God or grift? Positivity or prosperity? I finally get what Joel Osteen is selling.
Before the Joel and Victoria Osteen “Night of Hope” at Yankee Stadium, I roamed the park’s lower-deck concourse with my friend Hal and asked people why they were there. What had drawn them to leave their homes and get on a train and sit in a stadium to see Pastor Joel Osteen? I met Diane,who stood with a small, buzzing crowd gazing into a glass-walled dining room where, we were surprised to find, Joel himself was filming conversations with local New York pastors. “Everything that’s due to me will come back to me,” Diane told me. “I need his message.”
Another woman in the crowd outside the dining room, Michelle from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, said: “Joel Osteen breaks it down. He makes it simple. There are no go-betweens with him. There is no yelling and screaming. Here I am is what I am.”
“He tells you to believe even when you don’t see anything happen,” Michelle continued. “Be good even if everything is bad. This is the day the Lord has made!”
'Joel Osteen breaks it down. He makes it simple.'
Michelle’s friend Sophia said Joel Osteen helped her realize: “Everything’s going to be okay. I don’t worry.” She started tearing up. “I’m gonna cry,” she said, just thinking about what Joel’s message means to her. “I’m getting emotional.”
My friend Hal, who regularly quotes Jung and Kierkegaard (but somehow can get away with it), put their description of Osteen’s message in his own words: “The future isn’t something that happens to you,” he said. “It is something that we either bring into existence in a positive way, or through fear that manifests as destruction.”
After a while, Joel turned and saw us standing on the other side of the glass wall. He waved fervently and smiled even bigger than usual, and the little clutch of people went (calmly) nuts.
Sophia started to cry, thinking about what his message means to her.
It would be Joel’s first large stadium event since the pandemic began. He was wearing a smart cobalt-blue suit that practically seemed chosen to accent the pale blue sky he would preach beneath. Then again, considering the phenomenon that he is, maybe the sky selected its shade of blue to accent Joel Osteen’s suit.
A television fixture
Maybe you have seen Joel Osteen delivering his sermons on TV. You are flipping through the channels late at night, and there he is. Joel Osteen, it seems, is always there. He stands on a gleaming stage, a huge bronze metal globe slowly revolving behind him. Pastor Osteen is deftly weaving Scripture passages into stories of uplift and hope for rapt audiences at the 16,800 seat Lakewood Church in Houston, Tex., formerly the Compaq Center. (Nearly 17,000 seats. The Houston Rockets used to play there.)
You stay watching Joel a minute, two, sometimes even three. Four! Four minutes! Every word feels minted, every intonation just right, as if choreographed for its desired witnessing effect.You are drawn to him, as they say, in spite of yourself. Joel Osteen knows how to keep a Friday night channel surfer on for a good three minutes longer than they intended.
You are drawn to to this preacher in spite of yourself.
“He is not doom and gloom,” said Nasheen Nazir from Rockport, Long Island. She was heading to her seats on the first base side of the lower deck with her mother and her husband, Yusef, who was pushing their daughter in a stroller. “He has a positive picture. Not where did you mess up, discouraging you from knowing the true nature of God. He speaks in layman’s terms.”
Yusef, who manages a Dunkin’ shop in Rockport, told me: “I was not a fan of him at first. But I started listening. Every morning I wake up and listen to his podcast…. As I start my day, I feel better. It helps change my morning.”
Said Denise from the Bronx: “He is positive. He says to believe in possibilities. Treat everyone positively.”
'He is not doom and gloom, he has a positive picture, not where did you mess up?'
The event began with praise and worship music, then Joel himself and his wife, Victoria, she in all white, strolled onstage and waved at everyone and the crowd roared and it was on. “Nothing we’re facing is a surprise to God,” said Joel, standing atop the bare stage deep in the infield on the windless August evening: sticky air, blue sky and blue coat, banks of speakers curling out from either side of the stage.
