Why You Should Partner with Joel Osteen (or at least pay attention to his ministry)

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I am a pastor serving temporarily at Lakewood Church in Houston Texas.  Yes, Lakewood is also the name of another Houston church pastored by the famed Joel Osteen, but no, this is not his church.  To the many who regularly call us, looking for that church, looking for that man, I tend to be clear that our community is different: this is a Methodist church, we are not located in the former home of the NBA’s Houston Rockets, and Lakewood was our name long before it was his…please feel free to visit us, you are welcome here!

As is evident, I am fairly defensive about this.  Joel Osteen is neither a person I would typically want to associate myself with in ministry, nor a person from whom I want others learning too much.  In the eyes of the overwhelming majority of the evangelical world Osteen is prodigal.  Maybe not to the extent of those who wear a suit and tie, name tags, and go knocking door to door but not too far from it.   His gospel is dangerously thin, lacking healthy doses of some pretty fundamental things like sin and repentance.  His sermons are eerily akin to positive, inspirational talks; they are pseudo-sermons, something far short of the full proclamation of the gospel.

But Joel Osteen’s reach is undeniable.  His church is the largest mega church in North America.  His weekly sermon broadcast hits the television screens of over seven million Americans each week.  Osteen was identified as the most watched inspirational figure in America by the media tracking powerhouse, Nielsen Media Research.  Osteen’s 2004 publication, Your Best Life Now, was #1 on the New York Best Seller List for over 2 years.[i]

At a recent weekend event in a local Houston prison, I introduced myself as a pastor from Lakewood United Methodist Church (I was intentional in my differentiation).  In almost every single following conversation with an inmate it was assumed that I was actually part of Joel Osteen’s church, (most of these guys couldn’t even pronounce Methodist).  It wasn’t only that these fellows knew about Lakewood and knew Joel Osteen’s name, it was more – they had family members that attended there, they were proud to have at times watched the broadcast themselves, and they were obviously impressed by Osteen’s preaching, repeating phrases like ‘going for the victory’ or ‘living in God’s blessing.’

As much as this made me want to watch an Osteen sermon, deconstruct it, and cry heresy another thought occurred to me while sitting in that prison; while sitting in that prison enjoying one of the most wonderful experiences of sharing the gospel with some of the most receptive and honest people I had sat with in a long time: maybe I should just partner with Joel Osteen instead.

Before I am written off, allow me to offer some thoughts on why this actually is not that ridiculous of an idea:

1. Osteen is engaging a demographic of folks most churches probably are not.

If most mega-churches tend to be more demographically homogeneous, Lakewood is the exception to the rule.  Those filling the pews of the former Compaq Center are amazingly diverse; they are people from all different ethnic backgrounds: Caucasian, Hispanic, African-American, Asian, you name it, they are probably one of the 47,000 people worshiping on a Sunday morning.  The Lakewood demographic actually closely mirrors that of greater Houston; something many churches aspire to and fall far short of.

Lakewood is also filled with the poor.  This is not only an empirical observation made by those who visit the church, as scholars Christine Miller and Nathan Carlin observe “people of low socioeconomic status seem to be drawn to Lakewood Church.”  Your Best Life Now had a higher readership among people without a high school diploma than a college degree.[ii]

Now let us self-reflect, how many former prisoners are attending our churches?  What percentage of our congregations are non-white?  What percentage of our congregation owns its home?  I am not intending to knock our churches.  What I am saying is most of our churches are not filled with the same demographic of people.  Even if Lakewood is not engaging them in the best way with the full gospel these people nonetheless are being reached.  The fact of the matter is our churches are not doing it, or not doing it very well.  Maybe we should start paying attention to Osteen’s ministry.  Why is it reaching these people and what elements of the Lakewood ministry might help our churches also engage all of God’s children with the gospel?

2. Joel Osteen may not be as much of a wolf in sheep’s clothing as we think—he surprisingly upholds a fair bit of orthodoxy.

Some of the best indicators of this in more recent years are the other mainstream evangelical figures who have been invited to the Lakewood pulpit, such as Rick Warren and Steven Furtick.  For the third time, this summer, Lakewood continues to move closer toward the evangelical middle hosting the Hope and Life Youth Conference which features speakers like Louie Giglio and the worship leaders Jesus Culture.

