(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 advisor.
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, Ill.
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.”