Joel Osteen preaches an upbeat message

`Christianity lite' lacks fire and brimstone, critics say

September 09, 2005|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,SUN STAFF

HOUSTON - When he walks onstage before the sellout crowd at the MCI Center in Washington this evening, Joel Osteen should feel right at home.

In an era of megachurches, the unlikely pastor is pioneering what some are calling the "gigachurch" - an arena-filling congregation of 32,000 black, white and Latino worshippers drawn by Gospel rock, lively praise and uplifting sermons.

Osteen, 42, had little theological training and no preaching experience when he took over Lakewood Church here in 1999. Now he heads the largest congregation in the United States, whose members meet weekly in the 16,000-seat former home of the National Basketball Association's Houston Rockets.

Fans, who have made Osteen's book a national best-seller and his weekly broadcasts the highest-rated inspirational programming on television, credit his rapid rise to a youthful enthusiasm, a sincere humility and, above all, his positive takes on how the Gospel applies to their everyday lives.

But critics, including some evangelicals, have derided his approach as thin on actual religion - motivational speaking that is popular at least in part because it offers all of the uplift of the Gospel message with little of the hellfire and damnation that traditionally has accompanied it.

"Osteen really is a classic case of `Christianity lite,'" says Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. "It's all the good news. And what I would call the doom-and-gloom side of religion, that wrestling with God, the sense that God is demanding, domineering, telling us things that you really don't want to do but you really should do - all that's gone."

Osteen is familiar with the criticism.

"I think most of it is that I don't focus on condemnation and beating people down," he says in an amiable drawl. "Every week we deal with people that have lost loved ones, just like we're seeing this week, people that are dealing with crisis, people that are dealing with cancer, people that are going through a bitter divorce.

"I talk about down-to-earth things, about forgiving the wrongs and trusting God when life doesn't make sense. I just feel like, if that's `lite,' then that's where the rubber meets the road to me."

With his thick, dark hair, boyish good looks and broad smile, the youngest of John and Dodie Osteen's six children appears to have been born to the pulpit. But he says he had no plans to preach when his father called him in 1999.

John Osteen, the Pentecostal preacher who had built Lakewood from a few dozen members meeting in a former feed store in 1959 to a congregation of several thousand 40 years later, was then suffering from heart problems and high blood pressure. He could have asked his wife or any of their three daughters, all of whom had preaching experience, to stand in for him during the Sunday service.

Joel Osteen had never delivered a sermon. He had dropped out of Oral Roberts University after a year to help his father develop a television ministry. But John told him he was his first choice.

During his appearances across the county - he takes his wife and their two children to about one city a month, in addition to his regular Sunday services at Lakewood - Osteen describes his anxiety at delivering that first sermon. It's typical of both the self-deprecating style and the emphasis on his family that have helped him attract an unusually diverse following.

Karen Raab of Towson, who watches Osteen on television, says she finds him uplifting.

"There's just a lot of hope in his messages," says Raab, 28, who worships with her husband at Grace Fellowship Church in Timonium. "Different messages that I've heard through the course of my Christianity, some you just come away feeling like, `Gosh, I'm a horrible person, I'll never be able to do this right.'

"But I don't get that impression from him. I just always feel very hopeful after hearing him ... It doesn't ever seem like a list or rules."

That approach is helping Osteen reach an audience that doesn't normally attend worship services - a segment of the population that evangelicals call "the unchurched."

"He has gone to a message of just encouragement, without any reference to sin or suffering," says Lynn Mitchell, director of religious studies at the University of Houston. "It's not the same thing as the self-help gurus in the secular area, but it is close enough to where it appeals to people for some of the same reasons. He certainly attracts people who would just be bored in a lot of traditional churches."

John Vaughan, who tracks megachurches as founder of the consulting firm Church Growth Today, says Osteen has helped to transform lives.

"This is not a small God they worship over at Lakewood Church," he says. "He's the God who changes drunk dads into dads who love their kids. Mothers that no longer beat the kids, that no longer go out on the kids, that show up at work on time."

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