Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October. The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the book’s backstory, including the research he conducted, the writing process, and his hopes for Salvation with a Smile in the classroom. In case you missed it, read his earlier post about encountering Lakewood Church here. For this month’s post, the author breaks down the book’s origin story.
I got interested in studying Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen about a decade ago in the summer of 2005, when the congregation moved into the Compaq Center. For nearly 50 years previous, Lakewood’s home was located in a Black and Latino/a working-class neighborhood on Houston’s northeast side. Lakewood’s new home generated national headlines, which, as a scholar of religious history, initially drew my attention.
Joel had emerged as a national figure in 2004 with the publication of his first book Your Best Life Now, which became a New York Times best-seller, and in early 2005 Washington Post writer Lois Romano dubbed him the “smiling preacher.” In addition, in June 2005 Osteen appeared on Larry King Live, where he spoke about taking over Lakewood Church from his father John Osteen, his life as a pastor, and his first book, among other topics. An exchange between King and Osteen during which King queried the smiling preacher about the exclusive claims of Christianity and salvation in Jesus Christ, however, quickly became a flashpoint of controversy that further catapulted Joel into the national spotlight. Because Osteen refused to condemn religious people of faith traditions outside of Christianity—while simultaneously maintaining that he believed God was the ultimate Divine Judge—many evangelicals believed he had denied the exclusivity of Jesus Christ on national television.
Critics roared with disapproval. A series of online, print, and television campaigns (which continue to the present) by the likes of evangelicals R. Albert Mohler, John MacArthur, Michael S. Horton, and Hank Hanegraaff castigated Osteen’s supposed uninformed theology, slim reasoning, and shallow dogma. Such dismissals, many of which emanated out of the New Calvinist movement, shaped opinion about Osteen, and even prompted a minister named Adam Key to picket and preach outside of Lakewood Church with a poster of his book Your Best Lie Now on display. (I recount this larger moment of religious controversy in chapter 8 of Salvation with a Smile, and explain its historical and cultural significance.) The summer of 2005 was thus a signature moment in the history of Osteen and Lakewood Church, and represents the origins of what became Salvation with a Smile.
At the time of Osteen’s ascendance in 2005, I was nearly finished with my Ph.D. coursework in the University of Houston’s history department, and looking for an independent study to round out my fall schedule. I had been reading Andrew Chesnut’s writings on religious economy—then at the University of Houston, now at Virginia Commonwealth—and approached him about using religious economy to analyze Lakewood’s congregation. The following fall, I conducted extensive participant-observation at Lakewood, and read widely about religious economy. I began to consider Lakewood’s historical origins, and think about why and how the congregation became America’s largest megachurch. The paper I wrote for the independent study with Professor Chesnut, it turned out, formed the basis for the chapter on Joel Osteen in my book Holy Mavericks, which appeared in 2009.
Yet the Holy Mavericks chapter could hardly tell the fuller story of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. Much of the research I compiled for the chapter pointed to a much larger account of the congregation’s history and Osteen’s cultural significance, so I began to consider what that larger story might look like. By 2009, Joel Osteen had become a household name, and had published three New York Times best-selling books. He was, as Mara Einstein has observed, a powerful religious brand in American Christianity. The story was growing. In 2010, I assembled a book proposal and in March of 2011, with a book contract in hand, I continued to write and research Salvation with a Smile for NYU Press.
Having grown up in Houston in the 1980s, I’d heard of Lakewood and remember seeing the church’s founder John Osteen on local television. Another memory was “Lakewood Church: Oasis of Love” bumper stickers on cars around town. The origins of studying Lakewood in 2005, as I look back now, was also a way to conduct research on local history, and learn more about Houston’s past. Long story short, the research I compiled for the graduate paper, and later the Holy Mavericks chapter, proved too much to fit into those limited spaces. I had to write the larger story, which you can find here.
Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace (NYU Press, 2009).