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. KevinB

    Why is the Religion section promoting Charlatans?

    October 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • Anon

      Eh, they're all charlatans.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:53 pm |
  2. Marsha

    Could it be that I hear "jealousy" from other pastors etc? Joel Osteen gives an everyday life experience message, and has the natural grace to help people turn negative thinking into positive thinking without "fire and brimstone". I think what he has to say is very important and more people should listen. More people should listen to him and not pass judgement.

    October 7, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      I want to say something nice to encourage you but I can't think of anything.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:09 pm |
  3. Imir

    For the love of God, people he's not preaching anything horrible. Sure, it's not traditional and he's more a life coach than anything else but he's not demanding people to strap bombs on and kill innocents. He's not poisoning the Kool Aid and forcing anyone to drink it. He's saying be happy. Geeeez....

    October 7, 2011 at 10:04 pm |
    • Anon

      He's still peddling watered down Jesus-juice.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:49 pm |
    • Real Deal


      I'd rather listen to Bobby McFerrin's version 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 11:54 pm |
  4. eastwood1379@gmail.com

    fu*k them all but six

    October 7, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  5. If U Don't, Then

    the Gospel according to Mike (in Montana): St. Peter at the Pearly Gates: "How do you expect to get into Heaven with all that money in your bank account!"

    October 7, 2011 at 10:01 pm |
  6. Richard S Kaiser

    I've been 'listening' to Joel Olsteens speak his words. He, Joel, produces what the masses want via his relentless drive to connect his life with traditional preacher traits/characterizations/mannerisms. Joel tends to mesmerize his flocks contrasting their worldly ills with soothing randomized quotations of scriptural affluence. He is a 'true' spokesperson for Christian believers who need a jolt from Joel to refuel their 6 days of being away from the 'goddening' fields of festive revival. If only the restive fields of widenning and augmented humanisms would parlor up once in a while to just listen, maybe Life as a wholeness would depart from immoral discrepancies that the commonalities find as being 'diversionary traits' away from the 'goddening' fields.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm |
  7. Mike in Montana

    All this pastor and his wife think about is money and more money.. When was the last time you heard Joel Osteen really talk about God (our father), Jesus Christ (his son) and the Holy Spirit in your life.., can't remember, your NOT the only one. All Joel Osteen and his wife think about is money and thats calls, 'pure greed'. I don't consider Joel Osteen, a man of God.., because he always talks about hope and then look at their bank account. You would be shocked.., really shocked at the amount of money in their bank account and its NOT your bank account. Still hoping to hear Joel Osteen talk about our loving God (our father), Jesus, the Christ (his son) and the Holy Spirit in our lifes and future. Joel Osteen is ALL hype and your money. Mike in Montana

    October 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Could we please all just wake up. Steve Jobs just passed. One of the great American Capitalists of all time. And that is all this guy Joel is, but his product is God rather than electroncis and he sells it. That is the American way! This is not brain surgery. I am sure he employes a lot of people. He is a job creater. Don't like it, too bad! YOU made him what he is.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
    • ImNoHelp

      Are you saying they are corrupt because they are rich? they are rich because of their business seperate from the church, such as his book deals and such, they take no salary from the money the church brings in, apparently all the money that is donated to the church is donated to some type of charity or cause. You seem to have alot of bitterness, even hate in your words not very nice.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:14 pm |
  8. Concerned

    He is spellbinding and captivates his audience while he takes that big smile all the way to the bank. He wants you to think big so you won't fault him for all his big wealth. I would smile too but at the end of the day it would be hard to look into that mirror without feeling some kind of guilt for the lie I was living. If heaven is such a paradise, why is it so important to have paradise on earth for the believer. Or do they REALLY believe.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:55 pm |
  9. If U Don't, Then

    If u don't like the message, u don't have to listen...but many do, and do..I never liked the term "God-fearing" that so many preachers use..why use fear to try to bring people to the light...unlike many of these commenters who just read this article and started rambling, I have seen Joel on tv many times and also in person...what's wrong with a positive message, taking the hope and blessings that the Bible provides, and using it to help people get to a better place, a better life...and for all the jealous haters and those who criticize, can you point to any scandals in his church? so many former church leaders, who really were greedily chasing wealth – not to mention the current ones who do the same – don't have half the appeal, or the message, that Joel delivers

    October 7, 2011 at 9:51 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Well if there were a God I would most certainly fear IT! What an As-shole!!

