Everything is bigger in Texas, so they say. The food, the football, and even the faith-communities that make up Texan lives and localities are larger than life. In Houston — the state’s largest city — religion is blooming, booming, and burgeoning in a stunning array of diversity. From Caucasian Khalsa converts to Sikhism to Coptic Christians, Latina/o Muslims, and “God Bless America” Southern Baptists, Houston has it all.
It is also home to Lakewood Church — America’s largest megachurch. Home to 43,500 worshippers every Sunday, Lakewood is led by Pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen. A non-denominational and charismatic Christian church the congregation offers English and Spanish services every weekend in the Compaq Center, the former home of basketball team the Houston Rockets.
Osteen also comes to American homes via television broadcasts, books, and speaking tours in local stadiums. Through his megachurch pastoral work and mega-personality Osteen has courted both celebrity and controversy.
In Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity Phillip Luke Sinitiere -- Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University -- courses the history, development, and manifestation of Lakewood's strengths and storm of debate surrounding it and placing its narrative firmly within the story of American Christianity in general. I had the opportunity to speak with him about the book, his research, and Lakewood's "salvation with a smile."
What made you want to research Joel Osteen, his church, his family, and his context?
It stems first from my interest in American religious history, cultivated initially by the late Terry Bilhartz (1950-2014) when I was an undergraduate history major at Sam Houston State University. I first became interested in Joel Osteen as a scholarly subject in 2005, much of it through the work of Andrew Chesnut on religious economy, when I was in graduate school at the University of Houston. I realized, just as Lakewood Church was moving into the Compaq Center in July that year, that a national story was brewing in my hometown, and I didn’t have to travel far to do research! Although I found archival materials all across the United States, early on I recognized that the history of my hometown, Houston, might have something significant to say in relation to Osteen’s story.
How does this present research fit into your previous work?
The final sentence in the chapter on Joel Osteen in my first book Holy Mavericks reads, “While scholars of American religion continue to debate the significance and influence of popular pastors and ministers, one thing is certain: Joel Osteen will offer salvation and a smile to anyone who shows up, tunes in, or logs onto Lakewood Church.” So, in many ways the present book builds on and extends earlier research on neopenteostalism, the prosperity gospel, and contemporary American religion.
What was your personal experience with Lakewood?
I tend to think of my “personal experience” with Lakewood in terms of the people I met, and how I processed my experiences and framed my research in light of scholarship on American religion.
There’s no doubt that “Joel Osteen” is a historical and cultural construction and “Lakewood” is an institution as much as it is an idea that is part of America’s religious landscape—ideas I attempt to unpack in the book—but I spent my time researching Joel Osteen and Lakewood not in pursuit of just understanding the congregation’s leaders, but also people who constitute the congregation itself. Overall, the time I spent at Lakewood introduced me to some interesting, fascinating, and sincere people who were willing to share some of their time, resources, and their stories with me. (More on that below).
In addition, my own internal dialogue and thinking about my fieldwork was very much in conversation the work of scholars such as Kate Bowler, Robert Orsi, Susan Harding, Manuel Vasquez, T.L. Luhrmann, James Bielo, Gerardo Marti, and so many more.
I’d also respond to your question this way: I began attending church services and different Sunday school classes as a participant observer starting in the fall of 2005, and continued on and off until early 2014. I also attended two Evening of Hope events in Texas during the course of research, so I could experience a kind of portable Lakewood. While I never considered myself a church member in any sense, I typically introduced myself as a researcher and scholar, explained why/how I got interested in the topic of Lakewood and Joel Osteen, and thus tried to understand and grasp the Lakewood “experience” in my participation in and observation of congregational activities. This sustained participation and my analysis of it in the book, I hope, provides a robust picture of what Lakewood was/is outside of the telecasts or podcasts. This sustained presence at Lakewood also proved instrumental in forging relationships and friendships with members and attendees, without whom I could not have finished the book. While not everyone spoke on the record, and while not everyone granted my request for an interview or conversation, members and attendees who did (most of whom are pseudonymous in the book) offered interesting and fascinating insight into congregational life at Lakewood Church. And several people I interviewed also loaned me or gave me printed materials, photographs, and/or old VHS videos and cassette tapes of John Osteen sermons. So in many ways I am in great debt to certain Lakewood members and attendees who chose to share their thoughts, materials, and life stories with me.
Did you get a chance to visit the bookstore? On one occasion I did and came across a wide variety of books that aren’t “on message” with Joel Osteen ministries. How do you think the eclecticism of the bookstore reflects on Lakewood Church and Osteen?
