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Behind The Smiles: Where Joel Osteen Is Right .. And Wrong

By Lance King and Rafael Martinez, Spiritwatch Ministries  

It’s a Sunday morning TV broadcast airing in a living room in Auckland, or a Tuesday evening in the front row seating of a sold out stadium in Chicago or it could even be a Friday afternoon on a satellite channel in Bahrain. The settings may cross every social barrier in a world of vast cultural difference, but the great common denominator among them is the rapt attention this global audience gives to the earnest oration of a young, tousle-haired minister speaking to a throng of thousands in a vast new church stadium. Whether hearing him in person, through his best selling books or by the thousands of CD’s and DVD’s sold by his ministry, tens of millions of people from every walk of life hang upon his every word with open Bibles and notebooks in their laps.

Millions of others have seen him appearing in venues from Larry King Live to a CNBC business report, and he has become one of the most influential people in America today. This young man is Joel Osteen, the young pastor of a massive Houston-based church founded by his father, the late and equally well known Charismatic minister John Osteen. An Oral Roberts University dropout with no theological training, Joel’s ordination to ministry came through his father’s church in 1983 and he seemed destined for a lifetime of labor in his church’s media ministries.

Started in a former feed barn in 1959, the Lakewood Church now occupies the former Compaq Center where over 35,000 people attend weekly Sunday morning worship services. In December 2003, the mayor of Houston presented a ceremonial key to the stadium, after entering into a long term rental agreement. According to reports, a 30-year rental agreement for $11.8 million has already been paid by Lakewood, and that the lease can be renewed for another 30 years for $22.6 million after that. It would have cost $300 to $400 million to build a comparable facility (1).

The story of the explosive growth of Lakewood from a sleepy storefront into a massive megachurch began with John Osteen’s ministerial vision, which materialized an established independent Charismatic congregation devoted to “reaching the unreached and telling the untold” with “the message of God’s love” as he memorably described it. Joel Osteen’s history segues into public view after he reluctantly accepted the leadership of his father’s ministry upon his sudden death in 1999. Having already been in charge of the church’s media ministries, he redoubled his efforts to secure broadcast spots for their weekly telecasts, securing in 2002 contracts to air them on 25 of the top television markets in the United States, where network affiliates reach ninety-two percent of American homes: the church now broadcasts to over 100 countries worldwide (2). He assumed the pulpit of the Lakewood Church and began to “use his own life to relate to others the success one can achieve through obedience to God” (3), with preaching that emulated his father’s sermons. His wife Victoria now works alongside him in her own ministerial niche.  Within a few years, attendance at the older Lakewood property soared, requiring the need to eventually rent out the Compaq Center for the hordes of new parishioners and visitors overflowing from it.

Joel Osteen’s preaching, filled with humorous anecdotes and personal experiences focusing on personal excellence with a Christian twist has struck a deep chord with thousands in Houston and millions around the world. People from literally every walk of life and across every social strata hearken to his words. Described as “living a life filled with unique ability to speak to both the rich and poor, the young and old, the professional and non-professional” (4), Osteen has become within a few years one of the most influential figures of our day. The message he delivers is simply one of steadfast encouragement with a warm personal manner preceded by an ever present smile, which has led some to popularly call him the “Smiling Preacher.” And Joel’s dapper appearance, heartfelt sincerity and transparent life add a congenial authenticity to him that millions around the world find enormously compelling and refreshing in a world of cynicism and negativity. Joel’s humble manner and personal touch lend further credence to his ministry and this becomes tangibly apparent through his television and personal appearances.

His infectious enthusiasm about the goodness of a loving God for mankind who desires to bestow blessing upon those willing to be a blessing to others is an uplifting concept those same millions of people so readily respond to. No one is startled by the thunder of hellfire preaching, confused by abstract expositions of theology or confronted by a fervent grappling with hot button social issues such as abortion, homosexuality or current politics. Instead, what Joel offers is a message of empowerment for people feeling powerless to change their lives or situations, a call to those crushed down by their circumstances that they are accepted, loved, believed in by both God and the people of Lakewood’s vast community. As one regular visitor at the church has put it, "he pushes us to a level God wants us to be at. He kicks us in the rear to take steps that will take us to a higher (personal) level." (5)  

To watch an offsite NBC "Today Show" clip with a concise bio and introduction to Osteen, click here (and browse back).

