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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. Tony Montana

    Joel Osteen touched me in my rectum and said to me, "YOU WANNA PLAY RUFF, OK I PLAY RUFF".

    October 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Normon

      I do believe you are touched.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  2. thetruth101

    I like how in the beginning they say a college drop out, its weird because it seems college limits you, Steve Jobs dropped out of college after one year and he has built one of the greatest companies in the world. College doesn't open your mind, it limits you, I know as a current college student I feel sometimes it might not be worth it.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      dont drop out of college kid. It doesn't limit you. They dropped out because they had an amazing idea while still in school and it wasn't necessary to finish. Unless you fall into that category, don't drop out. And even if you do fall into that category, try to start your business while still in school. If it takes off then consider your options.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      @Alphonzo: +1

      October 7, 2011 at 2:57 pm |
    • Normon

      College never limits you. Some exceptional people may be able succeed in spite of not graduating, but knowledge never hurts, IMO.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  3. David M.

    The sermon you preach in America also has to be just as applicable in the poorest part of Africa or south east Asia. If it isn't, then it isn't biblical. I don't necessarily agree with all that Joel says because some of what he says only works in the affluent western world. The bible was not written just for those in developed countries. It was written for everyone and should speak to everyone the same way. For me, that's the litmus test for any preacher.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • jlsppw

      With all due respect, don't you think that the interpretation is up to the individual? After all one's relationship with God is a personal one. Individuals should not look to preachers as God; preachers are fallible men just as any member of society. What you are to do is take that preached information and line it up with the Word and that is where you get the wisdom/clarity as to God's intent. Doesn't matter where on the globe you reside.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  4. JT

    Hey Christians, I'll blow smoke up your ass like this grinning idiot is doing and won't charge as much. Send me a check and I'll put you on my roll.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • captainsilverton

      you would most likely take the money of a poor man and smile... lose it man, get real !!!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • JT

      You get a discount.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  5. jlsppw

    Joel tells it like it is period. The Bible is a book of parables specifically designed to make you think… “It’s a form of meditating on the Word”…Get a King James, a concordance, read it & figure it out versus assuming what scripture means; because 98% of the time scripture doesn't mean anything near what most people think. "Millions of examples throughout the world and throughout history could be given of godly people living in poverty.” Perhaps that's because those individuals maintain a "poverty mindset" as well as a misunderstanding of the Word. Recommended poverty is not suggested anywhere in the Bible. Godly people being poor is man's discernment not God’s.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • or maybe....

      Whatever helps you sleep better at night.

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

      Exactly. If you are going to be the richest person in your congregation and still convince people to give you more money, you have to justify it as righteous. Joel is a student of humanity and he knows that humanity is inherently gullible and stupid. We gives you hope, you give him money. My only regret in life is that I didn't start a church instead of an IT business.

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

      Zooooomed.... Right over your head. So go start a Church.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Normon

      "98%"
      Where exactly did you get this statistic?

      "Recommended poverty is not suggested anywhere in the Bible. Godly people being poor is man's discernment not God’s."
      Really?

      Jesus answered, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." (Matthew 19:21)

      October 7, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • jlsppw

      Norman – you're part of the 98%, you answered your own skepticism in referencing Matthew 19:21. Does that scripture instruct you to be poor? Or is instructing you not to put your faith in something more lasting than money/material? Because with most wealthy folk (not saying I am one or the other), that is where their faith lies. I think maybe, maybe you need to read the entire passage and connect the dots... Maybe you'll think differently.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
    • jlsppw

      Excuse the typo – it should read; Or is it instructing you to put your faith in something more lasting than money/material?

      October 7, 2011 at 3:34 pm |
    • Normon

      @jlsppw,
      If you make up numbers like "98%", then why wouldn't you make an interpretation of Bible. It seems pretty clear to me that the passage I referenced, says "if you want to be perfect" sell everything, give it to the poor and follow Jesus. Jesus if I understand correctly had no money.
      Perhaps, you had better read it again.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  6. captainsilverton

    you nay sayers need to take a god look in the mirror... do you help all those you can???? its that simple. your family, a friend anyone you relate too. its a great message...being kind and honest is GOD like...and I am not even sure i believe in GOD, but i believe in JOEL...

    October 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • or maybe....

      I would hope that most people dn't need to be told to be nice and charitable or need to read a book to know how to do it. You can be a good happy person without Joel's help. There really isn't any need to make him any richer.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
    • Normon

      Nay, I say... Nay!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  7. Mesa Mick

    This guy – like all those mega-church and TV "prosperity preachers – is nothing more than a grifter and con-man blowing gawd sunshine up peoples butz and then askin' for money...

    October 7, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
  8. mouse

    the bit that sweets us.......LOL I meant the "bit" that suits us.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  9. ALMIGHTY SUN

    MAY THE LIGHT OF THE UNIERVES BE WITH YOU AND WARM YOUR HEARTS.... there is no other god BUT THE ALMIGHTY SUN!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Mesa Mick

      There is no god – deal with it if you have the balz.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
    • ALMIGHTY SUN

      MUHAHAHAHA OH DISBELIEVER, I REQUIRE NOTHING FROM YOU, NOT EVEN FAITH IN MY EXISTENCE FOR ALL YOU NEED DO IS LOOK UP DURING THE DAY... THERE I AM, FROM ME TO YOU, I GIVE LIFE!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  10. baptized in Jesus Name!

