November 29, 2020

The Method In The Madness: The Mystery of Joel Osteen


This is my Bible. I am what it says I am, I have what it says I have, I can do what it says I can do. Today I’ll be taught the Word of God. I boldly confess my mind is alert, my heart is receptive, I’ll never be the same, in Jesus name.”– Congregational Confession led by Joel Osteen at the beginning of each sermon.

Matthew 7:15 “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.

Acts 20:29-30 I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.

Every week, Joel Osteen leads thousands of his flock and millions of his viewers in the confession that they are whatever the Bible says they are, and I assume that goes for him as well.

Now we get to figure out just what he is.

There’s Joel the smiling preacher, pastor of America’s largest church. The boy who didn’t want to preach, but wound up in his daddy’s shoes, doing greater things than daddy ever did. The humble, compassionate, ever-positive preacher with the great sense of humor. The best selling author with practical wisdom for everyone, Christian or not.

Or there’s evil Joel, the epitome of all that’s wrong with the Word-faith movement. A multi-million dollar shyster selling the snake oil of name-it, claim-it and the lie of positive confession. The Joel you meet on dozens of web-sites where Hannegraf wannabes catalog the loony promises of Kenneth Hagin and his brood.

Or there’s church growth genius Joel, the man who has found the secret to turning congregations into arenas full of paying ticket holders and basketball venues into churches: eliminate the traditional Gospel and talk about success principles. Combine Tony Robbins with a hot worship band and the thinnest veneer of Pentecostal revivalism and America will beat a path to your door. Tell people God is waiting to give them their best life now and they will believe- and buy- it. Leave out sin, the cross and “all that stuff” that smells of serious religion and even Buddhists will love you.

Or how about Joel the clueless? The preacher without an education who couldn”t teach an actual Bible class or handle a theological topic if his life depended on it? The guy who looks good, but is just plain lucky. The man whose interviews sound like the college freshman youth director has just become the senior pastor, and has stocked his brain with enough cliches to last through an hour’s talk.

Maybe he is Joel the apostate? The man who avoids any mention of Jesus with such dedication that you can’t help but wonder what’s going on? The man who sees the Christian faith as a nice introduction to positive thinking, but too much of it is obviously a bad thing? The man who is more Oprah than Oprah, and mentions Christ less than Marrianne Williamson? While new agers and Eastern cults want Jesus “in,” Osteen has thrown Jesus to credits in the last thirty seconds, and won’t speak his name otherwise.

What other hats will we see Joel wear? He’s been endorsed by Max Lucado and John Maxwell, so Christian publishers and authors can be expected to hail him as the next big thing. He’s a hit in the positive thinking community, where his revved up version of Norman Vincent Peale is a best seller. When Lakewood takes over the former Compaq center and turns it into a massive community center, Osteen might as well run for mayor of Houston. I see crossovers into the world of business and finance prefigured in much of the church’s plan.

I doubt that Osteen is any one of these persons, but I have no doubt that he is, and will be, on some level, ALL of them.

I believe Osteen is entirely aware of what he is doing. From deemphasizing the Gospel to buying an arena, he’s a man with a marketing method that makes sense in America today. Yet, I still imagine the sudden success of his Lakewood has happened in a way that surprised him, and as he rides the wave he will never totally lose the nervous look of the guy who doesn’t know how to fly the plane.

I don’t doubt that he is a very sincere person. He doesn’t seem complicated, but I believe he is ambitous, and the opportunity to make more and more money won’t be overlooked. Expect more books- without the ghost writer’s name on the cover. Expect increasing levels of approval from anyone who likes numbers, and increasing amounts of condemnation from those who love the Gospel and care about orthodox Christian belief.

Is Osteen a sheep? A shepherd? Or a spiritual wolf in sheep’s clothing? The Bible speaks of all three. Which is he? Maybe in a way unlike anyone we’ve seen lately, he’s all of the above.

I don’t think he really knows, and it won’t be easy for us to ever agree that we know. Still, the fact remains, Osteen has left the Gospel of Jesus behind and is moving away from it faster with every sermon. Those who haven’t accepted that fact can defend him all they want, but he won’t be joining the case. He’s moved on.

Osteen couldn’t give a Gospel presentation in an interview when asked directly, because he didn’t want to. He will do all he can to never say the words of the Apostle’s Creed or even a modest Southern Baptist evangelistic presentation. Somehow, after two years of echoing his dad’s word-faith preaching, something new started coming from Joel Osteen. His brother calls it the “unchurch.” I agree, and it is based on the “unGospel” and the “unChrist.” He’s going with it as far as he can go, and I expect that will be far beyond anyone’s expectation. Joel is, if nothing else, an over-achiever.

In the last few days, I’ve read that Osteen’s teaching is good for Christians, unbelievers, those with strong Biblical foundations, those who don’t know the Bible, new believers, mature believers and, of course, anyone who has been beaten down and confused by what Osteen’s brother calls “goofy” traditional preaching. I think Osteen would agree with all those assessments. Just don’t ask him what it all means. He would just smile.

