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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. Kyley

    I went to his church once. I likened it to walking into a restaurant, expecting to receive a juicy steak for dinner, but being served cotton candy instead. It sure was tasty, but it wasn't nutritious and it didn't fill me up. I walked in there expecting to connect with God – but it felt more like a pep rally than a worship service. I can't wrong the people who go there, because it sounds really nice, and most haven't experienced what a solid biblical teaching really should be. My favorite preacher who is full of biblical truth yet approachable and appealing in his demeanor? Lloyd Pulley of Calvary Chapel Old Bridge. Try listening to one of his podcasts some time.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Kyley

      A lot of people like his church because their only previous experience with church was a very ritual-based instead of having a relationship with God. Osteen's church can be appealing and I applaud his encouragement to have a personal relationship with God. It's just that, there's so much more to it than what he talks about.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  2. Juan

    What happens when those people seeking God do not get this "better life" of money and peace, where will they turn then? Its not what Joel Osteen says that concerns me, its what the word of God says and how what Osteen says is completely contrary to Gods word. "“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 35For whoever would save his lifed will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. 36For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? Mark 8:35 – The bible is clear, those who truly seek Him (Jesus) will find him. We should pray for Osteen that God would remove the scales from his eyes that he may be saved.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • hippypoet

      what word of god, the last person to supposedly hear the word of god was abraham, after that it was the word of abraham... so the word is long gone.... morons, stop preaching the use of your so called loser gods word! your god does not exist!

      October 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm |
    • Shannon

      Hey Hippypoet, I will be praying for you. God does exist and I am sorry that you believe what you believe, but then again, God gave you that choice. People want to blame God for all the problems in the world but we live in a sinful world. In this world you will have trials and hard times. But, God is coming back, we don't know but it will happen. Once again, I will be praying for you.

      October 7, 2011 at 8:29 pm |
  3. Dave

    The thing to do is to weigh a preacher against the word. How much does Osteen talk about Jesus? Does he dwell on the things we need to do to please God or talk about how to be well off? When you weigh Osteen, he does not come out very well.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • hmm

      Why do you spend your life trying to please something that may or may not exist?

      October 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
  4. hippypoet

    what word of god, the last person to supposedly hear the word of god was abraham, after that it was the word of abraham... so the word is long gone,

    October 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      And what proof and evidence do you have to claim that Abraham was the "LAST" person to hear from God?

      October 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      Now now Hippy. We actully made some progress with ration dialect on the article earlier today. I see you've gone back to trolling. In the words of Chris Berman; "C'mon mannnnnnnnnnnn" 🙂

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

      i am using the book of your faith to say what i am saying. i personally believe if Ab ever lived he was an insane man, living on the edges of society.

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

      "HeIsGod

      And what proof and evidence do you have to claim that Abraham was the "LAST" person to hear from God?"

      Sure, plenty of people hear from God. They're called crazy.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  5. Steve

    Osteen charges nothing for his services to his Church, but he makes millions of dollars from his Christian books. His church is a front for his bokselling. I think Jesus would tell him to give all he has to the poor and actually follow Christ, not just talk about it. Did Jesus have fancy cloths and fancy home like Osteen. He's just another false prophet for the masses.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • hippypoet

      of course joshua did, just as the pope rocks the slik everything, so did the J man!

      October 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • hmm

      "Did Jesus have fancy cloths and fancy home like Osteen. "

      Don't know and neither do you!

      October 7, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  6. hippypoet

    to all those who buy into this guys load of sh!t, please do some research on myths and legends. OH and your lord and saviors 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 3:37 pm |
    • HeIsGod

      Are too to stupid to even know who Joshua really is? He is NOT the LORD, go back to reading more about who our Lord is before making yourself look bad!

