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"?
I think they do. You know, we never ask for money on television and I never have preached a message on money. But I do believe that God wants uswhen I say prosperI think he wants us to have healthy relationships, he wants us to have good families, and I qualify that by saying, my dad was raised in the Great Depression. They had no money; they were the worst of the worst. And so, my whole thing is I don't think God wants everybody to be a millionaire or things like that, it's that he wants us to go higher than we are. If my dad would have never got out of the poverty mentalityI mean, they were the ones who got the Christmas basket, they were so poorI wouldn't be where I am today. So I want my kids to know that it's not the money; I want them to know that they can help more people, they can aim for a different life. Somebody who criticizes this and says it's just a prosperity message, it's just about moneywell, my message is about hope and it's about overcoming tough times.
To get back to the other question, I think the message is very practical and relevant. I'm not necessarily explaining deep, theological questions and doctrine and stuff like thatI'm talking about how you can live your everyday life. When I speak, I try to make it a point to talk about something people can use that day or tomorrow at work. It's practical thingshow the bible can relate to us todayand I've had people come from other churches and say "you know, I've learned more how to live life in a few months here than I have in a long time."
Do you believe that's why the book has had such widespread success?
I think it is. I haven't tried to target just a Christian audience. I love that, but I think that we have to get outside our box and reach as many people as possible. A lot of the letters we get, people say "I used to go to church when I was little because my parents made me but I've never been back and you restored my faith" or "you know what, I thought the church was made up of hypocrites and stuff," so I like to get beyond the church walls, to try to get out into the community, and I think that's helped the book. I think it's also just practical"Hey, this makes sense, but it's all backed up by the bible." It's all scriptural principles; I just don't necessarily put 100 scriptures before I start to try to prove it.
You get criticized a lot for your relentless positivitywhy?
I think maybe it's because it's not old school. People are used to being beaten down, they're used to [churches] condemning people to make them feel bad so that they'll repent, so they'll know that they're sinners, but I think there's a different approach. The scripture says that it's the goodness of God that leads people to repent, so I take the approach that I'm going to say, "you know what, God is not mad at you; he's already sent his son; the price has been paid, if you'll just accept it.' Maybe some people think I'm not hard enough on 'em, but yet I talk about hard issues, I just do it in a positive way; I do it in a way that says, "Hey, you can overcomeit doesn't matter where you've been or what you've done."
Has that always been your message?
I think it's evolved, but when you go back to the core of who I am, I've always been positive, even before I was a minister. I play a lot of sports and would always be the one encouraging the guys, "We can beat this team." It's my personality and so, when I took over for my dad, I made a decision that I was going to be who God made me to be. I didn't know if it was going to work, but I thought, I can't get up there and try to preach like my dad. I love my dad , I thought he was great, but like I said, he's 40 years older, he came from a Southern Baptist background, and my personality is real laid back and easygoing, where my dad was a little more fiery.
What is the most important lesson you've learned over the last six years?
The biggest lesson is to stay focused. There are so many distractions, as the book came out and as God blessed us with more favor, more success, there's so many different ways you can go, and I just have to come back and say, "you know, here's the main thing that I know I'm supposed to doand that's raise my family, take care of my kids, and then I feel like my gift is speaking." Actually, I don't know if that's a lesson, but it's definitely the biggest challenge, to stay focused.
Do you hope that your children will be involved with Lakewood in the future?
I hope so. I know my dad always wanted me to ministeralthough he never saw it except onceand that's my dream, too. I don't pressure themmy dad never pressured mebut I do like to just encourage them, to say "Look at the opportunity God's given us; look at the legacy granddaddy started," so I believe they will. Little Alexandra loves to sing. Jonathan, I saw on his school paper the other day that he wanted to be a musician and then pastor the church, and I thought "That's great." I think it's in their hearts. And it may not be the ministry or preaching per sethey may make movies or be recording artists or something elsebut I know they'll do something.
How do you appeal to young congregants?
I think that sometimes the church has not progressed with the timesI'm not saying all of thembut I think that's why we lost a lot of young people at one time. They didn't want to go because it was grueling, it wasn't relevant, it doesn't relate to my life today, and so I just try to make my message practical. It's interesting, we have parents who'll bring up an eight- or nine-year-old child and they're the ones that got them started watching. People give me a hard time about my message being simple, but that's what I want it to be: I want to keep it simple; I want everybody to understand it. And I believe it's not just me, but a lot of other young people carrying on a new generation of faith. Not that the old one was bad, but we have to change.
It's only been six years since you first took to the pulpit.
I knowit's very overwhelming. It seems like just the other day I was working behind the scenes there at the church. It's just been an amazing roller coaster. When my father died, I had never really preached before and we thought if we could just maintaindaddy had a great church, 6,000 peoplewe never dreamed it could take off like this. Now 40,000 people come out every weekend for four servicesthree in English, one in Spanish . . . The transition to new building [the former Compaq Center in downtown Houston, which reopened as Lakewood Church in July, after a $93 million renovation] has been smooth. I think it sounds better, it all felt better to me right away. I mean, the old building was greatI grew up there and it was hard to leavebut this is a new beginning.