Whatever it means, it works, and this is the most pragmatic of cultures. Osteen’s unGospel is born in a mind that understands advertising, image making and identification with a brand. Content doesn’t matter much, and it will probably matter less the longer Osteen ascends. Osteen has hit the pulse of our burned out, preached out, ears itching, success starved, emotionally thinking, celebrity worshiping, marginally Christian culture. He’s found a winner and he’s going to ride it. He may be a sheep, a shepherd, a wolf or a clueless clown. He may have on so many suits, he doesn’t really know which one he’s wearing or what he believes. What he does know, is how it is all going to look and sound to the audience.

One thing I can assure you: while a sovereign God may use him, you will never get to know Jesus listening to him. Never. And if Jesus is important, then Osteen shouldn’t be. His confusion may be a version of our own confusion, but his rejection of the Gospel and the Jesus of the New Testament doesn’t need to become ours.


  1. James Freeman says

    If Osteen is not preaching Christ crucified and the necessity of PICKING UP YOUR CROSS and following Him, he is preaching cheap grace.

    And cheap grace costs too much.

  2. Many(most?) people preach grace wrongly, from one extreme to the other. We don’t condemn them for it. The challenge is to learn and grow, and let our preaching reflect that growth. I pray that Osteen does learn and grow, and that as his own walk with Christ deepens he will be able to capture that with his preaching.

  3. Columcille….

    Osteen isn’t preaching grace at all. READ THE FIRST CHAPTER OF HIS BOOK linked below. If that isn’t works (Eastern Worldview variety) to the core, with a pagan view of God, I’m a duck.

    The Gospel man! The Gospel. When it’s missing, it’s not an illness. The heart is gone. It’s a dead body!

  4. “Untrue. Mr. O’Steen is in a Christian church, not some wacko on a street corner chanting mindlessly. This simply is not an accurate reflection of my view.”

    A church isn’t Christian just because it claims that it is. How do you know the wacko on the corner isn’t preaching the Gospel? Well, you just take what he says and compare it to the Scripture. Same thing with Mr. Olsteen. Compare what he teaches with the Bible and see how it stacks up. What he claims to be is really of little importance.

  5. My biggest problem with him besides the “no-substance” thing is that he’s teaching error. You can’t just say a “sinner’s prayer” that is found nowhere in the bible and expect to be saved. Read Acts 2:38, Mark 16:16 just to name two passages. Read the book of Acts and see how many people were baptized for salvation. The “sinner’s prayer” is never mentioned in the Bible, and is a man-made thing.

  6. So we’re agreed that he’s not an evangelist, ay?

  7. I have never read anything from Osteen and do not know much about him, but from what I gather here, it seems like he is missing the CHRIST part of Christianity. I don’t think preaching the 3 verses and prayer at the end of the sermon is the point: if the best life is the Christ-Life, than that should be what comes across in his every word, not to mention his life.

    I was just reading an ad for his book called “Your Best Life Now” with this description: “Prepare to be uplifted and encouraged. Pastor Joel Osteen teaches us to discover our innate strengths and abilities on the road to success.” Isn’t the whole point of salvation admitting that we will never make it on our own, that we need Jesus to save us from the way we screw up our own lives because of sin? When people realize that there is something so much bigger than this world, this so-called “success” should only be found in the fact that we have the opportunity each day to wake up and experience the power and love of our creator.

    It seems to me that Osteen is making a living off of feel-good gimmicks that sells people short of living their best life– something only found in a life totally dependant on God and the restored relationshp through Christ. The thing that puts him on the same playing field as Oprah is his claim that we can do it on our own and leaving out the part of Jesus doing it FOR us totally misses the point. If he totally understood God’s beautiful gift of the abundant life Jesus speaks of, he wouldn’t be setting people up for the let down that will come from dependance on the flesh. I don’t think it’s a matter of what he does or doesn’t say; this is a matter that his life is not really communicating what Christ has done for our lives even though he slaps the “Christian” label on it. How sad that he has no idea that his best life now is found in the overwhelming glory and power of God.

  8. Thank you for removing the “Peale” on this shiny new banana that a lot of people have already slipped on.


  9. I believe I was the one first guilty of using the word “heresy”. Michael, was correct that he did not call Osteen a heritic. Even I only made the comment that the church is having more trouble today discerning heresy from truth.

    To quote Webster’s = heresy = “religious opinion at variance with the orthodox doctrine.”

    If Osteeen is preaching a works based salvation, then I believe even the apostle Paul would call him a heretic (Gal. 1:6-12).

    I cannot call Osteen’s teaching heretical but, only because I don’t know enough about it to compare it with scripture. However, even from what I have seen, it is very misleading (and that is being kind).

  10. My personal feeling is that the judgemental spirit of your article and of many of comments on it are arrogant and reckless. And typically, you are only giving half the story, mischaracterizing Osteen and his message.

    Olsteen has never said that God will give us anything or say yes to any prayer that is not within His will. In fact, he has said just the opposite.

