In looking at preachers such as Norman Vincent Peale, Reverend Ike with their formulae for success and prosperity, one cannot forget Joel Osteen.

Americans live in an era where a vast majority of them have read at least one self-help book. For a while, we had two in our house, given to us by agnostic friends in the early 1970s who termed them ground-breaking and revolutionary: Psycho-Cybernetics and I’m OK, You’re OK. Some readers will call the former satanic, because it taught visualisation. However, although my parents were unimpressed by these books, insecure people or those who could be doing more with their potential can sometimes benefit by changing their way of thinking. It doesn’t necessarily need to come through ‘meditation’, just a self-check during the day. Ideally, some would say, this would come through faith, but the Bible is not a personal formula for success.

Speaking with a secular hat on for a second, I believe we are what we eat, read, watch and think. A constant diet of junk food is bad for the health. Reading pornography or nihilistic novels is sinful at worst, unhealthy at best. Watching most television may inhibit critical thought. A convicted criminal who thinks he will never amount to anything even if he wishes to turn over a new leaf has to learn to think in a new way. Instead of his imagining himself committing armed robbery, he has to train himself to imagine enjoying working for a living. An impatient person needs to think of himself as slowing down a potentially destructive reaction the next time someone or something irritates him. And so on. All that said, let me reiterate, self-help is a secular methodology with pragmatic instructions which may or may not work, not unlike a cookbook or a DIY manual. It has nothing to do with church and isn’t intended to. Seeing what happens in the workplace these days, a fair number of managers and employees would benefit from reading I’m OK, You’re OK, based on transactional analysis. Over the past ten years I have seen too many dysfunctional family relationships reproduce in an office setting which produces warped results for the company.

On to Joel Osteen now by way of his father John.  Joel’s detractors accuse  him of having grown up as a rich boy with no regard for hard times. I don’t know about that, however, John appeared to have grown up in humble circumstances during the Great Depression. It is unusual for reminiscences from parents and grandparents not to have some effect on younger generations. John’s obituary in Lubbock [Texas] Online reads in part:

Born Aug. 21, 1921, Osteen dropped out of high school in his hometown of Fort Worth. In his biography, he said he began seriously thinking about God after leaving a nightclub in 1939. Six weeks later, he was preaching in Paris, Texas.

That high school dropout — after his visit to a nightclub — went on to earn three degrees in theology. We may disagree on the confessionalism of the seminaries where he earned those degrees, however, he adhered to an Evangelistic background, became ordained in the Southern Baptist Convention (Arminian) and later embraced a more Charismatic Christianity. In 1959 (emphases mine):

John founded Lakewood Church in an abandoned feedstore in Houston on Mother’s Day …  It was a year after he dedicated his life to the service of God.  He had been married for four years to his second wife, Dodie, who joined him in his ministry.  His church turned no one away. It didn’t matter what race or belief you had: you were welcome.  This was unusual in the segregated, highly religious South.

Unfortunately, the Faith Builders article I cited is no longer there.

John said that his baptism in the Holy Ghost in 1958 changed his ministry:

He traveled extensively throughout the world, taking the message of God’s love, healing and power to people of all nations.

John Osteen founded Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, widely known as “The Oasis of Love in a Troubled World”, where his son Joel Osteen continues to minister to thousands weekly. He hosted the weekly “John Osteen” television program for 16 years, reaching millions in the U.S. and in many other countries with the Gospel. His numerous books, cassettes, and videotapes are widely distributed throughout the Body of Christ.

However, I found this quote of John’s interesting and wonder how the sentiment behind it might have affected Joel growing up:

Great it is to dream the dream, when you stand in youth by the starry stream. But a greater thing is to fight life through, and say at the end, the dream is true.

Joel published Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential in 2004. Note the use of ‘best’, a favourite word among prosperity and positive-thinking preachers. The sermon of Peale’s I featured is called ‘Be Your Best’. Reverend Ike’s is called ‘You Deserve the Best!’