As for evidence of Osteen’s theology, one good place to look is the Lakewood website.  A brief glance at the What We Believe Section reveals concise statements on things like The Bible, The Trinity, and Growing Relationship.  If we are willing to be honest, these theological summaries are ones that might easily be found on the website of any mainstream evangelical church.[iii]

In an interview with The Christian Post, when asked about his primary message, Osteen replied: “…that God is a good God, that He is on our side, that when we obey Him, trust him and love Him, we’re going to live a rewarding life. I guess when you boil it down, it’s a message of hope and encouragement…God is on our side, and we can overcome.”[iv]  While our churches may not choose to express the gospel message in exactly the way, again, if we are willing to be honest, that is not too far off from what comes out of our pulpits most weeks.

From Osteen’s perspective, this emphasis on hope does not equate a prosperity message.  “I’m not a prosperity preacher” he said to Larry King in a 2006 interview. “That’s something I kind of get tagged with that I don’t even like.”  Instead, Osteen seems himself above all as practical and so chooses not to be exegetical or highly theological in his preaching: “I know doctrine is good.  We need doctrine, but I think the average person is not looking for doctrine…Most of what I preach is about the simple things”[v]

One consideration to make when understanding Joel Osteen is that there may be elements of the Osteenian gospel proclamation that are contextual.  Just as it is readily accepted that the gospel and church forms look a bit different in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, perhaps some leeway should be allowed among a demographic of folks who are living a life that is fairly different from ours.

Helpful questions at this point might be ‘Why does the language of victory and blessing resonate so well with the poor?  What are the felt needs of the congregants at Lakewood and how does the gospel address those needs?  Is a more appropriate focus in this context for gospel proclamation one that emphasizes the positive elements of the gospel, perhaps because the sin and repentance elements are already so obvious?

3. I believe the Spirit is at work in Osteen’s ministry.

Having spent considerable time with people who are not from the easier locales of life, I have always been struck by how ready many of these people are to receive the Good News.  While people with bright futures and stable lives have a sense of self-sufficiency, those in the throes of life can’t stomach that illusion.  The result is that these people are some of the most ready for a message of hope and consequently these are largely the people who are walking through the doors of Lakewood Church.

If the Spirit is already at work in those lives, maybe there is a better approach than pointing out the obvious shortcomings of Joel Osteen.  If these people in delicate places are looking for real spiritual food, perhaps considering how we can supplement their diet is a better answer to their spiritual malnutrition.  We need to do some soul searching.  Why are we demonizing Joel Osteen?  Could there be a sense of envy within us as we neglect to see our planky shortcomings while looking for every single one of Osteen’s splinters?

Ultimately, I too want to be more practical, there is a lot to learn from Joel Osteen.  How can I do  ministry more like he does it, of course not with the same theological expression, but in effectively engaging a group of people who, I have no doubt, represent some of the whitest fields in this world.

If such an opportunity for ministry sounds intriguing, perhaps even a refreshing change from than the frequent stench of airs in white upper middle class suburbia, maybe we should consider how our churches might do something more Osteenian.  It just might be some of our best ministry now.


[i] Jeffress, Michael. A Study of the Demographics, Exposure Levels, and Perceptions of Pastor Joel Osteen’s Viewing Audience. Retrieved on June 17, 2013 from http://citation.allacademic.com//meta/p_mla_apa_research_citation/2/4/5/9/8/pages245988/p245988-4.php.

[ii] Carlin, Nathan and Miller, Christine.  Joel Osteen as Cultural Selfobject: Meeting the Needs of the Group Self and Its Inidividual Members in and from the Largest Church in America. Springer Science and Business Media, LLC. 2009.

[iii] ‘What We Believe.’  Retrieved on June 19, 2013 from http://www.lakewoodchurch.com/Pages/new-here/What-We-Believe.aspx.

[iv] Tse, R.  (21 October 2005).  Interview with megachurch pastor Joel Osteen.  Retrieved June 19, 2013 from http://www.christianpost.com/article/20051021/13777.htm.

