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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. Clydene Chinetti

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-bLVDlkUOk&w=640&h=360]

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

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_b0sAwW8aM&w=640&h=360]

    October 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm |
  3. True

    The ultimate hope for a Christian will always be based on a solid anchor in Christ Jesus.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • more lies

      lie again please.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
    • baptized in Jesus Name!

      Ike the song says "there's a storm out over the ocean and it's moving this ole way, if your soul's not anchored in Jesus you will surely drift away...."

      October 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • True

      If you aren't a Christian then u probably don't even know what that experience is.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:04 pm |
    • more lies

      thank you for lieing some more... stupid religious morons... yeah, i'm saved by some 2000 year old dead dude! totally buy that! go and eat more sh!t losers.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
    • True

      unfortunately you probably have always lived in lies/live around lies and everything else seems like a lie...have u asked yourself the question why get so agitated by Christ that you have repeatedly come on these blogs to attack religion?

      October 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm |
    • JT

      So, Muslims and Jews are going to roast in the lake of fire right along evil atheists and also if you are not a True Christian®?

      October 7, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Ashton

      JT- The answers are available in the Bible, excercise due diligence to seek the truth and you will SURELY find it

      October 7, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  4. joel, modern day whoring

    hello i have a message from god, give me your money so that i may tell you lies!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
  5. Clydene Chinetti

    part 2

    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G0t99lsijsk&w=640&h=360]

    October 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm |
    • Gaby Munayer

      Unfortunatley hes too far from true Christian ChurchTeatching and Spirituality using his God's gift to him by sending wrong messages.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:07 pm |
  6. trusss

    He is a great salesman that happens to be selling religion – that’s how he makes his living. If he is truly the servant of god he would have been given up his luxury lifestyle and start helping the needy hands on just like one of those extraordinary CNN heroes.

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

      Remind me again where in the scriptures God or Christ declares that you have to be poor to be a "good" Christian.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
    • trusss

      @Justine – The true servant of god says "The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit." Not take money from the poor and live on a materialistic luxurious live.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:42 pm |
  7. dara

    I'm not a big fan of his but do defend his right to believe and preach his faith. This country was founded on freedom of religion. The masses need to stop bullying and trying to force people of any religion to change their beliefs or what is written in their holy book to accept whatever behavior they do. Do what you want but let others believe what they want.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
    • BR

      Dara- This is precisely the problem, we do not respect the beliefs of anything else, why religion. You automatically lose credibility if you make outlandish claims about anything else in our society. Step back and really look at what they are saying, the outlandish claims, you either believe God is the creator of the universe and Jesus will be coming out of the sky or you don't. The scary part about this protection of outlandish claims is the impact it will have on the world. With the way things are going between religions I can't see how we will last another 50 years. Which according to the believers will be wonderful. Like I said, born of a virgin, women came from a rib bone, the earth is 6000 years old?, If I stood up in front of a group and claimed with utter belief that the sun was made of water I would be laughed out of the room.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm |
    • ThinkForYourself

      Here's a hint – criticism aren't a form of bullying or coercion. No one is denying anyone else's consti.tutionally protect rights. Take a deep breath.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  8. hippypoet

    i wonder how much money he takes in after whoring around town all day?

    October 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  9. Brian Rooney

    Great guy but seriously born or a virgin, rose from the dead, will be coming back out of the clouds to save us, women created from the rib bone of Adam? I like the guy but this is all one big fairy tale that because of the differences in this world is going to lead to its end, something I truely think all believers see as a good thing. I am truly afraid of the religious around the world but especially in this country. At what point does this stuff get weird, the Christians cant even get along with themselves (between different groups). Stop living in fear, stop skipping the "bad" parts of the bible and stop living from a 2000 year old book. We do not do this with anything else in our society. I am a recovering Catholic and Evangelical that has finally seen the "Light".

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

      We'll pray for you Brian. You haven't seen the light, you've turned from the light. And you might try to stop telling other people what to do and listen to what God is telling you to do.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:02 pm |
    • Yo!

      "You haven't seen the light, you've turned from the light. And you might try to stop "

      No Steve that is all you buddy – you're not seeing the light and the truth of the reality of today. You need to stop living in a fantasy world from 2000 years ago. There was no Adam, no Eve, no God, it was some primitive people making claims about things they couldn't comprehend. It's time to grow up.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
    • JT

      Steve says "you haven't seen the light". In plain english – "you must abolish all reason and pray to jeeeeezus that he might help you somehow delude yourself".

