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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. GAW

    By the standards of most Evangelicals Osteen does preach a watered down message that puts most of its emphasis on feeling and experience. His gospel is very American emphasizing rugged individualism, health and financial success. And the way things are today today means that his message is gaining a lot of attention. Yet Osteen does stray from controversial issues that are preached by most Evangelicals and Fundamentalists. He avoids theology and gives us what most of us Americans want...Psychology. Is that bad? You decide.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
  2. Russ H

    The "Good News" of Jesus is that he took Hell in my place (2 Cor.5:21).
    The primary content of Jesus' preaching from the beginning was that we need to repent (Mt.3:2; Mk.1:15).
    The focus of Christian preaching should be Jesus & the cross (1 Cor.2:2).

    All of those primary elements are basically absent in Joel Osteen's preaching. That is why so many biblically minded Christians are troubled by him. That is "Gospel Lite."

    October 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • Jsfraptor26

      yup, good post

      October 7, 2011 at 9:16 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Repent for what? Being a person with all the emotions and drives your god supposedly gave me? Why should I? I don't hurt anyone else, I give money to charity, I donate blood, I work and am a productive member of society.

      If your god demands worship and adoration and repentance, and in return gives people cancer and pain, you can have him.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:25 pm |
    • Russ H

      Tom-Tom,
      Your argument is not with me, but with Jesus. That is what he preached. I'd encourage you to read the Gospel of John for yourself. That way you're not just taking my word for it.

      The cross tells me two things:
      On the one hand, I'm much worse off than I want to admit (he had to die for me).
      But, on the other hand, I'm much more loved than I ever dared imagine (he was willing to die for me!).

      October 7, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      I've read the Bible. My grandfather was a minister. I don't have any faith in a god who visits suffering on his creation. Don't even bother with your "mysterious ways" BS. Either your god's omnipotent and doesn't give a dam* or he's powerless and therefore not worthy of faith or adoration. Or he's just not paying attention.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • Russ H

      Even if you don't agree with what he shows us, do you see the uniqueness of what Jesus claims?

      He doesn't simply 'visit suffering' or allow it on others, he chooses to enter time & take the worst of our suffering on himself.

      This is not Zeus firing random lightning bolts.
      This is not 'pain is only an illusion' (as many Eastern religions claim).
      This is not karma / 'you deserve what you get' (b/c Jesus certainly didn't).
      This is not 'try really hard to follow the rules & maybe god will like you.'

      The cross tells me: I deserve to die. Jesus dies in my place. He brings life out of my suffering and death.
      That reorients my suffering. My pain is real – as real as the scars on his hand.
      But that is not the whole story: the resurrection means Jesus is fixing a broken world of pain.
      My suffering will be turned inside out.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:10 pm |
    • Scott - other

      @Russ H: “he chooses to enter time & take the worst of our suffering on himself.“ Get real, are you honestly trying to tell me that 3 hours on a cross is worse than a year of agony from cancer? Or as bad as choosing to burn to death like the branch dividians?

      October 8, 2011 at 4:11 pm |
  3. blake

    Joel Osteen and tens of thousands of other false teachers who promote a "prosperity gospel" are described well in II Timothy 4:3-4. "For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they gather around them a great number of teacher to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn away their ears from the truth and turn aside to myths."

    God is not a cosmic Santa Claus, nor does He exist to serve us, rather we exist to honor Him.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:06 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      Name one NON "false teacher", that YOU disagree with ?
      .....That's what I thought.

      October 8, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • jake

      blake, how come an omnipotent being that can have anything it wants needs to be honored by us?

      Sounds like your "god" has an ego problem. No thanks, keep your crazy religion to yourself, or just get over it.

      October 8, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  4. Eric

    it's lucky for J.Osteen that there would seem to be at least one born every minute. this guy oozes 'snake-oil salesman' in his every breath.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
  5. Anthony Pierpont

    Great to see all the input. Remember we are ALL on the same team.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:54 pm |
    • John Richardson

      As long as that team is not the University of Miami Hurricanes, I'm okay with that, sort of ...

      October 7, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
    • blake

      Anthony, I wish you were right. Unfortunately the apostle Paul was very clear in Galatians 1 that those who preach a different gospel, in this case a "prosperity gospel", are not on the same team and do not have the same destiny as those who are proclaiming Christ alone.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • jake

      blake is not a True Scotsman.

      October 8, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  6. Anthony Pierpont

    Great Article!

    October 7, 2011 at 8:53 pm |
  7. Yehya

    DO WE STILL BELEIVE IN THOSE??/ THEY MAKE A LOT OF MONEY SELLING GOD AND JESUS DO WE REALLY STILL BELEIVE IN THEM THEY WILL GO TO HELL FOR SELLING GOD'S NAME !!!!

