Joel Osteen is one pastor unlikely to dwell on Jesus’ warning about the difficulties the rich face getting into heaven.
On the contrary, Osteen preaches that material wealth is nothing to be ashamed of and can be a happy consequence of deep religious faith.
“Get rid of that small-minded thinking and start thinking as God thinks,” the Houston-based pastor declares in the opening chapter of his best-selling book, “Your Best Life Now.”
“Think big. Think increase. Think abundance. Think more than enough.”
It’s a message that some call the “prosperity gospel.” And it has struck an undeniable chord in 21st-century America.
Osteen sold out the 18,000-seat Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum on Long Island on Tuesday, and is close to selling every ticket for Thursday and Friday appearances at Madison Square Garden.
He has become a superstar preacher and self-help guru – immaculately clad and coifed, with a gentle, guileless style at the pulpit that’s devoid of the blustery antics of televangelists.
“I’m not fiery,” he said in an interview this week.
But Osteen’s message troubles some Christians – liberal and conservative – who say he glosses over vital Christian themes, such as sin, repentance and social justice.
“I see his success as a metaphor for modern life – everything is for the betterment of the self,” said Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based Christian organization that monitors televangelists.
“It’s this sort of spiritualized Reaganism,” said Randall Balmer, head of the religion department at Barnard College. “It says God is itching to bestow material blessings on the faithful. But I don’t find anyplace in the Scriptures where Jesus is promising great wealth and wages.”
And Balmer said such preaching can take its toll on believers.
“It can be quite devastating if you’re not sharing in the wealth,” he said. “Somehow, your faith is considered to be lacking.”
Osteen said his critics misunderstand him. His goal, he said, is to encourage and give hope to people struggling in their lives, not to extol wealth.
“I believe God wants us to prosper,” said Osteen. “But prosperity may mean a better relationship with your wife and your family. I’m just saying I don’t believe God wants us to be poor. God wants us to be happy, to pay the bills, to send our kids to college and to help other people.”
His New Jersey fans see him as an authentic Christian voice.
“I always get this high watching him,” said Joan Pinnock, a lawyer from Teaneck. “People are drawn to him because he’s always positive. He’s always saying how God is going to work everything out to the good.”
Pinnock, who attends Christ Church, a predominantly African-American congregation in Montclair, said she, too, believes that a life spent in service to God brings tangible earthly rewards. She said her law practice prospered after she gave to her church $5,000 that she had been saving for a mortgage down payment.
“My business multiplied,” she said. “And my down payment ended up being $50,000.”
Such convictions abound in New Jersey churches. At Faith Fellowship Ministries, a sprawling church alongside the Garden State Parkway in Sayreville, the Rev. David Demola includes financial prosperity among the church’s fundamental truths and doctrine.
And he speaks frequently about how God actively helps believers advance in their day-to-day struggles.
“We’re thinking we’re losing, but God has already sent his angel,” Demola said in a recent Webcast from his church. “He’s touching the mortgage company. He’s touching your boss.”
A spokeswoman for the church, however, stressed that believers can’t make prosperity their sole ambition.
“God doesn’t have a problem with us having nice things,” said Maryanne Percy, an assistant pastor. “The problem is when the things have us.”
Scholars say the prosperity gospel has its roots in the faith-healing revivals of the early 20th century that stressed salvation of the body as well as the soul. The movement matured when evangelicals entered the upper and middle classes.
“You went from salvation of the soul, to the body, to the bank account,” said Joe Barnhart, a professor of philosophy and religious studies at the University of North Texas.
Balmer, the Barnard professor, said the prosperity gospel took off in the 1980s.
“It’s very Republican in its approach – a sort of bootstraps theology,” he said. “It shows how much evangelicals have bought into the prevailing culture.”
A vast audience
Osteen, a college dropout who has never attended a seminary, took over Lakewood Church in Houston after the death of his father, senior pastor John Osteen, in 1999. Until then, he had never preached.
“But when my father died, I heard something deep down that said this is what I’m supposed to do,” he said.
The congregation, already large, quadrupled in size and is now the biggest in the United States, with about 30,000 members. The congregation recently moved into the Compaq Center, the former home of the Houston Rockets.
Osteen’s television audience is vast. His sermons are shown on a half-dozen cable networks, including such non-Christian outlets as the Discovery Channel and USA.
But he sets himself apart from other televangelists. He doesn’t, for example, seek on-air donations. He also opts out of the nation’s culture war, rarely discussing hot-button political issues such as abortion or gay marriage. And despite his roots in the Southern Pentecostal tradition, he never rails against sin.
“My message is very positive,” he said. “God is good, and he’s on our side. People respond to this because there is a lot of negative forces pulling them down.”
Osteen’s sermons sound like motivational speeches with a Christian flavor. He’s constantly telling the audience that they, too, can be successful, affluent and happy if they adopt the right attitude. The key, he said, is faith in God.
“Maybe God wants to improve your marriage, restore your family or promote you at work,” Osteen said in his book. “But that seed of opportunity can’t take root because of your doubts.”
Even critics, such as Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, say Osteen is sincere.
“He makes people feel good about themselves,” Anthony said. “But as Christians, we are supposed to lay down our lives and meet the needs of others over our own needs.”
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