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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. Ms V

    If you don't know what the GOSPEL is any one can preach. Remember Jim Jones?

    October 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Kenny G

      That leaves it wide open then.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  2. god aint real fools

    Osteen makes millions a year, travelling in private jets with his w hore wife, preaching the word of a man who urged his followers to live meager lives.

    When are you fools going to wake up and realize that god is a scam to consolidate power. Religion is the original fear tactic to control the masses. There is no spirituality in it. 10 commandments are ripped off from hammurabi's code. jesus is a retelling of Egyptian solar gods.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • Lycidas

      When are you going to give any facts for anything you just ranted about? Facts mind you...not as_sumptions.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
  3. Oldfortman

    Joel just keep teachen your false message. You will face God on judgement day. He will judge, not me.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • Robin

      Isn't that statement judgemental? We will all be judged. Why is Joel's message false? God speaks of his people prospering. Are not the streets of heaven paved in gold? How can anyone deliver the gospel with no finances?

      October 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
  4. mouse

    And so many silly religions.....

    October 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
  5. Cathryn

    Joel and Victoria Osteen are the Pastors for today as well as Joyce and Dave Meyer. Watch their shows on television and listen to every word and trust me you will be a changed person. Having pastors like this today who is able to grasp the attention of the teenagers and college students not having to be forced to attend church or sit down and listen to the word is so amazing. I think that Joel and Joyce (along with Victoria and Dave their coopastors) are the Pastors sent here by our Lord and Savior to guide us in remembering that even in hard times we are to rejoice because that is the prices Jesus Christ paid his life for us to live and rejoice not somedays but everyday even when life appears toough.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
    • Kenny G

      You'll be a changed person only because your wallet will be lighter.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:21 pm |
    • Gpenn

      Osteen doesn't want your change. He wants twenties.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
  6. Cameron Bradford

    So many silly people.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:01 pm |
    • Lucian

      He is a fraud and a fake. If you can't understand that in the first 2 seconds of seeing and hearing this jack off, then you are as blind as the people in his "church". This guy will burn in hell. The job of the church is to spread the word or God and to save lives in Jesus's blood, not try to make a buck and speak nicely. What a joke!!! And people believe this loser? I'm in the wrong business!!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:13 pm |
    • JPZ

      I have listen to Joel Osteen and NEVER hear he preach or talk about salvation Jesus (God) is the only way to God father and about Sin, Ours sins make us live in darkness (away from Jesus Christ (God) The Bible teach us that Christ is the light if we keep living in the dark (Sins) then we're getting away from Christ. I respect Mr. Osteen but never, never preach about Salvation and the true about our Sins. My personal opinion is he doesn't preach only MOTIVATED people! that's all (with all my respects to him) but that's true..John MacArthur, Jr says in the Saved without a doubt book.."Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves!" (2 Cor. 13:5) –

      October 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  7. VONNIE

    The enemy have been deceiving the masses for a long time (billions upon billions of years) People look at a big ministry and think that God is in the mix, that has been proven over and over again not to be alwasys be true. I'm not saying Joel Osteen is not a true man of God, I'm saying be drawn by the Spirit not by appearance.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm |
    • Robin

      Joel Osteen is delivering the message of God. Prosperity is in the Bible. God speaks about how it brings Him joy when his children prosper.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
  8. cola

    For those who believe in God and are truly spirtual, they understand that true wealth has nothing to do with money or material possessions, and has all to do with receiving the gift of everlasting life. It is extremely sad that pastors all over this nation base their perceptions of success on wealth and material possessions.

    Church has become big business! A cash cow where pastors have to keep the milk flowing! With that in mind...don't expect any pastor to tell you the truth when it comes to your money and his or her church.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • snow

      Sure.. when you are hungry and want to eat something today evening, go the the restaurant or grocery store, tell them to get you the food and charge the bill to god and his gifts

      October 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  9. DarrellS

    It took about 2 minutes of watching this charlatan on TV for me to make my judgment. His fake smile, mannerisms, and almost holier-than-though gaze were enough to turn my stomach. You can tell when someone practices a religion correctly. They don't appear to be different than anyone else through their presence, but you know they're different through their works. Honestly good religious leaders don't seek the limelight, and when they're in it, their behavior doesn't change. JO just doesn't possess the qualities of a true leader of any real faith.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:55 pm |
  10. Jake

    Of course Osteen has to preach the prosperity is just God's blessing. He's gotta justify that $200K a year "job". Oh yeah, he gave up that modest pastor's "salary" (even though half the congregation is unemployed) because he makes millions off his books and tapes now. You'd think if he were really into helping folks...he'd just give it away for free and create a non-profit to pay for production. but alas he's not from the same cloth as Jesus, he just makes money off of the name of Jesus and validates his wealth by claiming it to be "blessings".

