(08)The Leaven of Lakewood
“‘I don’t want this to sound arrogant, but I believe one day
we’re going to have 100,000 a weekend,” says Pastor Joel
Osteen of Lakewood Church in Houston.’
By Rev. Robert S. Liichow
I want to begin this article by giving credit where credit is due.
When it comes to the Lakewood charismatic mega-church
there are aspects of this ministry which must be cited as worthy.
To begin with the church was originally started by John Osteen,
who was originally a Southern Baptist pastor but after receiving
the “baptism” in/with the Holy Spirit he became enamored with
the charismatic renewal movement in its early stage and
eventually became associated with the Word of Faith (WOF)
The following commentary was taken from the official web site
of Lakewood Church:
The late John Osteen served the Lord Jesus Christ as pastor,
evangelist, author, and teacher for sixty years. Ordained as a
Southern Baptist, he received the baptism in the Holy Ghost
in 1958, an experience which revolutionized his ministry into a
worldwide outreach…John Osteen began Lakewood Church in a
dusty, abandoned feed store on Mother’s Day 1959…John Osteen
was driven by an amazing love for people of all ages, races,
nationalities and walks of life.
One thing is certain in a time of racial division John Osteen opened
wide the doors of his church to all people, and all shades and
classes of people came. John, even though he had rejected his
Baptist theology (he did actually earn a Masters degree from
Northern Baptist Seminary) he never lost sight of the need for
foreign missions and his congregation supported and still
supports a great deal of foreign mission work. At the time of his
death Lakewood Church had risen to 8,000 members.
I must be honest with you; out of all the Word-of-Faith teachers
my wife and I listened to we enjoyed John Osteen more than most.
He did have a genuine pastor’s heart and a desire to see people
come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ. We have many of John
Osteen’s books and tapes in the DMI archives. It seems that his
seminary education helped keep John from espousing some of the
most heretical doctrines that are commonly taught by
Word-of-F aith teachers today.
However, I am under no illusions regarding the Word-of-Faith
“leaven” which John propagated and is unfortunately being further
magnified through his son Joel Osteen who took over as Pastor
when his father died in 1999. John was a big crusader for the
error of positive confession. This is a metaphysical belief
that we can either create or change our reality by the power of
our words, for example he stated the following:
When they say like they did to Smith Wigglesworth, “How are you
feeling today?” He said “Listen, I don’t ask my body how it’s
feeling; I tell it how to feel.” And your words should not be
to describe the situation; your words should be given to
change the situation. And so, read it, meditate upon it, and
I am the sum total of what I have been confessing through the
years. My children are the best children that ever lived on the
face of the earth. They are blessed of God. They are the sum
total of what Dodie and I have confessed and loved them into
Osteen is on record as fully endorsing the Word-of-Faith errant
concepts surrounding financial prosperity:
It’s God’s will for you to live in prosperity instead of poverty.
It’s God’s will for you to pay your bills and not be in debt.
It’s God’s will for you to live in health and not in sickness all
the days of your life.
In the above sermon we can see the Health & Wealth “gospel”
summed up three sentences. So despite the good things that
John Osteen did as a Pastor he got ensnared by the subtlety of
false teaching and ended up misleading millions before his death.
Jesus in speaking to His disciples warned them about the leaven
of the Pharisees in the following discussion:
Then Jesus said unto them, Take heed and beware of the leaven
of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees… How is it that ye do not
understand that I spake [it] not to you concerning bread, that ye
should beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees?
Then understood they how that he bade [them] not beware of the
leaven of bread, but of the doctrine of the Pharisees and of
Even though it seems to us that His disciples were a little slow on
the “uptake” at times Jesus makes His point crystal clear to them
— He was warning them to beware, to be on guard against the
danger of their doctrinal errors, which Jesus likens to leaven in
bread. Jesus knew that if left unchecked, like leaven in bread,
their doctrinal error would spread. The leaven of false doctrines
which he instilled in his son are now expanding and misleading
more people than John Osteen could have ever imagined.
Joel Osteen Master of Marketeering
Joel Osteen has absolutely no biblical training or
experience to be a pastor. Charismatic pulpits are filled with
people who feel “called” to the pastorate and that is enough for
them and those who follow them. They attempt to build
congregations on the “strength” of their calling. Some charismatic
leaders may go on to some unaccredited “Bible School” for a year
or two, none (which encompasses a large group of ministers)
that we were ever acquainted with attended any legitimate
Would you allow a surgeon to operate on you because he felt
“called” to be a surgeon as a child, but never went on to medical
school? Or would you allow someone to build your house who
firmly believed God had called him to be an architect yet had
never gone on to college to study architectural design? Of course
not, it would be the height of foolishness!