      October 7, 2011 at 9:59 pm |

      u is not a word

      October 7, 2011 at 10:22 pm |
    • Roberta

      I've listened to Joel in the past, and a co-worker forwards his devotional messages to me almost daily, which I read. I do not dislike Joel, I see his message as a one-sided message. I often think of his message as the hope, promises, the positive side of God's message, however, he does not share the other side of the message which is a dangerous thing for the listeners. I use to listen to him every Sunday night and soon I became keenly aware of an imbalance within my spirit. God's word must be balanced. I don't condemn his messages, but I don't condone them either, but something is missing in the messages he delivers. On the flip-side other preachers should incorporate more of the promises and hope of God's word.

      October 7, 2011 at 10:41 pm |
    • Greg

      You use "u" when you should use "you". How can you expect anybody to take you seriously? You are a prime example of the sort of person that adores this charlatan.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:07 am |
  10. Insight

    Jesus had a problem when he was perching. He did not have any education, any seminary training, and spent time with most of the wretched people. Most of the then theologians ganged against him and crucified him. It is no wonder the so called theologians are conspiring against Joel Osteen. I believe Christ was an ordinary person like us but with extra ordinary vision about democracy (Heaven on earth). He always reminded us that there would be hardship on earth. He was scared of death on the cross as any other human beings. His teaching are wonderful practical guide to create heaven on earth. Take care of your neighbor, Look around as feed the hungry, cloth the naked, visit the sick and experience the God while your alive. Joel Osteen is a simple guy who encourages many ordinary people and helping many. I have had many opportunity to listen to him and he is doing wonderful job. By the by, there is no God. It is our invention. Some people are pretty good in marketing their product (God) very good.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm |

      so about killing all those babies in the bible

      is that a democratic thing too

      October 7, 2011 at 9:50 pm |
  11. David

    This world is groaning under the weight of sin. The only way to the Father is through Jesus. He will make it all right again when He returns.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:41 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Dude, Jesus has been dust for thousands of years man. What is wrong with you? There are no zombies or vampires, etc. Move on man!

      October 7, 2011 at 9:46 pm |

      there will be no return of jesus

      from the words of jesus himself to his followers at the time he was allegedly alive

      some of them would not taste death before the second coming


      theyre all dead

      so about christs return

      October 7, 2011 at 9:52 pm |
    • cwhero1863


      October 7, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  12. Steve

    Most "Christians" are mad because Osteen focuses on the positive in society instead of telling people that they're going to hell. To me, the sign of a good church is one you feel better on the way out than you did when you walked in. Osteen's sermons certainly give me that feeling.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:38 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Ok, so as long as you feel better, it doesn't matter if it is horse sh-it or not. Ok, cool.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
    • Greg

      Kind of like going to a nice movie, huh? That's the crux of the problem. People don't want to be challenged, they don't want to face who they really are. They would prefer to remain mired in the illusion of their own self-sufficiency and perfection. Church becomes a source of entertainment, a stage show, another cute, choreographed diversion, a place where people can justify their shallowness and ignorance, leave, and live their self-contained, boring little lives.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  13. Greg

    Osteen's "Christianity" is stationary, stagnant, and inertial. It drags God down to earth and triviailzes Him. It does not aspire to reach out and grow towards God, a process fraught with difficulty and even pain. Osteen's "Christianity" is not concerned with inner growth or depth; it seeks only to bend and twist God into a shallow excuse for material excess, self-absorption, and spiritual and intellectual sloth.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:29 pm |

      considering that man created god in their image

      i dont see why so many frown upon this activity

      October 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
    • Scott

      Cool, sounds like it's gona be the next great religion, Joleeanity

      October 8, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
  14. Peter J

    Religion is all about telling a story to put things in perspective and to make people feel better. There are hundreds of religions, each with their own story. Many are similar. You may not like or agree with Joel. But thousands of people do, and if it makes them feel better, good for them. We could save so much trouble and anger in this world if people would just accept that other people have a different religion and believe in a different God. Who's anyone to sat that THEIR God (Jesus, Allah, the list goes on) is the right one? Nobody really knows, and it doesn't matter. If the story of Jesus works for you, then great. But accept that others may have a different view.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
    • Peter

      There is only one who is the Son of God and there is only one that is the way to God. There is none other and none other makes that claim either. That's why Jesus does it for people. Yes, lots tell a great and healthy story, but there is only one that died for you.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:32 pm |
    • Anon

      Even if it means bringing about a self-fulfilling prophecy that could render extinct every species on this planet?

