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. Me

    I like Osteen and his messages – they do indeed pick me up. However, I do resent all of these people getting rich off of other people's misery. One of the worse ones is Benny Hinn – he is going to be surprised one mil-second after he dies. He ain't goin' where he thinks he is going. I took someone with terminal cancer to one of his "healing meetings" and it was incredible. The people that sat in the front rows were the folks that bought these very expensive seats and this shyster did not come out until the singing of "How Great Thou Art" reached it's peak, and he came out with arms wide open, trying to look as though the song was all about him. Sadly, he has fooled many folks into believing that he is straight from God. He is indeed straight from a spiritual being, but it ain't God, the Good Guy.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • dean

      I always revert to that grand old saying by none other that P.T.Barnum.' There is a sucker born every day.' How true that statement has turned out. Looking at the situation in America today, we must has gotten the majority.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  2. gooner

    Since when do you need a degree to help others? We have enough ministers that read the Bible but do not live it. Rich or poor we are all children of God. Try to enjoy your life and move forward with or without Joel as one of your teachers.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
    • GauisJulius

      A degree is not needed, but one should have formal instruction in the Bible before preaching to a congregation of thousands. In this case, Osteen's messages go obvioulsy contradictory to the message of the Bible...no matter how liberal you take the Bible, so this is indeed a problem. Just like Christians should condemn the acts of the Westboro baptist Church for their anti-biblical message, we should also condemn Osteen of his anti-biblical message.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • GauisJulius

      And I think even most nonChristians would agree with this. There is so much misinformation in the world already, to have someone else giving a false testimony of the Bible would only further confuse people...and 20 years from now, we'll have someone saying "So which message is God's message, Osteen's or the Bible?" You call out heresy when you see it, so someone else doesn't needlessly stumble.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Read Foxe's Book of Martyrs to see if the earliest Disciples "enjoyed their life"...

      October 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  3. Barry G.

    If Brother Osteen is preaching that we should take up our cross and follow Christ (as Jesus commanded), them I'm all for him; if he's preaching anything other than this, I'm not in support of what he's doing.

    Jesus certainly didn't preach a health and wealth gospel.

    In fact the Church suffered and struggled for the first two hundred years, and it wasn't until the conversion of Constantine that the church was confronted with the question: Can a Christian be wealthy, powerful and comfortable, or is it necessary to suffer?

    Many saw this new development on or about 315 C.E. (see: the Edict of Milan and the Edict of Galerius, before that) a threat to their faith and salvation; and, for this reason many of the faithful fled from the comforts of society into the deserts of N. Africa and Syria, in order to live an austere life of service.

    Some, like Justo Gonzalez, pointed out that the Church has struggled with this issue since the early fourth century, and continues do so.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • GauisJulius

      I think that is the point of this article, that Osteen doesn't preach to take up the cross. he doesn't talk about the sin or salvation either. He instead talks about how to live a better life. That's why most Christians in America are against him...at least the ones that have cracked the Good Book.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  4. Clydene Chinetti

    Joel Osteen was voted in and has stayed as Pastor. You apparently do not KNOW the Osteens or where the original Lakewood Church was located and how it grew. I was there and Pastor John Osteen was not Gospel Lite and you don't have Joel without John......Some of you are waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay off.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
  5. Shelle

    Well I'd rather hear it his way versus all the hollering and spitting and scaring people making them think think they are going straight too hell and I do believe GOD wants all of his children to live abundants life...you people who dont believe go play on the freeway satan is waiting for you. yall mad cause your broke and usually when we are broke its because of failure to handle our business and handle the money right regardless of what your heart says I don't care what none of you say Joel is a Christian GODLY man.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:18 pm |
    • hippypoet

      dudes the anti christ and you are his follower!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Have you ever READ the Bible?

      October 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • dean

      Only Joel knows the answer to that.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:07 pm |
  6. andrea

    Joel Osteen is NO MAN OF GOD
    he is the typical televangelist fraud who uses people's hate and fear in order to get rich

    October 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Clydene Chinetti

      And, ofcourse, you don't know him or his father and mother or the original Lakewood Church or you wouldn't be saying what you are saying....since you have no idea what you are talking about...we will just pass right on by your post....after this...Look up Lakewood Church, John and Dodie Osteen..... please....do us a favor.....

