HOUSTON, Oct. 14, 2007(CBS) Joel Osteen‘s positive, upbeat can-do message has turned him into America’s most popular preacher and earned him the title of most influential Christian in the country. He pastors the biggest and fastest growing American church and his services are the most watched religious broadcast in the country.
As Byron Pitts reports, Osteen was virtually unknown eight years ago, even in his own Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. A college drop-out, he worked behind the scenes producing his father’s television ministry. When his father, Pastor John Osteen, died, he stepped out in front of the camera and started to catch on. So why are so many people flocking to Joel Osteen?
Osteen’s service is an uninhibited celebration that’s part rock concert, part spectacular. There are no crosses, no religious symbols whatsoever. It’s all taped and broadcast around the world. His service is seen in 100 foreign countries and is the most watched religious broadcast in America.
“You get ten or fifteen thousand people that are excited about God. They’re from every race and every denomination and every background. They wanna be here, they weren’t drug to come to church. And so there’s something about that. It creates an attitude of expectancy. And we cheer and we shout and there’s joy. And I try to leave them better off than they were before,” Osteen tells Pitts.
They come by the thousands to nondenominational Lakewood Church, a former basketball arena in Houston, Texas, filling it to the rafters. They come hungry to hear first hand Joel Osteen’s message of empowerment and inspiration.
“My message is a message of hope that God is a good God, and that no matter what we’ve done, where we’ve been, God has a great plan for our lives. And when we walk in his ways they can take us places we’ve never dreamed of,” Osteen explains.
Osteen preaches his own version of what is known as the “prosperity gospel” — that God is a loving, forgiving God who will reward believers with health, wealth and happiness. It’s the centerpiece of every sermon.
“I want you to get a bigger vision. There are exciting things in your future. Your future is filled with marked moments of blessing, increase, promotion. God has already ordained before the foundation of the world, the right people, the right opportunity. Time and chance are coming together for you. Why don’t you get your hopes up?” Osteen tells his audience. “Why don’t you start believing that no matter what you have or haven’t done, that your best days are still out in front of you.”
It’s an appealing, comforting message and he follows it up with advice.
“If you’re not making as much progress as you would like, here’s the key: don’t lose any ground. Keep a good attitude and do the right thing even when it’s hard. When you do that you are passing the test. And God promises you your marked moments are on their way,” Osteen says.
“You said ‘I like to see myself as a life coach, a motivator to help them experience the life of God that God has for them. People don’t like to be beat down and told ‘You’ve done wrong.’ What do you mean?” Pitts asks.
“Well, I think that most people already know what they’re doing wrong. And for me to get in here and just beat €˜em down and talk down to €˜em, I just don’t think that inspires anybody to rise higher. But I want to motivate. I wanna motivate every person to leave here to be a better father, a better husband, to break addictions to come up higher in their walk with the Lord,” Osteen says.
“I mean is that being a pastor or is that being Dr. Phil or Oprah?” Pitts asks.
“No, I think we use God’s word. I think the principles that you hear Dr. Phil and some of those others talk about many times are right out of the Bible,” Osteen says.
“Do you ever fear with this message of optimism you may be misleading some people? That some people think, ‘Well, gee if I just think positive things about my life will turn around.’ And for some people that never happens,” Pitts asks.
“Yeah, I don’t fear it because we don’t just teach that. Cause I teach that even in the tough times you have to embrace where you are. Know that God’s giving you the strength to overcome. You can even be positive in a negative situation and it will help you stay filled with hope,” Osteen tells Pitts.
Two years ago his ministry got so big the Osteens moved into a 16,000 seat sports arena. Osteen says they spent about $100 million to renovate the place.
Why doesn’t it look more like a church?
“Hopefully it’ll look more and more like churches around the country,” says Osteen’s wife, Victoria.
Osteen and his wife of 20 years, who co-pastors Lakewood with him, took 60 Minutes on a tour of what they call their worship facility.
There’s a programmed ceiling that changes colors during songs, and no pulpit; Osteen calls it a podium.
“This does have a concert feel to it,” Pitts remarks.
“It does,” Osteen agrees.
Asked if all this distracts from the message, Osteen tells Pitts, “I don’t think so. I think it helps people be engaged.”
Engaged and generous. Osteen can afford all this because of the money the church brings in. But he doesn’t solicit contributions on television.
Asked why he doesn’t ask for money during his TV broadcasts, Osteen says, “We didn’t want anything to distract people when they were watchin’ to try to turn off the message. ‘Cause we know how people are skeptical of TV ministers. ‘Hey, there’s a guy, he just wants my money.’ I didn’t want any of that.”
