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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. Sgt 2TUFF

    I really enjoy listening to Joel and I'm an atheist......

    October 8, 2011 at 1:29 am |
    • Anon

      Keep drinking that Jesus-juice. You're not helping.

      October 8, 2011 at 1:33 am |
    • mspatriotbx

      This fat cat is just like the rest of them. Do really think he is interested in you or others? This guy is another baker. If you really want to get to know the Big guy, just read your bible and pray. You and him, thats all it takes.

      October 10, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  2. Chunkified

    How can you be anything but happy? These kids put it together all season.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:24 am |
  3. Sara

    He and the powers in his "church" are making a very nice living from greedy people seeking absolution for being greedy, and some who think he's a SUCH a sweet boy and "so good-looking!"

    October 8, 2011 at 1:18 am |
  4. toadears

    His Dad was a great preacher. Just like second generation movie stars, politicians, and singers.. he's just another watered down version of the real thing. Nepotism still stinks just like in did in the dark ages. America is looking more and more like Europe everyday with these inherited positions. He didn't have anything to do with building that ministry. Rev. John Osteen did it all.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:07 am |
  5. Blessed

    As for me, its not about religion but first hand experience of what God through Christ has done to me that makes the big difference. Nothing else matters.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:53 am |
    • Anon

      You're all like this in the head.
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vM5n8jESUEk

      October 8, 2011 at 12:55 am |
  6. heliocracy

    Here's Osteen in a nutshell: "If you get a job and work hard, God will bless you with money and success." Most of what he says works the same whether God exists or not. If he didn't talk God, we would call him a self-help guru.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:51 am |
    • toadears

      I agree. Very well put. He soothes the ears with pleasing phrases.

      October 8, 2011 at 2:47 am |
  7. telhasteezee

    screw all the christian figures in usa. you are all fake.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:49 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Yo mamma! Tell the devil I said 'hi'.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:51 am |
    • Anon

      It's time for your psych meds.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:52 am |
  8. Alfonso

    Before I was depressed, sad and guilt was following me. After reading Joel's books and started practicing the everyday techniques he teaches, then my life changed completely. Now I am happy, I married an excellent girl and recently our first baby was born. I am so blessed now. I strongly recommend Joel's messages to everybody. However I have seen that there are some religious people who does not feel comfortable with Joel's view. My recommendation to them is "change the channel" but please understand that his lessons is changing people's life like mine. God Bless you Joel and THANK YOU !!

    October 8, 2011 at 12:44 am |
    • Anon

      Rejecting Christianity all together made me happy and appreciate my only life on this planet.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:45 am |
    • toadears

      This message has been brought to you by................................

      October 8, 2011 at 2:48 am |
  9. Gavin Ford

    Joel Osteen is one creepy man. VERY creepy.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:43 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      God doesn't think so, He's very proud of Joel.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:52 am |
    • Anon

      Your god's creepy level is tenfold.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:56 am |
  10. Glenn

    WELL SAID to DAVID and FEDUP.,....As much as you and I know beyond ANY doubt whatsoever that religion is and always will be complete BS know this.... the "masses" have been utterly and irreversibly brainwashed by these powerful and truly depraved organizations,,,, in this state they are to be feared – however peaceful and "good natured" they may seem to be – namely because their ability to reason with common sense has been drained from them, Secondly , by the nature of their belief system, (they) see you and I as the enemy or depraved ( how utterly IRONIC !! )... The victims of this process often never recover from its mind numbing effecst and worse still , pass it on to generation after generation .
    My point being this – do not waist your precious time trying to "understand" the mindless who support Olsteen and the like. They are like casualties of war ....Sometimes I pitty them . Other times I remember most of the elected officials who run the most powerful nations on earth are themselves victims, and therefore devoid of the rational senses that guides men like you and me....We will never fully realize the harm that religion has done to mankind.....That fact, sadly, is in their favor

    October 8, 2011 at 12:40 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      Well, seems like he's well known, however you're not....so what's your point? He's bringing people UP, you're only bringing them DOWN, I think I'd perfer to be around Joel. All the hopeless people....where do they all come from?