[v] Martin, W. (2005). Prime minister. Texas Monthly, 33(8), 106-175. Retrieved October 23, 2006, from the Academic Search Premier database.

Photo by Hequals2henry.

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David Goran, former missionary to Ukraine, is now serving as a pastor at Holy Covenant United Methodist Church in Katy, Texas. David and his wife Shannon, have two young boys, Jesse and Jeremiah.

22 COMMENTS

  1. Bravo! If more people/ church’s would open their minds and thoughts to this idea, there would be no end to reaching people, until Jesus comes.

  2. Good word brother. As a pretty hardcore anti-Olsteenian Christian, I was challenged by this article. I think you’re right. 🙂

  3. I don’t agree with you, David. Olsteen muddles the doctrine of the atonement, saying that Jesus’ death on the cross was not enough; he constantly takes biblical texts out of context; his understanding of faith as statements of forces that can be shaped by how we use our words; and his understanding of who Jesus is – all lacks biblical foundation. Of course, I’m interested in what he’s doing, but I’m far from supportive of his work which, I believe, is leading many astray from the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints.”

    • Bob, I am not trying to say that Osteen is a model theologian by any means. I wrote this article from the perspective of someone who considers him heterodox. What I am instead trying to do is understand Osteen and his ministry better, and with special consideration regarding the successes he has made, and more importantly how we might reflect on those successes and learn from them.

      • I don’t want to sound rude. But this is a serious question. Do you think perhaps that he could be getting a better response because he tells people what they want to hear? I don’t think you can seperate a man’s theology from his tactics to reach people. This is more than just crummy theology. It is pulling people away from the gospel of Jesus, which is a gospel of self-denial. Joel’s gospel is a message of self-exaltation focused on self-improvement. And yes, the true gospel does improve individuals, but it is not so they can be successful in this life by the culture’s standards, but so we will glorify Him.

        • Joel is not “telling people what they want to hear”. You are being far too judgemental. What people want to hear is “do what you want, face no consequences, and you will go to Heaven anyway”. This is NOT what Osteen teaches! Quite the opposite. What he does teach, however, is God wants us to be better & treat others with decency. Neither does Osteen misquote Gospel. However, like all his critics, you certainly misrepresent his teachings. Joel does teach that we should repent and seek forgiveness. He does teach that we should do our best to be our very best and avoid sin. However, he does this is a positive way. He does this without condemning. He does this without telling the sinner to feel miserable about their mistakes for the rest of their lives. That is what Joel teaches. If you disagree with that, then it’s you who misunderstands the gospel!

          • Amen to that I watch Joel Osteen not because of him although he does have a blessed spirit but he lets God speak through him and I love him for that thank you for setting this straight God bless

        • Jesus did not teach “self denial” in the sense you claim. The bible talks about living an abundant life and being repaid back multiple times for what you give. If we aren’t successful in the this life, how are we meant to give more to help others if we are not blessed this way? If you think God wants no one to be successful in this life I take it you never went to college, never went for a promotion at work, never did anything at all to better you life or that of your family! You obviously don’t believe in other successes either, like cuing deadly disease through medicine. After all this would be far too successful for this life eh? I trust then, that you also will not be taking any medication or treatment to prolong your life on this planet when you are elderly and sick. That is just ridiculous. When we are successful, and when we use that success to not only bring joy to ourselves, and our families, we use it to bring joy to others too. That is how we glorify God in this life, not by denying the greatness we can do in this life through him before we descend into Heaven to be with Him! The attitude of not celebrating God’s wonderful creation of mankind and not being successful in this life is the kind of false Gospel that puts many people off ever finding God and accepting Christ as their Saviour so they can enjoy an even better life in Heaven!

  4. Love it love it. I am a fan of Lakewood’s ministry and have listened to Joel for many years. He certainly has grown as a Pastor, and support what he’s teaching.

  5. How long has your church been known as Lakewood Church. I think that Osteen’s church has been Lakewood Church since 1959 when his father became its first pastor. Also, it is funny that you should say that he does not preach ‘the full gospel’ since churches like this (preaching salvation, healing, gifts of the Spirit, and prosperity and success) have been called “Full Gospel” churches for a very long time.