      October 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  10. Clydene Chinetti

    Here is Joel's father....listen to the sermons....Joel has learned all his father preached and believes the same.
    [youtube=https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B_H4zlbH7yU&w=640&h=360]

    October 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
    • Clydene Chinetti

      Oh my goodness, it put it all on here....sorry...well there...easier for you to listen.... 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 2:54 pm |
  11. captainsilverton

    we all should smile more... its easy and again cost nothing and hurts no-one !!!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  12. Mesa Mick

    PT Barnum said that there is a sucker born every minute and Olsteen like the rest of those prosperity gospel and evangelical grifter have come to realize that most all of them can be found in a church pew...

    October 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
  13. captainsilverton

    wake up America..being nice cost not a dime !!!!

    October 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm |
    • Mesa Mick

      And like anything that doesn't cost a dime it's worthless...

      October 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  14. Mitch

    I congratulate him for his ability to fool Millions around the world and become filthy rich, if I could come up with one of the worlds biggest scams I would do it as well. At the same time, I feel sorry for everyone who cling to his words like he is God, they are STUPID and need a reality check.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:51 pm |
    • Steve

      We're pray for you because you sound like a curmudgeon.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  15. Kenn Storck

    Osteen preaches a populist religion – Jesus stood for social justice and reaching the outcast...no social justice in Joel's message...give me a congregation of 60 ready to do justice ministry than 20,000 drive through Christians....

    October 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  16. Simple Math

    The Big Bang theory prevents any condition where something has always been. Infinity is defined as the difference between one and zero. Once one and zero are the same according to the big bang, the definition of infinity as stated above is no longer valid. If the big bang occurred, all maths must deal with the proof of 0=1.
    Grace is a personal invitation to Heaven and it is offered to all who will receive it. Those who are baptized and do not change their ways and obey The Greatest Commandment will not be chosen. (Matthew 22:14) For this reason there are many false preachers, because they will argue or provide reasons why they are not capable of loving God as written in Matthew 23:28. A false preacher is jealous of the power Jesus Christ has before he came to Earth and after he came to offer an invitation to those who follow TGC. Thus they are not chosen and will not be in Heaven. Grace is not above The Greatest Commandment; Grace is the primary reason for a Christian to follow TGC.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • or maybe....

      You didn't do too well in math, did you?

      October 7, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  17. MEC

    Joel Osteen is a breath of fresh air from God. the religious air was getting pretty stale with all the fire and brimstone messages. Joel preaching is relative to life he uses the scripture to demonstrate how to overcome and how to believe in a loving, forgiving God. He leaves the judgement up to the Holy Spirit and doesn't take the place of God in people's lives. You never see him begging for $ but yet his church thrives and grows in this economy when so many churches are pleading and begging for $. So many religious leaders think they know the mind of God and set out to find fault with him because he didn't go to seminary, perhaps they go back and read the scriptures to see how God chooses his people. Thank God for Joel Osteen, we can all learn how to grow and how to deal with life on a daily basis.

    October 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
    • ALMIGHTY SUN

      MAY THE LIGHT OF TRUTH BE WITH YOU AFTER ALL THIS IGNORANCE OF JOEL HAS FADED!

      bare no false message, as I THE ALMIGHTY SUN AM THE ONLY PROVIDER AND GIVER OF LIFE, THE ONE TRUE SUN!
      YOU ARE NOTHING WITHOUT ME! BUT I AM STILL EXACTLY AS I AM WITHOUT YOU, KEEP THAT IN MIND.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:53 pm |
  18. jo an

    Let him be....He is 'lite' but in a heavy world...LiTE is good.

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

      I agree. Lots of domesdayers out there. I don't like or trust many christian "preachers'. This guy is different. He's got a good message.

      October 7, 2011 at 2:59 pm |
  19. Clydene Chinetti

    Joel IS funny....you are reading him wrong....remember the story he told about when the Policeman stopped him and was about to give him a ticket and he was talking to him, trying not to laugh because just up above his head and the Police car was his father's billboard for Lakewood Church.....he is really funny.....just imagine....lol

    October 7, 2011 at 2:48 pm |
  20. Mitch

    I don't trust anyone who smiles like that all of the time. I might be willing to listen if he lived a life similar to his poorest follower instead of being the richest person. Not many televangelists live the poor life. Charlatans, crooks, thieves and deceivers one and all.

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

      Oh no....quick...you have him wrong....look up his history and learn about his family and read Dodie and John's books and get to know him personally and then you will see he really is fun and that is why he is smiling all the time....no, he really is like that...it isn't fake....

      October 7, 2011 at 2:50 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.