With such a reputation preceding him, it is no wonder that when Osteen published his first book Your Best Life Now, it almost immediately became a massive inspirational best seller and has sold to date over five million copies. Entitled “Your Best Life Now,” is a book length exposition of seven lifestyle principles filled with multiple references to transformation, new beginnings, peace with the past and the favor of God. The book alone has spawned a massive media industry in itself that has introduced countless people to the sunny Christianized worldview of Joel’s “brighter future.”  Such a massive literary success guaranteed a sequel, which Osteen delivered upon with his release of Building A Better You in the fall of 2007, which immediately vaulted to a firm position on the New York Times bestseller list.

By spanning the globe with a religious influence that is scarcely imaginable, Osteen has been universally cast as one of the movers and shakers of Western society, anointed as one of the great spiritual leaders of our time. With that kind of authority should come respectful, but unrelenting accountability – and we have found that thousands of people who have heard and examined Osteen’s teachings have come up with many a question that deserve to be heard. We will limit ourselves to asking a few of these, questions about the truth claims that Osteen makes in these books. It is his teaching and preaching that this series of articles will endeavor to examine from a Biblically informed Christian perspective. We are, in short, seeking to get at what is behind the spirituality that lights the smile of Joel Osteen and radiates from his books and media.

 A Summarization Of Joel’s Worldview

The following is a concise summary of the essence of Joel Osteen’s teachings given in his bestselling book Your Best Life Now (hereafter referred to as YBLN), which debuted at number one on the NY Times Bestseller list in October, 2004 and remained on it for over two years. An essentially unbroken line of thought runs from this book to his newer one, Building A Better You (hereafter referred to as BABY). What does Osteen’s writing teach that has resonated with millions of people from both religious and non religious walks of life?  The flyleaf of YBLN claims that “your journey to a brighter future begins with these seven steps” and these book excerpts capture what he refers to as seven guiding principles for living that, according to an reviewer “will have value to anyone wanting to know more about practical steps of self-betterment, regardless of their denomination” (6). They are virtually echoed in BABY, so we will not seek to summarize directly from this latest Osteen work.

The heart of YBLN comes in Joel’s expositions of his seven steps “to living at your full potential,” principles for lifestyle choices that Osteen and his congregation believe are a pathway to blessing and prosperity at hand of a heavenly Father wanting to bestow his favor upon anyone willing to trust Him. They are summarized as follows directly from the book itself, so there can be no mistaking the positions that Joel has taken on how to live “your best life now” as one goes about “building a better you.”

The YBLN principles are entitled and discussed in order as follows:

(a) Enlarge your vision

“..the first step to living at your full potential is to enlarge your vision. .. One of the key elements to enlarging your vision is raising your level of expectancy. You have to change your thinking before you can ever change your living. .. Go beyond the barriers of the past. Tear down the strongholds in your mind. ..  If we’re going to experience more of God’s favor, we must live more ‘favor minded.’ To be favor-minded simply means that we expect God’s special help, and we are releasing our faith, knowing God wants to assist us.” (7)

(b) Develop a healthy self-image

“The second step to living your best life now is developing a healthy self-image. That means you must base your self-image on what God’s Word says about you .. you will never rise above the image you have of yourself in your own mind. .. (Our heavenly Father is) .. not dwelling on our faults. .. God focuses on the things you’re doing right; He sees the best in you. .. Don’t go around beating yourself, living in condemnation. .. Don’t restrict your vision; instead, begin seeing yourself as God’s child. See yourself as receiving good things from your heavenly Father. .. You will become what you believe!”. (8) 

(c) Discover the power of your thoughts and words

“The third step .. is to discover the power of the your thoughts and words. .. You are setting the direction of your life with thoughts. .. Choose to think the right thoughts. .. The Bible says, ‘I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses, positive and negative; therefore, God says choose life.’ Your subconscious mind picks up your words, treats them as true, valid statements, and then sets about trying to fulfill them. When that happens, you have nobody else to blame but yourself; you’ve been undermined by your own thoughts and words.” (9)

