What you see on television is just one side of Joel Osteen.
During his weekly worldwide broadcast, the ever-smiling pastor of Houston’s mega Lakewood Church is comfortable onstage, infectiously congenial, oozing down-home charm as he makes a joke related to Scripture (Hebrews: biblical proof that the husband should make the morning coffee).
But in person, the 44-year-old preacher is soft-spoken and calls himself shy. During an interview for his new book, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, Osteen responds to each question with just a couple of sentences.
“If I walked into a room full of people … I’d be real quiet and reserved,” he says. “I’d gravitate toward the people I know already.”
Osteen, husband to Victoria (Lakewood’s co-pastor) and father of two children, says he was pushed into the ministry after the death of his father, Lakewood founder John Osteen, almost nine years ago. Now his church is the largest in the country, according to a report in Outreach, a magazine for church leaders. With 47,000 regular attendees, a staff of 350, a multimillion-dollar budget and a former pro basketball arena for a home, Lakewood is even larger than churches run by popular faith personalities Rick Warren and T.D. Jakes. Nielsen Media Research reports Osteen is America’s most-watched inspirational figure.
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“This lets me know it’s a God thing, that God had it planned,” Osteen says. “He can use anybody, and when we are at our weakest is when His power is always strongest.”
This philosophy is at the core of Osteen’s ministry and his new book, released last week. He says he wants people to love themselves, to understand that God wants this and to know they can do anything with God’s help. The message is a continuation of that from his first book, 2004’s Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, which rose to No. 2 on USA TODAY’s Best-Selling Books list and has remained on the list for 125 weeks.
Osteen believes Americans are feeling more spiritual and says he saw church attendance rise when the country went to war in Iraq. He believes people want to be more connected. “When I was growing up, denominations were a big deal,” he says. “I don’t see that today. In our church, we have Baptists, Methodists, Jewish people, all kinds of people. I think a lot of those walls have come down.”
Followers say Osteen has brought religion to the masses, and some credit him with fueling positive changes in their lives. One of those is George Adams, 50, of Conroe, Texas. Adams lost his job when the ceramics plant he managed in Canton, Ohio, shut down. So last year, he moved his family back to his native Texas.
He visited Lakewood and was able to pray with Osteen for a few minutes. Three weeks later, he had a job as a salesman at Gullo Ford in Conroe. Today, he is fleet manager and credit union specialist.
He likes the fact that Osteen tries to uplift people. “Jesus ministered to the poor to let them know they did not need to live like that,” he says. “God wants more for you than that. Joel Osteen’s ministry is doing just that: You teach people what God wants from you, not what he doesn’t want from you.”
Osteen has critics, too, who take issue with “prosperity gospel.” The Rev. Dr. Michael Horton, professor of systematic theology and apologetics at Westminster Seminary California in Escondido, sees Osteen as more of a motivational speaker than a pastor.
Osteen doesn’t talk about “what’s really remarkable about Christianity … I think it’s really a gross trivialization of the basic message of the Bible,” Horton says. “There’s nothing wrong with having a more positive outlook on life, but I don’t know why you can’t just watch more Oprah for that.”
William Martin, senior fellow for religion and public policy at the Baker Institute at Rice University in Houston, says: “It’s quite possible to criticize Joel on the basis of theological thinness, which I’m sure he’s aware of. … His response is, ‘Jesus talked to people about how to live, and that’s what I’m trying to do.’ He gives people a lot of very good counsel.”
Osteen says he is an example of his teaching that anyone can do anything with God’s help.
“It was just 81/2 years ago that I took over for my father,” Osteen says. “I worked behind the scenes all those years. I never dreamed I would be here. I think that’s what helps me be confident with the whole message that God’s given me: that you can go farther.”