    October 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  11. Eric M

    My at 12 days old received a hearth transplant, without a new heart he will not be here with us today. 4 years later I do recall hearing late at night (our family had many late nights during that period) pastor Osteen. His message was different than any other, it really helped us and still does to have hope and to live the moment and enjoy it.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
    • Eric M

      My Son

      October 7, 2011 at 4:53 pm |
  12. Jimmy

    I love this guy. II grew up in the Catholic church and am more ispired by this guy in 5 mins than listening to catholic priests for 20 yrs. I'm buying his book.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  13. whome

    To follow him is either right or wrong one thing to be sure is you'll have to die to find out for sure/

    October 7, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
  14. Sarcasmo

    I never cease to be amazed at what people are capable of believing, or how much money they are willing to give to someone who simply fills them with a sense of hope. The brain is a strange and fascinating thing.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • AGuest9

      Hope? I believe that was how the current president was elected! (Although he has more brains than the stooge who spent 8 years creating this mess.)

      October 7, 2011 at 5:09 pm |
  15. 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 fella, 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 4:47 pm |
  16. ALMIGHTY SUN

    YES DO AS THE HIPPYPOET FAN HAS STATED!

    MAY THE ALMIGHTY SUN SHINE UPON YOU ALWAYS AND FULL YOU WITH WARMTH.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:47 pm |
  17. hippypoet fan

    Join me disciples. Lather yourself generously in SPF 50 and worship the SUN as the prophet hath beckoned you. You can be naked if you want.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Seriously

      Oh, what's the matter hippy baby, didn't your mommy love you enough to teach you about Jesus. Poor baby, now you get to blame all the God fearing people for their beliefs because you don't have any. Waa! Waa!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:11 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      No my friend. I was well-loved and nourished. You are quite misguided for I belittle no one nor be-grudge their beliefs, and I certainly don't make fun of unhappy children with broken or dysfunctional homes. You are an unpleasant person but YOU can change! Free yourself of your misery and ponder the wonders of all things!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  18. Reality

    As we "thu-mp" along with rational thinking, conclusions and reiteration to counter the millennia of false and flawed religious history and theology!!!------––

    Saving Christians like Osteen from the Infamous Resurrection/Easter Con/Disease:

    From that famous passage: In 1 Corinthians 15 St. Paul reasoned, "If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith."

    Even now Catholic/Christian professors of theology are questioning the bodily resurrection of the simple, preacher man aka Jesus.

    To wit;

    From a major Catholic university's theology professor’s grad school white-board notes:

    "Heaven is a Spirit state or spiritual reality of union with God in love, without earthly – earth bound distractions.
    Jesus and Mary's bodies are therefore not in Heaven.

    Most believe that it to mean that the personal spiritual self that survives death is in continuity with the self we were while living on earth as an embodied person.

    Again, the physical Resurrection (meaning a resuscitated corpse returning to life), Ascension (of Jesus' crucified corpse), and Assumption (Mary's corpse) into heaven did not take place.

    The Ascension symbolizes the end of Jesus' earthly ministry and the beginning of the Church.

    Only Luke's Gospel records it. The Assumption ties Jesus' mission to Pentecost and missionary activity of Jesus' followers The Assumption has multiple layers of symbolism, some are related to Mary's special role as "Christ bearer" (theotokos). It does not seem fitting that Mary, the body of Jesus' Virgin-Mother (another biblically based symbol found in Luke 1) would be derived by worms upon her death. Mary's assumption also shows God's positive regard, not only for Christ's male body, but also for female bodies." "

    "In three controversial Wednesday Audiences, Pope John Paul II pointed out that the essential characteristic of heaven, hell or purgatory is that they are states of being of a spirit (angel/demon) or human soul, rather than places, as commonly perceived and represented in human language. This language of place is, according to the Pope, inadequate to describe the realities involved, since it is tied to the temporal order in which this world and we exist. In this he is applying the philosophical categories used by the Church in her theology and saying what St. Thomas Aquinas said long before him."
    http://eternal-word.com/library/PAPALDOC/JP2HEAVN.HTM

    The Vatican quickly embellished this story with a lot CYAP.

    Of course, we all know that angels are really mythical "pretty wingie talking thingies".

