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. Dave

    Osteen is a typical "New Age'r", devoid of teaching scripture. He has sucked a lot of people into his cavern and is making BIG $$ doing it. I wonder what his dad would say if he were alive.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  2. jon

    Osteen is the man!! everybody is on the outside lookin in...watch what you say about him because god will hold you accountable for your slander...people that love to talk will reap the consequences......

    October 7, 2011 at 5:51 pm |
    • albert

      The truth is that Osteen will have to answer to God for all the lies that he preaches. He is nothing but a greedy false prophet who is far removed from anything the Bible teaches. He is the epitome of Matthew 7:20-23.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
  3. Paul

    If a TV preacher is not being criticized by the liberal element in our society, you can bet he's a preacher that's not speaking out against sin.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
  4. B-Positive

    I'm not sure why people spend sooo much free time bashing Christians.. [?] They believe what they believe (Deal With IT!)
    As for Osteen's ministry.. I have seen it many times (Have you?) Not every one is "called" to do the same kind of work in the Christian religion/faith. Some have different kinds of gifts & ministries! (Ya know.. something for everyone & all walks of life) Maybe the "much negative" should take heed to some of the positive words Joel speaks. Or better yet, go visit the Lakewood Church! Not everyone has to be a fire & brimstone, loud speaking, Bible thumper like you think they should be! ~Keep in mind~ not everyone is a cookie cutter.. some just add ingredients, some just mix it up, some spread it & others turn on the heat! *+Peace+*

    October 7, 2011 at 5:49 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      Where is my bucket, quick! I can't find my bucket!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • B-Positive

      (@hippypeot fan) hahaha... MAYBE... its on your head!? LOL
      I really think you have a blast making all your quick witted comments!
      Hope you enjoy your evening!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      I like you BP. Still can't find my bucket, but it sure is dark in here!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  5. isolate

    It's heartening to know that religion can be dumbed down just like everything else in our declining society. "I'm not a minister, but I play one on TV," is the new eight-lane superhighway to Heaven (Lite). America is becoming a nation of the unchallenged and unchallenging, who blithely accept swindlers like Joel and Harold Camping and Pat Robertson at face value.

    "Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.

    "For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. ~ Matthew 24: 23-24

    October 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      It looks to me, isolate, that you seem to know this man more than God....stop judging, you seem to be in an isolate place in your life.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      Careful isolate, Helsgod is REALLY smart.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:50 pm |
    • Anon

      ^ Christarded is more likely.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  6. HeIsGod

    It is written in the Bible that many are used in different ways in the Body of Christ. Just like not everyone is called to stand in the pool pit preach, neither does every one is called to prophecy or interpret prophecy. Joel is unique like millions of Christians being used by God....stop hating on him!

    October 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
    • albert

      You are misguided and mislead.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
  7. *frank*

    He looks like he has something up his butt and can't decide whether he's happy about it or not.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      I'd say he is pretty happy. Prolly a golden cow.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:09 pm |
  8. David Solomon

    Osteen is in the Bible. Revelation calls him one of the "False Prophets". It's too bad he's inticed those 45,000 people away from the Bible. What a shame!

    October 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      So, because his last name is in the book of Revelations, God is referring to him?

      October 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • Larry

      I thought Obama was the false prophet. Make up your mind.

      I attend his church. Proud of it.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:44 pm |
  9. ericmatthews

    I'm disappointed in Christians who pass judgment on anyone. Following the teachings of Jesus makes Stone Throwers easy to ignore and pray for, if you truly know the Holy Spirit. The message of Jesus was not to Judge each other, but to Love each other, be compassionate and understand that you don't know all of God's workings in Humanity.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      If it feels good do it. Get naked and get stoned. Oh, sorry you meant throw stones. Well that might feel good too, but I would wear protection.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:41 pm |
    • ndeipala

      I totally agree with what you had to say

      October 7, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • isolate

      Jesus specifically warned repeatedly that the road to heaven was not smooth, nor were there any shortcuts. Stephen Crane put it even more succinctly in his poem, "The Wayfarer."

      The wayfarer,
      Perceiving the pathway to truth,
      Was struck with astonishment.
      It was thickly grown with weeds.
      "Ha," he said,
      "I see that none has passed here
      In a long time."
      Later he saw that each weed
      Was a singular knife.
      "Well," he mumbled at last,
      "Doubtless there are other roads."

      October 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  10. HeIsGod

    Joel uses a lot of parables as Christ did and the reason many people don't understand what he is preaching.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      They don't understand because Christians are half educated and completely stupid. Or is uneducated and half stupid. Well whatever.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      hippypoet fan – Umm, actually, you misread my comment, I wasn't referring to Christians, but to Atheists, Agnostics, unbelievers, and back-slider of the Word of God.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:37 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      No, I got your comment. I am just correcting you.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:39 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      hippypoet fan – Actually, I was correcting you since you lack education and can't read correctly....miserable unbeliever!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:43 pm |
    • Anon

      Up yours christard.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:45 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      I don't think Mr. Jesus would approve of your tone mister!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:48 pm |
    • RightSaidFred

      @ "HeIsGod
      hippypoet fan – Actually, I was correcting you since you lack education and can't read correctly....miserable unbeliever!"