(d) Let go of the past

  “The fourth step toward living your best life now is to let go of the past. It’s time to allow emotional wounds to heal, to let go of your excuses and stop feeling sorry for yourself. It’s time to get rid of your victim mentality. .. Learn to let go of the hurts and the pains of the past. Don’t let bitterness take root in your life. Maybe something happened to you when you were younger, somebody mistreated you .. the Scripture says if you don’t avenge yourself, God will pay you back. And friend, He’ll not only pay you back, He’ll pay you back in abundance. .. Refuse to dwell on yesterday’s disappointments..” (10)

(e) Find strength through adversity

“Our attitude should be: I may have been knocked down a few times in life, but I am not going to stay down; I am determined I’m going to live in victory. .. Why not be happy while God is in the process of changing things? After all, there’s nothing we can do to make it happen any faster .. when you’re in God’s timing, you can be in the midst of the biggest challenge of your life, and you’ll still be filled with joy. .. The adversity you are facing could very well be something that God is using to push you and challenge you to be your best. .. God is giving you an opportunity for promotion.” (11)

(f) Live to give

“You must learn to be a giver and not a taker. Quit trying to figure out what everybody can do for you, and start trying to figure out what you can do for somebody else. .. Because of your unselfishness .. because you’re aiming for kindness, one day God will say to you as He did to Abraham, ‘As far as you can see, I’m going to give it you.’ .. If you will focus on meeting other’s people’s needs, God will always make sure your needs are supplied.  .. In your time of need, don’t sit around thinking about what you lack. Think about what kind of seed you can sow to get yourself out of that need.”(12)

(g) Choose to be happy.

“The seventh step .. is to choose to be happy today! .. God wants you to be happy right where you are, right now. .. You can choose to stay happy and content no matter what comes against you in life. .. Let’s be done with lazy, mediocre, sloppy living and let’s move up to higher levels. .. happiness will be a natural by-product, because God will reward you far beyond your grandest dreams. .. The word ‘enthusiasm’ derives from two Greek words, en theos, meaning ‘inspired by God.’ Our lives need to be inspired, infused, filled afresh with God’s goodness every day. .. ‘I’m the smiling preacher. I take that as a compliment. Yes, I’m guilty of being happy!.” (13)

Where Joel Is Right: 7 Points Of Agreement

Whatever issues of disagreement we can find in Osteen’s teaching, we must be honest in admitting that there are several approaches and concepts that he raises that we would readily agree with him about in as equally hearty an “amen” as an Osteen disciple also might. We have found that Joel appears to be a sincere and earnest young minister who genuinely cares about people and desires to impart unto them a lifestyle he passionately believes will bring them blessing and prosperity from God. He will take time to pray with members of his flock during worship services when possible, share with those who seek him out at seminars and events and frankly, such pleasantry magnifies the credence of several points of agreement we have with him:

(a) God Is Love – The greatest truth that Joel correctly emphasizes throughout his books is his dwelling upon the most essential nature of God, that being his infinite love for humanity. Osteen’s observations that the basis for God's expressed will for us all is based upon His love are indeed refreshing reiterations of a truth often obscured by the religiosity of Christendom and the coldness of a fallen world. The understanding of God as a Father who wants to express His vast love for men and women as His children has, for many, been a revelation in itself of divine truth never seen before that undoubtedly and understandably elevated thousands who read it. In a time in which people get their first impressions of fatherly favor from authority figures who are dysfunctional enough to have been anything but loving, this is a welcome expression of truth.

(b) Encouragement – In general, Osteen’s underlying thrust in both of his books is one of straightforward encouragement meant to uphold hope to those for whom so much hopelessness has been their lot in life. Joel offers inspiring anecdotes meant to uplift those who have been beaten down by personal setbacks, disasters, moral failures and outright sins. Through his homespun writing, he engages his readership to seek a high ground of positive perspective in the midst of negativity, and this is undoubtedly one of his greatest draws. Certainly, it is far better to submit to light the proverbial candle and leave off cursing the darkness around you. And encouragement can often be life changing, a blessing we all need now and then. Osteen’s exhortational tone is certainly a needed one in a cynical, dark day.

