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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. Imam al-Mahdi

    We'll see how honorable Joel Osteen is when we see whether or not he tries to lay claim to writing The New Book of Joel. Life's greatest mysteries answered at:

    plusone4theheroes.org

    October 7, 2011 at 7:08 pm |
  2. Meathead (of the Word)

    Lu: that was scathing! lol.

    Newsflash: There is a big difference from "being judgemental", and "judging all things" (as we are to do).

    A good opposite from Olsteen would be Dr. Charles Stanley.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's Osteen.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:15 pm |
  3. Really?

    He's a fraud, as are they all. There can be no such thing as a christian who believes in the holiness and literal words of god that is contained in scripture who then asserts they have faith and anyone can prove it. Matt 17:20 says, "...if you have faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mountain, move from here to there and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." And yet, none of them can do this, so you can logically deduce that either none of them has ever had any faith or it's all a hoax. Christians like to pick and choose which scriptures to beat others over the head with, I like this one to beat them over the head with. They have wonderful work arounds on this but, hey, it's what the bible says...so it's either true or it ain't. And my money's on, it ain't.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:02 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      I believe ALL religious people are some flavor of agnostic. BUT they can't bring themself to confront facts because of their paralyzing fear of death. It's natural I guess.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:09 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      CS: Note that there is a huge difference between 'religious' and 'spritual'. I am spiritual and I believe that I have a relationship with my higher power. But I am not religious, which involves rituals and judging others.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:14 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @lu
      Right on Lu.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @lu
      I went back and read your previous posts. You ARE religious and you lied to me.

      Errors and Retractions: lu does not get a "right on"

      October 7, 2011 at 7:26 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      LOL who cares? Like I need the approval ????

      October 7, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @lu
      You are alright in my book, Retraction revoked.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:39 pm |
    • jennifer

      we have already moved mountains, I drove through one on the way home from work today:)

      October 7, 2011 at 11:59 pm |
  4. Greg

    Just look at that broad, toothy, insincere smile. That's a swindler's smile, and the last time I checked, swindling wasn't a behavior endorsed by Christianity.

    October 7, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      The dance sensation that's sweeping the nation!

      Myyyyyyyyyy hair is curly and my teeth are white! I preach all day in the bright spot light!
      You give me money and praise my name.....but I screw you just the same same same!

      And my hair is greasy...bum bum

      October 7, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • Patrick

      Well said Greg. I could think of a few other adjectives to use to describe Mr. Olsteen and all his ilk. Huckster, con-artist, and shyster. When are the sheep that follow these wolves in sheep's clothing ever going to wake up??? Snap out of it you sheep!!! All these guys are looking for is how to enrich themselves, and it's not through the bible. It's through your wallet!!!

      October 7, 2011 at 7:31 pm |
    • Patricksday

      It sure is in the South, that section on Matthew has been removed too!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:48 pm |
  5. lu, south Fla

    Osteen preaches all the happy stuff in the New Testament – Paul's words to the Galatians Ephesians Thesselonians peoples. but Osteen completely avoids any words about judgment by God, anger from God, or the consequences of your actions. Those are in the Old Testament. He does not show the balance. Osteen is like a high school pep rally. If you want a big toothy smile go to Osteen or talk to your guidance counselor. That is all he is.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      The dance sensation that's sweeping the nation!

      Myyyyyyyyyy hair is curly and my teeth are white! I preach all day in the bright spot light!
      Yoooooooooooooooou give me money and praise my name.....but I screw you just the same same same!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:54 pm |
    • Greg

      Precisely. As my Texan father-in-law said, he's all hat and no horse. He promulgates a shallow, self-serving worldview that masquerades as Christianity, but in fact is not. People like him do more to damage the cause of true Christianity than anything else.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:59 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @greg
      I disagree. He TOTALLY gets it. Christianity is fake and profitable. There is a sucker born every minute. And he wants there college money.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
  6. Robin G.

    You people who write on these blogs are so so negative. It is like you look for negativity. There is a God and one day we will ALL answer to him. I like Joel Osteen and I feel that he helps millions of people. I mean obviously, look at his church of thousands. Have an open mind, and maybe, just maybe, some seed of joy and happiness can get into your negative mind.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:51 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      I am NOT NEGATIVE DAMN IT!!!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      Honey, a 'church of thousands' means NOTHING. There were also thousands of Romans who watched massacres in the Coliseum. They enjoyed it. Were they "enlightened", watching murder for fun? There is a 'church of thousands' watching "Lady Gaga".. so what, does that mean she is "Good"????? No, numbers mean NOTHING.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      And Robin, by labeling other people, you are equally negative. if not more.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Greg

      Paul said, "Test everything." God gave us the power to discriminate, to make intelligent decisions based on reason and logic. This is not cynicism, it is realism, and Christians are called to be realistic people who can choose wisely based on the facts at hand.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @greg
      When has Christian every been concerned about facts? That is a new one.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:16 pm |
  7. Greg

