Research: Salvation with a Smile

9780814723883_FCPhillip 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, and the third post about the project’s origins. The initial post about Salvation with a Smile, which revealed the book’s cover, is over at Baldblogger. For this month’s post, the author addresses the processes of researching Salvation with a Smile.

The discipline of history defines the primary investigative lens of Salvation with a Smile. Published and unpublished primary source material formed the documentary foundation of my work, while I also conducted oral history interviews and recorded field notes from participant observation in various congregational activities at Lakewood Church. While I am not formally trained as an ethnographer or sociologist, the work of religious studies scholar Robert Orsi in Between Heaven and Earth, as well as the work of historian Randall Balmer—particularly his quip about being a “shade-tree sociologist” for the research he conducted on evangelicalism in Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory—methodologically informed parts of my qualitative research on Lakewood. In Salvation with a Smile, my historical and cultural assessments of Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church focus on context and change over time.

First and foremost, the rich scholarship on American religious history provided a robust historiographical tradition upon which to base my book. The excellent work of David Edwin Harrell on neopentecostalism, for example, helped me to frame Lakewood’s early years in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Books on the history of the prosperity gospel by Kate Bowler and Gerardo Marti assisted me in making sense of John and Joel Osteen’s teachings. Publications on Pentecostal healing and prayer by scholars such as Joseph Williams, Candy Gunther Brown, and T. M. Luhrmann, along with publications on evangelical biblicism by James S. Bielo and Brian Malley, offered a way to understand religious experience at Lakewood Church. And the list goes on and on. My book’s endnotes and Bibliography demonstrate the breath of scholarship to which my work is indebted.

With respect to primary sources, the publications of John Osteen and Joel Osteen, along with works by Dodie Osteen (Joel Osteen’s mother), Victoria Osteen (Joel Osteen’s wife), Lisa Osteen Comes (Joel Osteen’s sister), and Paul Osteen (Joel Osteen’s brother), as well as the books of former Spanish Lakewood pastor Marcos Witt, provided clear windows into the religious perspectives and ideas with which these individuals understand the world. When I started the research for Salvation with a Smile, John Osteen’s books were difficult to obtain, so in addition to Amazon.com, I found a number of his books on eBay. As I discuss below, interlibrary loan also came in handy, as did archival research.

In addition to printed materials, my book also utilizes audio and video sources, including a number of Joel Osteen’s early cassette sermons, along with his messages on VHS between 2001 and 2004. Around 2003, most of Joel’s materials became available on CD and DVD. I purchased over a dozen of the cassette packages, along with CDs and DVDs on eBay. In a stroke good fortune, several current and former Lakewood members I interviewed for the book kindly loaned me over 50 of John Osteen’s VHS messages from the 1980s and 1990s. This vintage material, some of which has become available on YouTube in the last 2 years or so, proved vital for my research. I used the videos for primary source materials of John’s teachings. In addition, since Joel Osteen produced the VHS sermon videos (he was Lakewood’s media producer during the 1980s and 1990s), the episodes also offer a literal view into Joel’s production strategies, which I interpret in light of televangelism’s recent history.

Participant observation also forms part of the evidentiary basis of my analysis of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen. I first began attending services and congregational activities at Lakewood in 2005. As I indicated in an earlier post, some of this initial ethnographic work and research appeared in Holy Mavericks. For Salvation with a Smile, I continued to attend worship services and visit Sunday school classes, scribbling notes and thoughts down along the way. I also attended a number of “Night of Hope” events, as well as stadium and arena meetings Joel Osteen holds around the country. I attended two events held in Texas (one in Killeen, the other in Corpus Christi), and obtained a DVD of another— Joel’s very first arena event at Madison Square Garden. Thus, about a decade of participant observation informs the parts of my book that deal with Lakewood’s congregational life, primarily contained in a chapter on religious identity titled “The Redemptive Self”—a concept I borrow from narrative psychologist Dan McAdams.