Yet millions of professing Christians are more than willing to
follow a man (or woman) who says “God” has called them and has
supernaturally equipped them to be ministers. These especially
anointed men and women have no need to study Church history,
hermeneutics, systematic theology and struggle through Greek
and Hebrew as other ministers do. They hear directly from God
(this is especially true for the sign-gift pastors, most
seeker-sensitive churches are led by seminary educated
So my first main concern is that we have a man in the pulpit
of the largest congregation in America, being beamed around
the world that has no biblical education or training for the
vocation he says he has! To me we have a clear case of the
blind leading the blind (read Luke 6:39) with the end result
being masses of people falling into the ditch of spiritual
ignorance, abuse and/or extremism.
Joel Osteen made the following statement which ought to be
enough to drive 1,000’s of people away from his church:
Osteen’s upbeat style is deliberate and authentic. ‘Make church
relevant,’ he says. ‘Give them something to be able to take away.
I find today people are not looking for theology.
There’s a place for it, [But] in your everyday life you need to know
how to live.
That statement is loaded with seeker-sensitive “code.” My wife
and I left a North American Baptist church of over 1,000
members which had as its acronym “GPARS” which
stood for: (1) Grace; (2) People; (3) Authenticity;
(4) Relevance and (5) Small groups.
Of course Osteen’s “style” is upbeat, would you expect
negativity from a positive confession devotee?
No! Deliberate, absolutely, he really believes much of the
WOF nonsense his father taught him all his life, not to mention
whatever offbeat spirituality he may have gleaned from his two
years at Oral Roberts University. Authentic? Without a doubt!
What you see is what you get. Joel Osteen is a man without any
biblical education but an admitted talent for marketing.
To be a success in marketing you have to know where
people itch and scratch it. Or, you have to create a
desire in them by creating a hunger for something
they currently do not have nor formerly knew they
needed. All commercials can be condensed down to one of
these two truths.
So to become a mega-church a pastor has to make church
relevant. He has to give the people what they want, something
that soothes that spiritual itch. In order to be a “success”
(i.e. large masses of people and money) pastors must preach
unchallenging messages that uplift rather than convict.
He must pander to the lowest common denominator and
make sure that whatever is taught does not offend anymore
at anytime. What we are seeing is really nothing new, it is a
simply fulfillment of 2 Ti 4:3-4
[For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine;
but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers,
having itching ears; And they shall turn away [their] ears from
the truth, and shall be turned unto fables].
This is exactly where multitudes of people are spiritually today.
The above text also helps explain the phenomena of people like
Robert Schuller, Rick Warren, Bill Hybels and now, Joel Osteen.
Osteen goes on to say that “I find today that people are not
looking for theology.” Well that is obvious because if they were
they would not find any sound theology at Lakewood! Although
he does not reveal to the readers where he found this astonishing
fact out, it appears the folks he has talked to have no interest in
Lest you think me a bit harsh let me remind you that theology
simply means “the knowledge of God.” In essence Osteen
has said that people are really not interested in learning
about God. Somehow (undoubtedly due to his lack of biblical
education) he has made a disconnect between knowing the God
of the Bible via sound biblical theology and “knowing how to live.”
Brothers and sisters, my wife and I can testify to you that the
more accurately you understand God within the biblical context
the better life you will live before Him. Tracy and I have a
daughter, she does not like to eat certain vegetables but we
MAKE her eat them from time to time. Why? As her parents,
even though somewhat distasteful to her we know that eating
them will be beneficial.
The same is true for every man who mounts a pulpit! God does
not tell us to feed the sheep what they want to eat. Jesus told
Peter “feed My sheep,” (see John 21:16). Jesus said “feed” the
sheep not “entertain” them! We are to give them the Word of
God in its totality. Any pastor can fall into the trap of
becoming a people pleaser. This is why Paul, through the
Holy Ghost warned young Timothy in the verse just above the
one I cited:
2 Ti 4:-2
I charge [thee] therefore before God, and the Lord Jesus Christ,
who shall judge the quick and the dead at his appearing and his
kingdom; Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season;
reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.
Timothy is WARNED to be steadfast in his proclamation of the
Gospel to be ready and in his preaching to:
(1) REPROVE; (2) REBUKE; (3) EXHORT the people according to
the Scriptures. How? We are to preach with all longsuffering
(because such preaching is unpleasant to people’s carnal nature)
and with doctrine. GASP! Doctrine? I can hear the
seeker-sensitive pundits saying “oh come now, Rev. Liichow,
surely you know preaching doctrinal messages is passé?”
Osteen would do well to heed the word of the Lord from a genuine
prophet who stated:
Eze 34:2 -3
[Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel, prophesy,
and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD unto the shepherds;
Woe [be] to the shepherds of Israel that do feed themselves!
should not the shepherds feed the flocks? Ye eat the fat, and ye
clothe you with the wool, ye kill them that are fed: [but] ye feed
not the flock.