In many ways, I’d say the bookstore fits like a glove with the space that is Lakewood Church, as well as with the general contours of the smiling preacher. What I mean is this: the bookstore is professionally done in the sense that it is like other chain Christian bookstores such as Mardel or Lifeway. One finds the latest Christian bestsellers (some of which are Joel’s books!) in both fiction and nonfiction, along with Christian t-shirts, necklaces, Cross décor, music, study Bibles, etc., plus a substantial section of Spanish language items. Of course, the sheer business of the place, and dynamics of economic exchange also prompt thinking about the entanglements of the prosperity gospel, religion, and class. Yes, the bookstore disseminates and provides materials for religious education and spiritual enlightenment while it also traffics in the supply and demand chains of capitalism. The bookstore is also large and expansive, which works as a nice metaphor for Lakewood and Osteen’s place in America’s religious landscape. It is hard not to miss, regardless of your opinion about Osteen or Lakewood. Finally, the array of materials—you allude to books by evangelical writers such as John Piper, John MacArthur, or even Albert Mohler that sit alongside titles by the novelist Frank Peretti, or prosperity teachers like Joyce Meyer, Joseph Prince, or T. D. Jakes—crosses denominational lines, transcends national borders, and is seemly inclusive of the wider boundaries of modern Christianity. It fits with Osteen’s expressly nondenominational outlook, a perspective adopted from his father John Osteen.
I found that Lakewood Church membership has seemingly high turnover with people finding Lakewood as a gateway, or a port of return, to Christianity. Comment on this…
I think you are absolutely correct on this point, Ken. Data are hard to find on Lakewood’s revolving doors, so to speak, although some of the Pew research on “religious switching” captures broader trends and may suggest ways to think about what this means longitudinally. I only have qualitative research to present on this question. In my interviews, individuals described going to Lakewood to find new inspiration—your “port of return” descriptor—most especially from the music, whether it was Cindy Cruse Ratcliff or Israel Houghton. One woman I interviewed, as I explain in “Teri’s Story” in chapter 7, had hit rock bottom in her life and attended Lakewood for a psychological and existential boost. But once her life stabilized, Teri said she longed for more rigorous teaching in sermons, so she ended up leaving Lakewood and settled at another Pentecostal, nondenominational church in Houston. As she communicated it to me, she wasn’t bitter or disgruntled as she left Lakewood, but in search of deeper religious knowledge. So, yes, I think your gateway or port of return metaphors work well to explain this in a qualitative sense. I hope someone is able to assess this reality quantitatively one day. That would make for a fascinating study.
You seek to situate Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in a historical stream of neoPentecostalism. Why do you think this is important?
I think understanding Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church in light of neopentecostalism is crucial because it highlights the interconnected networks between several generations of neopentecostal and prosperity ministers and ministries. It also historicizes Osteen’s career from television producer to minister, which in turn contextualizes the providential narrative he has used to describe how he became Lakewood’s pastor. Finally, situating Osteen as a neopentecostal allows us to track one chapter of the prosperity gospel and articulate some of reasons why Pentecostalism and neopentecostalism remain popular expressions of Christianity today.
Placing Joel Osteen in the historical stream of neopentecostalism highlights how the message of a second chance or spiritual makeover—an opportunity to start over and remake something—is, we might say, quintessentially American. I’m not the first or only scholar to connect this idea in Pentecostalism to American culture. There is also something, it seems, culturally important in terms of why a message of second chances resonates in a therapeutic era. The historical moment of Joel’s ascendancy emblematized this message. Here I’m thinking of the rise in popularity in the 1990s and 2000s of reality TV shows that, ironically, scripted a second chance or makeover of some sort. Here I’ also thinking of Kathryn Lofton’s fascinating book on Oprah, who figures into the larger cultural significance of remaking oneself into something new.
Also, you place Joel Osteen in a place to benefit, in terms of ministry, from the crisis in evangelical leadership. Yet, many of his evangelical critics would place him on the outside of evangelicalism. What do you have to say to these critics?
