Joel Osteen is the Pastor of Lakewood Church, a non-denominational megachurch in Houston, TX, which seats 16,800 worshippers and averages 52,000 attendees per week. Before moving to Houston in 2018, I’ve had fond memories of plunking myself down in the family room couch at my parents’ house, flipping through the television channels looking for something that would hold my attention. Osteen’s church broadcast was always a worthy choice. I was captivated by his warm and welcoming messages. He preached on the acceptance and love of God. He preached the comfort and abundance that the Christian life afforded. He preached the forgiveness that was mine in Christ. I always left his program feeling encouraged and in touch with the God in me. I remember a particularly tough day, I had just learned of the death of a friend. I was 20 years old and distraught. Osteen’s TV message that night was tailor made for me and what I was going through. It gave me the courage to know that even in death Christ’s love prevails.
As the years rolled on and my faith and vigor for the things of God increased, my skepticism of Osteen and his message grew as well. How could it be so easy? This faith walk certainly isn’t all rainbows and butterflies. Is Christ really concerned about me living my best life? Why is his church so big anyway? Is all that grandiosity necessary? I had become so critical. Watching Osteen on Larry King Live in 2014, dodging hardball questions by what I saw as deflecting to the love and acceptance of Christ –my disdain for him grew. We must speak boldly the difficult truths of the gospel message, I would say to myself. We need a leader who won’t waffle under pressure. A leader who doesn’t only appeal to the easy messages of our faith. I turned away from his ministry and sat comfortably in small groups where the participants panned his message as prosperity gospel and unbiblical.
What was at the heart of my criticism? Was it a faulty works-based gospel I was operating under? Did I feel that if the message wasn’t hard and fear and guilt inducing then it must not be truth? Did I need to hear more about sin and its power to destroy in order to steer clear of it? Did I need a Pastor that would continually implore me to “examine myself” in order to trust that I was truly right with God? How dare Osteen tell me that Christ wants the best for me! How dare he say that Christ wants me to live in abundance! How dare he say that as a Christian, I am accepted and loved no matter what. He was making it too simple. There was nothing for me to strive towards or to boast about. Where was all the guilt and shame I had grown accustomed to? Wasn't that a necessary part of the Christian equation? I mean how could I be trusted to avoid sin without guilt and shame lingering around to force me? Moreover, I couldn’t prove how holy I was to my friends (or myself) via this message. As I matured in my faith, my motivations for exhibiting certain behaviors began to manifest and what I found stunned me. The scriptures say the following:
- Ephesians 2:9 For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast.
- Luke 18:17 - Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein.
- John 10:10 The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
- Proverbs 10:22 The blessing of the LORD brings wealth, without painful toil for it.
- Jeremiah 29:11 For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
- Matthew 11:29-30 Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
- Luke 18:9-14 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ ...
- 1 Peter 2:9 But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.
Ultimately, a Sunday message should appeal to a vast array of believers. It should draw non-believers in with messages of love and acceptance. Believers who are at different points and levels of maturity in their walk will benefit from Osteen’s simple Sunday messages that reinforce the worth we have in Christ. For those believers who are looking for more “meat” and deeper study of the scriptures, Osteen’s church offers mid-week Bible studies and small groups that do just that. At the end of the day, we are one body (the church), worshipping under one God (Jesus), believing one message (the gospel). Divisions weaken our impact and our witness. It is impossible to agree on every single message, stance, sermon. Instead of being critical, why not celebrate in our shared faith and pray for each other where needed? Lakewood Church currently has thousands upon thousands of people attending services where Christ is preached each week! Therefore, in the wise words of Philippians1:16-18 I say: But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.
With love and reflection,