Book Review: Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity
Phillip Luke Sinitiere, Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity. New York University Press, 2015. 305 pages.
For decades, the prosperity gospel has been a blight on Christianity, distorting the gospel and deceiving millions across the globe. Perhaps the most prominent proponent of prosperity theology, at least in the US, is Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston. Phillip Sinitiere’s book, Salvation with a Smile, chronicles the meteoric rise of the Osteen family and of Lakewood Church in American Evangelicalism. In this book Sinitiere’s amibition is “to explain Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church’s cultural significance in light of American religious history” (10). Sinitiere accomplishes this and more. His book is an objective, academic assessment of Osteen’s ministry, but evangelical pastors will find helpful insights about the prosperity gospel and the assumptions undergirding prosperity ministries in the 21st century.
In the first two chapters, Sinitiere traces the life and ministry of Joel Osteen’s father, John. John Osteen, a rising neopentecostal star in the middle of the twentieth century, founded Lakewood Church in 1959. Despite humble beginnings Lakewood grew rapidly under John’s leadership, quickly becoming one of Houston’s largest megachurches. Fueled by the miraculous healing of both his daughter from sclerosis and his wife from cancer, John promoted a prosperity gospel that included not only material wealth but physical healing.
For those interested in understanding Joel Osteen’s doctrinal commitments, chapters 3–4 unfold the central tenets of Osteen’s prosperity theology. Chapter 3 introduces Joel’s tenure as senior pastor at Lakewood and surveys the three major theological influences in his life. First, from his father Joel received his neopentecostal convictions of positive confession and culturally conservative social opinions. His approach to Scripture as a record of replicable experiences in our own life (i.e. everyone should have their own personal Pentecost) also came from Joel’s father. Second, from Joyce Meyer Joel received his commitment to positive thinking as the source of spiritual and material flourishing. Finally, from John Maxwell Joel learned to emphasize entrepreneurial success through positive ambition and personal fulfillment.
Chapter 5 focuses on how Osteen, a former TV producer, leveraged mass media, the internet, and social media to extend his influence. Chapter 6 looks at the “charismatic core” of Lakewood church—Osteen’s family members and other leaders which play a significant role in shaping the church’s identity and culture. Chapter 7 briefly explores the lives of the members at Lakewood and shares testimonies from those who have experienced change under Osteen’s ministry. The final chapter is an interesting exploration of Osteen’s detractors—the new Calvinists. Sinitiere focuses on the criticisms of Osteen’s ministry particularly from Al Mohler, Michael Horton, and John MacArthur.
The New Prosperity Gospel: Less Miraculous, Just as Dangerous
One key takeaway from the story of Joel Osteen’s ministry is the way that he and other modern mainstream prosperity preachers have altered the prosperity gospel to fit more with America’s secularizing worldview. In an age when people are more skeptical of miracles and divine healing, the new prosperity gospel focuses on pursuing financial and physical wholeness rather than miraculous provision and healing. In other words, for John Osteen in the 1960–1980s God was a healer. For Joel Osteen, God is more like a life-coach.
As Osteen explains, “The way I define [the prosperity gospel] 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. . . . [I]f that is the prosperity gospel, then I do believe that” (89). We can see from this definition the absence of any hint of the miraculous. Sinitiere helpfully explains that there is continuity between the previous generation of prosperity preachers and Joel Osteen: both focus on finances and on the body. Osteen, however, has broken from previous generations in that he significantly downplays elements of miraculous provision and healing. For Osteen, God may not heal you or send you a check, but he will help you get to the gym and balance your budget. Two important quotes from Sinitiere helpfully unpack these reformulations of the prosperity gospel in Osteen’s ministry.
Joel’s teachings include close attention to the Christian body, but not in the same way that the neopentecostal inheritance of his father emphasized divine healing. . . . Joel’s invocation of divine healing by proxy created for him the opportunity to retranslate this central tenet of neopentecostalism into a message of faith and fitness. Thus the absence of Osteen’s personal testimony of divine healing results in a repurposing of the neopentecostal focus on the Christian body to one of health, fitness, and self-improvement (90).
Osteen’s repurposing of the prosperity gospel’s material message to one of finances and fitness, hope and health, pave the way for the eventual articulation of his prosperity gospel of the body. Osteen’s prosperity gospel of the body as a gift from God and as a site of improvement resonates in a therapeutic culture where in the hearts, minds, and most importantly, bodies, of millions of individuals his message of self-improvement and second chances has found welcome homes (94–95).
In Joel Osteen’s version of the prosperity gospel, God is a cheerleader and a divine power that can help you achieve your vocational and fitness goals. He has transformed the prosperity gospel’s promise of wealth into hope for financial stability and vocational success. He has transformed the focus on healing into a message of pursuing a healthy lifestyle.
A Pastoral Response
Pastors must faithfully shepherd their people in a right understanding of the gospel and of God’s word. The prosperity gospel, even in its repackaged, Joel Osteen form, is a gross aberration of biblical truth and a denial of the biblical gospel. Pastors can guard their people from this destructive teaching by regularly teaching their sheep at least the following three truths.
First, teach your people the gospel. The best defense against a counterfeit is knowing the real thing. The best way to defend Christ’s sheep against a counterfeit gospel is to make sure they understand that the gospel is fundamentally about how God saves sinners through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The gospel is not that God joins our team and helps us achieve our ambitions. Instead, the gospel is about how God rescues us from his own wrath by pouring that wrath on his Son as our substitute who then rises from the dead to reign as Lord over creation.
Second, teach your people to trust in God’s sovereignty. Osteen and other prosperity preachers teach that God is always behind our ambitions, ready to help us achieve our dreams. But God may have altogether different plans for our lives, usually ones that push us to depend more on him and abandon selfish ambition. In God’s sovereign plan for our life, we may work twice as hard as the next guy and only accomplish half as much. Submitting to God’s sovereignty means learning to sing “Whate’er My God Ordains is Right” even when it means embracing a hard providence that forces us to lay aside personal ambition and trust God more fully with our circumstances and with our future.
Finally, teach your people to expect and rightly respond to suffering. The Bible does not promise comfort. In fact, it promises the opposite. Christians are called to embrace suffering, crucifying the desires of the flesh (Col 3:5; cf. Mk 8:34). Righteousness or vocational competence is no guarantee of financial and physical wholeness, nor does God promise always to bless industriousness with success. Just consider the lives of Joseph and Job. Joseph descended into a decade and a half of suffering precisely because he was both capable (Gen. 37:12–14) and faithful (Gen. 39:11–20). Similarly, Job endured suffering precisely because he was righteous (Job 1:8; 2:3). Pastors must teach their people that the world is fallen and that we must prepare for suffering by learning to trust in God’s sovereign grace—knowing that he loves us, not because he supports our ambitions, but because he gave us his Son.