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Joel Osteen: Crossover King

I am sitting in the coveted front row of what used to be the Compaq Center, former home of the Houston Rockets. The stage is brilliant with multicolored lights. Guitarists, a bass player and other musicians in jeans are warming up. Three singers take the stage and the crowd of nearly 16,000 cheers as the group begins to sing along with a backup choir.

No, I’m not watching Lady Antebellum, the country-pop crossover band. I am, however, about to see one of the greatest crossover successes of our generation: Joel Osteen.

As the praise music concludes, Osteen’s wife and co-pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston, Victoria Osteen, takes the stage. She welcomes everyone and then tells the story of a trip to Italy she and Joel took when they were newly married. They wanted to get Joel’s father, John—then the pastor of Lakewood—something special.

They selected a gleaming pair of crocodile shoes. “He loved them,” Victoria says. At that point, she is silent as she gives the crowd a moment to remember John, who died in 1999.

But one week before his death, his younger son, Joel, preached his first sermon. Victoria says he was scared, so he slipped on his father’s crocodile shoes.

“He wasn’t trying to fill those shoes,” Victoria says. “He wore them because they gave him strength.” Osteen wore his father’s shoes each time he spoke at Lakewood for the next two years. Then one day, he said to his wife, “Victoria, I think it’s time I get my own pair of shoes.”

Osteen had found his voice.

Today, Lakewood Church draws about 43,000 worshipers every weekend and 10 million television viewers around the world. The TV ministry that reaches 12  million homes in the United States and more than 100 nations worldwide was Osteen’s idea.

He and his four siblings had grown up in their father’s church. During his one year at Oral Roberts University studying radio and television communications, Osteen called his dad with the idea of increasing church attendance by putting Lakewood on TV. They started on one local station and one national cable channel in the early ’80s.

In his book Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week, Osteen says he worked long hours on a strategy for radio broadcasts as well, but his father, then 75, rejected the idea of more long hours. “I was so disappointed,” Osteen says. “I considered leaving to pursue my own opportunities.” But he stayed, working on the television broadcasts and developing his marketing savvy. Two years later, his father died. “I realize now God put those dreams in my heart for my own ministry,” he says. “It just wasn’t the right time.”

Shake Off the Self-Pity

There’s no doubt that Osteen’s time has come.

I sit in the megachurch as a massive robotic crane sweeps a television camera over the Lakewood stage and across the front row. Osteen’s message this morning is about pushing back against a negative predisposition—whether it’s depression, addiction, abuse or negativity that might run in your family.

“Iniquity will pass from generation to generation until somebody rises up to put a stop to it,” he says. “It may have held you back temporarily, but you have the power to break negative cycles. You have the DNA of Almighty God. Shake off the self-pity. Don’t blame your circumstances. It may be the reason you are where you are, but you don’t have to stay there. Every right choice you make, you start to override the bad choices you’ve made before. You are victors, not victims. There is no addiction, iniquity or challenge that’s too great for you to  overcome.”

Osteen’s sermons are consistently encouraging and positive, similar to the teachings of personal achievement experts. He speaks in simple terms and uses stories to illustrate his themes. His core message is that God is loving and wants people to reach their full potential in health, wealth and happiness. The Houston Press once called Osteen’s message “a strange combination of Tony Robbins and Jesus.”

But Osteen is self-deprecating in his sermons, often pointing to his wife or kids as sources of clarity and wisdom. And it humbles him to know he impacts so many people’s lives. “I don’t even know these people,” he told Byron Pitts in a CBS interview. “God’s used me to help turn their life around or give them hope, you know? It’s very rewarding.”

We’re a Work in Progress

After the service is over, I’m given a tour of Lakewood, which feels more like a community center than a sanctuary. There’s no dress code, though many are in what you’d call “church clothes.” I see people of all ages and races, and I hear several languages along the tour. Lakewood holds Spanish-speaking services every week. It is one of only a handful of U.S. churches that is so racially diverse, almost equally divided among white, black and Hispanic worshipers, with Asian attendance significantly on the rise.

When we return to the lobby, I stand two feet behind Osteen as a long line weaves its way in front of him. Each person greets “Pastor Joel” with something different: a hug, a handshake, a handwritten letter folded over and over on itself. One young woman clasps his hand and says through tears, “You saved my life.”

Osteen’s brother Paul, who left his medical practice to work alongside other family members at Lakewood, has said the church is not a museum of perfect people but a hospital for the wounded. Shared values and Osteen’s message of consistent encouragement strike a chord with a public that is regularly bombarded with discouraging news. “I don’t like to beat people down,” he told The Washington Times. “They need to be lifted up.”

