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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. hippypoet

    lies , all lies... the lack of evidence of proof of non existence. moving on past all these very clear MYTHS into something a little more real, say...chess anyone? i'm rather good!

    October 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm |
    • hippypoet

      so sry, a lack of evidence is proof of non existence. thats how is should be...

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

      @Hippypoet That might be a problem though, as we can see from the last 100 years of science. Prior to this past century, we didnt have instruments to measure certain things, so we assumed they didn't exist. So...there were some things we now know that didn't have any proof of existing...but yet they did exist. Don't apply a "we have a complete set of instruments" approach, when we are less than a few hundred years beginning our search.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:17 pm |
  2. Steffie

    Millions of people out of a job . . . Big business stealing us blind, resulting in the midldle class being virtually wiped out . . . Death and destruction all around, both natural, and, far worst still, man-made. In a word–OK, two, utter misery!

    I do NOT need a preacher whose principal job seems to be to remind me of all these and similar painful images. Why? Because I'm already in the thick of it! What I need is someone whose core message seemingly is, "Don't worry, it's going to be alright', in spite of the fact that both your mind and heart tell you differently. Just the thought that the person might happen to be right is or could be enough to keep you going. And that's why I enjoy listening to Joel Osteen!

    October 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • GauisJulius

      i think the criticism comes not from the fact that he is positive, but the fact that what he preaches goes directly against what the Bible says. Also, if anyone feels that they like "his' message, that is a BIG problem....since the message should be from the Bible. That's what separates the preacher from a motivational speaker.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  3. Jim

    Osteen is a joke. Jesus, (of whom Christianity is built on) died an awful death on the cross. Most of his disciples died Martyr's for their faith and Osteen thinks Christians should have "their best life now"?
    Jesus never preached that. He told of an eternal kingdom that is much better than anything we experience in this world.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • TruthPrevails

      There is no proof that jesus died on a cross. Mythology is a wonderful thing!

      October 7, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  4. abraham's lost son, Ishmule, i'm a bit of a jack@ss

    oh and AB totally made a deal with satan just before offing my older bro. which he didn't have to because the deal he made. his soul for all of yours...LOL.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  5. Kareen

    Joel Osteen is getting paid very well to give the people ( fools) what they want to hear.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Ashley

      Joel doesn't get paid from the church so no matter your opinion, that ma'am is a fact. Try using those when you post in the future.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm |
  6. Chris From Iowa

    Joel Osteen is a con artist. You want to figure him out? Look at his fur-wearing jet-setting wife, and Google the incident she had on a recent flight getting into an altercation, and the way she acted and spoke. These people are making money off the weakness and desperation of their "flock." It's all about the money, and they don't give a damn about those keeping them in trips to Aspen and other luxuries.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Ashley

      Joel's wife had money before Joel and the church. He gets paid from his book sales, neither of them get a salary from the church. That incident went to court and the attendant who made the claims was shown to be a person of extremely questionable character. Google will always give you the answer you are looking for, but doesn't make it the truth. Wikipedia is not a reliable resource either by the way.

      October 7, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
  7. abraham's lost son, Ishmule, i'm a bit of a jack@ss

    abraham hates you and lied to all your kids about heaven and how to get there... now your all screwed! LOL

    October 7, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • GauisJulius

      Abraham didn't talk about heaven, so I'm not sure if you have any understanding of the Bible or its stories.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  8. Not All Docs Play Golf

    "I was ruined for church at an early age by exposure to preachers."

    Howell Raines, in Fly Fishing Throught The Midlife Crisis.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  9. T

    Gospel lite? That is like saying you are only partially deluded or you are a little bit pregnant.

    For the same reasons we don't allow doctors to operate on you with a scientific evaluation or that we don't arrest and convict someone without some facts, we don't just embrace a suspension of the laws of physics and nature either.

    This isn't the 16th century where we are confused and afraid of everything from disease to Earthquakes. This is the 21st century. We know how diseases happen and what causes them, we know what the stars are and our position in the cosmos. We know that life on earth is a constant evolving mesh of life and what is on earth today looks different from that of 200,000 years ago and that looks different from the previous million years, going back 6 billion years.