You famously dropped out of Oral Roberts University after a year and don't have the traditional training most peers do; what prepared you to pastor to so many?
I think I grew up in it. For 17 years I worked in television production there in the church and edited my father's sermonsevery sermon I read three to four times and edited down to timeand so I believe those 17 years I was being trained. I didn't know it, but I got all that in me. I'm certainly not against seminarymany of my friends have gonebut for me, this was the right path . . . People have asked me why I don't go back, but I just feel like this is where God has me and I feel good about it. I was pleased when I read recently that Peter Jennings didn't finish high school. (Laughs.)
So you believe in following your instincts?
I do think you have to follow your heart. I think that's how God leads younot in your headbecause, some thingsit didn't make sense that I would want to take over the church when I had never spoken but one time before, but I just knew down in here [motions to his heart] I was supposed to do it. This way, God gets the credit; he's the one who helped me with this.
Since the last presidential election, there's been a lot of talk about the intersection of politics and religion. You seem to shy away from the topicwhy?
It's been interesting, my dad was never involved in politics all those years, and when I search my heart, I don't have any leaning toward that eitherI don't feel like it's my gift at all. I do think it's important that people know where we stand on certain issues, and from time to time I'll make that clear, but it's not in my heart to be the one who's leading the pack in the political area. I have good friends who do and I support them and we know we have a part to play in that. But what I usually do around election time is we encourage people to vote. The thing that's interesting about Lakewood is that it's very diversethere may be as many Democrats and Republicans as Independentsand I feel like the message God's given me is hope and inspiration and how to live life, and I think the moment I go and say I'm a staunch this supporter or that supporter, I divide my audience . . . I tell people all the time, "We're not for abortion, I don't think that's best, I don't think gay marriage is best, but our doors are open to everybody." We have every kind come in.
Why is it important to make that distinction?
I think [those sorts of political issues] divide us, divide the country, and bring more disunity. A lot of times, it draws people away from God, and I think there's a fine line of balancing it. I know people are always asking, "What do you think, is this right?" but I just think we've got to be open. I have always said, "I'm not here to convict people or to condemn themGod's going to do thatI've just got to put the truth out there and the message out there and let god deal with the people's heart."
Does it bother you that your book, which advises steps such as "Enlarge Your Vision," "Let Go of the Past," and "Live to Give!" has been labeled self-help by some?
It doesn't. I wouldn't have necessarily put it in that category by choice, but it doesn't bother me because it does, it's there to help you live a better life, to live by God's principles, so it doesn't bother me at all.
What are your hopes for the future?
I don't know. It's been such a ride these six years. I never dreamed we'd be here, so I just try to stay open and always pray that God will take us where ministries haven't gone before. I believe we're in a day in America and the world where faith is at an all-time high, and I think that there are going to be some new doors opening up. Like we've seen with the book that crosses over, we can have more of an impact not just in the church world, but in the culture in general.
You truly believe that faith is at an all-time high?
I believe it is. I've never seen it like is today, where people don't mind talking about their faith. I don't feel like it's looked down on as it used to be. Even growing up, when we had a church of 1,000 that was a big deal, but now there are arenas being filled. I never dreamed that 40,000 people would come to a church like ours one day, so I don't know where it will go. It's a new world.
How do you keep the mega-church experience personal?
I think it starts from the platform: I try to act like I'm just talking to you; I don't try to talk down to people; I try to keep it warm and personalpersonable, I guess. The other thing is, in our big church, we have a lot of small groups that meet. Someone was telling me on the way here, "Well, I don't go to a big church because I want somebody to miss me if I'm not there," and I thought, we would miss youit'd just be in a different way. If you want to be involved, we would miss you. The bigger the church is the smaller it's got to get . . . At some point you've got to say, whether it's 200 or 20,000, you've just got to staff it right, and I think that's what we've done.
Do you think your background in television production has helped you get where you are now?
I know it's helped me. We started a station before my dad died and I learned how to run the stationthe lead in, the lead out, all the different aspects thereand I do think that's given me a good background . . . Also, it's important to me that the production of our broadcast is very high quality. I realize that you've got to have good cameras and lighting and good presentation if you expect your message to be received, because you're competing with people, if that's the right word, that are doing the Grammies and local news, and you can't be subpar. That's certainly helped us, because when people flip by and say, "What is this?" it's on that same level.
You've been nicknamed "the smiling preacher" by the media. How do you feel about the moniker?
[Laughs.] Some people thought I would be offended by it, but I'm not. I'm a happy person and I've always smiledin my little baby pictures, I've got a smile, I'm smilingso I don't mind and I think its good because, beyond the funny part of it, it shows that it's ok to be happy, it's ok to enjoy your life. I've got a good marriage, great kids and I'm happy and I love the Lord and it's OK. For a while if you went to church, you were not supposed to have funyou went in there and got told what you were not supposed to do and came out of there kind of draggingand it's really just the opposite. We try to make it a celebration.
Religion in America, a regular feature of usnews.com, probes issues of faith in the United States.