      October 7, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Leman

      Completely agree with you!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Barry G.

      Remember that one of the Ten Commandments forbids anyone from "bearing false witness".

      The curses that accompany the breaking of the Ten Commandments (see: Deuteronomy) are everlasting, as are its promises.

      Remember, Jesus didn't come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it and uphold it.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:24 pm |
    • Greg

      Wow. I'm no great fan of Joel Osteen, and am an opponent of the prosperity gospel, but Andrea you come across as irrationally angry and judgmental. It's great to carefully examine someone's teaching, but leave the judging of people's hearts to God. He's the only One who's qualified. And do yourself a favor... give your anger to Jesus. He cleanses and heals broken hearts.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  7. MIKE

    I don't think that he flys around in private jets

    October 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • hippypoet

      of course not. he sprouts wings and flys away that way! duh, dudes an angel!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:13 pm |
    • GauisJulius

      We actually know he flies around on private jets, there is no doubt about that. In fact, in his interview with Larry King and Piers Morgan, he was asked about that and he didnt deny it, though sometimes he does fly commercial.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:14 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      They fly commercial, albeit first class... and Victoria doesn't like coffee stains on her seat!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  8. Tryn2BBetter

    This is the first time I've "blogged" in my life. If you don't like Joel Osteen, don't listen to his program. It won't do people like you any good anyway. Every post I see that disses Joel or his church, I don't even read completely. Apparently there's a lot of atheists out there! I love listening to Joel and think if more people did and adhere to God's message, the world would be a better place. We just have to block out the haters (right, Chris?)!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • GodPot

      "It won't do people like you any good anyway." It's nice of you to judge us so quickly. And what exactly do you mean by "people like you"? People who don't like Joel are bad people? Or misguided? You might want to try a little harder next time.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:19 pm |
    • Lucifer's Evil Twin

      Your lips are moving but I can't hear what your saying. Mindless meat puppet.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:20 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Most of those dissing Joel are not the atheists. We might dismiss him but "dis"? Nah... He seems better than most. I could probably stand to be in the room with him for more than 5 minutes unlike most evangelist types.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  9. Daniela

    I absolutely love this man and his messages have saved me on countless occasions. I have never been so moved by anyone...

    October 7, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • hippypoet

      it sounds like you need to be saved more then most... maybe he was not doing anyone but you a favor by saving you... time to end it daniela, sry, but once saved is enough, second saved and the saver messed up the first time!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Saved you from what? He's no better than Tony Robbins. Motivational self-help speaker at best.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  10. Clydene Chinetti

    Joel is the son of John Osteen. Gospel Lite? You must be kidding. It is best to not speak, before you know the people.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      And Joel admitted to Larry King that he preaches nothing like his father did.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  11. LastLiberalRepublican

    This guy isn't even an ordained minister, is he? I don't have a problem with people preaching the Bible, but at some point the person who heads up an organized church might want to think about ordination being requisite.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:09 pm |
  12. gooner

    The Bible does not ask us to be poor. Joel is refreshing and helps us enjoy the gift of life.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • or maybe....

      Or at least helps you rationalize your greed...

      October 7, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • hippypoet

      so he gets everyone prego?

      October 7, 2011 at 2:10 pm |
    • clifffromparma

      I thought the bible condemned wealth. I thought it read,harder getting the wealthy into heaven,than getting a camel through the eye of a needle. ????????????????????????????

      October 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Luke 14:33
      So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Rolling my eyes

      @gooner: "Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God." Straight from the bible. And there's that bit that you must leave your wife, kids and family if you truely want to follow Jesus.

      And, darn it: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven". Maybe that's a reference to the poor in spirit who send their money to ol' Joel.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
  13. GauisJulius

    Another key indicator that Osteen doesn't preach a biblical message is the fact that most of his audience claims to not be Christian. This should be an indicator that the Holy Spirit can't be found in his message, and he totally on the wrong tracks. Or better yet, read about the life of Jesus and his words...you may see some contradiction between Jesus and Osteen's message.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • hippypoet

      read which part abuot jesus's life, the birth or death...the bible is kinda hazey on the middle years! maybe because its a load of sh!t..

