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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. Reality

    Dear Con Artist Osteen,---------------

    A prayer for you to say in your cell after you are convicted for fraud:

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians during the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen

    October 8, 2011 at 7:53 am |
  2. onehen

    osteen you are just another con artist under the guise of religion. you should be ashamed of yourself but with the way you operate you wouldn't even know what that means.

    October 8, 2011 at 7:24 am |
    • AGuest9

      ... and, as such, any different from any other minister?

      October 8, 2011 at 9:11 am |
  3. kelvin

    I was just writing a song about hatred and as i stop to take a brake, i went on line and i said to myself "God put in my heart this song that i am writing before i see this topic"God wanted Mr. Joel to carry on what is father left in is heart. Beside the church i am going to, i listen to him very often compared to a lot of others i had listen to.Stop the hate and jealousy, and walk in the foot step of the lord and you will have people following you. God bless each and every one.

    October 8, 2011 at 4:12 am |
    • Huh?

      I don't know what language you are writing this song in, but if it's English, nobody is going to understand it. I recommend a good proofreader...

      October 8, 2011 at 4:17 am |
  4. Born-Again

    Repent and turn away from your sinful ways for the Kingdom of GOD is at hand.
    This message is bitter to sinners (like me) and if a preacher ( who stands in the Holy Altar of Jehovah GOD) cannot stand up straight and speak it as it is; then he is actually conspiring with The Liar to lead the sheep of God astray. If you want to be prosperous, The Lord Himself gives us the formula that that He gave Abraham. SEEK YE FIRST THE KINGDOM OF GOD AND ALL ITS RIGHTEOUSNESS, AND EVERYTHING ELSE WILL BE ADDED TO YOU. The choice is yours. Either you start with seeking the Kingdom of God or start with seeking everything else. Have a blessed day, all of you.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:38 am |
    • Bob

      Ah ok, now we're getting down to the nitty gritty but i think that Edgar Friendly still has a point.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:49 am |
    • Poo = Sue

      The bible says NOTHING about any "formula" being given to Abraham, by anyone. There were no "formulas" for anthing then. Obviously you have not studied the bible, (or the history of science). The phrase "kingdom of god" was never used in the OT. Before you patronizing preachy types start handing out unasked-for advice, maybe you better find out a tiny something about what you are talking about.

      October 8, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  5. Bob

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yK1SI4XOykI&feature=related

    It's real!!

    October 8, 2011 at 3:37 am |
  6. Joey

    Joel Osteen's church handed my uncle, who had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and was preparing to undergo chemotherapy, a check for $2000 to help him in 2005. My uncle didn't ask for money or attend his church regularly, he just attended a few services. My uncle passed away a few years later, but I will never forget this generosity. "...I was sick and you looked after me..." – a storytelling carpenter

    October 8, 2011 at 3:13 am |
  7. Edgar Friendly

    Dude's gay. My gaydar is almost perfect, and this guy is off the charts.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:10 am |
    • Bob

      LMFAO!! I didn't want to go there...but there it is....

      October 8, 2011 at 3:13 am |
  8. Dr.K.

    flim flam man.

    October 8, 2011 at 3:00 am |
  9. ELLIE

    God does not care about RELIGION, he cares about faith, our faith in him, Jesus, and the holy spirit. All he wants from us is for us to treat each other with love and compasion. Let the first person that has never sinned cast the first stone. Looks like Joel is safe from all of us.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:57 am |
    • Bob

      I guess i would feel pretty safe from stones living in a 10 million dollar house with security, just like Jesus did. I'm just saying....

      October 8, 2011 at 3:05 am |
    • onehen

      well said

      October 8, 2011 at 7:27 am |
  10. toadears

    The masses always like the soothing words of the false prophets. They always tell them exactly what they want to hear. Read the book of Jeremiah. They hated him because he kept trying to warn them of the dangers coming to Israel. In Christianity, the entire faith is based around what happened at the cross....sacrifice. By mixing prosperity and faith, he is demeaning sacrifice as unnecessary. His father left him a very rich church. He doesn't understand sacrifice. And like the Crystal Cathedral, he will fall. He isn't evil. Just spoiled by inheriting wealth he did not build.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:54 am |
    • Born-Again

      I am glad @toadears: indeed you are among the 7000 who have not bowed down to baal. May the Lord continue using you to spread the true message bitter as it is for a loved son is the one who is disciplined (by rebuke) yet if you are not loved, you are left to enjoy the so called "gospel lite". Shalom.