      October 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm |

      there is not a son of god

      please get off of that

      if you dont believe me

      read the bible

      youll see that jesus lied about when hed return

      live life like its the only one youve got

      because it is

      October 7, 2011 at 9:39 pm |
  15. stewie

    not a good tooth-to-gum ratio.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
  16. Peter

    I haven't been to his church. I have seen him interviewed quite a few times and I have seen him preach on TV a couple of times. I find nothing wrong with his message, but have never seen anything "heavy" on his agenda either. None-the-less most of the people in this forum are so judgmental and envious it's sickening. Regardless of what you say or think, he is spreading a message and a good one and he is bringing people to Christ. Contrary to what folks like The Brown Note dribble, many atheists becomes Christians as well. In response to the hard-nosed Christians here, God does want you to have what you want, God does want you to be happy. It is written in the Bible in a few places and possibly you've heard the expression, "ask and ye shall receive"? At the same time "you reap what you sow" will give you a cr a pp y result. God does not hold your hand and white your nose. It is a fee world and mankind has "free will". Not one of you knows for sure whether Osteen is in it for the fame and money or if he is genuine...either way he does a great job, he helps people in many ways. You can't reach out to the masses without involving a multi-media approach and that makes him famous. He's doing a lot more for the world than any of you here are I guarantee it. I think he's good at what he does and more power to him. He deserves a better life for spreading the Word than these Wall Street dogs...we all do.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  17. Patricksday

    The all american boy with the deceptive smile and truly not a follower of Jesus Christ, Jesus would never approve of the Death Penalty, but somehow in Texas the Chrisitans follow a God of GREED, HATE and SELFISHNESS. I hope Joel can face his Jesus in the end.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
  18. 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."

    A E

    October 7, 2011 at 9:21 pm |
    • Jsfraptor26

      People who think like this only think like this because God is on His own timetable – not yours, or mine, or anyone elses. When Christ returns, we all will stand in front of him.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:24 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      (Tongue firmly planted in cheek) You are no Einstein! lol

      October 7, 2011 at 9:32 pm |

      lol when christ returns

      and when will this take place

      because jesus said he would return before his followers died which happened nearly 2000 years ago

      October 7, 2011 at 9:40 pm |
  19. Jsfraptor26

    All i saw in this article was Joel Osteen this, Joel Osteen that. I have yet to see Joel Osteen give the glory and credit of his success to Christ the Lord. I saw not a hint of humility in any of his quotes. I will not condemn any man, or Joel Osteen, but what i do know is that any "man of God" who hardly mentions the core gospel of Christ that Christ is the only Saviour and Redeemer in favor of secular "go happy" mind tricks is to be distrusted.

    October 7, 2011 at 9:20 pm |
    • Peter

      You seem to e judging him from one article? An edited article, where the only thing that is one the page is what the writer placed there? Just as a 3 minute news story, was once 30 minutes of raw footage. He certainly does preach that Christ is the only way to God. I think he's pretty smart. In case you haven't noticed in this day and age you don't get through to people by "Bible Bashing". Christ is my saviour, no doubt, but you bring him up and people go nuts. You can talk God, you can talk aliens, big foot, anything, but you bring up Christ too early and you conversation is toast. There's in them there atheists!

      October 7, 2011 at 9:27 pm |
    • Peter

      Edit button, please!

      ...There's anger in them there atheists!

      October 7, 2011 at 9:29 pm |

      no anger

      just dont understand why people still believe in this primitive cave book called the bible

      when it contradicts itself and lies

      the bible says that no scripture is a matter of personal interpretation

      they claim that it was written through man by god

      so every word was given by god through these men

      so what perplexes me is that

      this god you claim created the entire universe

      designed the laws of physics

      created life in all of its complexity

      but couldnt figure out how to keep his magic book free of self damning errors

      errors that completely negate and void the validity of any of its claims

      October 7, 2011 at 9:45 pm |
  20. Central Scrutinizer

    What is your take on this:
    God = pain, suffering, cancer, children starving to death, kids getting kill-ed on prom night, children with cancer, Steve Jobs with cancer, anybody with cancer, des-pair, birth defe-cts, sui-cide, parents loo-sing their children and their entire lives being destroy-ed, famine, hunger, war, Aid-s, dis-ease, disasters, plane crashes, dying bloated babies, abused children, ra-pe, mur-der, cruelty, poverty, discrimination, children losing their parents and...religion. Thanks God(s)

    October 7, 2011 at 9:17 pm |
    • Scrutinizer Central

      Ummm...no. I just competly countered your factless statement with one of mine.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
    • Jsfraptor26

      No thats you, thats me, that's us not helping and residing in a body of rebellion given to sin. God created man in a perfect state. Don't forget that.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:22 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Willing to listen but I don't understand your post.

      October 7, 2011 at 9:23 pm |
    • Central Scrutinizer

      Not to get off topic here but:
      1. What does Scrutinizer Central mean? Is that like Comedy Centrail? I don't get it.
      2. Jsfraptor26: What the F are you talking about and who r u talking to?

      October 7, 2011 at 9:37 pm |

      if man were created in a perfect state

      then no one would have eaten the fruit from the naughty tree

      just a logical observation

      October 7, 2011 at 9:48 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24
About this blog

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.