    What a joke and a fraud. Just take the parts you like, and ignore the rest. It's not "Christianity lite", because it's not even Christianity.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Don't take in personal. It's business, never personal.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:52 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      Greg: Osteen is only a motivational speaker- with a couple of Bible verses tossed in for good measure-

      October 7, 2011 at 7:06 pm |
  8. Meathead (of the Word)

    Although Olsteen's style is o.k., in a bubble-gum-feel-good kind of way; you just don't grow as a mature christian on that. "when you should be receiving meat, you still desire the milk of the word". God expects us to move on to the deeper things and not stay babies in Christ.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:48 pm |
    • Poo = Sue

      And just how in hell would you know what god expects. It's what YOU expect, and you project it on the "idea" of a deity. Name ONE thing god expects, that YOU disagree with.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Does God also expect that of his other creatures, even those on other planets or in parallel universes? Serious question. What is your take? Do you think only of humans on Earth when you consider God?

      October 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @meathead
      What's up. Will you answer the question?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:20 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      MH: You make a good point; Osteen is OK for new Christians.. They will get some prayer time, some encouraging verses. He is the "kindergarten teacher" of Christianity, the problem is when people refuse to 'graduate'

      October 7, 2011 at 7:27 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @lu
      I will ask you then my new friend:

      Does God also expect that (worship, etc.) of his other creatures, even those on other planets or in parallel universes? Serious question. What is your take? Do you think only of humans on Earth when you consider God?

      October 7, 2011 at 7:47 pm |
  9. Central Scrutinizer

    Myyyyyyyyyy hair is curly and my teeth are white! I preach all day in the bright spot light!
    Yoooooooooooooooou give me money and praise my name.....but I screw you just the same!

    October 7, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
  10. Sparky

    This guy is a jerk and a bigot. Anybody who believes this clown has any special insight into God's will is braindead and deserves to be swindled out of their money.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      And alas! They do and they are!

      October 7, 2011 at 6:42 pm |
  11. George

    You are bunch hypocrites, judgemental people, you are not Christians, hypocrite, liars, full of hate people that spend you time condemning and judging others, take car of you and your house and live the other people alone, and including this hypocrite religious, and liar Joe Osteen, he is going around making millions of people with out of paying any taxes of these millions he take from the people that go to his church and to all the places he goes around , preaching hate, condemnation and division , pathetic hypocrite religious people

    October 7, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      I'm sorry George. Let's all float on giant lollipops into a clear blue cloudless sky. Where everyone is equal, where there are no leaders, no authority figures, no police, no supervisors, no hierarchies, all totally equal, and We All Agree With George. There. Are you happy with your Utopia?????

      October 7, 2011 at 7:37 pm |
  12. AJ

    I am from Chicago and attended a Black Catholic Church all my life. I enjoyed my experience, participated a lot and attended into adulthood. I enjoy 1 hour mass and ignore the criticism of the Catholic Church as I find all organizations have issues and I never experienced any problems. Living in Florida I have been to church and feel people are selling God and salvation. I hate that. I don't need 3-6 hours, speaking in tongues, and paying mega churches my bit of money to prosper while I struggle to eat in the economy. I started watching Joel with my boyfriend. I find that I enjoy the length of the message, I learn something, I do hear get yourself in a good bible-based church which is the right thing to attempt but hard to do, and I don't feel misguided or misinformed. I like his messages. Yes he does make the word relatable for the common person. Not to say that is me many degrees later but I deal with people on a daily basis and will say that if he can touch and change a person because they comprehend the message then he has done his work. His work may not be to reach millions but even just one to bring to the lord. And I'm sure he has met that requirement.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Anon

      Screw Jesus, even a clown can offer better advice.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:39 pm |
    • Gina

      Very well said, AJ!! I truly concur to what you wrote. I have watched Joel Osteen for a few years now, and I do attend a bible-based church, as well. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church and I can follow what Joel is saying along with all of the Scripture that he speaks. I really liked what you stated! Stay in the Word; God will always lead and guide you according to His Will.....

      October 7, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
  13. Meathead (of the Word)

    Newsflash Christians: Our "happiness", is really not God's main agenda; but rather a life of rigteousness and peace through faith, which our Heavenly Father wishes to and quite often does accomplish through any means necessary... including paiin & hardship, sickness, doing without, etc. Consider the life of the apostle Paul. It's about maturing in the faith. That is His main desire for all His children.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
  14. ndeipala

    I'm sick of all the self-proclaimed "right" Christians dictating who is in the wrong and who isn't. Joel preaches about more than just money his whole theology may be based around being happy and being the light of Jesus nbut no where in the bible does it say being happy is un-Godly. When Jesus performed miracles he did so to show the grace and love of God by bringing happiness in to the lives of people. The positive messages that Joel preaches encourages people to live in the light of Jesus. No one not even those "without" sin have the right to cast judgement, none of you are Jesus or God himself so people need to stop acting like can speak on their behalf because your judgement of others shall also be looked upon in good time. You talk of being God Christians yet you fail to honor even God's most basic commandments, love one another as you would love yourself.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:35 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      Joel preaches the New Testament, the stuff that Paul told the Corinthians Galatians Ephesians etc. But Joel completely avoids the judgments and the punishments that are promised in the Old Testament

