASY BELIEVEISM

    October 7, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  19. hippypoet

    he makes lots of money, and doesn't give it away... bad man!!! nor does he even teach any truth to anything, he just sells promises and dreams!

    October 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  20. PHinMiami

    I have never been a fan of all the hypocritical, ostentatious & arrogant televangelists. That said, Mr. Osteen comes across as an honest, clear thinking, genuine human being. His straight forward, calming demeanor speaks for itself. He is the 'go to' man for spiritual healing & direction. Apparently it's too much for the 'others' to comprehend.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
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