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



    October 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • Clydene Chinetti

      I don't know why it is putting this video again, but if you really want to know about Lakewood's beginnings, then go to YouTube and look up the video on The Story of Lakewood Church, and you will see that this is not snake oil and gospel lite...it is the gospel of Jesus and Jesus brings joy and change to your life.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • Nix

      Sorry, the gospel of Jesus *is* snake oil.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  2. morris2196

    The Bible teaches that humankind exists for a purpose, and that purpose is to please, glorify and worship God. Most preachers water this down a great deal, Osteen more-so than most.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
    • vintage274

      Please, worship, and glorify God through making money and becoming prosperous? By telling people that God wants you to be rich? By implying that God's 'chosen' ones are the prosperous ones. By this guy's analogies, all of Wall Street are God's favorites. Please.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  3. MC_in_BigD

    The message of Christ does not have to be constant fire-and-brimstone. While you cannot exclude sin, hell, resurrection, and forgiveness, there are many ways to show and express Christ's love. Joel's way of showing that love just happens to be calmness and understanding.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:22 pm |
  4. ManMinusHate

    The guy preaches very powerfully, and I know he's got God's support.

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

      you KNOW, and how exactly do you KNOW he has "god's" support?

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

      I KNOW that he is NOT supported by God.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
  5. hippypoet

    to all those who buy into this guys load of sh!t, please do some research on myths and legends. OH and his name is not jesus for all those too stupid to know this, its joshua! now go learn more about the myths you place your life in.

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

      I thought his name was Joel.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:23 pm |
    • hippypoet

      his the guy preaching crap is joel, yes...bravo, but jesus's real name is not jesus – even the latin of his day he wasn't called jesus, it was lassus... but his name is joshua. just another thing lost in translations.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • Nix

      You've got to be joshin' me.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
    • hippypoet

      no nix, i'm not joshin ya.. good pun tho! see the way words and names were done back in the day was first in the native tongue, then it was translated in greek, then into latin, which over the next few centuries it changed alitle bit, the midevil latin and the roman latin aren't very different but if you don't know that there is a different your translation will be wrong. id from the 6th century latin that most modern european tongues are formed.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:36 pm |
  6. Yellow Jacket

    Religion is the opium of people.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • hippypoet

      yum, opium !!!!!

      October 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm |
  7. hippypoet

    @true, whoa, did you really post this :


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

    LOL, that is a very bold statement there my very unwise friend. why don't you for all us non christians tell us what the definition of experienced is by your christian di c tionary.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  8. Mike R

    I like him, he makes you sense in what he says. I go to a local cathlic church and I either have no idea what there talking about or there so out of touch in the message.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:17 pm |
  9. earth2loons

    plastic man.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  10. Johnson

    Although somewhat too saccarine for me, he is not judgemental nor hateful like some of the other so-called evangelists. I don't believe he does any harm and probably helps a lot of people with his positive attutude approach. I wasn't thrilled to hear on Morgan Tonight that he didn't know much about Mormonism. It is a cult which everyone should know about especially a Pastor.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • vintage274

      Mormonism is not a cult; it is religion just like Christianity and Judaism and Islam. The cults are the sects who CLAIM to be Mormons but follow only the defunct Mormon practices of polygamy and degrading women. Mormonism, The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints, does not acknowledge these groups as being Mormon. Just like David Karesh and his cult or the people of Jonestown were not accepted as Christians, although they referred to themselves as such.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
  11. Clydene Chinetti

    Joel's brother....


    October 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
  12. kayjulia

    Another Faker, BS artist, bilking people out their money with lie after lie told in an entertaining way to people who will believe any fairy tale told well. When will people open their eyes and ears then use their brains for something other than stuffing and run these fakers off?

    October 7, 2011 at 3:12 pm |
  13. lacoaster

    I am Atheist, but I respect this guy as much as he respects me. I think he does.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:11 pm |
  14. Clydene Chinetti

    Dodie Osteen....Joel's mother....


    October 7, 2011 at 3:09 pm |
  15. Dick Fontaine

    Another snake oil salesman preying on the weak and credulous

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

      I agree with you Dick, this is an American thing it is almost like they want to be used and abused by this religious BS.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:14 pm |
  16. Brandon

    it's not wrong to have money, but I feel that Joel lures people in with the prospect that God will bless them with money. Thats not the point! Jesus and his disciples lived with pretty much nothing other than their clothes and sandals. He also warns about the pharisees who "love money". Having money isn't wrong, but centering your ministry around it sure seems to be

    October 7, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
  17. Joe

    People are going to be VERY surprised when Jesus and the other Masters of Wisdom return. And that will be VERY soon.
    What they will tell us to do will not be close to what these tv preachers tell us to do.
    You actually have to get off your a$$ and HELP people, not just sit there and talk about God.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:08 pm |
    • Dale

      I don't know what is sadder, the fact Olsteen and his kind who get away with it, or morons like yourself who still believe the garbage that has screwed up society for two millenniums, AKA the bible. Keep waiting friend. No one is coming back because if he existed he was a con man too.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
  18. Clydene Chinetti

    Just remember....you are not to "touch" the anointed of God.......you have heard the truth and been shown you have misunderstood, but God is a merciful and longsuffering God, full of compassion....maybe you will be led to the truth.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • Natasha

      I agree i've always been told that growing up!!

      October 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm |
  19. Michael, Chapel Hill

    When one preaches what people want to hear, people may flock around the speaker. Jesus got only a handful and his disciples are not great winners. So I am not sure "What Joes Osteen speaks?"

    October 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
  20. Thinking7

    Lack of religious training just leads people astray. He may be a good leader, a good person, etc., but if he doesn't have the foundation of the Church he needs to go get it before teaching people about his own beliefs.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:05 pm |
    • BL

      He doesn't need religious 'training," which is code for endless dogma, ritual, hierarchy and mythology. He just needs to be one with Truth and his beliefs will be the correct beliefs.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
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