Monday, October 15, 2007

Market Shares Yielding Dividends for Joel Osteen, or Reflections on America's Spiritual Marketplace










Joel Osteen's stock in America's religious economy is up and rising.








Today Osteen's second book hits the stores. A follow-up to his first book, Your Best Life Now, by all accounts Become a Better You will far surpass Osteen's first book in sales and influence. Time will tell, as will Osteen's media presence this week. He was on 60 Minutes Sunday evening, will be on Good Morning America three times this week, Larry King Live on Tuesday, and will make a few other appearances as well.

Osteen is for many a household name by now. The "smiling preacher" (a phrase coined by Washington Post writer Lois Romano) from Texas whose positive preaching impacts millions, inspires countless others, and as testimonials attest, transforms many, makes a case to replace Billy Graham as America's (and perhaps across the world) leading evangelical.

He has one best-selling book, and most likely two, a massive church with state of the art everything, a huge following, and a message that offers second chances to those who want a fresh start. In short, to use the title of psychologist Dan McAdams's recent book, Osteen provides individuals with the possibility of acquiring a redemptive self. Everyone has a story of struggle, a tale of despair--as well as an end to the story that results in victory or inspires hope. McAdams focuses on these sorts of stories to discuss the redemptive self.

Osteen masterfully fills his sermons with just these kinds of stories, assures listeners that God smiles on them with great favor, and provides a simple formula for life change: think right and speak right. One can transform one's circumstances by the power of positive thinking and by uttering change into existence. And his books offer scores and scores of practical ways to achieve the redemptive self--one key I think to understanding his immense popularity. America is a land of second chances, and Osteen offers all of that and more.

So, do market shares yield dividends in America's religious economy? I'll leave that one to the theologians and doctrinal specialists.

The study of Osteen deserves more than doctrinal websites that proclaim the smiling preacher as a heretic, and more than just sound bites from theologians not readily associated with Osteen's denominational history.

For historians and other interested scholars the rise and presence of Joel Osteen (or any other megaminister) offers an important subject of study as we all try to make sense of the increasingly diverse and unboundingly fascinating landscape of American religion. There's currently one book on offer about Osteen, but it mainly collates media reports and offers a somewhat thorough but largely uncritical perspective on America's most popular preacher. More work remains.


As I've indicated in other posts, I'm persuaded that one way to understand megaministers and megachurches is to use a marketplace approach to studying American religion. Popularized by the likes of sociologists of religion--and Rodney Stark and Roger Finke in particular--this approach more or less see churches as firms that offer religious goods and services to spiritual consumers. This is not as reductionistic as it sounds, nor am I necessarily proposing statistical understandings of religious firms and spiritual consumers, but suggesting a historically-grounded sociological analysis tempered with insights drawn from anthropology, media studies, ethnography, etc. Using multiple angles of analysis, with enough participant-observation, allows one to examine conceptions of sacred space, understand the lived religion of participants and members, explore the uses of media, intersections between religion and commodification, etc. Check out Shayne Lee's book on T.D. Jakes, or Mara Einstein's study on branding and religion to get a better sense of what I mean. Perhaps you may want to read up on some current projects underway related to Osteen as well.


So, what do you think are productive, helpful ways to study such contemporary religious figures? What other theoretical perspectives might scholars deploy in their analysis? Also, if you caught Osteen on 60 Minutes or see him on any other the other shows this week, let us know your thoughts and reflections.
UPDATE: Mara weighs in on Joel's 60 Minutes segment last night and points out key features of the segment while she offers keen thoughts on Osteen's marketing tactics.

Mara's post prompted this further reflection about how Osteen is answering his critics now: It dawned on me watching the interview that Joel is starting to answer his critics differently--and it makes all the sense in the world from a marketplace perspective. He challenges his critics by saying that he is fulfilling God's specific call with his specific message--in other words he's fitting into his market niche and perfecting his message for that particular niche. Osteen's critics charge him with having a hollow theology and lite preaching, but he counters by saying that he's not a theologian or a scripture scholar therefore that's not his thing. It follows then, Osteen seems to imply, that his critics miss the point of his message and ministry and therefore their criticisms don't pass muster.

[Photo credit here.]

2 comments:

LK said...

This may be a bit of a stretch, but it would be pretty interesting to apply post-colonial theory to Lakewood and other such churches...

Phil said...

I'm not sure it is as much of a stretch as you think; it sounds cool. Explain a bit more what you would envision....I like the idea....