There’s No Place Like Hope

UPDATED: September 25, 2009
PUBLISHED: September 25, 2009

Joel Osteen was a preacher's kid in Houston who dreamed of playing basketball for the Rockets. The smallest guy on his seventh-grade team, his hopes were high, but he possessed something greater than physical stature. Even his coach saw that, telling him it's not the size of the player but the size of his heart that matters.

Osteen would ultimately command the Rockets’ arena, finding his calling in hopes, not hoops. With wife Victoria, he transformed the Rockets’ Compaq Center into a home for Lakewood Church, the alpha of megachurches today. Through their bestselling books, TV broadcasts, audio and video podcasts, and personal appearances, the Osteens reach millions of people around the world with a message of encouragement that transcends faith, nationality and culture.

Every week, the senior pastor with the trademark smile draws a diverse audience of more than 40,000 to Lakewood, sometimes even a few familiar faces like the Billy Graham family and Bill Clinton and his daughter, Chelsea. The tone and message is celebratory: Victory is in your future. Aim higher, get your hopes up, believe that your greatest days are ahead.

Osteen’s meteoric success has attracted relentless media attention—from Larry King and Barbara Walters (who named Osteen one of the “Ten Most Fascinating People” in 2006) to The Wall Street Journal, 60 Minutes and National Public Radio.

“Ten years ago, I never dreamed that we’d be sitting here talking and we’d have the ‘success’ that we’ve had,” Osteen tells SUCCESS in an interview with his wife in the formal living room of their Houston home. “I believe every person has potential that is still waiting to be released, or you wouldn’t be alive. I tell people all the time, ‘If you woke up and God gave you breath to breathe, then you’ve got something else you need to do. Somebody needs what you have. You have an assignment. You have something to offer the world.’ ”

"Somebody needs what you have. You have an assignment. You have something to offer the world."

What Osteen offers is an ability to speak the language of hope, experts say, at a time when audiences want more inspiration, less grim reality. His charismatic style has been called part life coach, part motivator. The top-three concerns on people’s minds? Relationships, health and finances, he says. Will having faith help you get your job back? Stop a foreclosure? Heal an addiction? Think of it this way: Faith can give you strength to make it through, he says.

Recognizing His Potential

Victoria Osteen, who was raised in a faith-filled home, recognized his inspirational potential early on. “Joel had what it took because he had discipline, he had focus, he was driven and he knew it took a lot of work to make something happen,” she says. “I could see that he had so much on the inside of him, so it was very easy for me to be an encourager, to help him see what was ahead of him, because it was huge.”

Joel Osteen wasn’t so sure about all that when he preached his first sermon in 1999. For the previous 17 years, he worked behind the scenes, producing the church’s television broadcast. He had attended Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, studying radio and television communications, and was comfortable in that role at Lakewood. “I really never had a desire to be out in front of people and minister, even though my father tried to get me to do it many times. I’m naturally more quiet and reserved,” he says.

His father, Lakewood founder John Osteen, listened to his son’s first sermon from a hospital room, and “he was just beaming,” Osteen’s sister, Lisa Comes, told People magazine in 2007. A week later, the elder Osteen suffered a heart attack and died. He was 77.

“I never dreamed that’d be the last Sunday of his life, and I think that was just how God gives you signs sometimes,” Osteen says. “I thought, ‘This is not a coincidence that I’ve lived 35 years and I decided to speak the last Sunday of his life.’ ”

After his father’s death, Joel Osteen took over with reluctance and a case of nerves. “We thought if we could just continue to work with what my father started, keep the church going, just maintain it, we’d be doing good. We never dreamed it would grow. I never really knew how to prepare a message or speak in front of people—I was so nervous. Scared to death. You know what? It took off. People responded,” Osteen says.

“Sometimes you can’t see what you have in yourself. Victoria used to tell me ‘Joel, I know you can preach, I know you could minister, I know you can get up in front of people,’ but I thought, that’s so far from me. She could see it, and I tell people all the time I wouldn’t be half of who I am if she hadn’t spoken faith into me.”

A Marriage and a Partnership

Married for 22 years, Joel and Victoria met in a chance encounter; he needed a watch battery and went to Iloff Jewelers, her family’s business in Houston, and Victoria waited on him. It took him two weeks to call her for a date, and he was floored when she said yes. Osteen had season tickets to the Rockets, so he took Victoria to a game.

