Joel Osteen doesn't like to ruffle feathers; he is known for his open-arms, positive-thinking, God-wants-to-bless-you approach to Christianity, which has earned him a loyal following of millions worldwide and the largest and fastest growing church in U.S. history.
But ironically by striving to not exclude anyone and embracing all, Osteen has in fact alienated a segment of evangelical Christians who accuse him of watering down the Gospel or preaching a "cotton candy Gospel."
The Christian Post met up with Osteen at the Nationals Park baseball stadium in Washington, D.C. on Friday – one day before his scheduled America's Night of Hope event (it was rescheduled for Sunday due to concerns about the weather) – to talk to him about the widespread perception that he is the representative of the prosperity gospel, the difficulties he faces as a pastor, and how he plans to hand down leadership of Lakewood Church.
The following is an edited transcript of the interview.
CP: The Night of Hope events have been massively successful in terms of numbers – drawing tens of thousands of people. Where would you like to see Night of Hope or the Generation Hope Project that's connected to it in 5 years?
Osteen: I would like to see it continue to grow and be successful, and with the Generation Hope, that has a lot of room for growth. We just kicked that off, so I would love to have instead of 500 volunteers, maybe next time we will have 5,000 and really touching the community.
As far as the Night of Hope, I'd love to give people the opportunity to take a stand for their faith and that is why we come to these big stadiums.
CP: You've shared in your book that your father spent a lot of time in India doing ministry. Does Lakewood still carry on your father's passion for overseas ministry work? How?
Osteen: We still do. My father's main calling overseas was to train pastors, and so we still do that in a different way. I don't travel over there as much as my dad did, but we still send materials, and also we do a lot of medical missions. My brother is a surgeon and a lot of other staffs in the church are medical doctors and they'll go over to different countries to operate, provide supplies and things like that. So we are still big believers in that we are blessed to be a blessing to reach out to others.
CP: Have you seen this book? It's a new book by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat called Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics. And you are actually part of this book…
Osteen: [Laughs] That's not a good thing is it? I haven't heard about it.
CP: Well it's a new book, released just last week, and there is a chapter called "Pray and Grow Rich" – Chapter 6 – and he headlines it with you. He says that you preach an upbeat gospel where "God gives without demanding, forgives without threatening to judge, and hands out His rewards in this life rather than the next. … Osteen embodies the refashioning of Christianity to suit an age of abundance, in which the old war between monotheism and money seems to have ended, for many believers, in a marriage of God and mammon." In short, Douthat is saying you embody the prosperity gospel and promoting Christian heresy. Do you consider yourself a preacher of the prosperity gospel? Is it heresy?
Osteen: You know, I don't consider myself a … I don't really know what the prosperity gospel is. The way I define it is that I believe God wants you to prosper in your health, in your family, in your relationships, in your business, and in your career. So I do … if that is the prosperity gospel, then I do believe that.
I don't believe we are supposed to go through life defeated and not having enough money to pay our bills or send our kids to college. So you know, when I hear some of that, I think that is not who I am, he doesn't know me or what I teach. Because he is saying God doesn't believe that… there is no demand, I don't think I'd put it like that but I always talk about God rewards obedience. When you follow His way, the Bible says that His blessings will chase you down and overtake you.
My life is an example of that. I've seen God's goodness. I don't consider the prosperity gospel… I don't think he has characterized me right. Sometimes people take a clip here, clip there. But I have taught many times about trials, suffering, being your best when your prayers aren't being answered.
CP: There are a number of polls that say 75 percent of Americans are Christians, do you believe that is true? Is it higher or lower than that, in your opinion?
Osteen: Well, I think the problem is or the difficulty is what defines a Christian. You know, if some people told me that I'm an American, I'm a Christian – I don't necessarily believe that. I believe that a Christian is someone who knows the Lord and is a follower of Christ, so I think that is the difference.
People define Christianity differently. I think a large portion of our population are Christians, they're not all growing in their faith, they're not all active, but I believe that a lot of people believe in Jesus and believe that he is their Lord and Savior.
