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. Bob Hunter

    An excellent example of his Gospel-deficient style can be found here:

    October 7, 2011 at 6:23 pm |
  2. mattmatters

    Listen Joel:

    1. I have a sick sister whom I brought to your church. Members of your staff will not allow her in any way to be presented in front of you for any kind of healing. From that day, I realized you are just a legitimate con.

    2. All you do every week is to "SELL HOPE" to millions of people around the world and make them feel guilty and collect their money..


    October 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm |
    • Kenny G

      This says it all

      October 7, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • AJ

      Let me be extra clear. Joel is not Jesus Christ. There is no such thing as him laying hands on your sister to heal her. Jesus Christ healed. God can heal. Joel presents a good message. That is his job and he does it effectively.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:30 pm |
    • Anon

      ^ All Christians are like this in the head.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
  3. Barbara

    I listen to Joel every week. I don't need fire and brimstone message. I am a Christian. I think that is for unbelievers. He syre makes you feel better after his sermons and has stengthened my faith.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Kenny G

      not too mention how your spelling has improved.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:26 pm |
    • AJ

      Kenny G I see you must be without sin and perfect as you are casting stones. Are you God? Lest you have no error and condemn another for their mistakes. Not very Christian like. I offer a message of positivity. Change your behavior when talking to other people. Do not pick.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
    • Kenny G

      AJ, no, I'm much more real than your god.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
  4. Jimbo

    JO mixes Bilbe with phycology, and it is very effective and appealing. I cannot deny the fact I feel better after listening to his weekly sermon/speaking. It is significantly less boring than what I hear at my local church. As long as he is sincere, honest, compassionate, respectful of others, I see nothing wrong with his preaching. Coffee comes in different flavors and brands, and so is religious teaching.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
    • Anon

      It's still wishy washy BS.

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

    This is so stupid and wrong I cannot believe this guy would have the guts to say this: “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.”

    October 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  6. Dante

    It's still OK to say "Jesus loves you"–because He does!


    October 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
    • Kenny G

      More appropriate video, especially about god and money http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gPOfurmrjxo

      October 7, 2011 at 6:24 pm |
    • Kenny G


      October 7, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
  7. Andy

    A decade ago, I was enthralled by many of the TV preachers, but after much observations, I have to say these are my top three TV preachers (in this order): 1) Charles Stanley, 2) Joel Osteen, 3) TD Jakes. But Stanley is more of TEACHER than a PREACHER of the Word. I mean, Stanley makes his points and backs them up with Word references.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:10 pm |
    • Bob Hunter

      So one of your favorites preaches Gospel-lite and another one denies the Trinity (Jakes).

      October 7, 2011 at 6:21 pm |

    this guy hates jews,and preaches it in his church

    he has been recorded and i heard the tape

    October 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
    • lucky strike

      what did he say?

      October 7, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
    • Frank Cardenas

      He told Larry King, who was a Jew, that he would go to hell if he didn't accept Jesus. This I have seen personally.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:14 pm |
    • hez316

      Jesus was a Jew.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Anon

      Jesus is a myth.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:41 pm |
    • Redbear

      Satan is the accuser, Jesus is the redeemer, I would have to pray a blessing over the accusers who are against this man. We all have a relationship with God, give your worries to him. God has a plan for us, I can be rich in faith and that's enough for me! Bless you all.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:07 pm |
  9. Frank Cardenas

    CNN sure has a love affair with this guy. He was on Larry King constantly and now Piers Morgan and now this. What he teaches is "Christian lite" with a little New Thought from Dr. Joseph Murphy, Emmet Fox and even perhaps Ernest Holmes' Science of Mind. He is pretty much the Norman Vincent Peale of this generation. Nothing new, he just makes Christians feel really good about themselves but really doesn't challenge them at all to be better. In other words, he makes lots of money but he sure ain't no Jesus!

    October 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  10. lucky strike

    Olsteen had 4 million people in tears of gratidude last week end he is like the new john lennon he talks and people listen.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  11. Steve

    hey joel, i have 30 days to live, where can i sign over my 'estate' to you & your foxy wife???