    October 7, 2011 at 8:50 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      no

      there is no hell

      October 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
  8. Greg

    He is not a steward of what God has given him, as Christians are told to be. He is a hoarder of that which he believes is all his own.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      who is this god

      because the bible god isnt real the bible proves it

      you know since christianity is based on greek mythology

      the muslim god isnt real because it steals the bibles idea of god

      so about this god you talk of

      October 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
  9. Marc Daniels

    The Creator might have purposefully created us in a lowly state. The first challenge is to develop our senses to perceive this state for what it really is. Bit by bit we transform our petrified egoism and develop a desire to rise above it, by weeding out hate hatred within us and around us. Once freed from all of this negativity, we are free to rise into a much better state. Since the protesters don't have a symbol, let's give them one...each one extract a weed for cleaning up the inner and the external ecology. Goodness knows, NYC could use it...Just think of the Ghostbusters!

    October 7, 2011 at 8:47 pm |
  10. Greg

    In his single-minded pursuit for fame and riches, Osteen forgets that Christianity is relational and experiential in essence, not possessive or self-aggrandizing. He has surrounded himself with so much excess, that he has completely lost touch with those who need Christ the most, those whom Christ served during his time on earth- the poor, the needy, the sick, the desperate, those of us who can't even conceive of having a home with a roof that doesn't leak, or water to drink that isn't filthy, those who have to dig in garbage cans to feed themselves and sleep outside in cardboard boxes in the dead of winter. And he's producing thousands, even millions, of self-serving clones just like him. Osteen is committing sin, plain and simple. He is not doing God's work, he is a minion of Satan.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:45 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      you are incorrect

      every action in christianity is for the sole purpose of self gratification

      you think christians would actually be polite if they didnt have the threat of hell

      youre wrong

      plenty of christians have black hearts that only do good things and pretend to love

      because they think theres a heaven

      but there isnt

      October 7, 2011 at 8:56 pm |
    • GAW

      @ THE BROWN NOTE Your brush is too wide.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      thats because theres a lot of christians

      over 20 years in churches across the country from the east to the west coast

      i have plenty of experience to back what i say

      October 7, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
  11. THE BROWN NOTE

    oops claim

    October 7, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
  12. michelle

    This guy capitalizes on god's name. I don't believe in god, but i still think it's terrible to say you do and use his "word" to make tons of money and have many followers. Why can't he just be a motivational speaker sans the whole jesus/god intertwine? It's because he can make more money this way! ugh!

    October 7, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
    • ed

      Don't be so cynical, Michelle. Maybe you're right, maybe you're not.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
  13. Brother

    Frankly, Joel Osteen is part of this modern pop-culture "Christianity." He says things that many people like to hear. Sure, he has great moral lessons for life. No doubt about it. But how Christian is he? The Bible states many times that the life of a Christian is not easy– it is about making hard choices and standing up for one's faith. Heaven, according to the Bible, is not open to everyone. "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; nobody comes to the Father except through me." Lots of segments of "Christianity" and especially individuals preach that one can simply reach salvation by not doing some bad things. But, that avoids the core message of Christianity.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      No True Scotsman

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/No_True_Scotsman

      October 8, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  14. DiscipleofElijah

    Osteen is a typical prosperity pimp. Make people feel good about themselves and give him the money. All he needs to do now is start selling prayer cloths, miracle spring water and annointing oil.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
  15. Easy Preacher

    It's easy to preach about prosperity when your congregation has made you prosperous. I don't remember reading how Jesus became wealthy because of what he preached. Or Peter. Or Paul.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:38 pm |
    • Patricksday

      Very GOOD point!!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
  16. Greg

    Satan's greatest ally is the person who spreads pernicious lies that sound like enticing truths.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
  17. Reggie from LA

    I didn't like it when he wriggled a mite when Piers asked him about paying millionaire taxes, being that he's a millionaire. No wholehearted agreement with Buffett from Joel. Didn't realize how politically entrenched he is. Good to know for the future.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:36 pm |
  18. A_CNN_Watcher

    I like him. "Be the best you that you can be" is not a bad message.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:34 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      in the army you could be all you can be

      but that was before they changed their motto

      October 7, 2011 at 9:34 pm |
  19. John_Dunkel

    God is like a guy taking a poop in the toilet. He created something, then flushed it down the toilet and doesn't give a sh... where it's going and whatever happens to it. And the least he wants, is being adored by that poop he from a long time ago just because that poop has grown a consciousness and asking itself where it's coming from and what the meaning behind it's existence is. Because it's just poop. A big relief. Nothing more.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:24 pm |
    • Kenny G

      Very close to Einstein's view of god, that.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:30 pm |
    • shwmin

      Albert Einstein Quote on GOD

      “ In view of such harmony in the cosmos which I, with my limited human mind, am able to recognize, there are yet people who say there is no God. But what really makes me angry is that they quote me for the support of such views.”

      Source: The Expandable Quotable Einstein, Princeton University, page 214.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Marc Daniels

      The Creator might have purposefully created us in a lowly state. The first challenge is to develop our senses to perceive this state for what it really is. Bit by bit we transform our petrified egoism and develop a desire to rise above it, by weeding out hate hatred within us and around us. Once freed from all of this negativity, we are free to rise into a much better state. Since the protesters don't have a symbol, let's give them one...each one extract a weed for cleaning up the inner and the external ecology. Goodness knows, NYC could use it...Just think of the Ghostbusters!