  6. David, you are exactly right. Instead of criticizing Joel Osteen, take advantage of the harvest.
    For more than 14 years, Osteen has ended every televised sermon the same way: Encouraging his viewers to find and attend a “Good Bible-based church” in their city, so that they can “Grow in their walk with the Lord.”
    Many churches of various denominations do partner with Osteen and the result has been nothing short of remarkable. Anecdotal evidence indicates that tens of thousands of people across the U.S. are responding to his call and are visiting the churches he recommends.
    I have seen every sermon that Osteen has preached and not once have I heard him say, “God wants you to be rich.” Yet there are ministers who will tell their congregations they’ve heard him say it, all in an effort to discredit him. Perhaps they are blinded by their envy or their refusal to allow God to do something that they might not understand. Whatever the case, the harvest is happening all around them and in spite of them.

  7. I believe we can say something negative about everything ,but like Jesus did when he walk the earth He show LOVE and His Love won people over.We know there is more to preach about , than what Osteen does ,but let others preach on that. Lets UNITE in the Body of Christ and DEFEAT the real Person who gives us so much Grief ‘The DEVIL’…No matter what Church you go ;lets unite and Love the way Jesus did and teach the WORD of GOD to the Loss…MikeZirpoli

    • I agree we should unite as believers and stop this unfair critism of the ministry of a man who is clearly genuine. I don’t agree there is “more to preach” that what Osteen say’s. He has all the basis covered as well as anyone can. There are certainly different ways to preach it, but sadly those who condemn him and his ministry are doing it in a counter productive way, telling sinners (we are all sinners) they have to be perfect everyday and change overnight. That is not only a lie, it also makes people turn off from Christ and not receive the true word of God. Many times these lies lead to atheism, not belief. Meaning many who would be saved turn away from Jesus because they believe the lies they are told. Joel isn’t the only minister I listen too, but he is certainly the one who helped my faith in Christ and relationship with God become stronger than ever. I’ve read the critics comments about Joel Osteen, and they are all full of lies, about him and about his teachings. Yes, he doesn’t always say things in the best way, but that’s because he is a mere mortal like everyone else, why should he be perfect when no mortal man can ever be. He’s not Jesus! He’s not God! He is a mortal human being, like all the billions of others of us!

  8. Mr. Olsteen is a ‘Seeker Preacher”. He is turning millions of otherwise, ‘agnostics’ into believers. I believe in baby steps. These people, who stick around to learn the Good News, will eventually want a deeper relationship with Christ- and will find their place in the church community. Who are we to say our road to faith is the only way. The Holy Spirit needs but a mustard seed to grow faith. Let s let Mr. Olsteen do what he does best; find the mustard seed.

  9. I am in my mid-30s. I have believed in God my whole life. I have also believed in his son Christ. However, because of cynical critical preachers and Christians, I also felt distanced from Christ. My faith was up, then down, then up again. It was at an all-time low when I discovered Joel Osteen’s sermons several years ago. I have since read his books, read the scriptures again, listened to his sermons at Lakewood. My relationship with God is back on track. I no longer feel Christ is “in the distance somewhere”, he is right beside me and my faith in Him is now at an all time high and grows each day! It’s no longer a yo-yo, it’s a growing thing that I get great benefit from! Joel Osteen teaches we should seek forgiveness for our sins from God, try our best everyday to be our very best, keep God 1st place in our lives and love him with a full heart (Christ himself said this was God’s greatest commandment), love thy neighbour (Christ himself said this was God’s most 2nd most important commandment), enjoy our God-given blessings and use them to help others, spread the message of God’s love and mercy while also respecting everyone’s God given free will. That is a summary of his beliefs and teachings. I would love to know what part of that these so-called Christians who are so easily willing to slam him and his ministry want to tell me is wrong with all that! I praise Jesus for my salvation, and I thank God for Joel Osteen!

  10. I happened across your article when I googled, ‘does joel osteen minster at prisons’. I’m just curious, do you know if he personally does?

  11. Who are WE to judge! Paid my tithes to another church until I found out they were spending the money on vacation… then God spoke to me to go with Lakewood Church…with Joel Osteen…We enjoy his sermons week after week. Now for 10 years…he is one of a Gods Prophets….recognize…!!!!

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