Phillip Sinitiere on the Osteens & Lakewood Church
Date: January 31st, 2016
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Since 2000, Pastor Joel Osteen seemingly has become an overnight success on the national evangelical scene. But his rise in popularity, along with that of Lakewood Church, has a deeper history dating back to the ministry of his father, John Osteen. Prof. Phillp L. Sinitiere — an associate professor of history at the College of Biblical Studies (Houston) and a visiting assistant professor at Sam Houston State University — talks about his new book Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, & American Christianity.
As is par for the course, we explore how our guest came to be interested in the topic he studies. Prof. Sinitiere grew up in Houston, which he calls the “buckle of the Bible Belt,” and attended small churches in a mixed-ethnicity neighborhood. Having known about Lakewood Church growing up, he found it to be an interesting topic given his fascination with the history of American Christianity and considering how it dovetailed with his interests in African-American Christianity. His experience studying Lakewood dates back about a decade, and Phillip tells the story of his first visit to the mega-church and how he was immediately approached to sing in the choir. He talks of himself as a “shade tree sociologist” using both archival research and ethnographic fieldwork to paint a vivid picture of the Osteen family and the Lakewood community.
Our conversation turns historically to the story of John Osteen, the founder of Lakewood Church, and his unique personal journey to the pastorate. We learn about John Osteen’s childhood growing up during the Great Depression, his evangelical conversion to Christ as a teen, and his Southern Baptist charismatic roots. After attending John Brown University, he then followed his spiritual development through the Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and spent some time in California during the 1940s before returning to Houston. Phillip notes that the elder Osteen was associated with some of the early attempts at “televangelism” in the 1950s when TV was becoming all the rage. Following a divorce in 1955, another marriage brings him a daughter who has medical problems at a young age but who eventually grew in health. This event had a significant impact on John and he becomes more drawn to the neo-Pentecostal movement bubbling up at the time and develops an interest in divine healing, which plays an important role in his theological development, eventually influencing his son Joel. Prof. Sinitiere then details the institutional founding and growth of Lakewood Church. Interestingly, shortly after Lakewood’s founding in 1959, John heads down to Mexico to do missionary work but returns home in the late 1960s. This gap in the senior Osteen’s ministry proves critical for Lakewood’s eventual multi-racial appeal as John did not get drawn into the divisiveness of the Civil Rights Movement in the South during the 1960s.
We follow Lakewood Church’s history through the 1970s and into the ’80s when Joel enters the picture and begins working in the television aspect of his father’s ministry in the early 1980s. By this time, Lakewood could be considered a mega-church by scholarly standards (more than 2,000 members) and Joel is learning how to manage such a large congregation as it grows extensively during this time. We also talk a bit about the transition of the pastorate to Joel in 1999. Shortly after taking the helm, Joel moves Lakewood from northeast Houston and to Greenway Plaza and the Compaq Center, giving the church new visibility along a major highway. Combined with the use of social media and an expanding televangelism ministry, Lakewood witnesses unprecedented growth making it the largest congregation in America.
Our discussion then picks up on theological themes and Prof. Sinitiere explains the “prosperity gospel” that Joel Osteen (and his father before him) were known for. Phillip traces the roots back to 19th century “New Thought” and the neo-Pentecostal movement of the 20th century. While there is much emphasis on material advancement within prosperity gospel thinking, Phillip points out that a major part of John Osteen’s theology also revolved around divine healing, which was influenced both by his daughter’s recovery from muscular disease and his second wife’s overcoming cancer. We then examine the development of Joel’s theological perspective and the influences that Joyce Meyer and John Maxwell played. Joel’s thinking emerges in the first few years of his taking the helm at Lakewood, and in addition to the material aspects of his theology that his critics are quick to point out, Prof. Sinitiere notes that there is a great deal of emphasis on healthy living, psychological wholeness, and positive thinking, which was an influence from his father. The picture that is painted by Phillip is more nuanced than of Osteen’s critics. While not an apologist for the prosperity gospel, Prof. Sinitiere puts it into a much broader context based upon his own research of the topic.
We finish our discussion with an examination of how Lakewood’s congregants have taken to this prosperity gospel message, and what impact the Osteens have had on American Christianity. Phillip notes that many individuals who attend Lakewood see it as a means of finding a “second chance” in life, and that several of these individuals eventually go in search of deeper Christianity elsewhere. Amongst these individuals, there is an image of Lakewood being a “seasonal Christianity” from whence they move into other phases of their spiritual development. Phillip also points out that Lakewood’s congregation is multi-racial although the leadership has tended to be Caucasian, but notes that there have been efforts to address this in recent years. As for Lakewood’s impact, Phillip explains how the Osteens have “re-enchanted” American televangelism and how the message of predictability in unstable times seems to resonate during times of economic turmoil. He also observes that many of Osteen’s Calvinist critics indicates the broader influence Osteen is having on the discussion of Christianity in America. Recorded: Jan. 21, 2016.
Phillip Sinitiere’s bio at the College of Biblical Studies.
Phillip Sinitiere’s personal website.
Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, by Phillip Sinitiere.
Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, by Shayne Lee and Phillip Sinitiere.
Christians and the Color Line: Religion & Race after Divided by Faith, by Russell Hawkins and Phillip Sinitiere.
Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, by Kate Bowler (mentioned on the podcast).
Dave Travis on Megachurch Myths.
Marc von der Ruhr on Megachurch Recruitment and Retention.
Gordon Melton on Mega-Trends in American Religion.
Matt Sutton on Aimee Semple McPherson.
Darin Mather on Evangelicals and Racial Attitudes.
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