Joel Osteen: Life is good

Popular pastor to lead worship service here

August 26, 2005
By Greg Garrison

Sometime last year, it became apparent that Lakewood Church Pastor Joel Osteen of Houston had hit the big time as one of America's most popular preachers.

In August 2004, he did a free appearance at the 18,000-seat Philips Arena in Atlanta and filled it beyond overflowing, with the fire marshal turning away as many as 8,000 people. "I didn't know what arena size to get," Osteen said. "Atlanta was our first. I couldn't believe it."

That fall, his book "Your Best Life Now" came out and reached No. 1 on The New York Times bestseller list. It has hovered in the top five of hardcover advice books since then, selling 2.8 million copies.

"I never dreamed my book was going to do what it's done," said Osteen, whose publishing income prompted him to stop taking his $200,000 salary from the church. "Hopefully I'll never have to take a salary from the church again. We plan to be good givers."

During July his church, which already drew 30,000 worshippers to four services each weekend, moved into the 16,000-seat Compaq Center, former home of the Houston Rockets of the National Basketball Association.

Osteen and his wife, Victoria, will be leading a worship service at the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Arena in Birmingham on Tuesday, Aug. 30, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10 each through Ticketmaster, with information available on his Web site, Osteen will also be signing copies of his book at noon on Tuesday at the Books-A-Million on Wildwood Parkway. On Thursday and Friday, Sept. 2, Osteen will be back at Philips Arena in Atlanta.

He continues to have no problem filling NBA-size arenas.

He drew 57,000 during the first weekend in the Compaq Center. Attendance has been 38,000 to 42,000 combined at the four weekend services since then. It was 28,000 to 30,000 at the old location, said church spokesman Don Iloff. The church paid $11 million for a 30-year lease of the arena, then did $90 million in renovations, Iloff said.

"We slanted the floor and poured concrete," Osteen said.

Following father's footsteps:

Osteen, 42, has boyish good looks, a Texas twang, curly brown hair and a big smile that seem to resonate with people. But Lakewood was already a megachurch when he took it over from his father, John Osteen, a Southern Baptist preacher who in the late 1950s began to be more associated with the charismatic and Pentecostal movements.

At the time, Southern Baptists frowned upon speaking in tongues and waving hands to music in church.

"It was not what they believed then," Osteen said. "There's not as much difference today. You'll go to a Baptist church and see people lifting their hands. They thought a church like ours would play with snakes and roll in the floors."

Osteen said he does speak in tongues, in his own personal prayers. "I don't do it from the podium," he said. "My father did."

For a big church that's trying to reach a broad audience, speaking in tongues can be a hindrance, he said.

"People don't always understand," Osteen said. "I want to do it in a way that everybody who comes can understand everything."

Auburn University historian David Edwin Harlem, author of biographies of Jimmy Swaggart, Pat Robertson and Oral Roberts, noted that Osteen's father was an important religious figure as a Southern Baptist who became part of the Full Gospel movement and started a large church.

The younger Osteen has steered the church more into mainstream Protestantism, he said.

"It does not repudiate its heritage, but is much more attractive to mainstream evangelicals," Harlem said. "It's a quite conscious image-changing aimed at broadening that appeal. He could pass for a Billy Graham portage."

Osteen's messages are light on doctrine, heavy on self-help psychology. "It's giving hope, giving encouragement," Osteen said. "For so long, people have been beat down, just by life in general. God is good, he's for you. You can be happy. My dad was a little more fiery than I am. I'm more upbeat."

Osteen doesn't apologize for preaching about how to live a better life. "Sometimes I get criticized for it," he said. "Jesus preached simply, too, and talked about how to live. When they leave, it's something they can use that day."

Christian doctrine is addressed in Sunday school classes, Osteen said. "We believe in doctrine; you got have it," he said. "People want to know how to live."

Faith healing remains an important ministry of the church.

"We believe in healing, in the gifts of the spirit," Osteen said. "It's not just physical healing that we pray for. It's wisdom."

Osteen's father, John, died in January 1999, and he took over as pastor that year. "I preached every Sunday after Daddy died," Osteen said. Osteen's brother, Paul, a surgeon in Milwaukee, gave up his medical practice to join the church staff as head of pastoral ministries.

Within about a year, attendance rose from 6,000 to 7,000, Osteen said.

"Daddy always said when a place gets comfortably full, you got to add room," Osteen said. So a second service was added on the first Sunday in 2000. The church then drew 5,000 to each service.

"I thought, `Where'd they come from?'" Osteen said. Then the church started a Saturday night casual service that drew another big crowd.

Praying for blessings:

Osteen said he does not fit into the prosperity gospel mold, of preachers who promise that God wants to reward faithful Christians with riches.

"I don't feel like I do," he said. "For me, prosperity is not just about money, it's about having a good relationship with your wife, with your family, with the people at your job."

But praying for God's blessings is a matter of hope for families like his father's, who grew up poor and lost everything in the Depression, he said.

"We came out of poverty," Osteen said. "If my father didn't have a belief that God would bless us, that he could make something better for our family, he wouldn't have been able to do what he did. I don't think God wants everybody to be a millionaire. We're all rich, compared to people in Africa and India. I have friends in Botswana who have no running water, and they're happy. I couldn't pay them to change places with me. You can be blessed by God in many ways. You shouldn't be focused on money."

Osteen said the Atlanta incident pointed up the need for tickets at his arena events. When he followed it up with two nights at Madison Square Garden, city officials insisted that the event must have tickets, he said. "New York City called and said we're not going to let you do the event without tickets," Osteen said. So he charged $10 per ticket, most of which went to the ticketing service.

Since it's a worship service, there is also an offering taken up, he said.

"It's low-key," Osteen said. "I tell them, `You paid a ticket, if you don't want to give, that's okay.' The ticket doesn't cover the whole event. God's always blessed us. You can't raise $90 million if you tell people God doesn't want to bless you."

But the TV ministry never solicits donations, he said.

"We've never asked for money on the air," Osteen said. "I don't believe in pressuring people. They send it anyway. That's great. It's how we can continue."

Osteen dropped out of Oral Roberts University after one year and returned to Houston to join the staff of his father's church in 1982. "The church wasn't on TV at all at that time," Osteen said. The church's services began airing on TV in 1983.

"It contributed to growth," Osteen said. "When you get into peoples' living rooms and you've got a good message, people respond."

Osteen said he never preached before his father died. "I didn't know this was in me," he said. "My dad tried to get me up there for 17 years. I would not get up there."

But he studied his father's style.

"For 17 years I edited his sermons," Osteen said. "I had to figure out what should be left out. I was studying all that time."

Osteen devotes Wednesdays to study and prayer as he works up his sermon idea. He writes the sermon on Thursday, goes over it on Friday, then preaches it on Saturday night and Sunday morning.

"That's not practical for other churches," he said. "That's what I spend most of my time doing. I can't do all the weddings and funerals. They're very understanding."

His wife, Victoria, is from Columbus, Ga., and has relatives in Birmingham, Osteen said. They've been married 18 years. He met her at her mother's jewelry store when he went in to get a battery for a watch. They have two children, a son, 10, and a daughter, 6.

All in all, it's a good life, and that's what Osteen preaches that others can have too.

"It's not a bad thing to be motivated to live a godly life, to forgive people," Osteen said.

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