    Isn’t it true by definition that God wants us to succeed…AT WHAT HE WANTS FOR OUR LIFE. And isn’t it true that most Christians are not experiencing this? This is what Osteen is tapping into–the gap between God’s promises and our experiences.

    Osteen never says we can have God’s blessing outside of giving ourselves to God. It’s not about gaining money whatever else we want, its that God is the champion in our life for what HE want in it. If you actually read Osteen’s book and other teaching you would realize this is what he is talking about.

    It goes without saying–though it should be said of course–that without putting God first in our lives through repentance and faith in the redeeming Person and work Jesus Christ that nothing Osteen preaches has any power anyway. Clearly, Osteen believes this. This from the Lakewood Church web site:

    “The Bible is the inspired and only infallible and authoritative Word of God. Salvation has been provided and is available for people through Jesus Christ. Through His sacrifice on the cross, we can die to our sinful nature and be born again to a new life of purity and power.”

    Sounds to me Osteen clearly believes you need Jesus and his redeeming work. So why would you imply otherwise?

    As to no one getting to know Christ through Osteen–“never,” you said–all I can say is that Osteen’s ministry has greatly improved my relationship with Jesus by helping me realize how positive God is toward me. The way is still straight and the gate is still narrow, but now I realize more how God wants me to walk it and how much He wants to help me do so.

    Osteen’s message is not all we need. But taken in context it is quite helpful.

    As for myself, I am a 49-year-old who has been a Christian for 31 year and have studied the theology of many different schools of thought. Although I agree that a proper theology is indispensible to a life pleasing to God it is not enough AND can even be damaging if the theology is dead knowledge. Paul said knowledge puffs up, love builds up. He also said the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. And Paul had as much knowledge as anyone of his day, so he should know.

    I would encourage you to go to God and check your spirit. Is it one of truly trying to help God’s people or is it one of puffed up knowledge and distain for those who don’t agree with you? From what I have seen here it is the latter. Your post is not one of Christian charity toward a brother in Christ.

  11. >the judgemental spirit of your article and of many of comments on it are arrogant and reckless

    How about a specific statement? Exactly where am I inappropriately judgemental.

    My “article” is a call for those who agree with me to identify him as a non-evangelical. HE says he is leaving out “all that stuff” about the cross. He said it. I agree with HIM.

    His statement of faith never appears in a TV sermon and isn’t in his book. Did you read the interviews? Where is the Gospel? WHERE?

    People really amaze me. You are a member of the “Joel is REALLY a Christian” secret society. He sounds like Oprah and Tony Robbins, but WE KNOW the truth. It’s hidden away on the website, or if you drank a cup of coffee with him THEN YOU’D KNOW The TRUTH.

    Well….if the guy can write an entire book without the Gospel in a chapter, forgive me for being taken in! I can’t read what’s not there. (Even if the “secret society” assures me it’s really there between the lines to be read with the secret decoder ring.)

  12. My feeling is that the tone of your article is one of a know-it-all who even knows Joel Osteen better than he knows himself. You insinuate that he is “Joel the clueless” and “Joel the apostate.” These are written with a mocking tone. You say he couldn’t teach a bible class if his life depended on it. This is a mocking exageration, you cannot possibly know this.

    Look, I have no problem with your having a problem with Osteen. But I have seen self-appointed defenders of the faith on the Internet before. They always equate being a good Christian with conforming to their theology, they always give one side of the story at the expense of the other and they always exhibit a sarcastic spirit.

    I just think, humbly, that your tone is wrong. Criticize Osteen as much a you feel the need to. But I would suggest praying over Galatians 6:1 before you do:

    “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.”

  13. I didn’t say JO was caught in a trespass. He’s a false teacher. And false teachers aren’t what that verse is about. How about Paul’s view of the false teachers in Gal 5:12? There’s a “tone” for you.

    >You insinuate that he is “Joel the clueless” and “Joel the apostate.”

    I assume you know what a question mark is? See such at the end of those assertions. Sheeesh. The darned title of the piece is “The Mystery of JO.”

    When you can tell me what these passages mean, and how ordained pastors like myself are supposed to deal with them, then we can talk:

    2 Peter 2:1-3 2 Peter 2:1 But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. 2 And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. 3 And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.

    2 Timothy 4:1-4 2 Timothy 4:1 I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: 2 preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. 3 For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, 4 and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

    1 Timothy 1:3 3 As I urged you when I was going to Macedonia, remain at Ephesus that you may charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine,

    1 Timothy 6:3-5 3 If anyone teaches a different doctrine and does not agree with the sound words of our Lord Jesus Christ and the teaching that accords with godliness, 4 he is puffed up with conceit and understands nothing. He has an unhealthy craving for controversy and for quarrels about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, evil suspicions, 5 and constant friction among people who are depraved in mind and deprived of the truth, imagining that godliness is a means of gain.

    Titus 1:9-11 9 He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it. 10 For there are many who are insubordinate, empty talkers and deceivers, especially those of the circumcision party. 11 They must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for shameful gain what they ought not to teach.