      Please check out these sites as the Holy Spirit leads you.
      http://www.repentandpreparetheway.org/
      http://www.jesusislordradio.info/

      October 8, 2011 at 3:51 am |
    • John Proctor

      You two need to watch "The Crucible". I know who you would have been...

      Hideous.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:59 am |
    • Scott

      So if Christ made the ultimate sacrifice why do Christians need to sacrifice now?

      October 8, 2011 at 4:53 am |
    • John Richardson

      Christ's sacrifice was piffle.

      October 8, 2011 at 7:30 am |
  11. TheMostWise

    .....Gospel.....Gospel Lite......it's all complete nonsense. What's the fuss all about?

    October 8, 2011 at 2:49 am |
    • lacoaster

      I'll tell you what's going on. Joel's brothers refuse to forgive him. No love.

      October 8, 2011 at 2:58 am |
    • lacoaster

      ...and it sounds to me that he is being judged by other Christians. If left wing Christians and right wing Christians don't come to an agreement, we are at risk of a religious shutdown. I hope they can come to an agreement soon.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:18 am |
    • AGuest9

      Fiction is fiction.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:12 am |
  12. Jim

    Some of the Christian brethren posting here seem to be full of so much hatred for one of their own. Christianity seems not to be bringing out the best in them. Lordy, lordy.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:25 am |
    • Bob

      hmmm 'one of our own' lives in a 10 million dollar home. i don't know anybody close to me who lives even close to a 1 million dollar home. and i don't think Jesus did either. Please stop defending this guy, he does not teach true Christianity, if that's not apparent, then you are truly the lost one.

      October 8, 2011 at 2:53 am |
  13. Patricksday

    For I was hungry and you fed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was in prison and you visited me, hardly lines from the Evangelical "Christians". How much money did Jesus strive to horde and get for preaching?? Did he buy a big house, and live like a King? Hypocrits who hitch their wagon to Jesus and lie and betray the followers for GREED and WEALTH.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:20 am |
    • Bob

      Yes! I like it, truth..

      October 8, 2011 at 2:27 am |
    • jerry

      jesus had a treasurer...so i guess He had some money...if u wanna be broke....u go ahead and refuse the next raise offered to you

      October 8, 2011 at 2:53 am |
  14. ALex

    A charlatan of the highest order. Give money and be saved all ye sinners.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:12 am |
  15. lacoaster

    Anon, those were some pretty high reality doses man. I did not say much this time, but what you threw in there was some heavy stuff. Here is to complement: The Nature of Existence movie
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8rKnDId4M0
    You can see the full movie in Hulu.

    October 8, 2011 at 2:06 am |
    • Justin

      Richard Dawkins is a social Darwinist that believes in Nazism and the elimination of all inferior beings. Nothing more than a super conservative atheist. Bigot.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:06 am |
    • dg

      " Justin says: October 8, 2011 at 3:06 am

      Richard Dawkins is a social Darwinist that believes in Nazism and the elimination of all inferior beings. Nothing more than a super conservative atheist. Bigot."

      He believes that Nazism existed but does not believe in putting its philsophies into practice. That is just a cheap rhetorical shot and a complete misperception of what Dawkins believes.

      Dawkins doesn't believe in the elimination of all inferior beings and hasn't even stated what he would define as inferior beings. This is the sort of propagandist rhetoric christians have become known for when it comes to criticizing a atheist.

      Ridiculous and unnecessary.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:14 am |
    • AGuest9

      Yes, dg, it's the typical drivel that we scientists have to confront on a daily basis.

