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Joel Osteen: God, Without The Fuss

03/28/2008 02:48 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Words By Thomas Golianopoulos

Joel Osteen has divined a foolproof way to build consensus. During meetings, the pastor will often field ideas from his staff. If he likes one, great. If not, he'll just say, "Let me think about that." In fact, there's a joke about it around Lakewood Church's offices: When Joel says, "Let me think about that," he's just passed on your idea. "No" is too harsh a word. Too negative. And that wouldn't befit America's most successful pastor.

Onstage, Osteen is similarly upbeat. He's so careful not to offend that he won't name specific players when talking about his disappointments as a sports fan in Houston, let alone discuss whether or not his non-Christian followers--and they are many--will make it into Heaven. "I feel like it can almost divide the audience I'm trying to reach," he says. And what an audience it is. Every Sunday, the largest congregation in the country gathers for Osteen's sermons about self-betterment and positivity inside a renovated basketball stadium in Houston; millions more tune in to his TV show.

It's easy to be skeptical of a minister this successful. After all, larger-than-life religious figures don't have the greatest reputations--Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, and Peter Popoff all swigged from the money trough in the 1980s, and Ted Haggard stepped away from the pulpit after a messy sex and speed scandal last year. There's also something about the truly charismatic that gets people's backs up. But Osteen is actually more comforting than he is charismatic.

"It's just who I am," says Osteen, 44. "When I was younger, growing up playing sports, I was always the one encouraging people 'Hey, we can beat these guys.' It just comes out of me naturally."

There's a reason he's called the Smiling Pastor.

His mother, Dodie Osteen, claims never to have seen him mad. The same goes for his brother Paul, though his senior adviser and chief of communications Donald Iloff Jr. (also Osteen's brother in law), claims he's seen him irritated a couple of times. "He won't say anything," says Iloff. "He'll just kind of move on and hardly quit smiling. But you can tell that something didn't sit right with him. He won't say a cross or unkind word to anyone."

And that's precisely what he preaches. "I feel like I'm at my best when I'm telling people that they can rise higher and become all that God's created them to be," Osteen says. "I know that's [the] core message God wants me to get across."

That message is reaching a lot of people. It's also pissing a lot of people off.

Joel Osteen has the largest congregation in the country. His syndicated TV program is the most-watched religious broadcast in the nation, with 7 million viewers. It also airs in more than 100 foreign countries. His first book, 2004's Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, sold more than 4 million copies, and his latest, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, for which he got a $13-million advance, had a first printing of 3 million copies, reportedly the largest ever in Simon & Schuster's history. And it's not just Bible-thumpers buying them.

Joel Osteen's following, apparently, has no boundaries. Every Sunday, his congregation includes Christians, Jews, agnostics, Republicans, Democrats, and wayward folks looking for a pick-me-up. Osteen has converted the Compaq Center, the Houston Rockets' former home, into a 16,000-seat beacon of hope and self-help. Missing from Osteen's message, however, is Christianity's darker side: Heaven and Hell, sin and salvation, suffering and sacrifice.

"It's the Bless-Me Club," says Dr. Ben Witherington, professor of New Testament Interpretation at Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore, Kentucky, an interdenominational seminary with a Wesleyan heritage. "It is self-help, and that kind of message plays very well in America. It's the opposite of the message of salvation, which is that you are saved by grace from God. Joel Osteen is preaching the psychology of self-worth. There's nothing wrong with a strong sense of self-worth, but it doesn't have to be linked to material success."

Osteen pushes what's called the Prosperity Gospel, which holds that if you give to God, He will bless you physically, spiritually, and, most pointedly, materially. If that's the case, Osteen's acolytes are truly blessed: Last year, his parishioners donated $43 million at the church's Sunday services, and sent in an additional $30 million. (Osteen stopped accepting a $200,000 salary after his publishing career exploded.) The money goes to Lakewood's building costs, international ministry, missions, legal costs, debt on the Compaq Center, administrative needs, television costs, and, of course, Osteen's North American tour.

