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. Voice

    The man does preach but not the whole truth. God does bless you on this earth if you have acknowledged that you are a sinner and repented and believe that God came to the earth as man. He will bless you with the Holy Spirit who fills you with God's love, peace, and hope. These are riches we want.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Rambo

      Seriously? Are you high?

      October 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  2. David Johnson

    Boy, here is something I'm really steamed about!

    The bible gives two genealogies for Jesus and both are for Joseph. And Joseph was not the father of Jesus. The rumor was, that the real father was a Roman Archer named Pantera. Telling Mary he was god, was just plain wrong!

    This may explain why no one ever describes what Jesus looks like. He probably had Roman features.

    Can anyone think of any other famous person, who somebody didn't at least write down a description of?

    That is why! Jesus had a Roman father.


    October 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • MarkinFL

      Sounds more like he had a roamin' mother!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • hippypoet

      funny you should say that because there is proof as to why joe didn't stone mary to death after finding out she was prego... her job was to be a whor to the romans so they could do biz without getting taxed all up the but... however, the real reason the break down of JOSHUA wasn't in the book was because all who write the false-ness was well over 100 years after the dude died! oh and in the book of crap it says that joshua rose on the third day and all these morons are waiting for his second coming!!!! already came and went! its like the old saying – third times a charm!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm |

    hey, why can't be mr. blue, cause your mr. pink. how about we chose, NO... everyone wants to be mr. black!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  4. Rambo

    If you don't see this man as a businessman first, it doesn't matter much because you are a customer to him.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  5. captainsilverton

    i have not bought a thing from hom..he aks me for not a cent?????

    October 7, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  6. say what

    The message of Christ is to give hope to all mankind!!!

    Pastor Osteen's approach seems to be similar in that his messages are optimistic and upbeat , why browbeat that?
    Cheer up people!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Rambo

      I think it's about hypocrisy.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
  7. capitalismsucks

    suck the last drop of the blood, Joel! Be true to your real origin!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  8. cligie1

    Snake oil salesman.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Erik


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

    the man makes my sunday mornngs a welcome, refreshing start to the week.. he is a great helper of anyone who believes in being kind and helpful and the best you can be, with a bit of Jesus !!!!

    now hold your bible high and repeat after me.........!!!!!!!! rock on joel...

    October 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  10. hippypoet

    this man is a fraud. deal with it. he preaches "give me money" and nothing else. tell him to sell his car, private jet, sell the houses, all of it, then live like joshua did. maybe he will have some not so kind things to say, when his money runs out... oh and try doing all he does now but for free. maybe that will be more joshua like!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • JacyHouston

      OMG, why are people spending so much energy in putting Joel down? It is known that the devil gets really mad with those who really work for the Kingdom of God and bring people to Jesus, so maybe this is why people keep critizing Joel? We all have different talents, some preachers are teachers, some are more uplifting and motivational. There are churches that spend their whole time giving thanks to God and never talk about sin either. Joel wants people to be positive Christians and be assets to their surroundings, to lift people up, to make them prosperous in every sense of their life. Who cares if he has money, more power to him, I don't care! As long as he is not doing anything illegal, I don't care if he has 10 private jets or whatever! To God be the glory for him and his success. I don't like his wife either, but it is not of my business who he married. I just don't listen to her, but Joel is always on point. He is real and speaks to the average person's level. So what he is not a college graduate??? There are plenty of PhDs out there that are so caught up into theology and terminology that can't be effective in reaching out to people. As long as this man is bringing people closer to Jesus, then he is an effectivly good preacher. Mind your own pocket and life before you critize his, as far as I know, he is not doing anything illegal. I've watched him many times and I never heard him asking for money as many other small church pastors do. Joel, you go ahead and do what you do, we will continue to support you.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself


      So, you think that people are criticizing Joel because the devil is telling them to? How does that work, exactly? Does the devil manipulate their neurons? Does he sit and whisper on people shoulders like some cartoon? Or is it more of a Exorcism type thing? Because if so I'll want to try and protect myself from the projectile vomit.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
  11. RIckRoll

    I'm Buddhist. I enjoy listening to this guy speak. I like his approach. Those folks that are so polarised could probably learn something from him.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • hippypoet

      hey rick, i'd like to hear your definition of the word polarised please.


      October 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  12. Clydene Chinetti


    Joel is John's son and there is no Gospel Lite....

    October 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • or maybe....