      October 7, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      hawking > einstein

      http://articles.cnn.com/2010-09-02/world/hawking.god.universe_1_universe-abrahamic-faiths-divine-creator?_s=PM:WORLD

      October 7, 2011 at 8:49 pm |
    • shwmin

      Oh yeah HAWKING...He's that "scientist"...ha ha ...That says NOTHING blew up and created everything..... Ill spell it SLOWLY....NOTHING created EVERYTHING......now that makes a whole lot of sense....When Ive tried studying hawkins I cant complete what is ...THEORY....is without laughing......THEORY=EDUCATED GUESS...too funny

      October 7, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      schwmin, you can't "complete" anything because you're an idiot. A theory is not an "educated guess."

      October 7, 2011 at 9:09 pm |
    • shwmin

      funny, you didnt even read your own article you quoted...SPONTANEOUS COMBUSTION.....nothing was there at all except gravity....Where did Gravity come from...Hawkins needs to go back on his meds

      October 7, 2011 at 9:10 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      It's HAWKING, pinhead. And it's "atheist", not "athiest". Really, dufus, you're a whack-basket.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:12 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      hawking is far more intelligent than you could dream of being

      you laugh at scientific theory

      yet the bible is a primitive cave book literally

      and it draws conclusions based on zero theory

      and claims it all as fact

      whereas science is willing to accept its own imperfections

      how often do you hear christians talk about the imperfections of the bible

      they dont because theyre afraid that it will destroy their faith

      instead they claim it all as fact

      without even researching the very book they revolve their lives around

      and when did hawking say that the universe was created out of nothing

      science generally avoids using the term creation in any of its theories

      might want to research that one

      October 7, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  20. Patricksday

    I Lost all respect for this cutie pie when he would speak out against the Death Penalty, more concerned with lining his pockets from Big Oiil and Big everything Corporate. How can you be a man who believes and follows Jesus Christ, and I assume follows the 10 Commandments that clearly says Though SHALL NOT KILL, why does he forget the Bibles Chapter on Matthew, what you do to the Least you do to God. He is a Corporate Minister and I would Love to see his Review with the Almighty.

    October 7, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
    • Anon

      Don't know what you're complaining about since your imaginary god is a psychopathic murderer in your big book of myths AKA the bible.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:27 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      the contents of the bible are forgettable

      theyre trash

      October 7, 2011 at 8:32 pm |
    • Bayousara

      I think you made a typo and meant "when he would NOT speak out against the death penalty..." just want to clarify....

      October 7, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • shwmin

      Anon, you sure talk alot,,,Where is the proof to back up your delusional claims....WHY would you take the time to read a book you despise? Oh yea , your an athiest , You make wild unfounded claims without merit...Sorry...KEEP READING...hopefully something will sink in past that warp common sense called atheism...KEEP READING...

      October 7, 2011 at 8:33 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      which set of ten commandments are you talking about

      there were two sets

      moses was a tool so he busted a set and god promised to write the same commandments down

      but they were different the second time around because god is a lying idiot with alzheimers

      so which set is it

      October 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm |
    • Anon

      ^ Read the bible completely by using reading comprehension and without skipping verses.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:39 pm |
    • shwmin

      If I were you I would go back over the comprehension part, you missed it

      October 7, 2011 at 8:41 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      thats not a lcaim its a fact

      god killed lots and lots and lots of people and had women plowed hard and babies murdered

      in your bible

      so maybe you should be the one that does some reading eh

      yeah thats what i thought

      October 7, 2011 at 8:43 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      oops thats supposed to be claim

      October 7, 2011 at 8:44 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      by the way genius

      many atheists used to be christians

      then they read and studied the bible

      and in doing so it turned us all into atheists

      i bet you dont know ten percent of what atheists know about the bible

      thats how christianity works

      christians only know a little bit

      they dont know about all the good parts that proves the bible is a lie

      so they keep believing

      sheep

      baaaaaaaaah

      October 7, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
    • shwmin

      THE BROWN NOTE...And those parts that prove the bible a lie are ?????? (this ought to be good)......

      October 7, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Anon

      This should be enough to get you started.
      http://www.evilbible.com/

      October 7, 2011 at 9:05 pm |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      Schwimn, it's tough to take someone seriously when he writes crap like "alot" and thinks it means "a lot".

      Now I'll laugh when you make some stupid excuse like "it's a typo."

      October 7, 2011 at 9:11 pm |
    • THE BROWN NOTE

      well if you read your bible

      the very first book of genesis

      about the creation

      in the beginning

      there are two different creation accounts

      they contradict each other

      if a book you believe to be fact opens with blatant contradictions

      then why would you believe the rest of it

      how about jesus

      he claims hes going to return before his followers died

      theyve all been dead for nearly 2000 years

      jesus must have lost track of time and is still in the shower

      after jesus died when the new testament was being written

      one of the writers realized that jesus lied

      so what the writer did was make an excuse to say that no one knows when jesus would come back

      yet multiple quotes from jesus himself say when he would return

      he never kept true to those multiple promises

      theres plenty more easy to find biblical screwups

      all you have to do is open your bible and read it

      October 7, 2011 at 9:33 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.