    With respect to rising from the dead, we also have this account:

    An added note: As per R.B. Stewart in his introduction to the recent book, The Resurrection of Jesus, Crossan and Wright in Dialogue,

    p.4

    "Reimarus (1774-1778) posits that Jesus became sidetracked by embracing a political position, sought to force God's hand and that he died alone deserted by his disciples. What began as a call for repentance ended up as a misguided attempt to usher in the earthly political kingdom of God. After Jesus' failure and death, his disciples stole his body and declared his resurrection in order to maintain their financial security and ensure themselves some standing."

    p.168. by Ted Peters:

    Even so, asking historical questions is our responsibility. Did Jesus really rise from the tomb? Is it necessary to have been raised from the tomb and to appear to his disciples in order to explain the rise of early church and the transcription of the bible? Crossan answers no, Wright answers, yes. "

    So where are the bones"? As per Professor Crossan's analyses in his many books, the body of Jesus would have ended up in the mass graves of the crucified, eaten by wild dogs, covered with lime in a shallow grave, or under a pile of stones.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Too many words plus 3 demerits for over use of the words "to wit"

      October 7, 2011 at 4:51 pm |
    • GauisJulius

      We know enough about the Romans to know that they allowed the bodies to be taken down (although there were some instances of not allowing the bodies to be taken down) by the family members of the condemned. Furthermore, the ressurected body was witnessed not just by the disciples but also 500 other people...enough people to start the largest movement in recorded history. Just ponder the known fact that Nero put to death thousands of Christians in Rome in 66AD, not 30 yrs after the death of Jesus on the cross. Rome is thousands of miles away from Jerusalem, and the movement wasn't known to Gentiles until later under Paul. During your mathematical computations, you should take that into account.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:57 pm |
    • Reality

      Make it simpler with an updated prayer:

      The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians during the past 200 years)

      Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
      and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
      human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

      I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
      preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
      named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
      girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

      Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
      the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

      He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
      a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
      Jerusalem.

      Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
      many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
      and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
      Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
      grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
      and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
      called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

      Amen

      October 7, 2011 at 11:34 pm |
  19. stuckinafghanland

    I personally enjoy his messages. The main thing I like is that he don't just wag his finger in the pool pit and condem everbody saying that this person or that person is going to hell. It's not suppose to be about that. Jesus was about love and I think that what Pastor Olsteen focus on and so many oter pators forget about. Pastors need to get out of the "pointing finger" game and please leave politics alone and win souls for christ.

    October 7, 2011 at 4:42 pm |
    • TheTruth72

      Without repentence a person can not enter into Heaven. Plain and simple. You can ignore the fact all you want. God does not ignore it. So, come to terms with it. It's not condemning, in fact, it's the opposite. It is helping you realize that you need to check your life for sin and repent of it. This is just something that Joel doesn't get into because he wants to keep his image good. As Christians, we shouldn't worry about our image. That is making ourself an idol and needs repentence for as well. Jesus also told us that we would suffer like He suffered. Now re-read the 9th paragraph above. See the contradiction in Joel's message? His message is nice and tickles people's ears, but it's this way because he speaks half the truth of the Gospel and fluffs it up. Most people are falling into this trap today.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:50 pm |
  20. Reality

    To the nitty-gritty of Christianity:====================================>

    JC's family and friends had it right 2000 years ago ( Mark 3: 21 "And when his friends heard of it, they went out to lay hold on him: for they said, He is beside himself.")

    Said passage is one of the few judged to be authentic by most contemporary NT scholars. e.g. See Professor Ludemann's conclusion in his book, Jesus After 2000 Years, p. 24 and p. 694

    Actually, Jesus was a bit "touched". After all he thought he spoke to Satan, thought he changed water into wine, thought he raised Lazarus from the dead etc. In today's world, said Jesus would be declared legally insane.

    Or did P, M, M, L and J simply make him into a first century magic-man via their epistles and gospels of semi-fiction? Most contemporary NT experts after thorough analyses of all the scriptures go with the latter magic-man conclusion with J's gospels being mostly fiction.

    Obviously, today's followers of Paul et al's "magic-man" are also a bit on the odd side believing in all the Christian mumbo jumbo about bodies resurrecting, and exorcisms, and miracles, and "magic-man atonement, and infallible, old, European/Utah, white men, and 24/7 body/blood sacrifices followed by consumption of said sacrifices. Yummy!!!!

    So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man (or Osteen) would do or say?

    October 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
    • r-hope

      So why do we really care what a first century CE, illiterate, long-dead, preacher man (or Osteen) would do or say?

      And yet the REALITY is millions around the world do care. do... 45000 do care what Osteen have to say. Thats the reality my friend. Facts dont lie

      October 7, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • PJ

      Jesus washed his disciples' feet, concluding that event by saying that he had set them an example and they were now to do for one another as he had done for them. That was then. This is now: He has changed my life. Imperfect though I am he has taken my sin and guilt, freed me from them (and nothing else could!), filled me with his goodness, his very person and is at this moment making me more loving, joyful, peaceful – and so much more. I love him – because he first loved me – and he loves you. And, yes, I do have the hope of a very real and eternal Heaven. God is good.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:10 pm |
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