Religion in America: What makes a televangelist tick?
When Pastor Joel Osteen took the helm of Lakewood Church in Houston back in 1999 after the death of its founderhis father, John Osteenhe had no formal training and exactly one sermon under his belt. Six years later, the nondenominational congregation has grown from 6,000 to some 40,000, making it the country's largest mega-ministry, and Osteen's message of hope and optimism has reached millions more through weekly broadcasts on networks like BET and USA and his best-selling book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The sunny, charismatic, 42-year-old preacher chatted with U.S. News Contributing Editor Carolyn Kleiner Butler last week before a sold-out speaking engagement at the MCI Center in Washington, D.C.
To start, given your base in Houston, how has the Lakewood community helped respond to Hurricane Katrina?
Well, the mayor asked us to provide the food for all the evacuees at different centers, and we're in the process of raising $5 million for that. Then they've also asked us for 750 volunteers each day. Then, on top of that, people are going down there just to comfort them, to encourage them. It's one thing to take care of their physical needs, but we've also found that a lot of people, they need hope. They've had so much taken out of them; I feel like they need reflection, they need to be restored on the inside.
Your message is overwhelmingly positive. Is it hard at a time like thissuch a dark time for so many peopleto talk about hope?
It is. It's hard, in general, to see all that sufferingit's kind of oppressingbut I think more than ever we have to rise up and say, "You know what, there are going to be bright days ahead. You may not be able to see it right now, but just believe that God can somehow bring out the new beginning." So it's hard, but more than ever they need it; we all need it.
What does your success stem from?
I can't think of one thing, in particular. Obviously, we say its God's blessing and favor. But in my thinking, because I'm youngall of a sudden there's a young minister on the sceneI think maybe I can relate in a different way, because I'm 40 years younger than my dad, to a new generation. I think, too, that my message is just very positive and hopeful and I think people are looking for that. There's so much negativity pulling people down, that I think they respond when you say, "You know what, God's not mad at you, He's on your side, He's got a good plan for your life, and when we obey what He wants us to do, we're going to prosper." I believe God wants us to livethe bible says He wants us to livean abundant life. And I hesitate because I don't mean just money; I mean prospering in your relationships, your health, with your family.
Do you think people misunderstand the term "prosperity gospel"?