      October 7, 2011 at 2:17 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      hippy, you are an idiot.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  14. Bibleman

    Yep, that is what it is, Gospel: skim milk, it is amazing how much money naive people drop in his pockets.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  15. BirdieBogey

    Pastor Joel seems nice enough and people flock to his good feeling message. His focus though seems to be on helping people feel comfortable with their wealth and prosperity, as if it is God's will for their life is to live in a nice home in the suburbs. I recall that people flocked to hear Jesus too, but his message was that the poor, the meek and the downtrodden were the blessed ones.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:03 pm |
    • hippypoet

      well all relgions are @ss backwards anyway – so in the light, he is only doing whats right!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • Clydene Chinetti

      Do you KNOW WHERE the original Lakewood Church was located, near the railroad tracks....I won't go on....

      October 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
  16. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    And for some reason, whenever I accidently see him on tv, I want to hunt him down and set him on fire. what's up with that?

    October 7, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • HellBent

      Watching the way in which he talks – swaying alternately to each side and raising his hands up is the visual equivalent to someone saying "Ni!" to me. It's paralyzing in the most painful way. I don't understand how people can take more than 30 seconds of it – I find him to be an atrocious orator. I just don't understand.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • hippypoet

      you said "I find him to be an atrocious orator."

      well yeah, he is no cicero...duh! dude gave hours long speeches, and people listened the whole way thru – in todays world of completely no patience, anything longer then 1 hour and forget it!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:08 pm |
  17. Barry Hamm

    I am a former FULL GOSPEL (Independant) preacher. I left that part of my life some years ago. I am gay and know that your energy is the RIGHT DIRECTION.....we are MORE than "issues"....HELP ONE ANOTHER is the KEY ! Thank you for continuing on in the POSITIVE and REAL direction that has taken so many to a BETTER way of life ! KEEEP IT UP ! You are WAY ahead of those "stuck in the mud denying idividuals, that are "confused" with what LIFE and LIVING is all about.

    All the VERY best !


    October 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Unbelievable

      Barry, focusing on the ways of the flesh is the easiest sin to fall into. Pat yourself on your back for being full of it.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      I can tell just by the exuberant use of caps that you were once an evangelist.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:06 pm |
  18. GauisJulius

    pitung: It says a prophet is not regarded in his own land, not a preacher. The criticism shown to Osteen is justified, he doesn't even know what the Bible says on many issues. Anyone that has ever listened to a full message would easily see this. This is the problem with pastors that dont preach from the Bible. There is a vere that says what sounds right to a man may not be....and this is the case.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Unbelievable

      Osteen is a friend of man's, not Jesus.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:07 pm |
    • or maybe....

      Those men would specifically be George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, and Benjamin Franklin

      October 7, 2011 at 2:12 pm |
    • Santhosh

      Which Bible did Jesus preach from?
      Jesus' teaching were not found in the Mosaic law, and the Pharisees pointed that out. But still Jesus clamied that 'he came not to bring down the law but uphold it'.
      Don't judge the man saying 'he is not preaching from the Bible'. Point out if he is distorting the truth. His style is not very differnet from Jesus's – speaking the language of the masses when talking to masses.
      Jesus broke all rules when he 'healed on the Sabath!' but He said 'its better to save a man than to keep the Sabath'. Now, was He a heretic?
      If you can quote the Bible from cover to cover,but you don't have love – you are a sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • or maybe....

      "His style is not very differnet from Jesus's – speaking the language of the masses when talking to masses."

      This could also describe Jon Stewart or Larry the Cable Guy.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:42 pm |
    • Bill the Cat

      Santhosh, Jesus taught from the whole Torah. Your comment that Jesus' teachings were not in the Mosaic Law is plain ignorance.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  19. jj

    The Bible says ..."it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of the needle than for a rich man to enter heaven..." . Mr Olsteen might consider this as he files around the world in his private jet, lives in his multi-million dollar home, and lives his life of the wealthy man.
    "God does not want us to be poor." What a crock. The only fools are the fools who believe Olsteen cares for anyone other than himself.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
    • Unbelievable

      Osteen twists scriptures (those that he's read and thinks he understands God's message) to give a feel good message to phony Christians who only attend church but never opened Jesus' truth (the Bible) in their lives. For if any of these Christians read the Bible, they'd have no need for a phony like Osteen.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:04 pm |
  20. Lucifer's Evil Twin

    he's smarmy – look it up.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:00 pm |
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