On a Friday evening in July, Osteen, his family, and his band of singers, musicians, advisors, security guards, publicists, and production crew have descended upon Toronto. With the CN Tower looming in the background, worshippers (or fans--take your pick) overwhelm the streets outside the Air Canada Centre. Some are in their Sunday best. Others look as though they just stepped off the golf course--polo shirts tucked into pleated khakis.

About a half hour before the 7:30 p.m. start time, Iloff and I are walking through the bowels of the Air Canada Centre. We stop outside Osteen's dressing room and engage in some spiritual small talk. I mention my paternal grandfather, who was a Greek Orthodox priest. Iloff regurgitates a popular anecdote of Osteen's from Your Best Life Now: He prayed for a parking spot in a crowded mall and quickly found it. "If someone has God with him in the parking lot, just imagine..." Iloff's voice trails off. He checks his watch. "OK, let's go."

Osteen greets me with a smile (of course) and a firm handshake. His crow's feet and laugh lines are more pronounced than on TV, his manicure is impeccable, and he has a whole lot of product in his hair. Basically, he looks like a less-smarmy Ken doll. His suit jacket is draped over a chair and I notice he's wearing a tie with rows of miniature crosses.

Out on the floor of the arena, Pattie Henderson, a young member of the United Church of Canada (Americans call them Methodists), is getting giddy. She particularly likes Osteen's fret-free philosophy. "He talks about not worrying," she says. "Those things are more uplifting than, 'You'd better take care of yourself because of doomsday.'" Pam Walker of London, Ontario, attends a church featuring a preacher "like Joel." It's no coincidence. "You deal with a lot of stress, and [Joel] helps you make it through the day," she says. "You look around and see all these people he's brought together--age and race--and the energy is amazing. It's almost surreal. It's pretty sensational." She's right. Even considering that Toronto is the fifth largest city in North America and has a large immigrant population, the diversity of the crowd is pretty staggering. "He's refreshing," she adds. "When you read the newspaper, it's mostly bad news--" My conversation with Ms. Walker is interrupted.

"Can I have a piece of paper?" asks Cathy Dovell from the next row. I hand her a piece of paper and she turns to her husband: "I knew God would give us a piece of paper."

"He's not God."

"You never know."

Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff, the music director at Lakewood Church, takes the stage, her big blond hair shining under the stadium lights. "Stand from your seats and let's give God the praise He deserves," she bellows. Everyone comes to life, singing a rousing song of worship. A JumboTron shows the lyrics; call it Christian-rock karaoke.

Between fist-pumping sing-alongs, Osteen sermonizes from his podium (not pulpit, mind you). "Wake up and say, 2007 is going to be my best year. Something good is going to happen today," he urges in his folksy, reaffirming tone. "Does it? Not every day. But the next day I say, 'Something good is going to happen today.'" The event goes on for two and a half hours.

By the end of the evening, Osteen has shared the stage with his wife, Victoria, mother, Dodie, brother Paul, and children, John, 12, and Alexandria, 8. He thanks God for the opportunity to speak. He suddenly starts sobbing. It's an almost violent cry, as if he's fighting back the tears. Someone in the audience shouts, "We love you, Joel." Osteen then announces, "Stand if you are not at peace with the Lord and get ready for a new beginning." He suggests getting into a Bible-study group, dropping friends that are bad influences, and letting go of the past. "If you accept this blessing, say "Amen." Thousands repeat it in unison.

"You are blessed."

Jennifer Lee, a 23-year-old teacher's assistant for autistic children in New York City, watches Osteen every Sunday morning. She also downloaded Your Best Life Now onto her iPod, passionately discusses Osteen's sermons with friends, and even credits the fresh-faced pastor with helping her cope with her mother's breast cancer. And she's not even a Christian.

Lee was raised Jewish. As a child, she was "dragged" to synagogue and regularly skipped the Yom Kippur fast. One evening when she was 16, she was having trouble compiling an oral presentation for biology class, so she did what any teenager would: turned on the TV. The dial stopped on Osteen's program.

"Some people are just never going to understand or never going to agree with me....They think I ought to go out and tell people all that they are wrong and all that. And that's just not me."

"I actually looked at it like, 'Oh, not one of these guys again,'" she recalls. "He was talking about confidence. I was lacking a whole bunch of that and it just clicked for me. I learned that confidence will lead to success and all I need to do is believe in myself. That half-hour sermon--I kid you not--was the beginning of the new me."