Osteen is the most watched inspirational figure in America, according to Nielsen Media Research. To cross over into almost every demographic takes a powerful appeal. His popularity stems, in part, from the overlap between the personal development and spiritual territories. Osteen has built a church around this commonality, not to mention a career as a best-selling author. He’s sold more than 20 million copies of his books, including I Declare: 31 Promises to Speak Over Your Life and his newest release, Break Out!: 5 Ways to Go Beyond Your Barriers and Live an Extraordinary Life. He’s been a guest on 60 Minutes, 20/20, The View, Good Morning America, Today, Fox & Friends, and Oprah’s Lifeclass. He also has more than 4.2 million Facebook fans and 1.9 million Twitter followers.

With Victoria and his two children, Alexandra, 15, and Jonathan, 18, onstage with him, he speaks at his own events worldwide and as a guest at events like MegaFest 2013, which featured Bishop T.D. Jakes and Oprah Winfrey.

Osteen is careful not to speak on politics, nor to identify with one denomination in particular. The Washington Times called his message “America’s new civil religion.” In fact, his popularity has crossed over into a TV-viewing demographic whose members don’t even consider themselves believers.

“One reason that our message has crossed over is because we do talk about everyday life issues,” he says. “I want to speak on things that can help anybody, regardless of their faith or their denomination. I’m not here to tell people what they’re doing wrong. I want to tell them how they can overcome, not, ‘Hey, man, you’re ruining your life; you’re ruining your kid.’ It’s important to tell people what they can become, not what they are.”

Osteen doesn’t subscribe to the notion of a condemning God, rather one who is pleased when we’re doing our best. “We do what we can do,” he says, “and God will do what we can’t do. It doesn’t mean that you don’t fail, but as long as you’re taking steps to grow, I believe God is pleased with you. Sometimes we think, Well, he couldn’t be pleased with me. I’ve got these addictions or I’ve done this or that. You know, we’re a work in progress. Everybody’s on their  journey.”

Yesterday’s Attitude Isn’t Good Enough

During our interview, we gather in the living room setting of the pastor’s suite. Osteen and his brother-in-law, Don Iloff, sit down opposite me. I lean in. Because here’s what you don’t realize from watching Osteen on television: He is soft-spoken—and I’m talking, don’t-move-or-you’ll-miss-what-he-said soft-spoken. This guy is shy.

The Houston Press reported that after Osteen started preaching, his basketball buddies told him they heard him say more in one day’s sermon than in 10 years of shooting hoops at the gym.

But his shy demeanor is offset by a staff of over 300 and his more outgoing family members, including Victoria and her brother Don. Osteen’s sisters Lisa and April as well as his brother Paul all help at the church, too.

His mother, Dodie Osteen, says Joel’s quiet demeanor comes naturally. “I never saw him angry when he was growing up,” she says. “He’s shy, but fun. Love is his character. He has a deep interest in  people.”

Osteen’s shyness made it especially nerve-racking for him to preach. In fact, his father had asked him to take the pulpit multiple times over the 17 years Joel worked on the TV end of the ministry. When he finally agreed to preach while his father was in the hospital for routine kidney dialysis, he walked through what he told Winfrey was the worst week of his life.

“I was very frayed and nervous and talked really fast,” he says quietly. “But I knew deep down I was supposed to do it. I didn’t know if it’d work out, and—I think we were talking about this the other night, Victoria and I—I thought I could go back and do TV if it didn’t work.”

He also felt the pressure of following his father, who had pastored for 40 years: “Part of me thought, You gotta be like your dad.

It took him a year, he says, to feel “even halfway comfortable,” but during that time, Lakewood attendance increased so much the church had to add a second service, so he must have been doing something right.

Osteen has learned thorough preparation stills his nerves. He works on the weekly sermon from Wednesday through Saturday, waking at 5:30 a.m. “I do think how you start the day makes a big difference,” he says. “I take the first half-hour of every day to read a couple of chapters in my Bible, pray, meditate, get my mind going in the right direction. That helps me to keep the right attitude. You know, you get up and you start talking to yourself in the right way. Hey, Lord, thank you for this day. I know I’m equipped. I’m ready and well able. That helps keep me going.”

Osteen admits to getting run-down occasionally. “Nobody’s superhuman,” he says. “If you don’t set your mind in the right direction—positive, faith-filled—then you can’t lead your mind. So you find something to be grateful for and you make the decision that this is going to be a good day. We all get up and think, Am I going to live this day in faith? Am I going to choose to be happy? Am I going to get past the blahs? I think everybody has to do it.”

Fighting Our Own Negativity

Osteen says the real battle is that one taking place in our mind. “I think there’s that internal dialogue that many people don’t realize is negative toward themselves. You know, I’m not attractive. I’m not talented. I’m not as smart as my brother. I don’t ever get any good breaks. And I believe as long as you’re negative, it’s going to hold you back.”