      October 8, 2011 at 12:47 am |
  11. wisdom4u2

    What’s really kind of sad is all the people bashing Joel sound so hopeless, even Rev. Gary Gilley, who by the way is the only one who said Joel is preaching "gospel lite" messages.
    This article claims “critics” are saying….
    “He peddles “gospel lite," a watered-down Christianity that mixes prosperity with piety.
    That's how critics have described Joel Osteen's message.”
    That’s a lie, only one freaking jealous ‘Rev.’ said it.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:15 am |
    • jennifer

      don't let it bug you, they don't have the light, cannot even see it, let alone believe it exists:(

      October 8, 2011 at 12:28 am |
  12. Sparko

    First, this guy's fake, put on smile just creeps me out. With that out of the way, I'm not saying he's not a true follower of Jesus, not my place, but I will say to mix salvation with prosperity it a very wrong interpretation. All the poor, not only in this country, but around the world who are followers of Jesus, what is he telling them? Its their fault? They're not really believers? He is at best very misguided in his teachings. What he peddles is what WE want to hear, not what Jesus had to say. Two very different things.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:14 am |
  13. Jay

    I just read about people and their stupid opinions about Gov. Christie's weight, even though he certainly has the best qualifications for the job of President....and now Mr. Osteen who is the pastor of the largest church in the U.S. and being criticized because he did not go to seminary? Steve Jobs dropped out of college and the most successful people I know did not even go to college. And most of the individuals who have our country screwed up are "highly educated" lawyers.

    I read a study that this countrys production and competiveness started going down the tubes when corporate employers required business managers to have an MBA. Give me someone who has worked and built a business, or church, or whatever on their own any day over some educated idiot with a piece of expensive paper hanging on the wall. And yes, I have an engineering degree, but everything I learned to be successful came from my father, who did not have a college education, but you better have eaten your Wheaties to keep up with him when we were working on the farm.....So stop being so vindictive because someone has extra weight or has not gone to seminary school.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • wisdom4u2

      You're right and I hear you.
      And as if all college graduates are intelligent achievers…not! Today, all around the world Steve Jobs (who didn’t have a college degree) is being mourned for his great contribution to the world. There are so many people sitting on their college degrees and going nowhere.
      Not only that, but there is nothing worse than an educated fool.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:40 am |
  14. gabby

    I think that calling his message "gospel lite" doesn't really get at the real issue. The biggest thing that is wrong with his message is that he does not really believe that Jesus Christ is the only way and that the Bible is completely true. (He has proven this fact in interviews with different tv show hosts, which can be found on youtube). He does not appear to preach on the WHOLE Bible, ALL of which is the gospel (not just portions of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), although I cannot be sure of this last statement since I have never actually been part of his church.

    It is true that God can heal and bring prosperity– He has the power to do so and loves to do this for His people– but these things are not promised in this world. Sometimes life sucks, and sometimes God answers our prayers in ways that we would absolutely never have asked for. God is good regardless of whether or not we can completely understand our situation at the time. I think Joel Osteen would do his congregation a favor to at least attend seminary school to understand the foundations of the message and the depths of the gospel, as well as what the gospel claims: to be the ONLY way, and to be the narrow path, the hard way, but also the way of true joy and peace BECAUSE of reconciliation with God, and not because of any external prosperity here on earth.

    Also, it says in the Word that people need to be held accountable. If the pastor of a church does not point out wickedness in a generation, or help people to see what is wrong in their behaviors, thoughts, and words, who will? If he lets people think that everything they are doing is okay and God will always forgive them, then he is not doing them a favor.

    God is patient and He longs for everyone to come to Him, but His patience will eventually wear out and a judgment will come. This is the hardest part for me personally to think about, but knowing God as being JUST and HOLY, how can we believe that He will allow sin to reign on this earth forever? He has done so much to turn our hearts to Him and to give us a way of salvation! He has created this amazing earth and given us a book to help us understand His loving heart towards us. Read it with an open heart, and don't take any pastor's word in place of it. He has blessed you with the freedom to decide what you believe, but don't be hard hearted like many in the past and lose the opportunity to encounter the One who made you and loves you more than you can even comprehend. He's reaching out for you with compassion and loving arms. Seek Him while He may be found. Call upon His name while He is near.

    October 8, 2011 at 12:04 am |
    • Anon

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wUVXEmJRGns

      October 8, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • Peter

      Gabby
      Very nice analysis and comments.
      GBU Richly!

      October 8, 2011 at 12:16 am |
    • shwmin

      Dr. Sam Harris is a founder of the New Atheism movement. Sam Harris is quite aware of the stigma surrounding atheism and has even advocated that atheists no longer call themselves atheists.In fact, Dr. Harris has said concerning the label of atheist, "It's right next to child molester as a designation."

      October 8, 2011 at 7:25 am |
    • Anon

      Keep up with your disingenuous quote mining.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:32 am |
    • BorisMorris

      Wow, gabby, way to pack so much error and nonsense into one post.

      So, umm, why did your god-ass-hole send those tsunamis and cancers again? Watch the Sam Harris video. Over and over again until you get it.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:38 am |
  15. Adam

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZyPEiMECk9c

    October 7, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
    • Uncouth Swain

      Wonderful. Another video riddled with Ebonics. Predictable.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:07 am |
    • SNAPPA

      This guy has been arrested and charged with child abuse....GOOD!!!