Oral history interviews with current and former Lakewood members, as well as with journalists and scholars, allowed me to develop an understanding of Joel Osteen and the congregation’s broader history. I conducted about 25 interviews—including several follow-up interviews—over a four-year period. The stories I heard from members and attendees were intriguing and fascinating. They provided unique perspectives on Lakewood’s history, as well as the religious experiences that took place within the context of congregational worship services.

I’d like to share two anecdotes from my interviews that appear in the book. First, Joel Osteen routinely recites a “Bible confession” at the beginning of every service and “Night of Hope” event (read the text here, and find it performed here), a tradition that he adopted from his father. As detailed further in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, from one of my interviews I discovered the unique origin of the “Bible confession,” which began suddenly when John Osteen opened one of his services with it in the 1980s. A moment of call-and-response between John and a Lakewood member created the memorable mantra of “This is my Bible…”. Second, Joel’s own narrative about how he became Lakewood’s pastor emphasizes a divine prompting that inspired his decision to fill his father’s shoes. While I don’t dispute Joel’s interpretation of those events in the book—after all, I don’t have access to his interior life—I document that as John’s closest assistant in the 1980s and 1990s, Joel was the likely candidate to succeed his father as Lakewood’s pastor. Moreover, an interview I conducted with scholar David Edwin Harrell added additional evidence. Harrell had met John over the years while researching his books. For instance, while Harrell was researching All Things are Possible during on a Fulbright in India in 1995, he ran into John, who was there leading a revival campaign, and conducted another interview. From that conversation, Harrell remembered querying John about Lakewood’s future, during which time the aging pastor suggested that his son Joel might assume pastoral duties at the church.

While I enjoyed the challenge of understanding and interpreting content from audio and video sources, participant observation, and oral history interviews, another delightful aspect of researching Salvation with a Smile was tracking down Lakewood’s history in the archives. All told, I obtained research materials from approximately 18 different archival collections.

Fortunately, a number of collections in the greater Houston area, including materials on John Osteen from the San Jacinto Baptist Association, Central Baptist Church, and the Houston Metropolitan Research Center, did not require extensive travel. Documents from the San Jacinto Baptist Association and Central Baptist Church—as chapters 1 and 2 reveal—helped me to document John Osteen’s history before his start at Lakewood Church in 1959. A visit to the Pentecostal Research Collection at Regent University proved particularly fruitful in this regard as well; here I found evidence of John’s affiliation with the Full Gospel Businessmen’s Fellowship International, along with vital material on the print culture of neopentecostalism.

Research conducted at Oral Roberts University’s Holy Spirit Research Center was probably the most important archival excursion I took. As I write in chapter 2 of Salvation with a Smile, this archive provided rare Lakewood material from the 1970s and 1980s. One of the most interesting and puzzling discoveries included a VHS tape of a 1986 Good Friday service at Lakewood, during which an evangelist named Lucy Rael exhibited the stigmata—visible trauma on hands, feet, forehead, and back that, according to traditional Roman Catholic teaching, mimics injuries similar to those of Jesus Christ at crucifixion. I interpret the Rael event in light of neopentecostalism’s broader history, and John’s teachings on spiritual warfare. And speaking of spiritual warfare, while this particular work appeared in spring 2015, too late to include in my book, religious studies scholar Sean McCloud’s recent book American Possessions offers a keen interpretation of neopentecostalism’s notion of spiritual struggle.

Also vital to my research were a number of digitized archival collections. In the first chapter, I explore some of John Osteen’s earliest engagements with televangelism, contextualized by material on the subject in the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College. From the Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives, I found material on the civil rights movement in Houston, a time, as I explain in chapter 2, that marked an important juncture in Lakewood’s history. At the very end of my research for the book, I discovered digitized copies of the Pentecostal Evangel at the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center, a publication that covered a number of John Osteen’s early revival meetings (thanks Arlene Sánchez-Walsh!).

This post covers some of the research I conducted for Salvation with a Smile. The next post discusses areas for future research on Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church. In the meantime, you can find the rest of the story 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.

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