      October 7, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • Greg

      He is a fraud. His version of "Christianity" is predicated on self-absorption and spiritual laziness. Thus, it is not Christianity, but Christianity used as a tool to his own personal ends, a facade, a farce. He may have a lot of money, but he hasn't the slightest idea what true, authentic Christianity is about. The Bible tells us to know the tree by its fruit. Well, it's pretty clear what kind of tree he is.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      And it really gripes your azz, doesn't it? You can't stand the fact that not everyone believes in your hateful, vengeful god.

      I can't stand Osteen, but he's a peach compared to self-righteous, sanctimonious twits like you.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm |
    • Greg

      Tom, Tom, blah, blah, blah... God is not vengeful. He is intelligent, and He made us in His image. Therefore, by logical deduction, we have the capacity for intelligence as well. Some choose not to exercise their intelligence, howeer, because it's too hard, and they're too lazy. But laziness is no excuse.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:15 pm |
    • ndeipala

      Your issue is that Joel wants prosperity in all aspects of life but I ask you do you are argue that by "the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich." if this is not please tell me what then is your issue because I really am curious to know. Because right now it seems to me that you are condemning Joel for encouraging people to have a relationship with Christ because he's style of preaching is not to your liking but as a Christian who knows that "He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (1 John 5:11) how do you cast judgement for such an act? I say to you my brothers and sisters it is has been proclaimed by God himself in the book of Matthew, 7:1-2 “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you."

      October 7, 2011 at 8:08 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Oh, bullspit. Your god is hateful. You can suck up to him if you want. Not my problem.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  15. Charly

    So who are these critics? People cannot just live and let live. If the people in this guy's church are happy and find something there, who cares? Sounds a bit like jealousy.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:34 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own – a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in Nature."

      AE

      October 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
  16. Soporifix

    A plastic grinning money-hole and his plastic grinning wife, highly skilled at the Mega-Xian trade-off: I make you feel good about yourself and never challenge any of your materialistic values or judgments, and in exchange you give me piles of cash, which I'll spend on plastic surgery and cars and houses and, just maybe, some "charity" here and there to keep up appearances.

    October 7, 2011 at 6:33 pm |
  17. Josiah

    Why are you giving press to this glad-handed guy-smiley?

    October 7, 2011 at 6:32 pm |
  18. Born atheist

    Way to go Joel! Make millions by smiling and speaking about unknowable god, every day Friday and not a day of real work in your life! I don't know if I should admire you for your sales skills and talents or despise you for re-enforcing the mass delusion!

    October 7, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      I feel sorry for Atheists. . If I were Atheist, I would not even wake up in the morning. What's the point, if there is no life after this? Such a sad point of view.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If your current life is so empty and unfulfilled that you can only look forward to death and some sort of divine reward for living a miserable existence, I feel sorry for you.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:58 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      @lu
      This is just my take, but religious folks don't understand athiests or the various flavors of agnostics because they don't have a spiritual "center". They take their lead from faked information that has created a skewed vision of an afterlife. Lu, we are all interconnected. We are one. The universe is us and we are it. There is no such thing as death. Atoms don't die, they change, they move on. We don't need fairy tales. We choose to live in WONDER of the universe and what it holds for us!

      October 7, 2011 at 7:04 pm |
    • lu, south Fla

      Atheists find it convenient to live without a Supreme being- until they realize they are dying, and then they want God, real quick. Everyone prays on their death bed.

      October 7, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • sansdieux

      lu, if you're living this life just for an afterlife, you're a very sad person and perhaps xianity isn't all it's cracked up to be. Atheists don't need delusions of an afterlife in order to live happy lives NOW.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:03 pm |
    • sansdieux

      lu, no, atheists don't pray on their deathbeds, nor do we want or need imaginary men in the sky (gods) at that time. Even the thought of living an eternity with you loony xians makes me a little woozy.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Lu the poo, how the h*ll would you know what atheists do on their deathbeds, you twerp? You don't have any contact with them other than on some faceless board. Get a clue, honey. Your opinion on the matter is nothing but babble, since it isn't based on any personal experience whatsoever, you brat.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:18 pm |
  19. iron mike

    God will judge...and those who shepherd flocks are held to a higher standard...numbers are meaningless...just sad that so many people can be deceived. If you have no theology and do not understand the importance of it then you are simply a motivational speaker and those are a dime a dozen...

    October 7, 2011 at 6:27 pm |
    • Kenny G

      Which god? Humans have created thousands of them.

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

      “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you." Mathew 7:1-2

      October 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Anon

      ^ Bah, nonsense.

      October 7, 2011 at 6:40 pm |
  20. Anon

    Christian mentality reminds of this.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q16KpquGsIc

    October 7, 2011 at 6:25 pm |
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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.