Osteen says we have to replace those thoughts on a daily basis. “The Scripture says, ‘Put on a fresh new attitude every day.’ You know, I tell people yesterday’s attitude wasn’t good enough. You’ve got to get up and say, ‘I’m talented. I’m strong. I’m valuable. I’m a masterpiece. I’m one of a kind.’ ”

He talks about the idea of controlling our thoughts in Break Out! “When you break through in your mind, believing you can rise higher and overcome obstacles,” he writes, “then God will unleash the power within that will enable you to go beyond the ordinary into the extraordinary life you were designed to live.”

“You know,” he says, “I think that’s one of our messages that’s resonating more than anything because so many people feel discouraged. You’ve got enough people in life against you; don’t be against yourself.”

When You’re in Peace, It’s a Place of Power

Although he says he does his best to avoid them, Osteen has his critics. The same uplifting content that appeals to a broad swath of multiple demographics and faiths can alienate people on the far side of each end—like die-hard country music fans boycotting Taylor Swift’s pop leanings. Of course, their objections aren’t just about aesthetics. Some go as far as accusing Osteen of heresy because his preaching encourages people to acknowledge the power they have within themselves to change. Other critics say Osteen is too similar to Winfrey or Dr. Phil, preaching a secular message of self-help. There was even the famous, elaborate hoax (a fake website, Twitter account and YouTube video) in which the prankster had Osteen doubting his Christian faith; it was created in part, said the hoaxer, because he felt Osteen’s words were too “lightweight.”

But Osteen doesn’t apologize for his approach. “I think the principles that you hear Dr. Phil and some of those others talk about many times are right out of the Bible,” he said in the CBS interview. “How do we walk out the Christian life? How do we live it? These are principles that can help you. I mean, there’s a lot better people qualified to say, ‘Here’s a book that’s going to explain the Scriptures to you.’ I don’t think that’s my [gift].”

Osteen has had his critics since the beginning. He recalls a story early in his days as the new pastor of Lakewood: “I was in the front lobby after a service one time, and I overheard two older ladies that had been to church forever. They were talking low, but they didn’t know I was close. They said, ‘He’s not as good as his dad. The church is never going to last.’ And I thought, Oh, that’s like the last thing I need to hear. Because I was already [battling self-doubt]. But you know a hundred people could tell me I did good and say, ‘Joel, you’re doing great.’ Still, you know what? Those negative voices are the ones that play back to us.”

But nobody’s making us dwell on those things, he says. “I’ve trained myself to meditate on the Scripture, things like, ‘I’m equipped, I’m empowered. God’s in control. I don’t have to worry. I’m going to stay in peace.’ I think one of the biggest things I’ve learned is that when you’re in peace, it’s a place of power. If you’re sitting there worried about this and worried about something else, it pulls you  down.”

So despite the critics—or maybe in answer to them—Osteen says his goal wasn’t to reach people who were already in church, although he’s grateful many of them do find hope in his message. “Half the people who watch us don’t go to church,” he says. “And so that was our goal: How do we get outside [the church]? I want to talk to the people who think, I’m not a religious person. When Jesus was here, you know he didn’t stay in the synagogue. He went out in the marketplace, and so that’s what we try to do.”

Step Into Your Own Shoes

When the interview is over, we pose as Don takes our picture with my phone.

“Wait a second,” Osteen says, after I show him the grainy result. “Let’s move out here.” I follow him to another room and he positions us near a wall sconce. “The lighting is better here.” Sure enough, the next picture is a winner. His days behind a TV camera taught him a thing or two about finding the best light.

They also taught him a thing or two about being his best self.

“You’ve got to step into your own shoes and realize that you’ve got to be who God made you to be,” he says. When Lakewood moved to the Compaq Center in 2005 and began a $95 million renovation, the change was validating: “It felt in a sense like this was my and Victoria’s ministry and vision.” And the 10,000-member increase in the first year gave them credibility against some naysayers who had accused him of only playing off what his mom and dad had built.

Before we part, I ask him, after 14 years pastoring Lakewood, what has been the high point. He says it’s something that occurs daily. “You know, like leaving today,” he says. “I go home encouraged and inspired. To me, there’s no greater feeling than being able to help people rise higher and overcome something and feel better about themselves. I think that we’re all made to help others, to lift people up.”

He recalls the young woman in tears who greeted him after the service. “Here’s a young girl who comes up and…” He trails off, shakes his head, and then says, “That’s the high point.” 


Osteen’s Message to Entrepreneurs

When I asked Joel Osteen what he’d say to someone struggling to start a business or to keep one going, here’s what he had to say:

“Keep following the dream that God put in your heart. Believe. Work hard. There may be some difficult seasons, but you have to keep moving forward. Sometimes we say faith is spelled R I-S-K. Sometimes, you’ve got to risk if you feel a calling deep down. You’ve got to take that step of faith.

“Believe there are great breaks in your future. Believe for explosive blessings, things like this Compaq Center [home of Lakewood Church]. Pray God-sized prayers. You’ve got to pray for big things. You’ve got to believe for big things.

“Put your trust in God, keep being your best and you will get to where you’re supposed to be.”

 

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