(c) Personal Vision – Another laudable emphasis Joel makes reference to is the concept that one’s life gains a true sense of significance and meaning when it is set upon a specific mission and purpose. Osteen observes that such a commitment to an intentional lifestyle is vital to not only personal development but in instilling a personal devotion to the service of others. There are millions of people who live lives with no point of reference to such a concept and who live a life that seems empty and meaningless outside the mundane busywork of existence in a materialistic, carnal society. To be challenged to live for something other than one’s self-absorbed interest is the first step out of the cultural isolation toward responsible life that interacts with the needs of others. Once again, Osteen’s writing is a helpful focus.

(d) Compassion – Certainly Joel's advocating of "random" acts of kindness to others to reflect the kind of positive regard God has for us is nothing anyone can fault. He properly asserts that the compassionate deeds that we do for others is a direct manifestation of what the grace of God itself is like.  On this point, we can heartily agree. Doing good to others for no other reason that you can is a wonderful capacity that is scarcely seen among humanity. And Osteen’s inference is that to engage in such activity is to provide for a hurting world a tangible example of the grace of God, who actively intervenes in our lives with divinely sent blessings that we don’t deserve and can never earn. One can never be too compassionate in a hard-bitten world where do-gooding is absent and even viewed as a sign of weakness, when ultimately it actually reveals a depth of inner strength of character.

(e) Lifestyle of Giving – On the heels of Osteen’s encouragement for his readers to show compassion for others is his reminder that great personal blessing comes from being giving to others and not just standing passively before God to only receive from Him. This perspective is not as thoroughly spelled out in his writing but Joel does pause to make the distinction between doing good randomly and cultivating a lifestyle in which one makes doing good randomly a regular occurrence. He enjoins his readers to redirect their lives in such a way where they will routinely make reaching out to meet the needs of others a part of their personal life ethic.

(f)  Positive Attitude – In a postmodern world filled with worry, sorrow, concern and negativity, Joel constantly compels readers to both hope and look for the best in life's troubles. If Osteen is known for anything, it is his smiling delivery of persuasive anecdotes of affirmation urging those who have experienced setbacks, disappointments and tragedies to not be overwhelmed by them but to look for the good in it all. He encourages all to develop a personal perspective informed by a better outlook on the outrages of life one may encounter and draw comfort from what insight it offers. It is easy to be consumed with negativism by bad news, and yet in a simple yet effective manner Joel challenges his listeners to consider the bigger picture at hand from the context of a greater good that can somehow come in spite of and even through it all. Osteen’s admonitions at this point cannot be faulted.

(g)  Biblical Principles – The final point of agreement we would have with Joel Osteen's teaching as found in both YBLN and BABY is a recognition of his appeal to the Bible as the source for the principles for a fulfilling Christian faith and lifestyle. His assertion of Biblical truth as underlying his philosophy has certainly encouraged millions of his readers who might never have cracked a Bible any other way. His writing is filled with allusions to Biblical verses he cites as proof texts for his views on how to live "your best life now." Any one familiar with his Lakewood "Bible pledge" that he leads his congregation in before he speaks is aware of Osteen's hailing of Scripture as "the incorruptible, indestructible, ever-living Seed of the Word of God." With thousands of people holding their Bibles up before TV cameras and unfalteringly, enthusiastically reciting his pledge with Osteen, his appeal to Biblical authority is unashamed and explicit. At the very least, this public example of upholding the Bible as the source for spiritual truth in a pluralistic age that equates all such truth claims as spiritual nuggets of equal value is a gesture of great symbolic value.

However, we reserve the right to qualify these agreements: despite these commendations that we find in his books, and with appreciation for Joel’s likeability, there remain not a few serious questions that cannot be easily dismissed. As we considered these principles Osteen insists are supposedly Biblical steps to “Christian self-improvement”, we couldn’t ignore the issues that these questions engage because of their implications. They affect how people are to live their lives, how they are to relate to God and others, as family, friends, acquaintances and strangers. If one is going to live their best life now in this world then the answers to these critical questions are quite serious. Since Joel’s essential teaching and practice are laid out in his bestselling books and have helped consolidate his powerful influence in Western civilization today, we will endeavor to tackle these questions in our articles that will examine what lies behind the claims of his books.

