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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. Finnigan O'Hara

    A question has arrived as to the DNA Jesus possessed. That is, the female MtDNA would obviously be Mary's, but what of the male DNA?

    December 30, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  2. Roy Martinez

    Joel Ojsteen's preaching is a positive way in telling us to trust in the Lord. And that the Lord will bless you as you build a relationship with God. Because he has mentioned that God doesn't want us to be broke does not mean that the God is going to make us all millionaires but that the Lord will get us out of our financial situation or what ever rut we are in. He is just telling us to trust in the Lord and he will bless us. Joel does it in a positive way which gives you more hope and gives you that motavation that is needed to trust in him. of course if you don't trust in the Lord none of that will happen that goes with out saying.

    November 6, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  3. Thomas B

    All:

    Joel's message is not the brimstone and fire message that has been associated with Christianity for 2 millennium. GOD wants us to live to serve HIM. What we do in our daily lives should be for the GLORY of GOD. THis is what Jesus was trying to tell humanity by being an example of this. Our life is journey to develop a Christ like character in preparation to be with GOD.

    Everyone has there own views and perspective on religion. This happens to be mine.

    Joel is preaching what he feels GOD is telling him to preach and he is making a difference one way or another.

    Is anyone else?

    November 4, 2011 at 4:46 pm |
  4. The First Jeff

    I am the angel of death. The time of purification is at hand.

    November 1, 2011 at 9:47 pm |
  5. The First Jeff

    Mr. Osteen, if you can read this please respond. I seemed to have lost your email address and phone number in route to GCM. I brought the bags though. Contact me when you have a minute.

    November 1, 2011 at 6:43 pm |
  6. john whittington

    Mr. Osteen never preached that you have to be rich. He said it is OK to be rich and that God wants us to be happy. If it were not for a rich man Jesus would not have been buried at all. There was a cute little place outside of town where those who had no money were burned even to the bone. It was called Sheol – The Valley of Hinnam.
    Native American Shaman

    October 31, 2011 at 7:59 am |
    • JP

      Then why did Jesus, in Mat 19th chapter say that a camel can go thru an eye of a needle but it will be impossibe for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God? I assume you take bible literaly. People camn live happy and comfortable like for 100,000/yr, many live a happy and comfortable life for way less, but you can see all these rich mega prechers they don't follow Jesus's teaching but make money of it.

      November 4, 2011 at 1:48 pm |
  7. Joe Brooks

    Each epoch has found in the Gospels what it sought to find there, and has overlooked what it wished to overlook. – Ludwig von Mises
    “One has to wonder, how many people, self-proclaimed Christians, many of whom we see in church with us every week, never really even made a conscious choice to accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior. How many people inherited their faith, have maintained it, and adhere to it publicly, but have never actually asked Jesus to be lord of their lives? How many of us are unwittingly destined to hear Christ tell us, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”
    My new book, The Four Pillars of the Kingdom, is set to be released in a week. It is, not only a response to some of the metaphysical arguments of the so-called New Atheists, but also a call to believers to take their faith serious in a very real way. You can find a few excerpts from the work and the cover art on my website, The Immaculate Conservative:

    http://bit.ly/TheFourPillars

    Please read and let me know what you think!

    Thanks,
    Joe Brooks

    October 26, 2011 at 8:57 pm |
  8. HijodeElElyon

    JESUS IS COMING SOON

    October 26, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
  9. ericmatthews

    I don't understand the Christians who say anything negative/judgmental about ANYONE, much less someone who is doing the work of GOD. You are not smarter than GOD, and do not know all of his works. This man is bringing people to Jesus.
    Jesus told us not to judge, but to love, and yet Christians are some of the most judgmental of all. I don't understand that.

    October 25, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
    • Concerned

      Mr. Matthews, How ironic, your statement is judgemental. The Bible speaks of RIGHTEOUS judgement.

      October 26, 2011 at 9:58 pm |
  10. Everett Wallace

    All of them are sorcerers pastors so on the religious leaders the so called teachers of the law. The crucifiction is a big lie. No way GOD THE FATHER would let His first born die, besides He said He hates human sacrifice.