While she hates being labeled, her beliefs are decidedly agnostic. So why does she identify with a Christian pastor? "I look at him like a motivational speaker," Lee says. "I don't think people get that until they see [him on television]. Yes, he's a pastor and does it in a church, but the underlying [message] is just to live a good life, love yourself, and be happy. He pretty much doesn't preach religion."

Blurring the lines between self-help and faith has helped Osteen market himself to non-Christians like Lee, but it has also attracted a fair bit of criticism. Even Larry King tried to nab him on the who-gets-into-Heaven question--twice. In fact, if Osteen's popularity hinges on any one thing, it's likely the fact that he is adamantly non-divisive.

But what about the people not interested in converting? The ones who listen to Osteen only for faith-free inspiration? "Whether they realize it or not, they are being drawn by God. Who goes to a worship service on a Friday night, man?" Iloff says. "I don't see how you can take God out of Joel's message. If [someone] really loves self-help, let them go talk to Tony Robbins, because he'll give them self-help. If you don't want God in there, there are lots of self-help books without God. Joel will be the first to tell them and will tell them, without God this stuff doesn't work."

Osteen's critics, however, maintain that he doesn't focus enough on religion. His sermons have been labeled Christianity Lite, Cotton Candy Christianity, and Superficial Gospel Lite, for their lack of scripture and reliance on self-help motifs. "It's spiritual escapism," says Ole Anthony, the founder and president of the Trinity Foundation, a religious-fraud watchdog group also involved in various charitable ventures. "You go to church to be vulnerable, to be transparent so that in your openness God can deal with things. But in his world, it is 'smile!' and almost a form of sorcery: You say happy things and you think happy things and then you'll be happy. Christianity is laying down your right; laying down your right to meet the need of people in need."

Tonight, in Toronto, Osteen does preach from the Bible. Of course, it's conversational and easy to digest:

"I love what Jesus said..."

"I love what God did for Joseph..."

"I love the scripture and proverb that said..."

As the band rages on, above the stage, the JumboTron projects images of Osteen performing a baptism. It's almost like a music video.

John Osteen, Joel's father, founded Lakewood Church in 1959. He was a former Southern Baptist minister who was shunned after taking up components of the Pentecostal movement (speaking in tongues, raucous services, etc.). As the church grew, he focused on overseas missions, especially in India. In 1983, his youngest son, Joel, who was a freshman at Oral Roberts University, told his father that he wanted to broadcast Lakewood's services on television. John agreed but with one caveat: He would not solicit funds on camera.

Joel dropped out of school and returned to Lake-wood to run the television ministry, which was shown on a local station and, later, the Family Channel. To his family, Joel's demeanor was perfect for behind-the-scenes work. "Joel's such a private, kind of shy guy," says his oldest brother, Paul. "He kind of melts into the woodwork." Joel was a late bloomer--there were few signs of that magnetic charisma in his early life. "I'd love to say there were," says Iloff, "He was just this reserved sweetheart of a guy but was never one to speak in front of a crowd." So it was surprising when Joel began preaching after John passed away in January, 1999.

It wasn't easy at first. "I remember times where right before he would go out he would be shaking like a leaf," Paul Osteen says. "In certain ways I felt sorry for him but I was so very proud that he was doing it." After preaching 33 times, Joel became head pastor.

All this while the young, still green, Osteen was finding his footing. "Early on he tried to preach some of my dad's sermons and I noticed about two years in, he shifted," Paul Osteen remembers. "He started ministering out of who he was." That included toning down on his father's staples such as tales of healing and prophecy. "Joel is sort of his dad lite," says Dr. Witherington.

Dr. Scott Thumma, co-author of Beyond Mega-church Myths, believes that that might have helped him. "That image of him being a reluctant prophet, never having had any training, never having been in the pulpit, and God sort of calling this inexperienced person to lead the church, has a tremendous amount of resonance with many of the Old Testament stories of prophets."

