Televangelist and author Joel Osteen has millions of adoring fans. The popular preacher, who is known the world over for his inspirational messages, best-selling books and charismatic demeanor, is widely revered as one of America’s most popular faith leaders. His house of worship, Lakewood Church located in Houston, Texas, attracts more than 40,000 congregants each week, making it the largest church in America.
Last Sunday, TheBlaze visited Lakewood to speak with Osteen about his career path, stereotypes surrounding televangelists and the rewards and challenges he so regularly faces. Among the most intriguing discussion points was Osteen’s rise to fame — a story that may not be known by many.
OSTEEN’S PATH TO PROMINENCE
Osteen’s father, John, founded Lakewood in 1959 and substantially built up the church over the following decades. Unexpectedly, the elder Osteen passed away in 1999, leaving a vacuum and an obvious need for a preacher to fill the void.
Up until that point, Joel had been working in media and production for his father, helping him produce a show and traveling with him regularly. Until John’s death, the pastor’s son assumed working in this behind-the-scenes capacity would be his life’s path; considering that he enjoyed the production role, it seemed like a good fit. But there were obviously other plans in store for Joel.
Little did he know that in 13 short years he would become one of America’s most powerful preachers. The path he took was a fascinating one, based on a calling to the pulpit that emerged immediately following his father’s death.
“When my father died in 1999, I had never ministered before except one time and that was the week of,” Osteen explained. “I don’t know how to describe it. I knew I was supposed to step up and pastor the church.”
Osteen recalls feeling that the emotion and urge didn’t make sense, even to him. After all, he had truly never preached in a professional capacity and had little theological training and experience beyond what he had learned from his father. But with the blessing of his family and with the church congregation behind him, he took the stage just one week after his father’s death and the rest is, well, history.
Watch Osteen describe his path to success in Part One of his Blaze interview, below:
“We never dreamed it would grow,” Osteen told TheBlaze from a side room at the massive church, going on to say that his initial goal was simply to maintain what his father had built.
“That’s part of our message,” he proclaimed, adding, “God’s dream for your life is bigger than your own. And that’s what I’ve seen.”
When compared to 1999, life has changed dramatically for Osteen. Aside from personal growth, he highlighted the immense responsibility he has — a level of devotion and energy that wasn’t previously required of him. But he embraces his intense schedule.
“It’s fun, I enjoy doing it. I don’t feel pressured or stressed out,” he said. “I’m not overworked. I just feel…very blessed.”
The popular pastor was also humble in describing his beginnings, urging individuals to never find themselves un-amazed by what God has done in their lives. He reflected on the fact that, at a time, the current location of Lakewood was where the Houston Rockets once played — a team he frequently cheered on in the very same stadium that he now preaches in.
“Every time I drive up to this building or even like today when I’m on the platform I see my old season tickets where all through my 20s I used to sit and watch the Rockets,” he said, with excitement coloring his tone. “And I think, man…it just reminds you, look where we are today — did you ever dream?”
PROSPERITY & SIN: TACKLING THE CRITICISMS
Osteen is no stranger to controversy, as critics regularly claim that he touts a prosperity gospel of sorts (that wealth is something that the Bible promises to Christians) and that he is too soft on sin. When it comes to taking criticism in a more general sense, the preacher says that he takes it in stride.
“I try to, having good people around me, accept and take any valid criticism,” Osteen explained, highlighting that he chooses to ignore some of the more flagrant criticisms coming from detractors.
On the prosperity gospel front, he flatly denied the charge and framed his messaging by distinguishing between “prosperity” and “wealth.” That being said, he went on to note that he doesn’t engage in counter-criticisms of those who rail against him, as he believes that it is his ideological opponents’ right to hold differing opinions.
“I see God as being good, being for us — [a] God that wants to bless us and calls us to excel. Now, some people turn that into ‘You know, Joel’s saying, God wants to be rich.’ It’s not that,” he said. “It’s [that] God wants us to excel, to have money to fulfill our dreams, and to have peace — to me, that’s prosperity.”
See him discuss these issues in Part Two of the interview, below:
When it comes to sin, Osteen also believes that critics get his message wrong. After asking him how he responds to those who see him as ignoring mankind’s sinful nature, he candidly responded that he believes he does, indeed, talk about sin — but that he does so using different methods.
