Social Activism and Gender at Joel Osteen's Church: Part 2 of an Interview with Phil Sinitiere

Karen Johnson

Phil Sinitiere recently published Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity. With 40,000 attenders each weekend, Lakewood is America's largest mega church, and its pastor's reach extends well beyond the weekend service, with best-selling books, podcasts, and sermons on satellite radio and cable television.  Phil argues that if we want to understand American evangelicalism today, we must account for Osteen and Lakewood Church. Last month I posted the first part of an interview Phil and I conducted that discussed race and class at Lakewood (for Arlene's interview with Phil, go here).  This month, I'm posting the second part of the interview, which addresses social change and gender at Lakewood.

KJ: Joel Osteen preaches a message of personal transformation and second chances.  How is it typical of American evangelicalism?  How is it different?  I was also surprised that despite the individualistic nature of Osteen's message, members of his congregation are working to fight human trafficking and participating in marches for social justice.  How did that happen?

PS: Osteen’s message of second chances connects to the history of Pentecostalism and the myth of American identity that promises the possibility of remaking oneself. At the same time, the idea of a spiritual second chance—if I can term it that way—is perennially Christian as well. My interest in the book does not consider this question in a theological perspective; rather I explore the historical roots and cultural meaning of Osteen’s prosperity gospel. Rooted in 19th century New Thought as Kate Bowler’s Blessed expertly documents, as the prosperity gospel intersected with Pentecostalism and later neopentecostal the message of starting over resonated culturally in the U.S. and gave the movement wider resonance. At Lakewood, and especially the context of Houston that some journalists and observers have described as a second chance city, the discourse of a spiritual makeover became extraordinarily popular. 

Furthermore, in our age of so-called reality television, where shows script both tension and transformation (here think of shows like Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Biggest Loser, Love It or List It, Fixer Upper, etc.), the idea of remaking oneself through remaking one’s body or one’s earthly above has deep cultural meaning. In the book I use the work of psychologist Dan McAdams in The Redemptive Self and the ethnographer Omri Elisha’s research in Moral Ambition to explain how Lakewood’s message of second chances both traffics in extreme religious individualism while it simultaneously inspires religious rationales for social outreach.

KJ: You spend significant time in the book exploring other leaders at Lakewood beside Joel Osteen and his father, John.  Many of those ministers are women.  How does gender function in the leadership at Lakewood, and in what context should we situate Lakewood's gender dynamics?

PS: I’m very glad you asked the question, Karen. It is part of the larger topic of prosperity gospel women, a topic Kate Bowler is now working on, along with the work of scholars like Scott Billingsley and others. As I point out in the book, while Lakewood is no doubt about the smiling preacher, Lakewood is also so much more than Joel Osteen. 

Since its founding, Lakewood has approached male and female leadership as shared labor. I point out in the book how Joel’s spouse Victoria Osteen speaks to this dynamic very specifically, yet maintains her own focus in terms of support for children’s literacy and women’s middle-class, bourgeois empowerment. Notably, Victoria featured this line of thinking in her 2008 book Love Your Life. Victoria’s power of submission at Lakewood, to invoke Marie Griffith’s concept, has created her own teaching platform that she has used to authorize a message by, for, and about women. Dodie Osteen, John Osteen’s widow, worked as a ministerial co-partner with John through a prominent place as a co-host of the John Osteen show and functioned as a co-pastor in Lakewood’s services by offering personal stories of transformation to legitimate the church’s prosperity message. Dodie’s brand new memoir, If My Heart Could Talk, works as a promotional book even as it unveils some of Lakewood’s history in this regard. 

Lisa Osteen Comes, Joel Osteen’s sister, is also a major figure at Lakewood who began as a minister under her father John and continues to preach weekly to the congregation. Her teachings deploy the discourse of destiny, and like her father John, Lisa routinely emphasizes neopentecostal experiences such as speaking in tongues and divine healing. While each of Lakewood’s female ministers don’t overlook discussions of domestic tranquility, they also operate in the church’s organizational structure as empowered co-equals with male pastors.

KJ: Thanks, Phil, for talking with us more about Salvation with a Smile.  I look forward to your next project on James Baldwin, and your continued work on the cultural history of the prosperity gospel and American televangelism.


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