He has absolutely no experience to be a pastor. Would you let a surgeon operate on you because he felt ‘called?’
It is safe to say that the name of Joel Osteen rings few bells in Britain. But he’s big – very big – in the US as the leader of a new generation of television evangelists, successor to men like Billy Graham, which explains why tonight on his first tour of the UK he is hiring the Wembley Arena for a gathering of the faithful. He was at the Odyssey Arena in Belfast on Wednesday and tomorrow he will be at the NEC in Birmingham.
For a man named this year – admittedly by readers of an evangelical magazine – as the most influential Christian in America, his ambitions are not modest. No tin tabernacles for him.
Osteen knocked a number of more famous names out of the ring in that poll: Graham came second, President Bush 11th, the late Jerry Falwell 40th and Cardinal Thomas McCarrick – the only Catholic on the list – 49th. The Pope did not make the cut at all.
Osteen was named most-watched pastor in America last year and America’s most fascinating person. This for a man whose Lakewood Church is a converted basketball stadium in Houston, Texas, whose ministry started only eight years ago and whose message is one that could charitably be described as theology lite. He gets 30,000 in his congregation every weekend and 18 million more tune in each month around the world to watch his services. That’s probably the secret. Osteen, a slight 44-year-old with a Texan drawl and a modest manner and gleaming teeth, smart suits and slicked-back hair, is not from the generation of hellfire preachers peddling old time religion. Nor, more importantly, is he one of the leaders of the religious right, men like Falwell and Pat Robertson whose pulpits and television studios have been platforms for nakedly partisan political messages designed to win secular power. Instead, Osteen’s is an affirming gospel, exemplified in the title of his book Your Best Life Now, which has sold more than 3 million copies since it was published three years ago.
Go to one of his services, as I did last year, and you will be told God wants you to do well: “God is a good God. He is smiling down on each one of you today We are going out for next week changed by God … Lord, we are filled with hope.”
Attending a service is an extraordinary experience. There are no religious symbols in the building. The stage is decorated with artificial waterfalls and a giant revolving globe, while above all flies an enormous stars and stripes.
The message of Osteen’s 12-minute sermons – precisely timed to hit the programme schedule – is studiously upbeat: if you keep a right attitude, God will reward you. It even extends to physical fitness in the obesity capital of the US: “Make changes for your health’s sake and God will make you better … if you get the physical side in balance, you will be rewarded by God.”
One on one, explains Don Iloff, Osteen’s press officer and brother-in-law, Joel knows where the rubber hits the road: “He’s telling them, God loves you, come on back. When they listen to Joel, they recognise a new face of God.”
Joel, he explains, does not have a great deal of time for pastoral work; visiting the sick, for example. There’s not enough time: that sermon takes two days to write and rehearse each week.
On the stage the preacher is accompanied by his former beauty queen wife Victoria, delegated to hand out the communion wafers, so that the ceremony becomes something like an upscale Tupperware party. Victoria, who has something of the appearance of Anthea Redfern in the Generation Game years ago, blotted her copybook a year or two back in an argument with stewards over their slowness in clearing up a drinks spillage on the armrest of her first class seat while the family was on a flight to Vail for a skiing holiday. She was fined $3,000 by the Federal Aviation Authority but insists she behaved throughout in a “Christian-like” manner.
After the service the couple go out among their people, some of whom have travelled hundreds of miles, from as far away as Florida, to attend.
Osteen has next to no theological training, having attended the fundamentalist Oral Roberts university for just a term. He was thrust into the limelight, never having preached before, when his father, a veteran preacher in the Bible belt who had split from the fundamentalist Southern Baptists in favour of a more charismatic ministry, died suddenly in 1999. Since then Lakewood has become the mightiest of megachurches.
The 16,000-seat basketball stadium was transformed at a cost of $90m (£44.7m). Like his black opposite number, Bishop T D Jakes of Dallas, Osteen’s has become a huge franchise. Jakes – who will be paying his own preaching visit to Britain this month – is reputedly worth $100m. Osteen’s church has an annual budget of $75m. Cable television has exponentially expanded the televangelists’ market.
Both men eschew political partisanship, although their messages are socially conservative. “There are good things in both parties,” Osteen told me when I met him last year while researching a book. Taking sides might compromise his affirming message. Such a refusal of political engagement frustrates religious right lobbyists in Washington, aware that the old generation is dying out. “Does he ever preach about pain and suffering? How does he deal with grief? Where’s the beef?” asks Michael Cromartie, vice-president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Old time preachers too are suspicious of such callow success. “Joel Osteen has absolutely no biblical training or experience to be a pastor. Would you allow a surgeon to operate on you because he felt ‘called’ to be a surgeon?” says the Rev Robert S Liichow of Discernment Ministry International in Detroit.
Maybe not, but thousands like Osteen’s message and this weekend will see how successful it is in Britain.
Born Joel Scott Osteen, March 5 1963, in Houston, son of John and Dodie
Family married Victoria Iloff in 1987; two children: Jonathan and Alexandra
Education Oral Roberts University, 1981-1982
Career senior pastor, Lakewood Church, Houston, 1999-; president and co-owner, KTBU Channel 55, Houston, 1998-; ordained, 1992; producer, creator, John Osteen Television programme, 1982-1999