      If you want to mount a legitimate defense of these people and their church I might recommend you don't use the church's own website and an un-referenced wiki article. Maybe try something that isn't so obviously biased.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
  13. Jane

    You are being critical of yourselves not him. Do you want to live your life unchallenged and unhappy? Why can't you see your own potential, that's not just cash in hand that is in loving other people and helping your neighbor. I went to church last week and one man I know thinks that Joel is a fraud, but while he left the parking lot he yelled at another church member for cutting him off.
    JOEL is about being positive,I think that God wants us to be positive and walk around with our EYES UP not DOWN. Why live our lives shaking in our boots. Listening to Joel helped me through the toughest time in my life not my priest, SORRY TO SAY. I LOVE HIS POSITIVE MESSAGE AND BECAUSE OF HIM I M NOW LIVING A LIFE OF GIVING>

    October 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  14. Stacy

    Joel is an excellent motivational speaker. I enjoy his weekly sermons, he's funny, captivating and find him extremely sincere. I've never watched T.V. evangelist before because well their just not any of these things. If you listen to Joel and know his story, this was not what he wanted, he never aspired to follow in his father's foot steps. But he followed his calling and I'm glad he did. Leave him alone, he's not hurting anyone. So what if he's making millions, he's spreading the good word, and the millions. I really don't get how people can put him down for that. It seems like no matter what some people do and they are successful at it, there is always an agenda. You don't need to go to seminary or know doctrine, to understand right or wrong or how God works in your life. Most of these comments are just ignorant, people are just jealous, because they have nothing and they don't want to be happy nor do they want to seek a simple solution to happiness. So shoot the messenger, so no one else is either.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
  15. Erik

    I live in Houston and he makes me nauseous with that fake smile and non-committal answers. His wife, i.e., “co-pastor”, is known to be snotty. They love the fame and the money. It’s sad to see people follow them with their hearts and money.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Jonny

      I saw this guy on Piers a couple nights ago and felt the exact same way. Sickening.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
    • Clydene Chinetti

      I lived in Houston and went to Lakewood and it is the Oasis of Love. It started in a feed store and it was down by the railroad tracks and not in the rich part of town, but Joel isn't a fake. If you KNOW him, you know that his smile is really true and real and he is really funny. Joel is the first to say that his wife will not be as humble as some but we can tell by the posts that should be okay by most of you. 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  16. Kofi Ampomah

    Joel Osteen is a servant of God AMEN!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  17. Chuck

    He is an extremely wealthy man and intends to become wealthier. It is apparent that financial gain and fiscal management are his really true talents. In other words he is a "gentle" huskster. People will flock to those that they feel are successful and popular. Look at reality TV in the last 10 years. Most of it is in the moronic level of intelligence, but it is the most popular form of television entertainment currently, and making huge amounts of money for networks at the expense of making most Americans lose brain function each time they watch one of these shows. Osteen has found his reality TV and is making the most of it and taking advantage on the situation. It is the American way. I guarantee that the help he gives to the poor is miniscule compared to the amount of money in his savings account.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
  18. Alfonzo Muchanzo

    Well the prosperity gospel is certainly false. Being (monetarily) rich has absolutely no correlation with being a good Christian or not. If, as the article says, he preaches prosperity in terms of relationships, ease of one's heart, etc then I agree with that message, however money should be completely left out of that kind of prosperity.

    If he can help people that are suffering then good for him 🙂 As long as he isn't preaching the (money) prosperity gospel, because that has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity or Jesus.

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

      I can't believe this. Are you saying that a wealthy individual who can walk passed a homeless person without giving has enough credibility to lead a church???

      October 7, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • wardlamb

      This Olsteen is just another American pseudo christian selling snake oil.I thought that Jim and Tammy wouldn't be back-but they are just tapered more to fit the slicker image to dupe middle class people of today.Look at the clothes and packaging..give me a break!Jesus would be scratching his head!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      @rambo – No, I'm saying nothing of the sorts. Not sure where you thought I said that.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:36 pm |
    • Clydene Chinetti

      I hope Rambo 🙂 isn't suggesting that Lakewood wouldn't give to the homeless and poor and those in need...didn't you see where they were the first to take in people when disaster struck Houston....I believe Joel went and bought some things himself and brought them in his car.....when no one else was reaching out...they did.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      I've only listened to Olsteen very little, and from what I've heard it does sound "lite" and more self help than true Gospel. But, like I said, I havent' listened to him that much so I shouldn't judge or condemn. I stated the prosperity gospel was false. In addition, if he's flying around on private jets and didn't open up his church (stadium) to the victims of Katrina then that would say something about him, something not good either my friends.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Clydene Chinetti

      Okay, just let me be blunt and say it....Lakewood was in a feedstore and down by the tracks, alot of them in the black part of town....I was afraid to drive thru the neighborhood to get to it....where are you coming from with the middle class blah, blah, blah....uh....didn't you see all the hispanics and blacks and other cultures in the audience? It's HOUSTON for goodness sake...that is what Houston is.....

      October 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
  19. Robert

    I found this article months ago...I believe this covers the topic well. http://followingjesus.org/seekers/megachurches.html

    October 7, 2011 at 2:22 pm |
    • hippypoet

      you can't follow a dead guy!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:23 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      I just read that article and I must say that I agree and thought it was very well written. I agree that the church needs to stop focusing on Gays and all the trivial stuff. The main focus needs to be to fix this broken society, with the first and foremost goal to be to help the sick and sinners, not act condescinding towards people with whom we disagree. Interesting take also on the "self-help" so to speak, which in turn makes us less likely to help our neighbors. Nice post and thanks. God bless 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
  20. the true antichrist

    omg its joel, who knew!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:21 pm |
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