      October 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      @hippy:

      Yeshua, (ישוע, with vowel pointing יֵשׁוּעַ yēšūă‘ in Hebrew)[1] was a common alternative form of the name Joshua "Yehoshuah" יְהוֹשֻׁעַ in later books of the Hebrew Bible and among Jews of the Second Temple Period. The name corresponds to the Greek spelling Iesous, from which comes the English spelling Jesus

      October 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • hippypoet

      see i use historic proof to state that his name was not jesus as you moronic losers keep saying, his name as proven by facts thru history and translation is and always will be joshua, sry to burst your bubble of childhood hopes and dreams! 🙂 MAY THE AMLIGHTY SUN SHINE UPON YOU AND WASH YOUR DUM B@SS IGNORANCE AWAY! 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • hippypoet

      @Alfonzo thank you.. its good to have a smarter then normal believer on board to the truth now and again.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  7. T in Dallas

    Have not heard any of his sermons to comment on how he delivers the gospel of Jesus. So those of you who are commenting negatively would be wise to do the same. Fellow Christians, no sense in arguing over the internet with non-believers who must first believe in the Birth, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Simply invoke the "original wireless" communication and send up some "knee mail" to the Father.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
  8. Caesar

    Who are all these other TV evangelists that spew hate and judgement? Seems to me this is just another stereotype. Do not confuse boring with hateful and judgemental. While I don't necessarily agree with many of them, I've never heard judgement or hate from them.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:35 pm |
  9. MQ

    Dear CNN,

    It's obvious you didn't find this to be newsworthy, but instead have posted this because it coincides with Mr. Osteen's book release. I hope he gives you some back end profit points for your helpful promotion.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  10. calvin

    If Mr Olsteen is anointed then we can only pray that he is preaching / teaching the Truth. God's word is to be preached in lspirit and in truth. It also must be preached in Love. In his word it also says that there will be those who will have a form of godliness denying the power there of. I can only hope that this is not Mr olsteen and that many will not be deceived. Truth will prevail whether Mr olsteen is preaching it or not! In Jesus Name I pray that God's will will be done in Mr Olsteens life!

    October 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  11. Not All Docs Play Golf

    This guy is cheesy. Jesus Christ himself would be creeped out by Joel Osteen. A real moneychanger in the temple.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
  12. vintage274

    The problem as I see it is without a religious education, without understanding the history and tenets of Christianity, Osteen gets up and runs a "church." He calls it a church; he refers to himself as a Christian; he says his followers are Christians; he preaches. But self-help and pop psychology is NOT religion, and it certainly isn't Christianity. People follow a charasmatic young man who gives them answers that are NOT found in Jesus' sermons or in the Bible - the two pillars of the Christian faith. Except for the polygamy, what makes him different from Warren Jeffs (who preaches HIS form of religion) or David Karesh who preached another self-proposed version of Christianity? The Christian God does NOT promise wealth; Jesus did NOT promise wealth and prosperity (and certainly did not live it, either. This self-proclaimed preacher feeds the materialism and greed that has ruined this country - good intentions or not.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • Nonimus

      ... or Martin Luther or Saul/Paul or...

      October 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  13. Eric

    Hey lacoaster. Do athiests use US cash ? Just wondering. The words "In God we trust" is on money so I'm justg curious as to how athiests make it without using money.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      You arrogantly equate morality and ethics with belief in your bronze age myths. A lot of non-believers in the bronze age Christian myths (that came out of the middle east) have higher ethical standards than those people who go to church every Sunday because it's good for their car dealership or their insurance business to be seen in church.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:38 pm |
    • Nonimus

      They are just words to Atheists; how do Christian stand the blasphemy of associating money with trust in God?

      "he love of money is a root of all kinds of evil"
      "Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment."