    The reason we have any religion today at all speaks volumes to type of education available in the world. Usually the poorest countries are the most ignorant and therefore the most religious. The USA is exception to this rule. We have a poor educational system and a huge majority of people who believe in the supernatural. The USA teaches it's kids at a young age to recognize their differences other families. Parents teach their children they are Jewish or Muslim or Catholic or Baptist. The child never learns about the other religions and just knows they are different to him or her. As they go on in life they will embrace the religion of their birth parents or adopted parents. This is a combination of embracing historical traditions and man's need for pattern. We are pattern seeking mammals and this attraction to things we are familiar with has allowed us a better chance of survival in the past 100,000 years.

    I wonder what this world would be like today if children were not taught about religion until after the age of reason.......

    October 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • Not All Docs Play Golf

      We indoctrinate our children at an early age, all mixed up with music and magical Christmas atmospheres and religious pop-up books. If we waited until they had a more mature brain that had been exposed to the natural world and science, and then tried to convince them that a guy named Jonah spent 3 days in the belly of a whale or that a guiy named Noah took, two by tweo, every microbial organism on the planet onto his ark with which he repopulated the flooded world, I think they'd react with skepticism. And rightfully so.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • EN

      T
      As someone who obviously believes in scientific findings you are ignoring decades of anthropological evidence that all suggest religion in some form or another exists in every culture, across space and time. Every human culture has sought reasons to explain natural and personal phenomena. And even modern, American scientists can't explain who put the particles in place that led to the Big Bang...

      October 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • T

      You are exactly right.

      I think we sell the man short when we say that he would have no morals without some fear of punishment from a celestial being. I believe it is more insulting to think that all men would run out and commit murder and other sins if it was determined there was no god. People have a genetic need to survive and form bonds with friends and to love their families. Such morality ensures those we love and deem worthy of regard have the best possible chance to survive. Morality is not something you blackmail or threaten to have embraced. If you don't have instinct to love others and be kind, you are probably suffering from a form of sociopathy.....

      October 7, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
    • hippypoet

      @EN
      And even modern, American scientists can't explain WHO put the particles in place that led to the Big Bang...

      i like how you say who...its funny, because your arguement is already stated and done with such a simply put sentence. well done. lets put aside the ideas and rest on logic, and sciencific proof. wheres the proof of your god, NOWHERE... so sciencificlly speaking thats a sign of non existence.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • HamsterDancer

      Your comment on the poorly educated being the only ones who fall for religion doesn't jib with recent information. CNN reported on a study back in August that showed that the more educated tended to be more religious and church going.
      Link below:
      https://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2011/08/11/study-more-educated-tend-to-be-more-religious-by-some-measures/?iref=allsearch

      October 7, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
    • T

      EN

      Science is not end. It is alive and constantly changes based upon new evidence and experience. What we thought 500 years ago was not what we thought 100 years ago when it comes to Science. What we believed 20 years ago is not what we know now. That is the beauty of science. It should not make you unconfortable or insecure to think that man today does not look like he did 100,000 years ago and in 100,000 more years, we won't look like we do now. We are constantly changing based upon our environment. These changes not only regard man, but all lives things including plants and animals.

      Based upon this concept of Science, how could someone discount or marginalize what every scientist knows in exchange for embracing a book that should not be interpreted and is supposed to give answers to the meaning of life. No one with an ability to deduce could ever seriously believe our planet is 4000 years old, that our world was made in 7 days, that when we die we will float to another dimension and spend eternity with everyone we ever knew and everyone who ever existed.

      That is the solution to the fears of a child. Ask an old man who is 80 and tired. He has lived a good life. Does he really want to live forever? Ask the same question to a 20 year man. The young man will answer everytime. The old man will ponder his answer.....

      October 7, 2011 at 4:09 pm |
  10. nadine duncan

    I listen to Joel Osteen frequently on television and have read some of his books. He always has a scriptural basis for his message and I personally know people who have found him to be a source of spiritual help and encouragement. There is room for all types of ministry and God loves variety. That is why he creates the violet as well as the rose. Leave the man alone. Jesus said those who are for us are not against us. Christians should pull together as a team and honor each other.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  11. Roger

    Ofcourse..most church leaders dont like Osteen because he dosent spend his time preaching on how you must give all your money, time, and do what the pastor dont do himself or you will go to hell. No he preaches love, honesty, human strength, and all of the positiv e stuff that God is also made of for us. He who humbles himself as a child will be greater then them who think like adults with their stubborn minds, as a child of God I will just say thank you God for Jesus Christ and a good man like Osteen.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  12. Mitch

    I saw this guy on an interview with Chris Wallace once on Fox News Sunday. I remember Chris asking him about preaching salvation and Osteen's reply was I am not about all that, I am about making people feel good about themselves. Chris glanced over it like Osteen never said that. I thought if Mike Wallace was where Chris was he would have took Joel to the mat for that statement. Check it out on You tube. Long story short.. Joel Osteen is not a preacher. he is a flat joke. He will have his day before God as we all will.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  13. Colin

    Ever heard of a group of atheists being ripped off by a charismatic scientist? If only our religious friends could see through this stuff. It pains me every time I hear of Christians wasting money pursuing their futile and still-born hopes of surviving their physical deaths.