    October 7, 2011 at 6:03 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      Oooh I think I just his smile get bigger! I am glad it is not a full body picture!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:06 pm |
  12. Bruno Ponzi

    It's Reverend Ike in whiteface.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  13. Georgia Wright

    Joel do not be detered by your critics. Christanity is a personal matter and you bring hope, encouragement and comfort to many. No one has ever been to Heaven and back and they have no right to interpret what is written in the scriptures for the people on earth. Joel God has called you to be a voice to many and if in the process you make money, congratulations. You will be able to help so many in need. God bless you.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:01 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      And God Bless Capitalism right Joel? Oh yeah, look at that smile. Say cheese! I have been to heaven and back. It was in college. WOW.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:04 pm |
    • Steve

      i'm sure he'll help just 'enough' people in need to take the 'charitable contributions' on his income taxes!!!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:05 pm |

      if it is a personal matter,why stick it in other's face?


      October 7, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
    • hez316

      Not sure I agree. Paul may have gotten a taste of heaven and "came back". See 2 Cor 12. May be why he had such a different perspective than others.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
  14. Donna

    I watch JO before church on Sundays. A perfect duo.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      I watch Spongebob re-runs before football on Sundays. A perfect duo.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
  15. Steve

    yes, i'm jealous – wish i had a 'golden tongue' to make people believe i was the spokesperson for god & have them give me all their money, LOL

    October 7, 2011 at 5:58 pm |
    • scarlet29

      I would agree, that's a great idea, except for the fact that he doesn't take a salary from the church. He preaches for free.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:19 pm |
  16. Billy

    God calls Preachers not speakers.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
  17. Bev

    I have spent my entire life in church, and I must say it saddens me to see people as always try to take something good and only find the bad in it. I have listened to many pastors and ministers over the years and I have to say that every time I catch Joel Osteen's telecasts I am blessed somehow. He is honest and real, and anyone who has truly felt the spirit of God move in their life will feel that presence in his ministry. I have purchased a few of his books, but it was MY choice, because I wanted a stronger walk. Not because I felt compelled to give my money. Sometimes, we have to just be still and listen. God works through all sorts of people and situations. I am thankful for what Joel shares, and for the times when it is just what I need to hear to lift me up or set me straight. God bless.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:56 pm |
    • hippypoet fan

      Wow, you made me really sad. I am sorry you wasted so much of your life. Church is soooooooooooo boring.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • Steve

      Were you also 'moved' by jim & tammy faye, or jimmy swaggart??

      October 7, 2011 at 6:02 pm |
    • Frank Cardenas

      Osteen pretty much said that Jews and other Non-Jesus-Is-My-Savior types will go to hell. Now that is stupid and ignorant and divisive and nothing to be admired!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
    • PartyN

      @Bev I totally agree wuth you Joel Osteen is a great PASTOR..he inspires me in so many ways and all you people that say nasty comments about PASTOR OLSTEEN "MAY GOD BLESS YOU ALL"

      October 7, 2011 at 6:16 pm |
  18. Don

    The LAST thing this world needs is, "MORE religeon". Give us a break! Nothing is responsible for more human deaths, not wars, not natural disasters. Go preach, "Good without GOD!". Man is the animal with the big brain. Use It! Do what you KNOW is good. Don't do what you KNOW is bad. We don't need these paracites who want control, power and wealth, to tell us what us what to do, what not do, what to eat, what not to eat, etc., etc.
    Dignify the human spirit with freedom FROM religeon.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:55 pm |
  19. Not buyin' the hooey

    Just another con artist, a grifter for the masses. It's sad to see so many taken in by his schtick.

    October 7, 2011 at 5:54 pm |
  20. Anon

    I wish I had a time machine to send obnoxious Christians back to the dark ages for a taste of "real christian love".

    October 7, 2011 at 5:53 pm |
    • Bran

      Anon please! Read more! They werent christians!

      October 7, 2011 at 5:59 pm |
    • Anon

      Of course they were, otherwise we would've been exploring other galaxies by now if it weren't for their anti-science/progress views.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
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