There are many biblical themes which are very
“unpopular” and even politically “incorrect” yet the
faithful pastor/teacher will expound on these topics
as well so that the flock under his care is receiving a
balanced spiritual diet and is able to walk in the full light
of God’s Word and not in the shadows.
What is Joel’s educational background and experience? Since we
know his training is not theological, what is it? He did attend
Oral Roberts University for two years, but his area of study had
to do with television production and marketing.
Meanwhile, son Joel, one of six children, was learning the
business of television… ‘Growing up, I knew what I wanted to do.
I wanted to be involved in TV production,’ he says. ‘That was
just my passion.’ In 1981 he came home from
Oral Roberts University (ORU) to start the Lakewood TV ministry.
For seventeen (17) years Joel was behind the scenes handling all
the television and marketing of his father’s ministry. The next
statement from the Charisma article is very revealing:
The younger Osteen’s television-marketing talents and his dad’s
preaching skills resulted eventually in the church churches being
aired on stations nationwide and in more than 100 countries.
Joel Osteen had the ability to get his father’s heavily WOF
influenced message out all over America and into 100 foreign
markets. Due to this dynamic-duo of folksy preaching/teaching
and highly visible presence on television Lakewood Church g
rew to close to 8,000 members at the time of John Osteen’s death
With his father sick in the hospital, John asks his son, Joel, to
preach for him that Sunday. Initially Joel balked at the idea
and said “no.” He then relented and here are Joel’s own words
concerning his preaching that day:
I just got up there and told stories. I was so glad when it was
over, I said, ‘I’ll never do this again in my life.’
That was the beginning of his public ministry; he just got up
and told “stories.” Joel has been telling stories that have been
tickling the ears of the multitudes ever since. Here is how the
article describes Joel’s style of preaching:
The appealing style of Osteen’s personality in the pulpit is
unmistakable. It is part of the reason for the Lakewood’s
current level of success.
Everyone agrees Osteen’s preaching is a key ingredient.
Descriptions of his style include ‘simple,’ ‘down-to-earth,’
‘practical,’ ‘relatable,’ ‘easy,’ ‘folksy,’ ‘humble.’
It’s 10 a.m. when he began his sermon. The theme is practical
as he gives example after example of the importance of
following God’s timing rather than one’s own. He keeps the tone
cheerful, optimistic. ‘God doesn’t want anybody walking out of
here today heavy-hearted and downcast,” Osteen says.
Joel Osteen is charismatic in his personality. He is not a bad
looking man, his delivery is as non-threatening as the positive
messages he delivers. Perhaps I am reading in to much yet
when I read “practical” it makes me think that he believes
teaching theology is somehow “impractical.” The example after
example simple means he tells a lot of stories and anecdotes that
somehow relate to the message in which he may cite one or two
proof texts to make his point.
It also concerns me when a pastor can make the statement that
God does not want anybody walking out of here “heavy-hearted.”
My Bible says “godly sorrow worketh repentance…”
(see 2 Cor. 7:10). At times God does want us to walk out of
a service “heavy-hearted” if we have been sinning against His will.
We should allow the Word (when properly expounded) and the
Spirit (when genuinely present) to break us, to convict us of
sinful attitudes and practices.
However if all you hear is “upbeat,” “cheerful,” and “optimistic”
messages there is little opportunity for the Holy Spirit to work
conviction in the hearts of the hearers. This folksy down home
non-confrontational type of message also goes a long way in
explaining the huge crowds that gather to be entertained.
Let Us Entertain You
Entertained? Oh yes, it is not only Joel’s preaching style but
the music of Lakewood is an important ingredient in drawing large
hoards of people. Once Joel took command of Lakewood’s already
large congregation (between 6,000 to 8,000 members) he began
to expand the musical talent as well.
Four years ago, when Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff — former member of
the Dove Award-winning Cruse Family gospel group — became
Lakewood’s minister of music, the church had only one Sunday
morning service…Soon after Cruse-Ratcliff arrived Lakewood
expanded when two Sunday morning services were added…
‘The growth was extremely rapid,’ says Cruse-Ratcliff, who still
serves on the 200-member Lakewood. Staff.
“Star power” brings people to churches as well, especially musical
stars and Joel is not ignorant of this fact. As minister of music
Ms. Ratcliff knows people in the contemporary music scene and
she no doubt help add to the musical strength of this mega-church
by helping bring in some more musical talent:
Helping to spice up that mix are two of the most prominent names
in worship music. Marcos Witt, who fills stadiums in Latin
America for worship concerts was tapped in 2002 to pastor
Lakewood’s 3,000 member Hispanic congregation. Also adding
diversity to the Lakewood staff is Israel Houghton, whose soulful
worship anthems are sung around the world.