      October 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      Hey Eric; Quick tell us what year those words were first put on American money? In case you have not realized, America is a secular nation not a christian nation as you have been brainwashed to believe.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • Real Deal

      On April 21, 1787, the Continental Congress of the United States authorized a design for an official penny, later referred to as the Fugio cent because of its image of the sun shining down on a sundial with the caption, "Fugio" (Latin: I flee/fly). This coin was reportedly designed by Benjamin Franklin; as a reminder to its holders, he put at its bottom the message, "Mind Your Business". The image and the words form a rebus meaning that time flies, do your work. This design was also used on the "Continental dollar" (issued as coins of unknown real denomination, and in paper notes of different fractional denominations) in February of 1776.

      The reverse side of both the 1776 coins and paper notes, and the 1787 coins, bore the third motto "We Are One" (in English) surrounded by thirteen chain links, representing the original thirteen colonial states. - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fugio_Cent

      We should have stayed with that!

      October 8, 2011 at 1:53 am |
  14. Take yourself off your book covers

    If Osteen's message is so about Christ and so not about prosperity gospel, why does every book he has written have his huge face on the cover? Who are we glorifying when we purchase his book? Him or God? Where does the attention go? Osteen may say it's not about wealth and that all credit belongs to God, but I'll believe him and respect him more if his face doesn't graze the cover of his books.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:32 pm |
    • wiseMD

      So whose face should be on the cover, yours? Mine? God's? Religious books or not, most people put their faces on their covers unless it is a biography, or fiction. For example, Dr. Phil, Emeril, etc. Stop trying to find ways to criticize him. Maybe you should listen to his messages and stop tearing others down.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:37 pm |
    • Steve

      Osteen charges nothing for his services to his Church, but he makes millions of dollars from his Christian books. His church is a front for his bokselling. I think Jesus would tell him to give all he has to the poor and actually follow Christ, not just talk about it. Did Jesus have fancy cloths and fancy home like Osteen. He's just another false prophet for the masses..

      October 7, 2011 at 3:39 pm |
    • Take yourself off your book covers

      WiseMD, how about just a picture of scenery, or a church building, or a pew? You can promote lots of other things on a book cover besides your own face.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
  15. EarthBrother

    Paul and many followers of Christ were thrown in jail, beaten, stoned, crucified, beheaded, lived in poverty, went without food and shelter, shunned by society. Financial blessings are not necessarily a sign of God's favor. We do not store up our treasures on earth. Paul emphasiszes the distinction between the temporal and the eternal. Being a Christian is not the primrose way. It is actually the opposite. Greater is he that is in me than he that is in the world. My suggestion to anyone who follows or listens to these televsiion preachers is to read the Bible. It is that simple. One cannot grow as a Christian without the sustenance of the Word daily. I am not saying there is anything wrong with Joel. I've read a few of his book. But you will not have a personal relationship with Christ by listening to any preacher. You must stay in the word and build your prayer life.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • hmm

      Paul? Are you a Christian or a Paulian?

      October 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
    • hmm

      Btw, you need to work on being humble. Not sure who gave you the right to tell others how to live their spiritual lives...
      besides that, the bible is a book of bronze age mythology and poems that was tacked together by the Church to fit their agenda. And you want people to live their lives based on THAT? It contradicts itself constantly and is probably the bloodiest, goriest book outside of a stephen king novel that I've ever read!

      October 7, 2011 at 4:00 pm |
    • The Truth

      hmm, an atheist tells me I need to work on being humble and not tell other people what to do while he is telling me what to do. Brilliant! BTW, I can use Paul as an example because Paul is in the Bible. The ENTIRE BIble is the inspired word of God.

      October 8, 2011 at 1:42 am |
  16. bettzi

    I have started recording Joel Olsteen every Sunday morning. I find his messages very uplifing and positive which is something we can use more of in this world. I belonged to a Lutheran church back home and the congregation basicly ran the pastor off because he sought help for being bipolar. So, what was the religious message? I thought if the parishioners were truly as religious as they said they were, they would have understood just as God did.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  17. Clydene Chinetti

    Okay, I will try once more, but if it doesn't put the right video, I am really sorry....it should be The Story of Lakewood Church from YouTube.....