      Just who is this "He" that you keep referring to... and you made a typo. It should read "your," not you. Perhaps you are lacking in education also, sir. "Let He who is without sin"... or education.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  11. greasy smile

    No wonder hes got such a big smile. Hes raking in millions from the poor lost souls and with no conscience he feels no shame.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:31 pm |
    • Mike Hunt

      He looks Gay in that photo.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Which poor lost souls are you referring to, the ones that don't to his church? How does he get them to give to his church when they don't go there? I am sure that every "lost" soul that goes there don't come out "lost" anymore, but are found by Christ.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      Man, that is just never funny and never cool.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:38 pm |
    • RightSaidFred

      @ Mike Hunt: You look "gay" in your photos, but I won't hold it against you.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:40 pm |
  12. M Tolosa

    With too much violence and negativity around, I find it enlightening to hear Pastor Osteen's messages on TV every Sunday. I look forward to his positive outlook of life and his High Praises of a Loving and Forgiving Saviour. He makes us rethink our ways and teaches us to appreciate and share our Blessings! Faith comes from the Heart. I am a 58 yrs old and I prefer to hear God's Good Graces through someone who delivers it with sincerity and down to earth feelings. He talks about a Loving and Forgiving God. Our own repentance of our sins and asking the Lord into our lives is what he preaches. He is not telling me to join his church, he tells me to find a "Bible Based" Church. That I found in his Church.

    I believe that people listen to him because his messages are a "breath of fresh air and hope" which uplifts everyone's spirit knowing that there are a lot of challenges around us. I never met the Pastor but I feel like I know him.

    This is a free country and if you do not approve of his ways of preaching, then, tune out.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      That is all well and good if he weren't lying. I have no evidence but I believe he is an athiest.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • ADESC

      But watch and dig in the philosophy he preaches and you will soon see how the Lord he describes resembles more like a robot or servant of our own carnal wishes.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:35 pm |
  13. Adrian

    I definitely hope that he does speak and teach about the need for salvation through the acceptance of Jesus Christ. Moreover, he isn't stealing the church's money, they help the poor, he's not embroiled in scandal, and he, apparently, works all the time. I don't see the problem. Sad when other Christians try to throw you under the bus; by other speaking negatively about you.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
    • ADESC

      we will wait and see. The work of the Spirit is always tested....

      October 7, 2011 at 5:32 pm |
  14. Mark

    See what an Oxford trained theologian said about Osteen's core message on 60 minutes a few years ago. The segment with the theologian is at minute 7:35.


    October 7, 2011 at 5:26 pm |
  15. Pastor Theo Koulianos, Sr.

    I will not judge Rev Osteen nor his ministry. It seems however that this country applauds, based upon the article, all of the criteria that the world looks to, in their deciding if Rev Osteen's ministry is built on God or man. But the Kingdom of God is not the same as the world! In all of Rev Osteen's messages, is it clear that he is teaching the entire Gospel, as did Jesus, the Apostles, and the early church Fathers? What only matters is that when it is all said and done, is that professed believer's name in the Lamb's Book of Life. This is impossible, if that believer does not endure until the end. He or she must know the fellowship of Jesus' sufferings and the power of His resurrection. Jesus must be the focus, not the believer. First love for the Lord Jesus must be above all else! The Holy Spirit is the only One who can reveal Jesus!

    Repentance of sins must be addressed and that it must be taught that the only remedy that awaits the sinner is to be found at the Cross. The blood of Jesus is the only precious blood that can remedy that sin. Finally, do those who follow Rev Osteen have the realization that they must not only accept by faith a Savior; but they must also surrender to the Lordship of Jesus? Do they have a faith, which is evidenced by their lives (works) ..this must be manifested. Do we love the Lord Jesus with all of our hearts, our souls and our strength? If not, it will be too late at the day of the Great White Throne of Judgement. The people must be told that it is not what the people think of Jesus, or how good they are made to think of themselves and or their church..it is what does Jesus think of them!

    October 7, 2011 at 5:25 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      I have the GOOD NEWS! People don't rise from the dead. There is no Jesus (or zombies) so relax! Everything's cool man. Lather on some SPF 50, get nekkid and go have some fun! The universe is happier with dead people floating around and Devils and stuff. Come and SEE the LIGHT!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:46 pm |
  16. 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 outside 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 5:23 pm |
  17. ADESC

    It is indeed Golpel Lite. The gets rich on gullible people to go elsewhere and be rich relying on supposed gospel tenets that tells us the Lord is our Slave.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:22 pm |
    • *frank*

      Golpel Lite? Is that a pilsner?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
  18. Gpenn

    Osteen and his wife are nothing more then common con artists hiding behind a bible.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      And you proof of this, how?

      October 7, 2011 at 5:33 pm |
    • Anon

      It's common sense.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  19. Stephen

    Never heard one of Osteens services. However, go by his "church" and you won't see a cross or any other symbolism of Christian faith. But Joel's name is in 10ft. high letters. Perhaps he is the "second coming"?

    October 7, 2011 at 5:20 pm |
  20. Scot

    Case in point of why we need to taxes these churches and their pastors who make millions off of these poor people. I was raised in a large church in the 50's where the congegation was upward to 1000 people. The pastor lived in a modest home and the moneys from the offerings went to the missions are the world. These guys are just con artists taking money for theri own interests.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
    • Tony

      Television broadcast around the world. His brother Dr Paul doing mission works in Africa every 3 to 5 months. Local mission in Houston community. Missions to Honduras. Donations to local churches. I know where the money goes. I remember years back that some christian organization wants to know how Lakewood spend the money. After they investgate Lakewood, they didn't find anything and never heard from them again. Now I know what Lakewood stand for is to get people to God's Kingdom. That's a good goal for a church.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
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