“A lot of what I do is in a positive light. It’s who I am…to me, the scripture says it’s the goodness of God that leads to repentance,” Osteen proclaimed.
Rather than hammering congregants with negative messaging, Osteen takes a more affirmative approach.
“I would rather tell them we can be better fathers, we can overcome an addiction, we can let go of the past. I deal with it in an overcoming way,” he added.
“There’s a camp that’s more hellfire,” he admitted, noting that this divergent approach can be chalked up to differences in theological opinion.
THE CHRISTIAN RESPONSIBILITY TO THE POOR, BEING ‘SAVED,’ & HEAVEN
So what is the Christian responsibility for the poor? Osteen candidly described his view that the gospel commands Christians to reach out to those in need. His own brother, in fact, is currently working at a charity hospital in Africa and Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen Ministries engage in special service projects regularly.
The massive globe he preaches in front of every service also trumpets the ministry’s global mission.
“I think that we all have a responsibility. It’s a part of the gospel to reach out and help those in need,” he said. “And so, it’s a part of our message. It’s a part of what we teach all of the time.”
But Osteen believes that it’s essential to help people work through their own issues so that they can be fully-prepared and equipped to help their fellow man. The preacher said that it’s tough to reach out to others if individuals, themselves, aren’t “healthy and whole.”
“My message and my ministry is to empower people to become who God’s created them to be so that they can help others,” he added.
And for him, it all comes down to the Bible’s most central message — that Jesus Christ died for the sins of mankind and is a savior. Without pause, the preacher delved into what he believes it means to be “saved,” a term that is central to Christian doctrine.
According to Osteen, “saved” means having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. Salvation, he contended, is reliant upon that tenet. This, he said, paves the way toward a “guarantee of heaven” and helps individuals avoid “separation from God.”
Watch him discuss it in Part Three:
As for sin, Osteen sees it as a barrier to heaven that Jesus came to alleviate. Here’s how he explained the dynamic:
“We were born with sin and sin can’t enter heaven. Sin keeps us away from God. And, we all had this debt that we couldn’t pay. In the Old Testament they had to sacrifice animals and if you did enough right, you could get your sins covered. The gospel is that Jesus came and when he shed his blood and when he died and rose again, he was the ultimate sacrifice. And when you receive his forgiveness — and we call it redemption — you can be free from sin and not be separate from God.”
While the televangelist is often criticized for allegedly watering this message down, he didn’t hesitate to provide his full views on the matter. The aforementioned words, regardless of how critics feel about how Osteen deploys his message, generally coincides with what most evangelicals would say on the matter of sin and salvation.
PREPARING FOR SERMONS & INSPIRING THE MASSES
Seeing Osteen live or on television is unique for a variety of reasons. Among them, the pastor’s 26-minute sermons appear to be completely committed to memory. In our discussion, he described his intensive process of putting messages together and then presenting them.
His seamless presentation distinguishes him from other speakers and preachers who find themselves dependent upon transcripts and outlines. While this is not a critique of those who rely upon these elements, the impact of Osteen’s speeches may very well be attributed to his ability to present them in an engaging and invigorating way that leaves audiences feeling as though he’s speaking directly to them.
That’s not to say he never draws a blank. He does. And when it happens, he said he usually just lets the congregation know and glances at the few notes he has.
Osteen went on to also explain the blessings he sees coming from the messages and events he holds. Among all of the benefits he feels coming from his work, the preacher said that seeing his sermons and messages impacting lives is the biggest personal blessing he regularly receives. He called the opportunity to impact his fellow man “humbling and rewarding.”
“The biggest blessing is being able to help people you’ve never met,” Osteen said. “To realize you’ve impacted their lives. There’s no feeling like that.”
Part Four of the interview, below:
The final question we had for Osteen focused upon a 30-second pitch. If he had only a small fragment of time to drive a message home to listeners, what would it be? Naturally, his comments focused upon positivity and a relationship with Christ.
“I would hope that they would receive Christ and have a relationship with Him — their creator,” he said. “And then, my second thing would be that…know that God is for you. You’re here for a purpose. You’re a person of destiny. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut of life.”
In the end, Osteen said he would want others to regularly realize their immense purpose and that others need them. These realizations, he believes, tie into knowledge about who Christ is.
TheBlaze’s Benny Johnson and Jon Seidl contributed to this report.