A year and a half later, they were married and she left the family business to devote herself to full-time ministry. After more than two decades together, he’s still the more focused one and she’s the multitasking free spirit, they say, finishing each others’ thoughts.

Today, when he speaks at Lakewood Church, he looks out at where his Rockets season-ticket seats were and reflects on his good fortune. “I’d never have believed I would meet someone like Victoria. I never would’ve believed I’d go on our fi rst date here, much less have this building, be a minister, be where we are today,” he says. “So, you know, it just inspires me every time I walk in there to think, wow, God’s got a sense of humor.”

The search for a bigger sanctuary came about after Lakewood’s congregation grew from about 6,000 when he succeeded his father to about 30,000 under Osteen’s leadership. In late 2003, the church signed a long-term lease with the city of Houston to acquire the Compaq Center, a 29-year old former sports arena once called The Summit, with tenants that had included the Rockets, the Houston Aeros and the Houston Comets. The expansion plan was not without its dissenters. Osteen has recalled a luncheon with city leaders when someone jabbed that it would be a “cold day in hell” before Lakewood Church got the Compaq Center.

The church had to pay $11.8 million in advance rent for the fi rst 30 years of the lease, and renovations were estimated at $95 million. On July 16, 2005, Lakewood Church moved to the renovated 16,800-seat facility along U.S. Highway 59 southwest of downtown Houston, gaining twice the capacity of its former sanctuary.

“I guess today is a cold day in hell because Lakewood Church has now been worshipping God in the location formerly known as the Compaq Center since July 2005,” Osteen says in his book Become a Better You. When he tells that story from the Lakewood stage, the audience roars.

What made the church grow? Osteen credits the seeds his parents planted and their faithful devotion to the task of encouraging others.

Seeds of Greatness

John Osteen had started out as a Southern Baptist preacher, holding church services in an old feed store with fewer than 100 people. In the early 1960s, he split from the Southern Baptists, becoming nondenominational with a personal mission to tear down the walls he believed were separating people. Joel Osteen remembers the early years before the split, when you went to church and left feeling worse than when you came in. “I grew up with ‘you’re supposed to be poor and broke and defeated.’ That just doesn’t resonate with me,” he told Sally Quinn of The Washington Post in 2008.

When his father broadened his message, encouraging followers to envision a blessed life, the shift resonated with Osteen and it became a turning point that affected him deeply. Here was the fertile ground from which he would cultivate his own thinking. The many years of listening to his dad’s sermons helped him gain inspiration, experience and wisdom, says Osteen, who believes the past doesn’t define you; it prepares you.

"If you’re going to find those seeds of greatness, you need to be the best that you can right where you are. You have to be willing to take risks and to take steps of faith."

Although his father’s sudden death left him in shock and grieving, “I just knew on the inside I was supposed to pastor the church. I knew that I was supposed to step up,” he says.

“If you’re going to find those seeds of greatness, you need to be the best that you can right where you are. You have to be willing to take risks and to take steps of faith. A dream is something on the inside that doesn’t go away, and so if something just keeps recurring, at some point you have to say, ‘I’m going to step out, and I’m going to follow my heart and follow this dream.’ Doing something you’re really gifted at, you really love and enjoy doing each day—that’s my prayer, that each person will find that place,” he says.

Team Effort

While Osteen’s calling is to encourage people and to empower them, he says, his main strengths are his discipline, focus and knowing how to spend his time most effectively. From the start, the Osteens set boundaries so they could be available for their children, Jonathan, 14, and Alexandra, 10. Osteen doesn’t do funerals or weddings, which is hard because he doesn’t like to say no, he says. But turning down some requests helps him manage his time to fully prepare for Lakewood services and the 38 other speaking engagements annually.

“I think that’s my biggest bang and what I’m called to do. Knowing that, I study out of my house. I take Wednesdays to just read new material, listen to CDs, pray and read the Scripture and just take the whole day to prepare. Then I’ll take Thursday and Friday to work on my message and go over it so it’s down in me,” Osteen says.

For inspiration, both Osteens read several writers (but prefer not to single anyone out). Osteen avoids using current events in his messages so he doesn’t get sidetracked in controversy. Instead, he tells feel-good stories that help people relate to everyday trials. Some of the stories come from his life growing up, others from e-mail. He hears more stories after a worship service, where as many as 1,000 visitors are invited to meet him.