    The truth about this man and many televangelist's out there is that they preach bubble gum messages that people WANT to hear not what people NEED to hear. 2 Timothy 4:3 For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. He is not supposed to condemn people but he is supposed to CONVICT people. Serving God was not designed to be convenient, and when you hear the word of God preached forth you should feel uncomfortable at times b/c it may not be what you want to hear but what you NEED to hear for your Salvation. As Christians we will suffer and these people make it sound like Christians will be happy 24/7 and never have trials or tribulations... how do we have a TESTIMONY w/o A TRIAL so that God can be glorified? John 16:33 “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have TROUBLE. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” You want to hear truth? you want your soul to be saved and you want to live a peaceful prosperous life... wealthy or not? Find the closest Apostolic Pentecostal church near you, hear the truth and let God do the rest. I pray for this man and all those televangelist's out there that don't have the truth that God will open up their eyes and pour out his wisdom and understanding on them b/c they are leading people to the Lake of Fire...

    October 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
    • Mesa Mick

      Only those Jerks4Jesus without an original thought of their own go around spouting nonsense quotes from the buy-bull...Stick a sock in it freak.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
    • baptized in Jesus Name!

      Wow Mesa Mick, you are truly an example of cyber bullying, I quote the word of God b/c it's the WORD of God. I am not sitting here with my own opinions. I am saying something and backing it up with what's in the bible, so if you wanna sit here and judge me you ain't hurting me with your little computer comments, you rejecting the WORD of GOD!

      October 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm |
  11. zooompilot

    If Olsteen motivates your life then he has provided a service for you and you should pay him for it. Olsteen knows what he's doing and he has gotten immensely rich doing it. When you inform him that the Blble says that "it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven" he side steps the question and says that it no longer applies. People like him see themselves as shepherds and their congregation as sheep (just like Jesus did.) I couldn't agree more. Sheep have this interesting tendency to let the shephed shear off all of their wool and stand there shivering while the shepherd keeps warm in his new wool coat. At the end of the day, since he doen't have any of my money and never will, I could care less what other people do with theirs.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:44 pm |
  12. mouse

    hummm......with a "bit" of Jesus???? How is a preacher a preacher with just a "bit" of Jesus??? Isn't Jesus supposed to be the everything? Oh but no, we only want the bit that suites us, we'll make the rest of it be about making Joel rich!!!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  13. Caesar

    The problem lies more with the people than with the pastor. There is nothing wrong biblically speaking about preaching a "lite" message. He speaks the language of the people. Great. He's attracted millions of people who may not have been interested in Jesus before. Wonderful. What people do with his message is the truly important part. Do they go cross reference it with the source? How many followers of Osteen double check IN THE BIBLE whether his message is consistent and complete? Because I fear (and I know several people like this) that too many people feel like his message is as complete as it needs to be, and they are fully Christian just by taking his advice. Joel Osteen is a great gateway to the bible. But you shouldn't just stop at the gate, right? If anyone has read The Pilgrim's Progress (or the bible, for that matter), you'll know that the journey doesn't end at the gate. It gets a lot harder. Let Joel Osteen point you towards Christ, and let personal time spent studying the bible and talking to God get you closer to being an actual Christian.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Caesar

      ...And another thing. Who are all these "fire and brimstone" TV evangelists that people keep mentioning? I have watched several TV preachers, and I can't remember the last time I heard a fire and brimstone message. They're all pretty respectful these days. But they deal with heavier subject material, so I can understand why many people get bored and disinterested. But let's not confuse boring with judgemental. These guys are a lot more respectful than your average darwinist.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
  14. Clydene Chinetti

    For all of you hung up on the packaging and middle class and blah blah blah....hello FEED STORE...LOTS OF RAILROAD TRACKS AND SOLID BLACK NEIGHBORHOOD....you do not know what you are talking about....well....not the newer part of town...solid black neighborhood now days could be the White House.....just saying.... 🙂 get a clue....

    October 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
  15. JB

    Rev. Osteen's message has been misunderstood by so many people.

    When he says, "God does not want us to be poor," he's not referring to mankind. He's referring to his own family.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
  16. aaa

    He tell great feel good stories but I've never heard him speak about the death , burial, and ressurection of Jesus Christ.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • Clydene Chinetti

      Well, what did you think the invitation to salvation was all about, then if not the death, burial and resurection of Jesus?

      October 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm |
  17. Amy

    The Bible teaches us to live in LOVE, I love Joel and why would anyone ever disagree with a man who wants to help other people live in love and be happy? I know why... the devil will do anything to make people think poorly of such a good man. Think about it.

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

      I think he's kind of a scam. Although I bet he would make one helluva car salesman.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  18. Voice

    Read your Bible for yourself and find the truth.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:40 pm |
    • The Bobinator

      That it's clearly a work of primitive men? Read the bible three times, back to front. Best way to become an atheist.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  19. David

    Everytime I watch Osteen intending to make fun of him, I realize that I actually like him!

    I'm a pretty obnoxious agnostic guy, and yet I like Osteen...go figure!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:38 pm |
    • Stanley

      I'm pretty anti-religious and generally evangelists annoy the crap out of me but I've seen him in person and he doesn't "preach." He kinda just talks to you. He doesn't throw out judgment.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  20. AMLIGHTY SUN

    MAY MY LIGHT SHINE UPON YOU ALL.
    EVEN THE FALSE RELIGIONS OUT THERE THAT DON'T UNDERSTAND TRUTH IS FACTS NOT BELIEF, MAY MY LIGHT SHINE ON YOU AS WELL. 🙂

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

      Hippy is that you again??? Dont forget your SPF lol.

      Seriously though, I understand you're trying to mock believers and that you don't believe. Hey, that's your choice. But by doing this you bring nothing productive to the conversation. Cheers 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 2:41 pm |
    • hippypoet

      of course its me. i am a prophet and i am just getting the word out of the one true GOD, THE ALMIGHTY SUN!

      may the ALMIGHTY SUN fill you with warmth!

      October 7, 2011 at 2:47 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.