    October 23, 2011 at 9:28 pm |
  11. Lauren

    I used to think this about Joel. Every time I heard a message, he truly was preaching what they might call it "gospel light" I do think it is important to stand up and proclaim Jesus is the only way. I started thinking this when I saw him on Larry King Live. Larry asks him "Will an athiest go to Heaven?" Joel's response is "That's up to God". I was so sad to hear this. Obviously, athiests don't even believe God exists much less Jesus is the messiah! I do think he seems afraid not to offend anyone. But- I also believe God is a variety God. Look at the variety of people and plants and everything he created- I don't think God wants all preachers to be the same. But, I do think they need to bring the message of TRUTH and not afraid to offend anyone. In the end, the bible says they will be judged more severely (good or bad)

    October 21, 2011 at 4:54 pm |
    • Internet Bubba

      Lauren, I totally agree with your thinking. I was thinking about his preaching was happy happy joy joy no meat. I started thinking that each type of preacher has a different approach that would connect with different people. I do believe we are beat up with negative thing each and everyday so what is wrong with a preacher speaking good feeling you can do it preaching.
      I personally have heard from people who where saved at the end of a crack pipe in the gutter to people who have had more than they needed and still feel empty and they find God. Our God is in all places and EVERYTHING happens for his glory.
      Just my opinon.

      November 2, 2011 at 11:14 pm |
  12. Tho

    So Sid...you're saying that Joel and God aren't in step...so you're saying that Joel is in fact preaching "gospel lite"??? Thanks for clarifying. At least the God of the bible doesn't tell all His present day adherents to kill everyone that disagrees with what He has said (Islam)....so I guess He's got that going for Him.

    October 21, 2011 at 1:52 pm |
  13. Julia

    I love Joel. You should listen to preachers just like you listen to God, with your heart. If I get even a whiff of any bad vibe, I'm outty. But Joel is all good vibes, because he knows that only the Lord can judge. And how you judge others is how you will be judged. So take that all you haters.

    October 19, 2011 at 9:38 am |
  14. Portland tony

    Of all the inspirational/motivational speakers on television, Osteen comes across, at least to me, as the most sincere and honest TV Pastor going. I may only catch him during NFL half-times...but when he speaks, there is no mumbo-jumbo Biblical crap. Only the truth.

    October 12, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • Meathead (of the Word)

      "mumbo-jumbo biblical crap"? By that do you mean depth? Just a nice fluff sandwhich for ya huh? Sad. But that's what "having itching ears" to hear only what they want to.

      October 12, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
  15. KidCalifornia

    Religious deceivers are the worst of vermin, and I fear they are as plentiful as rats in
    an old wheatstack.

    October 11, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  16. Meathead (of the Word)

    Oh I forgot, in your world of denial there is no Devil either. "The Fool hath said in his heart, there is no God".

    October 11, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
    • Skeptic

      I can quote too..."He who chases faeries and spirits is mentally deranged and should be locked away."

      October 17, 2011 at 2:15 am |
  17. Meathead (of the Word)

    Hey Mesa Mick: You won't be saying that when His foot is on your neck and you are confessing that He is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Even the the Devil believes, and trembles at His name... JESUS.

    October 11, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  18. TRISTA SMITH

    OH JEEZ~~~ LEAVE JOEL OSTEEN ALONE, U JEALOUS THANGS!!! JOEL HAS 45, 000+ PEOPLE AND HIS FAMILY TO TEND TO. PEOPLE DON'T HAVE TIME FOR MESS LIKE YOU ALL TALKING... IF YOU ALL SPENT TIME LIKE THIS TO SPREAD THE GOSPEL LIKE YOU SPREAD THE GOSSIP, GOD PROBABLY COULD USE YOU LIKE HE'S USING JOEL!!! NOW, GET SOMEWHERE!!!

    October 11, 2011 at 2:05 pm |
    • Duh

      So read your comment again and apply it to yourself moron AND stopping yelling – it's rude. 😉

      October 11, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  19. Carolyn Barton

    Caution!
    Compare his words to God's Word!!

    October 11, 2011 at 10:45 am |
    • Sid

      Carolyn, re "Compare his words to God's Word!!",

      Well, unlike the god of the bible, Osteen is not explicitly asking for cattle to be sacrificed and burnt to make him happy, so he does have that going for him.

      October 11, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Concerned

      Well said Carolyn

      October 26, 2011 at 10:03 pm |
  20. kenneth DuBose

    To confess before God that you believe in Christ, are your words a fact that you truly believe, God said in his word with the heart confesshon is made unto righteousness,not just in word,but in the power of Gods spirit,to whom God may choose,it's not every one who just says Lord Lord,God is truth,God decides the heart,salvation is a feeling of Gods spirit,to those who truly believe, to denigh the power of the spirit,is to denigh the word, and confess the Lord Jesus in vain.

    October 10, 2011 at 10:13 pm |
    • Sid

      blah blah blah denigh blah spirit blah denigh blah. Religious gobbledygo-ok as usual.

      October 11, 2011 at 3:40 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.