CP: What do you think was the main problem that caused the Crystal Cathedral to go down?
Osteen: You know, I don't know enough of the details about it. I do know that the Schullers are good people. I've met Dr. Schuller and their family, and they just love the Lord and they've done so much good for Christianity. And it just breaks our heart to see it go down. I guess that there was just some division that got in there, but I'm saddened that it did happen because I love the Schullers.
CP: What fellow preacher do you like to hear sermons of? Are there any in particular?
Osteen: You know, there are a lot and I hate to name one because I'd leave somebody out. But you know, I am always listening to different ministers, just from all walks of life – some of the older ones are not even alive anymore – like my father. But there are many, many other contemporary ones, and again, I am afraid I will leave someone out, but I am constantly listening to others.
CP: You've openly shared that you don't have seminary training, I'm not sure if that has changed. But can you talk about where you think theological training can help a pastor preach the Gospel, and where it can hurt?
Osteen: Sure, I think it's helpful to understand the Bible more. You know, if I was going to become a minister today, starting as a young person, I certainly would want to go to seminary. It just didn't work that way for me. I think overall it is very helpful to learn the Bible more.
Of course I think there are times where you could learn things would keep you from pushing forward who you really are. But I think as a whole, people who go to seminary and study more, I'm all for it. I think it's very helpful.
CP: We've seen over the years you doing a wonderful job of sharing the Gospel that resonates with people. What about the hard saying – "I am the truth the way and the life, no one comes to the father but through me" and "in this world you will have trouble" – how do you teach the truth of those messages?
Osteen: Well, at the end of every service I give people an altar call, or a chance to make a profession of their faith. I was reading in the Bible a couple of days ago and one translation says that Jesus said that if you publicly will acknowledge me before people, I will acknowledge you before my Father in heaven. So that is a big part of these meetings (Night of Hope), giving people an opportunity to publicly say, "Jesus, I believe you are the messiah, you're Christ, you're my Lord." And so, that is the way I would carry out that scripture. And letting people know that I believe Jesus is the only way. If you don't believe that, that's fine, but this is what I believe and this is what I would encourage in my faith.
That scripture that you quoted in this world you will have many troubles, trials, and suffering, but it goes on to say but be of good cheer because I have overcome the world. So part of my message is that God never said that we weren't going to have difficulties, but you know what, He said to stay full of joy and I'm going to help you overcome. So I think that is what resonates with people and helps draw so many people. Because it is not a message that you are barely going to make it, you're a victim. We are not victims, we are victors.
CP: What is the most difficult part of being a pastor of your prominence and popularity? People always see you smiling, but do you ever feel like you want to throw in the towel?
Osteen: You know, there is always times where you feel discouraged and things coming against you, but I don't know if I ever wanted to throw in the towel. I think one of the most difficult things is every Sunday I am up there ministering, and so you have to have a fresh word, you have to be practical, you need to keep people's attention and so that comes around every seven days. So I think that you have to stay fresh, that is probably the most difficult thing, just staying in balance so you can stay fresh and be your best when you are up there ministering.
CP: Have you prepared how you will hand down leadership of your church?
Osteen: You know, I don't think I have prepared it, but I have thought about it and prepared in my mind, and in my own ministry what steps I would take. But I'm still 49, still young, but I would do it differently than my father. He didn't raise up anybody underneath him. At 77 he was still ministering. Not saying that I wouldn't be ministering somewhere, but in my own way I'd like someone joining in there with me in 10 to 15 years, and hopefully my son.
CP: Is there anything else you want to add about the Night of Hope or anything else?
Osteen: No, I think it's good. I'm excited to be here in D.C. We came because it is an election year and there is a lot of division in politics, it's almost always 50-50, divided. And so we just thought it would be a great year to come to try to bring unity. The Scripture says that God blesses where men walk in unity, so we just thought it's good for us to come together as Democrats, Republicans; believers, nonbelievers, all different walks of life and say hey, we are here to celebrate the goodness of God tonight.
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