The music at Lakewood is contemporary. They have musical stars
that appeal to Hispanic (Witt), African-American (Houghton) and
Caucasian members (Ratcliff). The musical team writes many of
their own songs and nothing in the article is ever mentioned about
This is not surprising when you consider that (to our knowledge)
no seeker-sensitive or WOF congregation use hymnals at all, apart
from the occasional singing of Amazing Grace. The charismatic
movement’s brand of music has infiltrated almost all evangelical
congregations that have forsaken the use of the historic hymns.
At our former seeker-sensitive Baptist church we sang songs that
originated from the Toronto “revival” and from the Vineyard
movement, two examples of some of the wildest expressions
within the renewal movement.
Musically speaking there is a method “to their madness” at
Lakewood and other mega-churches. They have a strong
emphasis to cut all ties with traditional Christianity. The classic,
highly theological hymns and hymnals virtually scream out the
dreaded word “traditional.”
Out With the Old, In With the New
Lakewood and all seeker congregations do not want to be
associated with any denominational trappings or any forms of
liturgical worship. Many of these churches have even removed
crosses from behind their pulpits lest they appear to be too
churchy to the seeker.
In all our time spent among both Pentecostal believers and
seeker-sensitive groups we never recited the Lord’s prayer
as part of our worship. We never recited any of the historic
creeds of the orthodox Church. I doubt there are three people
who attend Lakewood who could recite the Apostles or Nicene
Creeds, probably few know the Lord’s Prayer. Catechism classes?
You’ve got to be kidding! In its place some groups may offer a
new member’s class, but these classes are usually just general
introductions to what the church has to offer the “seeker.”
Osteen being a sign-gift believer offers classes which promote
the concept of a second baptism in/with/by the Holy Spirit,
but this aspect seems to be soft-peddled as well.
What Is the Key to Osteen’s Success?
Osteen I believe is probably the first of many Word-of-Faith
devotee’s who has melded the successful marketing techniques
of the seeker-sensitive mega-churches with their positive
confession health & wealth message. The blend becomes a potent
hybrid that appeals to both sign-gift believers (sort of
“charismatic lite”) and baby-boomer seekers.
The message that God wants to bless His children with complete
physical health, to give them great financial wealth and to demand
little of them regarding their spiritual life is a highly appealing
message. When you combine this with well known Gospel singers,
highly orchestrated praise and worship teams in a decidedly
non-church atmosphere it will appeal to even a wider audience.
We cannot forget to mix in the vast television footprint that
Lakewood church promotes, along with its web site, daddy
John Osteen’s books are still in almost all Christian bookstores
so it is not difficult to understand how it can gather 30,000 people
in Lakewood’s rented 16,000 seat arena, formerly the home of
the Houston Rockets.
What saddens me the most is that one hears little, if any, Law
& Gospel proclaimed by Joel at Lakewood Church. To quote
something I remember hearing “dad” Hagin say: “how do you
poison a dog? You put the poison in with the good meat.”
I do not want to press the analogy too far but the reality is
that 30,000 people are not being biblically fed a balanced
spiritual diet that will promote true growth in their lives.
What you do hear is a synthesis of Word-of-Faith concepts
wrapped up in a seeker-friendly environment by a young man
with a winsome smile.
Lastly, we cannot lose sight of the fact that a certain synergy
builds with any church when it begins to reach such a size.
People, who have no solid doctrinal foundation, will want to
attend the place where “something” is happening (throw in a
coffee bar, ice rink and gym does not hurt either). In America,
bigger is better. After all, many posit, if Joel was not being used
of the Lord then why would God allow all these people to come
to Lakewood church?
Could it be a sign of God’s judgment on His people who have
forsaken His ways? Often we think of God’s judgment as some
divine catastrophe, yet often, and just as catastrophic, is when
He simply allows people to have own way. I believe the words
of Jeremiah are applicable to many in the Church today:
[Be astonished, O ye heavens, at this, and be horribly afraid,
be ye very desolate, saith the LORD. For my people have
committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain
of living waters, [and] hewed them out cisterns,
broken cisterns, that can hold no water].
As much as Joel no doubt believes the growth they’ve
experienced is due to the blessing of God it really boils down to
three simple things, which have nothing to do with God at all:
(1) his father’s legacy and an already existing mega-church;
(2) Joel’s slick marketing abilities;
(3) a biblically errant, but hugely popular message which appeals
to the masses seeking to have their ears tickled and experience
a “good time” in church. Please pray for Joel Osteen, like it or not,
he currently has a tremendous impact on many people. Pray the
Lord open his eyes to biblical truth and may he take as bold a
stand to expose error.