A message that speaks to the poor
“We’re gonna start hoping again, believing again, dreaming again!” he declared. “Let go of what happened yesterday. Today is a new day. God will crown the year with a bountiful year. Not just a ‘get by’ year, but a bountiful year.”
The crowd, probably about 80 percent people of color, was with him every step of the way. “God is not a ‘get by’ God,” said Joel, “but a bountiful God. I’m not saying life won’t be hard, but God is there in hard times. You wouldn’t be alive if God didn’t have something amazing in store for you.”
Joel speaks a language understood by people without money to burn. He speaks to people who work jobs they don’t like, people who just try to make ends meet, to just get by.
Marlene from New Jersey told me other preachers criticize Joel Osteen because he is too positive. She says this practically in a tone of disbelief, as if to say: Are you kidding me? You’re criticizing an American Christian preacher, today...because he’s too uplifting?
Lakewood Church was founded by Joel Osteen’s father, John Osteen, in 1959. For years Joel handled the television production side of the operations. He took over as pastor in 1999 after his father died. He transformed Lakewood into one of the largest congregations in the United States. The church holds seven weekly services that attract a total of around 45,000 people. He reaches millions in the U.S. and around the world on weekly television broadcasts.
He reaches 45,000 people in his church each week and millions in broadcasts around the globe.
Joel has published several books, includingNext Level Thinking, The Power of Favor, Empty out the Negative, Blessed in the Darkness (since renamed All Things Are Working for Your Good) and others.
His breakthrough book was Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, a 2004 best-seller. He gives “Nights of Hope” all around the country and even around the world. Joel is perhaps this millennium’s version of Billy Graham.
At Yankee Stadium, seated near the condiment station on the lower deck concourse, a woman named Erin told me: “I didn’t like the fact that he seemed kind of commercialized.” Indeed, in the days after the service, I received seven or eight emails advertising his podcasts, talks, books. “But at the end of the day,” Erin continued, “it’s a good message. Helps you see what is God’s voice and what is Satan’s voice. He says it takes as much energy to worry as it does to believe.”
Joel gives the kind of advice that any good therapist would give to a patient mired in self-defeat, and he wedded it to Christian faith: “You never rise any higher than the way God sees you,” he told us. “Watch out for your internal dialogue: I’m not, I’m not.... Pay attention to the recurring thoughts—why do I think I’m not talented? Those thoughts did not come from God.”
The Bible in plain English
Pastor Osteen has small, dark eyes. His face is somewhat pale, shiny and smiling. (He smiles all the time. Joel Osteen never does not smile.) His hair is dark and curly and smartly cut. It is mane-ish, drifts even into the sweet, tender regions of a mullet, though it does not land there. He smiles and speaks with the elongated vowels of a moderate Texas twang.“God hasn’t brought you this far to leave you behind,” he says with those breathy vowels and his signature preaching gesture—a slight dip of the head and smooth raise of the arm.“The best part of your life is still ahead of you.
Says Joel of the Lord: “I’m not just the God of perfect people. I’m the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” He then listed off a litany of imperfect biblical figures: Abraham was too old, Noah was a drunk, Sarah laughed at God, Mary was nervous, Miriam was a gossip, Jacob was a deceiver, Lazarus was dead, what’s your excuse?
“He puts the bible in plain English,” said Marlene. “He speaks at a fifth grade level. I get an email from him every day. He’s not using all those “thee’s” and “thou’s.”
“I’ve had a lot of things happen in my life,” Yusef, the Dunkin Donuts manager told me. He said this in a way where you knew that basically, in Yusef’s life, things have happened. “I want to have encouragement. He encourages you, he doesn’t put you down. If you believe in grace and God is on your side.”
Is Osteen promising that, if you pray for it, God will provide you with wealth?