This clip is of Joel exhorting his congregation to ‘Expect Good Things’:

I imagine that many broken people attend Osteen’s Lakewood Church for right and wrong reasons. Yes, they are going to feel better about themselves after negative experiences at work, in marriage and, no doubt, in toxic churches.  And, yes, what Osteen preaches is a type of moralistic therapeutic deism, popular in a self-help dependent society.  (See my Christianity / Apologetics page for more under the heading ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism’.) Some of these people a) will never have entered a church or b) have been away too long.

There are serious problems with Joel Osteen’s ‘church’ and his preaching:

Osteen has no theological degree and an odd outlook on preaching. He dropped out of Oral Roberts University after two years. A few years ago, 60 Minutes (CBS) interviewed Osteen, already ‘The Most Influential Christian in America’ (2006). Dr R Scott Clark of Westminster Seminary California said of Osteen after the interview:

… go back and watch Byron Pitts’ questions. Pitts was very fair with Osteen, even generous. He gave Osteen opportunities to say, “I’m a minister. My job is to call sinners to Christ.” What did Osteen say? “I’m not a minister. I’m a life coach. My job is teach people how to have their best life now.”

Jesus had little patience for the “best life now” approach. Broad is the way of destruction. It is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. So much [for] Osteen’s self-described prosperity gospel.

In 2007, Osteen said in the same 60 Minutes interview:

I can get up here and try to impress you with Greek words and doctrine and there are people that need that, they want to study deeper,’ he recently said on the CBS program. ‘But I know what I’m called to do is sayI want to help you learn how to forgive today.”I want to help you to have the right thoughts today.” Just simple things.

In which case, he needs to step away from the pulpit now!

– Osteen has a false church — not unlike Peale’s and Ike’s. Of Osteen, Dr Clark says:

As to judging someone’s profession, as a Reformed confessionalist … I confess that there [are] three marks of a true church (congregation): the pure preaching of the gospel (as defined by the Reformed confessions), the pure administration of the sacraments, and the administration of church discipline. Osteen’s congregation lacks these marks. Ergo it is, as the Belgic says, a false church. Belgic also gives us marks of a true Christian. You can see all this here.

He adopts a Gnostic and semi-Pelagian outlook, devoid of justification by grace through faith. Dr Michael Horton of Westminster Seminary California has examined Osteen’s writing and preaching, coming up with these observations:

“You can be better,” Osteen invites. “The question is: ‘How? What must I do to become a better me?’ In my first book, Your Best Life Now, I presented seven steps to living at your full potential.” But with Becoming a Better You, he wants to go a little deeper. “I’m hoping to help you look inside yourself and discover the priceless seeds of greatness that God has placed within you. In this book, I will reveal to you seven keys that you can use to unlock those seeds of greatness, allowing them to burst forth in an abundantly blessed life.”


God has breathed His life into you. He planned seeds of greatness in you. You have everything you need to fulfill your God-given destiny….It’s all in you. You are full of potential. But you have to do your part and start tapping into it…You have the seed of Almighty God on the inside of you…We have to believe that we have what it takes.

Horton remarks:

Just as Kenneth Copeland, Benny Hinn, and other “faith teachers” speak of believers as “little gods” who share God’s nature, Osteen has an entire chapter devoted to “The Power of Your Bloodline.” “You have the DNA of Almighty God.”4 It’s “what’s in you” that is divine seed, he says.5 It is not that God has imputed Christ’s righteousness to us and adopted us as his children. We are not saved by an external and alien righteousness, but by an internal and essential righteousness that belongs to us simply by virtue of our being created in his image. Therefore, throughout the book Osteen can address all of his readers as semi-divine without any reference to faith in Christ.