Behind The Teaching – Concerns About Where Joel Is Wrong

There are several underlying concerns about Osteen’s teaching and practice that we believe should be squarely considered. The remainder of these articles will address them. For those who believe any discussion of these should be off limits and who would accuse us of an axe-grinding agenda, we would have to just as passionately disagree. In our discussion here, we have not created a legalistic laundry list of disapprovals out of a spirit of censure or jealousy. The stakes are far higher than such a petty preoccupation: we humbly yet firmly maintain that Joel Osteen’s teaching, for all of its elevated perspective on living, is seriously flawed and will lead those seeking to live better lives into a lifestyle of true spiritual need and sterility and ultimately cost them dearly due to the grievous misconceptions and errors it is based upon.

One major concern is that Osteen’s usage of Scripture is seriously flawed, misapplied and misinterpreted in favor of a pragmatic proverb-driven approach to the Bible that makes it a source of proof texts for his philosophy. In one glaring example, there is much about Christian living that Osteen teaches in his book that can Scripturally apply to Christian believers only and not to nonbelievers. This flawed hermeneutic (or way we approach and understand Scripture) runs throughout his books. Joel believes that the principles he shares are applicable universally to all people whether they have faith in God or not. This leads to another concern in that Osteen’s teaching therefore blurs the distinctions between the secular and the sacred when addressing the conditional promises made of God which is an important departure from Biblical fidelity. In ancient Israel, we read in Ezekiel 22:26 that the “holy things” of God (the order of worship and lifestyle set forth by the law of Moses as Yahweh’s mandated way to live blamelessly before him) were defiled by their association and usage by unholy and common people and situations, a sin which stirred Him to great anger that culminated in His judgment upon them. It is no secret that the Osteen franchise has been marketed to an audience of both the unchurched and the believing and that the common denominator of its teaching is a focus on a appropriating blessings from a God who makes no such distinction between the holy and unholy – not upon the appropriately reverent approach to a God who is not only love but is also Jealous, jealous for Him to be feared and also adored. We will discuss this at length in our next article.

Yet another concern is that Osteen teaches a pseudo Christian worldview based upon unrealities at sharp odds with the greater needs of the real world. In Joel Osteen’s prosperity-driven consciousness, life is a journey that should be punctuated with blessing (or “promotion”) and our God given mandate to live victoriously over all adversity through the power of “confession for possession.” His book presents an airbrushed Christian worldview absent of calls to surrender to Christ as Lord, empty of any spiritual discipline that ethically and morally transforms and actually constituted of pop psychology, bad theology, and a very faulty epistemology (or way in which we understand things). This brings into sharp focus still another concern we have over Osteen’s simplistic black and white thinking: it is marketed as a relevant response to our dark, complex and morally/ethically grey-hued world.  Unfortunately, life is simply not that simple – be it for Christians or non Christians. The “holy” often live out unholy lives indistinguishable from the masses of the “fallen” they’re called to reach. The outrage of bad things happening to good people still stalks humanity as a whole. All of these sharp edges of life are deftly steered around, downplayed or ignored by the book altogether. These will be addressed in our last two articles.

These concerns will be discussed in greater detail in the remaining three articles of our review. The first major concern mentioned above will be considered next - while Joel will confidently qualify his teaching with the evangelical imprimatur of "the Bible says," is his teaching truly Biblically founded? In his bestseller, does the Bible teach what Joel Osteen says it actually teaches? 


(1)  "Tale of a 'Mega Church' '' by Matt Scheffer, 4/15/04

(2)  ibid.

(3)  It is always fascinating to see how preachers unashamedly copy elements of the same kind of marketing that more successful ministries use. Compare this archived Lakewood Church website description of Joel Osteen’s use of his life experiences (found at  with a claim published by another Word of Faith preacher at in a clear plagiarization of ad copy. 

(4)  ibid.



(7)  Your Best Life Now  (hereafter referenced as YBLN) p. 4, 12, 13, 28, 38

(8)  ibid, pp. 55 – 56, 65, 66, 81, 89, 98

(9)  ibid, pp. 101, 102, 109, 115, 124 132

(10)  ibid, pp. 143-144, 153, 164, 173, 183

(11)  ibid, pp. 187, 196, 204, 211

(12)  ibid, pp. 221, 232, 237, 242, 252

(13)  ibid, pp. 269, 278, 295, 302

Thanks to Spiritwatch Ministries for the great informational Article.

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