It is reported that Joel has two homes, one of them a mansion. Estimates of his net worth, while a number has not been confirmed, range from $40 to $60 million. I ask Yusef the question that is begging to be asked at the stadium service of an inspirational and wealthy Christian speaker. I ask if Joel Osteen is promising him that, if only he prays for it, God will provide him with wealth and material success.
Before the words are even out of my mouth, I realize how stupid, condescending and even offensive the question is. My question to Yusef was code for: Are you so dim, my friend, as to be duped by Joel Osteen into believing that if you are poor, you will end up rich? If you have cancer, God will make it go away; if only you pray right, your daughter in the stroller will certainly end up at Yale? And thus, sadly and perversely, Yusef, you are being set up by Joel Osteen to be outrageously disappointed and betrayed and crushed when you don’t receive the great success Joel and God are “promising” you.
Yusef answered my shabby question the way it deserved to be answered. Does Joel Osteen promise you material wealth? “Wealth could be a lot of things,” Yusef said immediately. “It could be material, it could be spiritual: Wealth could be my health, peace of mind, that I can be content and peaceful.
'Wealth could be a lot of things. It could be material, it could be spiritual, my health, peace of mind.'
“God blesses you based on what you ask for,” he said. “God has given us all that we need. We are made in his image and likeness. There is a power God has given everyone. God has given us everything.”
Writes the 18th-century French Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Caussade: “What is it that you desire, you who aim at perfection? Give yourselves full scope. Your wishes need have no measure, no limit. However much you may desire I can show you how to attain it, even though it be infinite...the present is ever filled with infinite treasure, it contains more than you have capacity to hold.”
In an interview with Time Magazine, Joel Osteen addressed directly the question about material success: “Does God want us to be rich? I preach that anybody can improve their lives,” he said. “I think God wants us to be prosperous. I think he wants us to be happy. To me, you need to have money to pay your bills. I think God wants us to send our kids to college. I think he wants us to be a blessing to other people. But I don’t think I’d say God wants us to be rich. It’s all relative, isn’t it?”
St. Ignatius and the call to poverty
The message of St. Ignatius Loyola can feel different from what Joel is peddling. The very bedrock of Ignatian spirituality hinges on us being so dramatically open to God’s will that we would accept, for instance, poverty, for the sake of the Gospel. We would accept ill health, if God wills it.
But the poverty that Ignatius says we should be free to choose is not a mean poverty. It is not a bitter, resentful poverty. It is not one we ought to fight against. It is a poverty with peace of mind. It is not a “get by” poverty, but an “I have enough” poverty. An even joyful one. Pope Francis in “Evangelii Gaudium”: “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.”
As for Joel Osteen’s wealth. What have the mansions of this man to do with us? Why should we let them block us from Christ? What spirit is it coming from—the spirit of light or the spirit of darkness—that wants us to take our eyes off a message of hope and joy and train them on the Maseratis in the garage of the messenger? (I am fairly certain he has no Maseratis.)
Why should we let his net worth block us from Christ?
What spirit is it that uses anything it can to steer us away from what our heart cautiously feels to be good? And instead shunts it over to the analyzing mechanisms of our brains: How much money exactly does Joel Osteen have?Why doesn’t he talk about sin? And suffering? Where, for the love of God, is the suffering!
What spirit is it that might harp on the notion that Joel’s message is too individualistic, that he is a “cult of personality”; that he offered no rally cry for social change and forget what Gandhi said about changing the world: You, dear ones, you be the change.
What spirit wants us to be tripped up by any piece of the Joel Osteen phenomenon so as to ignore what was plain as day at Yankee Stadium: that thousands of people streamed out of that ballpark inspired, uplifted, peaceful. It was clear as a bell. They had not been shamed, not told how wretched they were, for any reason. They—we—had been told, quite simply, that God was at work in our lives, and only wanted good things for us. “Everything will be okay.” “I don’t worry.” “Treat everyone positively.” “Be good even if everything is bad.”
“This is the day the Lord has made.”