There is more at the link. Horton cautions us about human achievement and our status before God:

I’m all for positive thinking-as long as we don’t call it the gospel. I come from a long line of Wild West pioneers and can identify with Osteen’s commendation of his parents as a major source of an optimistic outlook. The problem is when we blindly ignore the reality of our condition before God. Whatever good things there may be about me, none of them commend me before God’s righteous judgment.

The Word Faith movement, of which Osteen’s Lakewood Church is a part, presents a false notion of God and human existence. Because there is such an absence of Scripture, outside of what some call ‘the fortune cookie Bible’, Osteen’s preaching and his family’s testimony can give false hope to his followers, especially if they are ill. Chris Lehmann of Salon warned:

That confident assertion of — and indeed, identification with — the divine will is one of the calling cards of the Osteen faith. Amid all the spirited self-affirmations and folksy homilies that stud an Osteen sermon, it’s easy to miss the oddly deterministic invocations of divine prerogative summoned up by the preacher, who belongs to the “Word Faith” tradition of Pentecostal belief  …

The Word Faith image of the wonder-working, healing God is discomfiting to ponder, and not just because he might tempt desperately sick believers to go rogue beyond the dictates of medical science. The constant recitation of God’s transcendent goodness and the deference paid to his ironclad ability to lift believers magically out of suffering and woe both subtly downgrade the divine presence into a glorified lifestyle concierge. This God has no real way of accounting for the age-old paradoxes of theology, such as the tolerance of personal and historic evil, or the deeper ironies and unintended consequences of the believing life.

Osteen’s message is unbiblical, even though it sounds loving. The Revd Dr Brian Lee, pastor of Christ Reformed Church in Washington, DC, wrote in 2012:

The biggest problem with Osteen’s message about God is that it is really a message about me. God is a potential, a force, a co-pilot, waiting to be tapped and deployed. I may have a net below me, but I am the one that has to take the first steps on the wire:

Taking steps of faith is imperative to fulfilling your destiny. When I make a move, God will make a move. When I stretch my faith, God will release more of his favor. When I think bigger, God will act bigger.

Osteen’s saying that God only moves if we make a move is hyper-Arminianism. In Osteen’s worldview, ultimately, that must mean that the believer lacks sufficient faith if a) he is dying of cancer or b) cannot keep up with his mortgage payments because of unemployment. We can only hope that his congregation don’t accuse each other of warrantless ‘backsliding’ over circumstances they cannot help.

Dr Lee has more:

Osteen’s message is not biblical. His promise that his audience will be taught the Bible—from a preacher who has admitted that teaching the Bible isn’t his strength—is fulfilled with a smattering of verses. These snippets are at best torn out of their context, at worst fabricated.

There’s this stretch: “God is saying to you what He said to Lot, ‘Hurry up and get there, so I can show you my favor in a greater way.’” In Genesis 19:22, the Angel does tell Lot “Get there quickly, for I can do nothing until you arrive there.” God waiting on Lot to step out in faith so he can bless him? Not exactly. It is God telling Lot to flee to Zoar, a city of safety, so he can rain down fire on Sodom and Gomorrah.

Osteen bolsters his bootstrap religion by quoting Jesus: “Roll away the stone, and I’ll raise Lazarus.” This, Osteen says, is a “principle,” “God expects us to do what we can, and He will do what we can’t. If you will do the natural, God will do the supernatural.”

One problem. Jesus does command them to roll away the stone, but no such quid pro quo is found in holy writ. This foundational principle is one of Osteen’s own making.

Taken as Christianity, Osteen’s false teachings — heresy, let’s be honest — can damage souls.

I won’t condemn anyone hurting who has sampled some of his sermons in an attempt to feel better on a psychological level. However, as far as Christian teaching is concerned, they would do well to frequent websites and churches which preach the Word of God and the true Gospel message.

Prosperity gospel preachers will be called to account one day. Pray that they discover the true Gospel.

Pray especially for their followers that their souls will be saved through that same eternal Truth through Word and Sacrament in a proper church.

Tomorrow: A checklist by which you can evaluate your church