While some argue his words lack substance, Joel Osteen’s preaching still moves millions
Oct. 27, 2005
Joel Osteen gives sermons with a positive, slice-of-everyday-life twist. He reaches more than 7 million viewers weekly as head of Houston’s Lakewood International Church.
Thousands of giddy fans will pour into The Palace of Auburn Hills today and Friday. They will swarm not to catch a glimpse of pop-rockers or Pistons shooting hoops, but to feast on the words of Joel Osteen, well-known as “the smiling preacher” and pastor of the country’s largest church.
Some also hope to speak with him briefly at Borders Books and Music in Auburn Hills during a book-signing on Friday.
“I’ve gotten calls from people coming from the other side of the state,” says Nola Whetstone, the store’s corporate sales and events representative.
Even when she tells them the store opens at 10 a.m. and the one-hour book-signing starts at noon, many insist they will show up at 8 that morning for a chance to meet Osteen.
Such devotion is unsurprising to those who know about the 42-year-old preacher who starts each service by asking people to hold their Bibles high. “This is my Bible. I am what it says I am,” he states. “I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do.”
Though detractors say Osteen’s message is too simplistic and feel-good, millions disagree, saying Osteen delivers just what they need.
“Whatever he has to say takes care of whatever problems or situations you have in your life,” says Alice Lockard of Rochester Hills, who will join her children and their spouses at The Palace for Osteen’s appearance. “His messages are very encouraging and uplifting and give you greater insight to knowing what God expects of you.”
Christina Kindy of Inkster has frequently been stopped by Osteen’s preaching when channel surfing at night. “God keeps putting him right there,” she says. “The way I see so much joy in him, I’ve got to believe that it’s coming from the Lord. He gives out the good news, ‘Hey, God is still there.’ “
With movie-star good looks and nonjudgmental messages delivered with a down-home style, Osteen draws more than 7 million viewers weekly. That makes his program America’s top inspirational program, according to Neilsen Media.
“What Joel does is nothing short of miraculous. No human in America, and few in the world, has done what he is doing,” says John Vaughn, founder of the research center Church Growth Today.
Without the benefit of previous preaching experience or seminary training, Osteen became senior pastor of the Houston megachurch when his father, John Osteen, died in 1999. Perhaps 7,000 to 8,000 people attended weekend services back then.
Now membership has quadrupled with nearly 32,000 people attending services weekly in the Osteen’s 18,000-seat Lakewood International Church, formerly known as the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets once played. Lakewood is America’s fastest growing church as well as the nation’s largest church, Vaughn says.
That fact is amazing and surreal to Osteen, who says he only hoped to maintain the church after his father’s death. While he walks in his father’s footsteps, he says it’s important to be himself in the pulpit.
“Our message is simple, down to earth and hopefully practical — something that can help people in their everyday life,” Osteen says. “People don’t want someone talking down to them with all that is pulling us down. So our message is positive.”
Many people know scriptures, Osteen says — even unbelievers. So to him, it’s better to show people how to apply scriptures to their lives rather than simply repeating them.
“It’s one thing to know the scriptures. It’s another thing to make them relevant,” he says. “It’s one thing to have knowledge. It’s how we apply it.”
Like all ministers who reach rock-star status, Osteen has his share of detractors, including those who call him the “cotton candy minister” who offers sweet messages with no substance.
“He’s putting a wrong spin on Christianity,” says Jackie Alnor, co-founder of Christian Sentinel magazine, which often focuses on Osteen. “His focus is on what Christianity can do for us personally — being happier, wealthier, the same thing motivational speakers tell us. That’s not what Jesus Christ shed his blood for. You don’t hear about people turning from their sins from him.”
Says Osteen: “I believe in Christ and the whole message of Christianity. I don’t believe in going around being divisive. It’s not my place to go around and tell people they are going to hell. I’m just here to present the truth: that salvation is from Christ.”
Ole Anthony of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, which investigates religious fraud, acknowledges he has found no evidence of fraud in Osteen’s ministry. However, he still questions Osteen’s approach to the gospel and runs The Door magazine, which frequently uses Osteen as fodder for the satirical Christian publication.
“In educational terms, he’s like a spiritual kindergarten teacher,” Anthony says. “He doesn’t talk about the reality of life. He talks about how to feel. That’s not what the mystery of God is about. The mystery of God is about joy and peace, not about momentarily feeling good.”
In Osteen’s defense, Vaughn says: “Like Billy Graham, he’s been accused of being ‘gospel lite,’ but Joel believes in the same things his father did about the Bible, the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ and about the church. It’s the way he’s communicating it to an unchurched America. That’s why he can draw every week what Billy Graham could in a crusade.”
Osteen doesn’t mind critics calling him “the Smiling Preacher.” In fact, he enjoys that name.
“I think it’s great,” he says. “I do smile a lot. We should be happy as Christians and have a good life. I like being called that.”
But he doesn’t appreciate the “cotton candy” label.
“The issues I deal with are not having unforgiveness and bitterness,” he says. “Last Sunday, I dealt with a 2-year-old dying of cancer in the services. I deal with everyday life issues, and I give people hope. This is the way God made me, and people are drawn to a message of hope, a message of encouragement. I think they feel connected when I tell about my life and simple stories. To me, the main thing is that it is helping them.”
The message of hope resonates with Kindy, a supervisor at Christian Publication Stores in Dearborn Heights. With all the bad news of earthquakes, hurricanes, homelessness, high gas prices and other issues, Osteen’s positive words are welcome, she says.
“He shows us God hasn’t gone anywhere,” Kindy says. “He’s still here.”