“But you do want their money,” Pitts says.
“Well, we need people to support us, or we can’t stay on. But we don’t get on the air and ask for it. And it’s amazing how people can see that you – when you’re genuine. They send money,” Osteen says.
Buckets of money — over $43 million a year gets collected in the church, another $30 million or so comes in the mail. It’s a cash cow and a family business. Osteen’s brother, sister and mother are ministers in the church. But the real money for Osteen comes from his book sales, which are re-packaged versions of his sermons. His latest book, “Become A Better You,” for which he reportedly got a $13 million advance, goes on sale Oct. 15. They read more like self-help than religion. In his new book, Osteen lays out seven principles he believes will improve our lives.
“To become a better you, you must be positive towards yourself, develop better relationships, embrace the place where you are. Not one mention of God in that. Not one mention of Jesus Christ in that,” Pitts remarks.
“That’s just my message. There is scripture in there that backs it all up. But I feel like, Byron, I’m called to help people€¦how do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? And these are principles that can help you. I mean, there’s a lot better people qualified to say, ‘Here’s a book that going to explain the scriptures to you.’ I don’t think that’s my gifting,” Osteen says.
Wherever he goes, people tell Osteen that he helps.
“Thank you so much. Thank you so much for what you do,” one bookstore customer remarked. “You’ve changed my whole life.”
“You are such an inspiration. I watch you every week. You’re a great help,” another said.
But many theologians from mainstream churches find Osteen’s message misleading and shallow.
“I think it’s a cotton candy gospel,” says Rev. Michael Horton, a professor of theology at Westminister Seminary in Escondido, Calif.
“His core message is God is nice, you’re nice, be nice,” Horton says, laughing. “It’s sort of a, if it were a form of music, I think it would be easy listening. He uses the Bible like a fortune cookie. ‘This is what’s gonna happen for you. There’s gonna be a windfall in your life tomorrow.’ The Bible’s not meant to be read that way.”
Reverend Horton believes that Osteen tells only half the story of the Bible, focusing on the good news without talking about sin, suffering and redemption.
And Rev. Horton goes even further. He levels the harshest charge of all, calling the Osteen method of teaching heresy.
“It is certainly heresy, I believe, to say that God is our resource for getting our best life now,” Horton says.
“Because?” Pitts asks.
“Well, it makes religion about us instead of about God,” Horton explains.
“There are a lot of people in this country, religious people, who consider your theology dangerous,” Pitts remarks.
“I don’t know what can be so dangerous about giving people hope,” Osteen says. “Causing people to have better relationships. I’m not leading them to some false God or something like that.”
“Hear what some others have said about you: he’s diluting and dumbing down the Christian message,” Pitts says.
“Sometimes you have to keep it simple and not make it so complicated that people don’t understand,” Osteen says. “But I know what I’m called to do is say ‘I want to help you learn how to forgive today. I want to help you to have the right thoughts today.’ Just simple things.”
“You know, you get people that wanna criticize, ‘You’re not doing enough of this, enough of that.’ Well, we’re not perfect. But to have you know hundreds of people tellin’ ya ‘You changed my life. I haven’t been in church in 30 years.’ Or ‘You saved my marriage.’ Not me, but God, but they’re telling me, but you know what? You can’t help but leave every Sunday afternoon€¦,” Osteen says, getting emotional.
“Help me understand what’s happening right now Joel?” Pitts asks.
“You know, what it is, you just feel very – I told you I was a cry baby, but you just feel very rewarded. You feel very humbled, you know?” Osteen says.
“Humbled by your success?” Pitts asks.
“Humbled that you could help impact somebody’s life. I think – I don’t even – I don’t even know these people. And you know, and God’s used me to help turn their life around or give them hope, you know? It’s very rewarding,” Osteen says.
“You in awe of that?” Pitts asks.
“Very much,” Osteen agrees.
Osteen keeps his life simple. His best friends are his family, and he spends most of his free time with them, especially his two children, Alexandra and Jonathan.
But from Wednesday to Saturday, he’s in his home office writing and memorizing his sermon. “I feel a responsibility more than ever now, you know, sometimes when I think about it Sunday in a few days and I gotta get back up here and feed everybody and be my best and inspire them and have some good stories, keep them listening, you know, it takes a lot of work, it takes diligence,” Osteen tells Pitts.
You can see that same diligence in his workouts. Osteen can bench-press 300 lbs., which is twice his body weight. And on the basketball court, even in the simplest of pickup games, he is focused, determined and looking for help from above.
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