If the evangelical world is looking for a poster child to offset the negative publicity surrounding rich televangelists, Joel Osteen would be a good choice.
Osteen is among the nation’s most widely recognized television ministers, trailing only Billy Graham and Rick Warren, and in 2006 was named the most influential Christian in America by readers of Church Report magazine. A best-selling author of religious and inspirational books, Osteen brings his rock-star status to Orlando tonight and Friday at Amway Arena.
The contrast is stark between Osteen and the six televangelists suspected by Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley of living lavish lifestyles — large estates, vacation homes, exotic trips, luxury cars and private jets — at the expense of their tax-exempt television ministries. Among the accused are Paula and Randy White of Tampa, and Benny Hinn, formerly of Orlando.
Author Herbert E. Brown, in his 2001 book, characterized such high-living pastors as “pimps in the pulpit.”
Osteen lives a much different life.
He has not taken a salary from his Houston megachurch for two years. He owns one house — the same one he and his wife, Victoria, have lived in for 13 years — and until recently he drove a 9-year-old car he inherited from his late father. Osteen pays his own hotel bills, and there is no private jet.
Although the upbeat minister does take collections at services, netting an estimated $43 million a year, Osteen does not ask for money on his broadcasts, which reach an estimated 7 million viewers weekly in the U.S. and 100 other countries. Nonetheless, an additional $30 million comes through the mail. His most recent book deal earned him a $13 million advance.
“We make plenty of money from our books,” said Osteen, 44. “But we just live normal lives. We try to be conservative and honor God with our life and with our example.”
Osteen refuses to condemn the targets of Grassley’s inquiry, or Richard Roberts, who quit as president of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., amid charges that he used school funds and facilities for his family.
“While I never like to hear negative things about friends and other ministers, I choose to believe the very best in them,” Osteen said.
Osteen leads the 48,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston. Services border on the nonsectarian, with no crosses in evidence. Osteen’s theology is more inspirational than theological, with a strong emphasis on self-help, in the feel-good tradition of Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller. Osteen speaks from a lectern he prefers to call a “podium,” rather than a “pulpit.” His books are filled with lots of exclamation points, but the word Jesus rarely appears.
Osteen’s first book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, sold millions of copies. His latest, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, is on The New York Times best-seller list, and propelled him onto 60 Minutes and Larry King Live, as well as several magazine covers.
In his new book, Osteen points to himself as an example of unlocking hidden potential. A college dropout, he preached for the first time when his father, who founded Lakewood Church, became ill and later died. For the preceding 17 years, Joel Osteen had worked behind the scenes in production at the television ministry.
The success of these books raises questions about how religious figures should handle the millions of dollars in royalties and contributions.
Osteen is not the only prominent religious figure who tries to navigate these issues and, by doing so, differentiate himself from such controversies.
Warren, for example, has repaid every dollar he has earned in the pulpit of Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., and pledged to give away 90 percent of his book royalties. He accepts no speaking fees and is not as reluctant as Osteen to criticize those who are less altruistic.
“The opulent lifestyles of televangelists make me sick,” said Warren, of those ministries now under investigation. The scandals, he said, flow from the “prosperity gospel” that many televangelists preach.
“Success in any area often creates a spirit of entitlement — ‘I deserve this’ — that is the exact opposite of servant leadership,” Warren said.
Osteen agrees, offering his own definition of the prosperity gospel: “I never preach a message on money,” he said. “I do believe that God wants us to be blessed, to have good marriages, to have peace in our minds, to have health, to have money to pay our bills. I think God wants us to excel. But everyone isn’t going to be rich — if we’re talking about money.”