The Gospel according to Joel Osteen
May 31, 2005
With over 25,000 attendees, the largest average weekly attendance for any church in the United States is Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. The pastor of Lakewood Church is Joel Osteen, the 41-year-old son of Lakewood’s founding pastor, John Osteen (1922-1999). A non-denominational charismatic church, Lakewood will soon move into the former Compaq arena, a facility with seating capacity for approximately 16,000.
Joel Osteen is televised nationally on a broadcast called, “Discover the Champion in You,” where he is frequently joined by his wife, Victoria. This remarkably appealing couple radiates charm, good looks and an upbeat message. Furthermore, when one watches Osteen, the immediate impression is that he is a very polished public speaker who is keenly aware of how to make a good impression.
Since Osteen is the pastor of the largest church in America, I was very eager to read his recently released book, Your Best Life Now (hereafter BLN). The book offers insight into the history of Lakewood Church and the substance of Osteen’s theology.
The Lakewood Church story
Central to understanding Osteen’s message is the story of Lakewood Church. John Osteen was originally a Southern Baptist pastor who earned a bachelors degree from John Brown University (1943) and a masters degree from Northern Baptist Seminary (1944). From 1950 to 1956, John Osteen was the pastor of Central Baptist Church of Baytown, Texas. During his tenure there, he served on the executive committee of the Baptist General Convention of Texas from October, 1952 to October, 1955. It was also during his tenure at Baytown that the elder Osteen was divorced from his first wife and eventually remarried. John Osteen was without a pastorate for a brief time and was a member of South Main Baptist Church in Pasadena,Texas, circa 1957.
Eventually, he accepted the pastorate of Hibbard Memorial Baptist Church (no longer in existence). In 1958 while at Hibbard Memorial, John and Dodie Osteen gave birth to a daughter, Lisa, who had serious physical impairments. In BLN, Joel Osteen recounts this as being a dark hour for his parents which led them to discover that God is a “God of miracles” (213). Thankfully, Lisa survived. Joel Osteen goes on to say that some people at Hibbard Memorial, which he does not mention by name, became upset because his father was preaching messages about “hope, healing, and living in victory” (213). However, what Joel does not mention in BLN is that it was also during this time at Hibbard Memorial that John Osteen was “baptized in the Holy Ghost,” something made clear on the Lakewood website (www.lakewood.cc/john_osteen_tribute.htm).
Joel Osteen avoids explicitly mentioning his father’s “baptism of the Holy Ghost” in BLN, and instead vaguely mentions that the church was upset because “the supernatural God Daddy described didn’t fit into their denominational guidelines” (172). As a result, John Osteen took about 100 members from Hibbard Memorial and began the Lakewood Church in 1959.
Though Joel Osteen never specifically mentions the Southern Baptist Convention, the SBC is most certainly the denomination he has in mind. Characterizing his father’s dispute in the Hibbard Memorial Church as simply a matter of the congregation’s reluctance to believe in a miracle-working God, he fails to mention the serious theological difference that Southern Baptists have with our Pentecostal brothers concerning the entire concept that the “baptism with the Holy Ghost” is an experience separate from salvation. In this way, the younger Osteen’s presentation of his father’s break with Southern Baptists is skewed and leaves the uninformed reader with a less-than-adequate understanding of the issues involved.
A less extreme prosperity Gospel
Essentially, Joel Osteen advocates a form of the “prosperity Gospel” in BLN, a theology he learned from his father. For example, chapter 14 is titled “The Power in Your Words.” In this chapter, Joel Osteen concludes by saying, “Friend, there is a miracle in your mouth” (125), a phrase which mirrors the title of one of John Osteen’s books, “There is a Miracle in Your Mouth.” I want to be clear that Osteen’s version of the prosperity Gospel is not as extreme as Kenneth Hagin or Kenneth Copeland. Much of his book simply encourages people to be “positive.” In this sense, Joel Osteen is a Pentecostal version of Robert Schuller!
To be balanced in my critique, Joel Osteen does make some valid points in BLN. It is indeed the case that far too many people go through life with an extremely critical spirit. Osteen also challenges Christians to strive for excellence and reminds his readers that “we represent the Almighty God, and He does not appreciate laziness or sloppiness” (285). I concur. As one involved in education, some of my most frustrating moments come when students capable of “A” work settle for “C” or “B” grades and turn in hastily prepared assignments. Christians should indeed strive to give our very best for Jesus Christ.
The single greatest weakness in BLN is Osteen’s emphasis on humanity as made in the image of God while excluding the negative consequences of the Fall. Repeatedly, he reminds his readers that they are “made in the image of God.” As one concerned with the sanctity of human life, I agree. There is an innate value to every human. It is also true that the image of God in humanity has been marred by an historic space-time Fall, something Osteen never addresses. In this sense, he has a truncated view of man that emphasizes the positive and omits the negative. For example, Osteen says, “You must learn to cast down those negative thoughts and begin to see yourself as God sees you – a winner, an overcomer” (62). Instead of saying “sin,” he apparently prefers the less offensive terms “faults and weaknesses” (57). At this level, Osteen shares a weakness common to all prosperity preachers. In this emphasis on the image of God and exclusion of the Fall, I hear a distant echo of the “New Thought” teachers of the mid-1800’s which provide the historical origins for many concepts present in the prosperity Gospel. In fairness, Osteen seems to have a sincere desire for people to be saved and includes a prayer at the end of the book encouraging people to “repent” of their sins (310). Thus, he apparently believes people are sinners and need to be forgiven, though this message is not as clear as I would prefer in BLN.
Osteen’s prosperity message shares another weakness with the broader community of “prosperity preachers”: It is not universally applicable. It is no coincidence that the “prosperity Gospel” is most popular in the United States, the wealthiest country in the world. In contrast, the simple Gospel of man’s sinfulness and God’s provision for redemption through the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ is not constrained by culture or context. The Gospel is equally applicable to a wealthy Houston businessman or to someone dying in an AIDs shelter in sub-Saharan Africa. On the other hand, the prosperity Gospel may preach to the wealthy businessman, but it offers no hope to the AIDs victim in Africa.
Romans 5:8 says, “But God proves His own love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Proactive preaching that helps people achieve victory in life will address the nasty reality that we are rebels in need of a savior. I genuinely hope that Osteen’s future ministry will include a more comprehensive approach that addresses our sinful nature.