      October 8, 2011 at 1:35 am |
  16. Liss Askew

    Maybe if Mr. Osteen had actually gone to seminary he would understand more of what the Bible actually says. Understanding our sinful nature is critical to understanding Jesus Christ and why we need HIM...Without some type of Biblical education, Mr. Osteen does not have the necessary scriptural foundation to educate people correctly. This is very troubling...

    October 7, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • Blessed

      You do not need seminary school to understand the bible, its a good thing but not all. Holy spirit is all you need,

      October 8, 2011 at 12:48 am |
    • BorisMorris

      It's easy to understand the bible. It's a pathetic collection of fiction and conjecture by many authors mostly written many years after the supposed events. Stop presenting it as some great work of god. It isn't.

      No one has ever proven that any of the supposed miracles in the bible actually happened due to divine cause, nor that prayer has ever done anything.

      Get over your religion, stupid. The world is leaving it behind like so many other supersti-tions that a lot of its crap was copied from.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:42 am |
  17. martha lebron

    Joel Olsteen is a great preacher that gives you the spiritual strength we need. They killed jesus because people were just as jealous as they are to Olsteen because they say the truth and they help people. Of all the years i have been watching Joel Olsteen I never was pressured for money and his books are great, His words make you built your inner spirit to know you are from the most high. When my husband passed away his ministry counseled me and never asked for a cent. So shame on those people that complains about words that are pure and beautiful. All the gossip is from the devil not from GOD! So before anyone complaints they should look in the mirror and see what good have you done in your life to help others. JOEL OLSTEEN is a beautiful soul just delivering a last chance for you critics! Judge not so you will not be judged when you meet your keeper!

    October 7, 2011 at 11:57 pm |
    • Soporifix

      "They" killed Jesus because "they" were jealous? Are you in third grade?

      October 8, 2011 at 12:12 am |
    • Sparko

      "His words built your inner spirit"...Sorry, I find this troubling. Please be careful not to put him on the same status as Jesus. Pastors are not to be the focus of Christianity. I think often followers focus too much on these charismatic preachers and take their eyes off Jesus. Just be careful not to let Pastor Osteen take the place of Jesus....Osteen is just a man, a flawed human like us all. I have to say I see people put celeb pastors and non religious celebs on pedestals they can never live up to. Oprah in the secular world comes to mind. We must remember that these people, while they can be inspirational, are not our Savior.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:25 am |
    • Blessed

      I agree with Martha, we christians forget our enemy is satan and his works not tearing each other apart, Its a lie from hell

      October 8, 2011 at 12:50 am |
    • Anon

      It's time for your schizophrenia meds.

      October 8, 2011 at 12:54 am |
  18. Romuald

    I have watched him a few times on television...I didn't hear him say Jesus Christ one time in an hour. I don't know what kind of Christian Church you'd call that, but it is definitely "Gospel lite."

    October 7, 2011 at 11:56 pm |
  19. FedUpWithBigGovernment

    Quite frankly... this guy gives me the creeps. He is a complete fraud in my humble opinion. Mark my words... it will come out in the future exactly what a fraud he is. At some point it will come out about a secret decadent life that he leads. In the footsteps of Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker and all of the other televangelists that have been caught in their own cesspools... he will be also caught wallowing with the best of them. What I cannot understand is how people give their hard earned money to these individuals. I just cannot imagine that there are that many gullible individuals willing to fork over any cash to these charlatans. It is a different messenger.. but the same scheme... They come out on stage glittering in jewels, $3000 suits, designer shoes... and they preach how you should be charitable... I wonder just how charitable Mr. Osteen is.. He reminds me of somewhat slicker Benny Hinn. He comes out on stage with this big fake smile that is sickeningly sweet. Also... does anyone elses 'gaydar alert system' go crazy when he shows up? Mine certainly does... To each his own... if people want to give this crook their hard earned money because they think he provides spirituality for them... more power to them.. but... I just can't understand it.

    October 7, 2011 at 11:55 pm |
  20. David

    Wake up folks. Religion is make believe. It’s a business that is profiting from your beliefs. If you want to give your hard earned money to the churches thinking that's gonna spare you from a make believe Hell, then go ahead. You mind as well leave money for Santa Claus and the Eater Bunny too. You nut jobs. .

    October 7, 2011 at 11:52 pm |
    • Anon

      It's hard to debug a few millennia of childhood indoctrination cults/.

      October 7, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
    • shwmin

      The most illogical thing in the world is that Atheists claim to be reasonable and yet spend most of their time talking about a God they don't believe exists. Sound reasonable?.....and were the nut jobs? ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha...atheism does a fine job all by itself looking as foolish and insane as it possibly could........

      October 14, 2011 at 10:03 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.