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

    October 7, 2011 at 3:30 pm |
  18. wiseMD

    When it comes down to it, you are are responsible for educating yourself about the teachings in the Bible. EVERYTHING is up to the interpretation of another. I like watching Joel Osteen and he does nothing other than give people inspiration and encourage people to be better people...period. He has never proclaimed knowing everything about the Bible , but he has given countless people the gift of HOPE.

    Bottom line. Stop judging Joel – that is not Christian-like. If you do not like his style of preaching, TURN OFF THE TELEVISION like I do when Creflo Dollar and some other televangelists are on.

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

      " ...he does nothing other than give people inspiration and encourage people to be better people..."
      ... and sell millions of books.

      The truly wise realize how foolish it is to claim to be wise.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm |
    • wiseMD

      Nonimus – I am wise...wise enough to forgive your ignorance and move on with my life. Find a hobby and accomplish something on your own so you can stop being jealous of Joel Osteen. Maybe then, you too can be wise.

      October 8, 2011 at 1:08 am |
  19. Eric R.

    Mark 9:38, 39-41, from The Message....

    "38 John spoke up, "Teacher, we saw a man using your name to expel demons and we stopped him because he wasn't in our group."

    "39-41Jesus wasn't pleased. "Don't stop him. No one can use my name to do something good and powerful, and in the next breath cut me down. If he's not an enemy, he's an ally. Why, anyone by just giving you a cup of water in my name is on our side. Count on it that God will notice. "

    This makes Joel an ally. People need to stop judging Joel so harshly. In fact, we don't need to judge anybody at all. it is up to God to do that, because only he knows our true heart. Joel is spreading the message that Jesus is God's son and that we need the grace that Jesus offers to reconcile ourselves with God. God has a plan for all of us. If he is leading Joel to preach a more positive message then so be it. Let him do what God has called him to do.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:27 pm |
    • M. Branham

      To Eric R – I was looking up this passage and then saw that you had beaten me to it. Thank you.

      To everyone else: there is something we all need to remember. There may be a Judge at the end of all of this, but one thing is sure – None of us is It. We all have opinions, but only One has the full story.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:40 pm |
    • hmm

      I'm not a Christian (was once, but now am Agnostic) and I don't agree with the tenants of the religion (Jesus was God, etc.), but I am disgusted that these other preachers dislike this guy because he doesn't preach fire and brimstone. I don't recall Jesus ever preaching that sort of thing so why should they? It's not cool to try to SCARE people into believing as you do. So for that, I do have to give the man kudos...although he still gives me an uneasy feeling. I always said John Edwards was like a used car salesman and I turned out to be right. I get the same feeling about this guy.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  20. Mark

    People respond to this type of message because they aren't beat over the head with it. If repenting of your sins and turning to God are the goal, don't you think it's important to get people to that point? Who are they more likely to take that journey with – a fire and brimstone type that constantly reminds them how lowly they are – or someone who encourages them to identify their own shortcomings and ask for forgiveness?

    October 7, 2011 at 3:25 pm |
    • What???

      The only thing a preacher is suppose to do is teach the word of God. Not all this man made nonsense.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
    • hippypoet

      what word of god, the last person to supposedly hear the word of god was abraham, after that it was the word of abraham... so the word is long gone, but nice try!

      October 7, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
    • wiseMD

      To What??? – and what is it that you do? Do you attend church regularly and encourage others and help those in need, etc. Who cares what preachers are 'supposed' to do as long as they are helping others and following the teachings of Jesus. However you look at it, EVERY preacher must discuss man made issues. It's called living in the World.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm |
    • hmm

      What?? ....no-one knows the Word of God.
      The Bible is a missmash of stories from the Bronze Age, carefully crafted together by The Church...they left out the stuff they din't like and mistranslated the rest to fit their agenda. But, playing Devil's Advocate here, let's just assume it's the Word of God...it's not really relevant to people now as it is. You have to place it into some context if you want people to get anything out of it.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:53 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.