Joel Osteen: The “Smiling Preacher”?

Salvation With A Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, & American Christianity
By Phillip Luke Sinitiere
New York University Press, 2015, 305 pages

I’m interested in Joel Osteen only because he epitomizes the compromise and betrayal of the Gospel within much of American “evangelicalism.” Osteen “pastors” Lakewood mega-church in Houston, Texas, which has a weekly attendance of 52,000. He impacts millions more via radio, weekly telecasts on TBN, podcasts, and his bestselling books.

I spotted this Osteen biography in our library system’s web catalog and thought it might present an objective view of Osteen. Boy, was I wrong!

Historian, Phillip Sinitiere, begins the Joel Osteen story by tracing back to his father’s beginnings. John Osteen started out as a Southern Baptist preacher, but in 1958 he embraced the beliefs and practices of Pentecostalism and become one of the leading figures in the “neo-Pentecostal” movement. His services included the gamut of Pentecostal practices including alleged glossolalia (speaking in tongues), faith healings, prophetic utterances, and congregants being “slain in the spirit.” His son, Joel, had attended Oral Roberts University for one year, but dropped out to produce his father’s televised sermons beginning in 1982. John Osteen died in 1999 and Joel assumed the pastorship of Lakewood with no theological training except for the countless hours he had spent editing and re-editing his father’s sermons for television.

For his messages, Joel leaned heavily on the teachings of his father, and also those of John Maxwell (a disciple of positive gospeler, Robert Schuller) and Joyce Meyer. What Joel teaches week after week is mainly a message of “second chances” through positive, self-affirmation, with smatterings of (c)hristian phraseology thrown in here and there. Fill your head with positive thoughts and positive things will happen. Speak positive words to yourself and to others and goals will be accomplished. Osteen’s theology is another variant of the word of faith, name-it-and-claim it, prosperity gospel that permeates much of Pentecostalism.

Osteen learned quite a bit about producing a religious show while working for his father for seventeen years. Noticeably absent in Joel’s sermons and telecasts are any references to Pentecostal distinctives like healings and glossolalia that might offend a portion of potential viewers. Joel forces a smile throughout the entirety of each and every “sermon” because research has shown viewers are turned off by serious-faced preachers. The message is repeatedly – week after week – to dream big and attain your goals through positive thinking and positive talk. Osteen is also pioneer in leveraging new e-technologies and social platforms to gain followers.

Sinitiere writes this biography, not as an objective observer, but as a mildly enthusiastic fan. There is a chapter devoted to Osteen’s critics from within conservative evangelicalism (identified as “New Calvinists”), including John MacArthur, but the author dismisses (and disparages) these men as worshipers of rigid theology in contrast to Osteen’s pragmatic life advice for the everyman, which millions obviously find appealing. But rather than hearing about their hopeless, sinful state and the Good News! of salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone, Osteen’s followers are mainly hearing about how to “live your best life now.”

I found this book somewhat interesting because of the factual information about John and Joel Osteen, but the author’s surprising bias was a huge drawback.

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