      October 8, 2011 at 9:18 am |
    • Anon

      Chrisitans sure love their quote mining
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=24vWUeMnXBg

      October 8, 2011 at 10:10 am |
    • tallulah13

      Thanks for the link, Anon. It is amazing how many christians will out and out lie to defend their faith.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:02 am |
  16. Edward Cantu

    Well I do Pray for Pastor Joel. And I will say that when we do not preach the full counsel of God what happens is not good. People will not repent because when you hear the whole truth about God's Love and the need to repent then you are now accountable to make a change. When you don't hear the whole truth then the Pastor is keeping you in chains. The bondage of sin is real and the devil does not want you to repent. Therefore the flock is not ready for the return of our blessed Savior Jesus

    October 8, 2011 at 2:04 am |
    • Bob

      like i said, This is not true religion. and no, i do not pray for him. justice will come

      October 8, 2011 at 2:11 am |
    • dg

      A.s an ag.nostic, I find that Osteen's style and message more refreshing and less harmful than most "true religions."

      What consti.tutes a "true religion" anyway?

      If how long a religion has been around is a sign, than every religion after the first would not be a true religion.

      If a "untrue religion" is any religion that breaks away from the first incar.nation of a religion, than what does that make the various ve.ins of christian.ity out there? Which is more true... prote.stant, bab.tist, ect.?

      How is a religion started today any less true than a religion started 2000 years ago?

      Though spirit.uality may actually have mental and healthful benefits, spir.ituality doesn't have to include a God or gods, which is termed "secular spiritua.lity. It doesn't require a belief in the supernatual but is based on concepts of innerself, compassion, thoughtfulness, etc. and includes practices such as meditation.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:07 am |
    • Scott

      “Therefore the flock is not ready for the return of our blessed Savior Jesus”. But, this gives them an easy out, be greedy and when you die just blame it on the paster

      October 8, 2011 at 5:01 am |
  17. Richard Aberdeen

    Jesus, Paul, Pete, John, James and the other original followers of Jesus, were among the poorest of all people. Yet, they gave to others and insisted that we all should. This guy is an obvious liar.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:59 am |
    • Bob

      indeed!

      October 8, 2011 at 2:16 am |
  18. Bob

    Please people, open your eyes. This is not true religion. Just self help.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:43 am |
    • joe

      its is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camal to go thru the eye of e needle
      .

      October 8, 2011 at 2:05 am |
    • john316

      @joe
      Fixed
      Mark 10:24 "How hard is it for them that trust in riches."
      its is harder for a rich man (who trust in riches) to enter the kingdom of heaven than a camal to go thru the eye of e needle

      October 8, 2011 at 2:26 am |
    • Scott

      Don’t you see? Self help is the new religion that is pushing Christianity into a well deserved oblivion. 45,000 members can’t be wrong

      October 8, 2011 at 5:04 am |
    • Fallacy Spotting 101

      There are No True Scotsmen.

      http://rationalwiki.org/wiki/No_True_Scotsman

      October 8, 2011 at 12:05 pm |
  19. Chunkified

    Believe in something bigger than yourself or not.

    "Not the least of my problems is that I can hardly even imagine what kind of an experience a genuine, self-authenticating religous experience would be. Without destroying me in the process, how could God reveal himself in a way that would leave no room for doubt? If there were no room for doubt, there would be no room for me". – Buechner

    October 8, 2011 at 1:38 am |
    • dg

      This is balderdash. I have had mystical experiences that if I did not have the ability to critically think and an.alyze the situation I would surely think there was a God. Lucid dreaming and out of body experiences can do this, hypnosis as well. Pain and shutting onesself off from the the rest of the world (ie: 30 days and nights in the desert) or total sensory deprivation can bring about these experiences in many cases.

      Mistaking biological responses to particular stimuli or lack of stimuli for being a sign or God speaking to you explains much of what most likely happened to prophets and their followers. Rousing speeches, religious ceremonies, evangelical revivals, float tanks, tattoing, running, s/m, dreaming, meditation can at times create what appear to be mystical experiences... I know because I have gone through it in each of the examples I put forth above but I don't fool myself into believing that this is the work of some mythical or man made God... it is just a biological response.

      October 8, 2011 at 3:01 am |
  20. gc1ceo

    It's a no-win scenario for a lot of pastors of any kind in the United States, if you're not telling gays they are burning in hell then you're a hippie and if you aren't actively marching to support gay marriage then you're a Nazi. Same goes a lot of hot button issues mixing in with religion.

    October 8, 2011 at 1:30 am |
    • Anon

      I consider the WBC the only real Christian since they actually try and follow the bible to the tee.

      October 8, 2011 at 11:42 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.