Osteen does get help with the workload. The team includes his brother Dr. Paul Osteen (who has a medical background and is currently on a mission in Africa as part of Feed the Children), sister Lisa Comes and mother, Dodie Osteen, who are also ministers at Lakewood, assisted by a staff of more than 300. As co-pastor, Victoria frequently takes the stage to preach and will pray with many who come to Lakewood. And both Osteen children perform music, and their parents hope one of them or both will step into the pulpit one day.

Home Advantage

Though his father “never took a day off,” Joel Osteen believes in balance, and that’s possible because he has that deep bench including family, friends and staff. “You know, we’re not just a spiritual being, we’re a physical being, so I think for me to be my best, I’ve got to be healthy spiritually, emotionally, physically,” he says.

The Osteens’ home hints of varied interests. There’s a basketball hoop above the garage. There’s a grand piano in the living room, big coffee table books, including The Circus, The Louvre, Ancient Rome, The Sound of Music Companion, The Art of Peter Max. Scan the fireplace mantel and you’ll see an original Max portrait of the Osteens, so recent it’s not yet framed. As the Osteens settle in to talk with SUCCESS, a pair of Shih Tzus, Spirit and Daisy, wander through and then depart, unable to steal the limelight.

Home and family remain Victoria’s first priority. She has embraced her work with her husband, although a lack of public speaking experience initially caused so much anxiety she almost gave up pastoring. Then she had an epiphany: “That dread trying to paralyze me was threatening to keep me from stepping into a new experience and growing to the next level,” she told Christian Women. “Each time I step up to speak, I tell myself, ‘God chose me, he has equipped me, and I am able to do what he says I can do.’ ”

Today, Victoria radiates energy as she speaks, and the Osteens believe audiences respond to couples who are united in their purpose. “What women tell me all the time is my example up there helps them realize that it’s OK to be a strong woman. It’s OK to love your family. It’s OK to have a place of influence,” she told the hometown paper, the Houston Chronicle. “That’s what Joel loves about it. That we’re a team.”

A Big Dream

People worldwide clearly have responded to the Osteens’ particular brand of hope. He is the most watched inspirational figure in America, according to Nielsen Media Research, reaching 200 million homes in the United States and more than 100 nations worldwide. Lakewood is No. 1 on Outreach magazine’s annual 100 list of the largest and fastest-growing churches. His podcast consistently is one of the top five in the world, with more than 1 million downloads weekly.

Since 2004, with the debut of Osteen’s Your Best Life Now on The New York Times Best-Seller List, both his and Victoria’s books have sold almost 7 million copies. Osteen’s first book quickly rose to No. 1 and his second book, Become a Better You, debuted at No. 1 in 2007. In 2008, Victoria released Love Your Life, an instant New York Times bestseller. Passionate about inspiring women, she wrote the book to send a message from her perspective: Understand who you are and the power you have inside, then tap into that greatness. Victoria also has a series of children’s books.

Due out in November is Osteen’s third book, It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Accomplish Your Dreams and Increase in God’s Favor. Its message is to have hope and faith, to stay positive where you are, whether you’re dealing with job loss, health issues, a bad economy or a broken heart. Don’t get talked into having a down year. Challenging times serve as catalysts for creativity, innovation and accomplishment, Osteen explains, pointing to businesses like IBM, Microsoft and General Electric, all of which started during severe economic downturns. The same goes for individuals, he says. Shake off the negative thoughts and say, “I am well able. I am equipped. I’m going to step into my destiny.”

Since 2004, the Osteens have taken worship services to more than 50 cities across America and abroad, filling arenas to capacity, including Madison Square Garden seven times. Living a life of expectancy brought something unexpected earlier this year. The New York Yankees invited them to appear in the new stadium, making their “Historic Night of Hope” program the fi rst non-baseball event at Yankee Stadium just nine days after it opened. Two popes and Billy Graham are part of the old Yankee Stadium history; the Osteens are part of the new, drawing more than 45,000. Though appearing in New York’s cathedral of baseball was a dream come true, the Osteens have an even bigger dream ahead.

They hope their legacy goes like this, “that we helped empower people, restored people, lifted people up,” he says. “I really want it to be a legacy of love and caring and knowing that our God is a good God who’s for us.”