Once Osteen became head pastor, there were changes at Lakewood. Services were added, extra staff--including a music director--was hired, and after noticing a jump in local ratings, Lakewood bought more TV time. "When I took over, it was just natural to use media the best we could," Osteen says. "Even now, using the podcasts and the internet and all that--that new generation that I don't even understand. We live in a day that nobody's lived in before: where you can touch more people. The message I'll speak tonight and the message that I speak at home, people in India will hear. It's just an amazing day."

Now, Lakewood has a staff of 300, and is expected to make $73 million this year in revenue. "Joel is a very good businessman," Paul Osteen says. "He's surrounded himself with people who are very good at what they do. ...He oversaw a $100-million renovation to the Compaq Center; it takes some business savvy to do that."

It's easy to see the attraction of megachurches. Usually defined as having over 2,000 attendees per service, these Goliath-sized sanctuaries provide fast-paced, entertaining services and a sense of belonging for their largely anonymous congregation. And they are growing. According to researchers at the Hartford Seminary in Connecticut and the Leadership Network in Dallas, the number of megachurches has doubled, to more than 1,200 in the United States since 2001. Whether it's a post-9/11 hunt for higher meaning or just a hallmark of a consumerist bigger-is-better society, megachurches are mushrooming.

"The reason [Osteen is] so popular is because of the spiritual infantilism of America. Not just spiritual, the infantilism of American culture," Anthony says. "And he feeds the Paris Hilton, Britney Spears culture. It's all me. Benefit me. What can I do for me? How can I feel better? What can I do about me? How you can get the best of your life? It's all me-centered."

Dr. Thumma estimates that 25 percent of megachurches preach the Prosperity Gospel. Its proponents usually cite Deuteronomy 8:18 ("But you shall remember the Lord your God, for it is He who is giving you power to make wealth, that He may confirm His covenant which He swore to your fathers, as it is this day") and 2 Corinthians 8:9 ("Yet for your sakes he became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich") for scriptural support. But there are also numerous passages in the Bible against the accumulation of wealth, the most famous of which is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus from the gospel of Luke, in which a rich man ends up in Hell while the beggar Lazarus resides in Heaven. Even more pointedly, in Matthew 19:23-24, Jesus himself tells his disciples, "It's more difficult for a rich man to get into the Kingdom of God than it is for a camel to crawl through the eye of a needle."

"Those [in the Bible] who are prominent and praised by God are also very generous in giving [money] away and giving it to those in need," says Dr. Craig Blomberg, Distinguished Professor of the New Testament at the Denver Seminary. "As long as it's given to you as a loan from God, you are held accountable for how you use it."

According to Blomberg, the Prosperity Gospel is also popular amongst the poor. It offers hope. If nothing is working, maybe giving to God and being optimistic can lead to money in the bank. After all, it worked for Joel Osteen.

Does God want everyone to have $13-million book deals? "I think He wants us to become all He's created us to be," Osteen says. "But I don't think everybody is going to get book deals like this, but I do think that He's got something great for every one of us."

After the service, the weary worshippers amble out of the Air Canada Centre. Some still have tears in their eyes. Rhoda Zaracoff, 68, and Gloria Friedman, 73, two Jewish women from Toronto, sit in their seats waiting out the crowd. Zaracoff, who received these tickets for her birthday, mentions that if Osteen were based in Toronto, she would see him every week. "I think he's better than any psychologist," she says.

Hours earlier, in Osteen's dressing room, I asked him about his critics. "Cotton Candy Christianity," "Gospel Lite," they say. Before I even ask the question, the answer is obvious. We all know Joel Osteen doesn't get mad.

"It never bothered me," he says. "I see the people that we're helping. I see this place filled up tonight. We get thousands of letters and emails and all that and we hear about the people's lives we've helped change through God. You know what, some people are just never going to understand or never going to agree with me. You know, I believe that God is a good God and some people just don't believe that. They think I ought to go out and tell people all that they are doing wrong and all that. And that's just not me. I don't think I'm going to change them. If anything, I try to search my own heart and make sure I'm on the right course."

His voice is so soothing, it's almost mesmerizing "It was nice meeting you," he says. "I'll see you." We shake hands again and then he turns toward the door to put on his suit jacket. I can't see his face, but I'm sure there's a smile on it.

Read more and watch original video at GOODMagazine.com.