I’m not so sure it is evangelicalism’s crisis in leadership—although examples surely abound—as much as it is evangelicalism’s philosophical framework. Building on Molly Worthen’s excellent book Apostles of Reason in the final chapter I point out the irony between Osteen and his critics, especially those part of the New Calvinist movement. A group of theologians and pastors focused on intellectualism and Reformed theology, New Calvinism’s philosophical orientation prizes divine sovereignty, predictability, order, and control. Ironically, Osteen’s message of positive thinking and positive confession is also highly predictable and exceptionally redundant. Let me put it further this way: Osteen’s New Calvinist skeptics, whose theology has prized God’s absolute orchestration of human affairs, by the very nature of their anxious criticism, have assigned Osteen a tremendous amount of material and historical agency. This seems to belie the New Calvinists’ convictions about God’s sovereignty. The utter predictability of Osteen’s message of God’s favor and goodness has exemplified the same predictability towards which the New Calvinists’ propositional theology has aspired. Using the same Bible, and engaging in similar acts of interpretation, Osteen has promised unfettered possibility while the messages of his critics have emphasized theological aspects of conformity and order. Both have promoted a certain kind of predictability. Philosophically, therefore, Osteen and his critics have seemed more alike than different. While both parties have rooted their messages in particular interpretations of the Bible, they have also deployed defenses of their positions from Christian scripture in reply to one another. In my reading of this larger story, this shared basis of conflict in not just an example of doctrinal infighting. It is an illustration of deeply embedded intellectual conflicts in the evangelical tradition out of which both Osteen and the New Calvinists have attempted to leverage the widest possible influence on American culture. It is fascinating history.
Houston is a diverse place in terms of religion and culture. What can people learn about Houston from reading this book about, arguably, its biggest religious “attraction?”
While Salvation with a Smile is about Houston’s largest religious attraction, I explain in chapter 4 that Lakewood is not the sum total of religion in Houston. Yes, the city is home to the nation’s largest megachurch—and one of the nation’s most ethnically and racially diverse congregations in the nation’s most racially and ethnically diverse metropolitan areas—but Houston is also home to numerous Roman Catholics and a Cardinal, His Eminence Daniel DiNardo. Yes, the city is home to several of the nation’s largest megachurches (e.g., Second Baptist Church, Woodlands Church, New Light Christian Center, Windsor Village United Methodist Church, etc.), but is also home to botanicas that have serviced Houstonians who practice religions such as Santería. Local traditions practiced by some of Houston’s Mexican immigrants have also shaped the religious lives of devotees to Santa Muerte, a Mexican folk saint. Then there’s the Catholic Charismatic Center, home to Pentecostal Catholics. One of the places to track some of these developments is the Houston Area Survey, conducted now for 3 decades out of Rice University’s Kinder Institute. Houston is an exciting and important place to study national and global religious trends—and not just because of Lakewood Church.
You emphasize how important Osteen Ministries’ grasp of new media trends is key to their success. What other religious currents seem to be doing similar work, Christian or otherwise?
Joel’s first career as a television producer and religious broadcaster oriented his outlook to present religious messages across new media platforms. As it happened, his emergence to public prominence that started around 2004 tracked simultaneously with the rise of new media/social media. This is one of the reasons why Joel Osteen became Joel Osteen. I’ll offer an example from Houston that readers may not be aware of: Fr. Cedric Pisegna. He’s a Passionist priest with a ministry called “Live with Passion!” that presents positive messages in the Joel Osteen vein. An advocate of the “New Evangelization,” Fr. Cedric’s teachings across social media and television have commonly encouraged the quest for joy, inspiration, happiness. Moreover, presentations with titles such as “Challenges Make Champions,” “The Power of Positivity,” and “You Are God’s Champion,” not only reflect the Roman Catholic Church’s outreach techniques in the New Evangelization, they also echo the promise of possibility that has been part of Houston’s cultural identity.
What do you think reactions to book will be like?
I hope Christians who pick up the book give it a thorough reading, regardless of whether they like or dislike Osteen. I didn’t write the book as someone interested in participating in any intramural debates amongst Christians, or even evangelicals or Pentecostals, but I do hope these constituencies read the book. In terms of feedback, on a recent radio program out of San Antonio called “The Source” produced by Texas Public Radio on which I discussed the book, the questions callers asked referenced the doctrines Osteen preaches, as well as the larger prosperity gospel movement. Both callers seemed very skeptical of Osteen. In the academy, I hope the book is a worthy contribution to the burgeoning and excellent scholarship already published on contemporary American Christianity, the prosperity gospel, and neopentecostalism. In terms of methodology, I hope scholars deem that I’ve somehow succeeded in sufficiently historicizing a contemporary subject, both through traditional historical archival research but also through ethnographic participant observation.
What future research do you have planned?
In addition to my work on evangelicalism and Pentecostalism, I’m also a scholar of African American studies. In this arena, I have several projects in the works on the political and intellectual work of W. E. B. Du Bois and I’m working on a short biography of the playwright, author, and essayist James Baldwin. In the field of American religion, I’m continuing my work on Lakewood’s history in several ways. Building on the first two chapters in Salvation with a Smile on John Osteen, I’m writing more on his role in the neopentecostal movement and the politics of religious leadership. Research Joel and religious programming got me interested more specifically in the cultural meaning of televangelism, so I’m actively researching the historical and cultural significance of recent televangelist scandals.
Biography: Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Sam Houston State University. He is author or editor of several books, including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, 2009).