    Sad.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Who

      Forget the others..are you sad???

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

      some people feign compassion to hide their own sadness. What a pity indeed!

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

      Well "who" the fact that I am not a multi-millionaire sportsman with hordes of adoring female fans is a constant thorn in my side, but, apart from that I'm ok -:)

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

      Barometer for happiness

      Sportsman
      Female fans...and the like..hmm no wonder you don't like positive messages from Joel and feign sadness for the rest of the mortals who are actually happier that you are without those barometers u just mentioned.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
  14. Scott

    The real problem with his ministry is he tells the truly mentally ill exactly what they need to hear. I've known some real crazy and very hurtful people that liked watching this guy... Cause he helped them avoid facing the responsibility for how badly they treated people.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:46 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      I think you mean "what they WANT to hear." He clearly doesn't tell them what they need to hear judging by your remarks. Cheers 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  15. shame on this guy

    People are still falling for this scam. Amazing. This type of crook is the worst. Preying on peoples religion.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  16. HeIsGod

    I love Joel's teachings. He is such a wise man being used by God.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  17. ManJust Saying

    In this world of hate filled speech, accusations, negativity, and attacking each other for whatever is the hot topic of the day, this typifies how low we have come. A man preaches a faith based message that is all about being the best you can be, overcome bad choices, second chances, treat people well and with respect, never to get discouraged, and not be judging others. Hate the sin, love the sinner. Typical of our society, instead of encouraging that type of needed message throughout our land, we instead find ways to tear down the one who brings it. He brings the message of the only One who can provide real hope and change. But it is rejected by people who really crave and need it.....sad.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Scott

      Most people don't need to be told they are fine the way they are... they need to be told the opposite. You don't tell imperfect, broken people, that they don't need to do anything. That they don't need to improve... they're just fine the way they are. This is a message that truly sick people are desperate to hear, much to their own detriment.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      both completely opposite comments and I agree with them both, ha!

      The truth is a little bit of both: We need to tell those broken people that hey it's ok, you haven't been perfect and you've done some bad things, lift up, rise up, you are forgiven! BUT......knowing this you now need to change and moving forward you need to stop those terrible things that you did before. It won't be easy, but it'll be worth it. Cheers 🙂

      October 7, 2011 at 3:57 pm |
  18. infonomics

    The real concern is not Joel Osteen but the people who need him. Why do people need preaching, regardless of its tone or message? Why do they need preaching with such regularity? Moreover, why do they need a middleman? Why not pray directly to your God? Why not get the message directly from the Bible? Why doesn't Joel hold the service exclusively on the internet, where he could reach more people with less bother? Without any other argument, one gets the impression that the whole gathering is primarily social, almost like a party but with one difference: at the end of the gathering, Joel walks away with a smile and vast sums of money; the people, however, walk with just a smile.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • What

      Something wrong with people walking with a smile, do you walk around with a frown?

      October 7, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  19. juliana

    I work a few blocks from this church and we had a homeless elderly woman come in our office – she is a member of Lakewood and they refused to help her. She was a clean, 'normal' lady. Like a kindergarten teacher. They REFUSED to help her. even with food. They are not about helping real people with real situations.

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

      Did she say why they wouldn't help her? I'm curious because I'm not too sure what to think of this man.

      October 7, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
    • juliana

      She said she had a prayer partner that allowed her to sleep on her couch for 3 nights but that was all they could do. The church itself – the ministers, etc., did not have any resources to help her. They didn't even refer her somewhere, which is all I could do. What offended me the most is that she was not some stranger they didn't know. she was a giving member of the church before she became homeless.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
    • Alfonzo Muchanzo

      Wow that's terrible. Says something about their ministry then.

      October 7, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
  20. TexasTek

    “When they say prosperity, that’s some guy on TV asking for money,” he says. “Our ministry is not about that.

    Yeah that is why they bought "The Summit" former home of the Houston Rockets.

    This guy is the lowest of the low and his wife is the biggest B in Texas.

    October 7, 2011 at 3:42 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.