Critics say he's too easygoing, but televangelist Joel Osteen is winning a devoted following with his positive approach
As a television evangelist, Joel Osteen is used to skeptics monitoring his integrity. Still, even he was surprised by what happened after a stack of papers blew out of his car in a parking lot one day.
Osteen chased the papers, but the wind kept scattering them until the minister was tempted to just let them lie there as litter. He thought twice and bent to pick up the remaining pieces.
That's when two strangers in a nearby car rolled down their windows.
''Hi, Joel," they said. ''We were watching to see what you were going to do."
It's been almost two decades since Jimmy Swaggart and Jim Bakker made a laughingstock of television evangelism. Many new preachers have taken to the pulpit since then.
None has become a household name. But Osteen is on his way.
A second-generation minister, Osteen is the pastor of Houston's Lakewood Church, which has the nation's largest congregation, according to the Missouri-based research firm Church Growth Today.
More than 30,000 believers come to hear Osteen every week, with about 7,500 people crowding into each of four weekend services. Those numbers are sure to go up this week, when Lakewood -- a nondenominational Christian church -- moves into the former Compaq Center, where the NBA's Houston Rockets once played. The new sanctuary will hold a whopping 16,000 people per service.
Osteen, who also has a book on The New York Times bestseller list, ''Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," isn't just big in Houston.
His services air nationally five days a week on seven different television networks and a number of local network affiliates: Discovery Channel, USA, BET, ABC Family, Pax Television, Daystar Network, TBN, and WFXT-TV in Boston.
On Sundays, he can be seen on BET at 7:30 a.m. and 8 p.m., Discovery Channel at 8 a.m., USA at 8:30 a.m., and ABC Family at noon, as well as at other times found on www.joelosteen.com.
A 42-year-old college dropout who's been preaching since 1999, Osteen says he's awed by his growing popularity, which -- judging by the audience members at Lakewood -- appears to cross racial lines and age groups. ''This is all so new to me," he says, a soft Southern twang punctuating his telephone voice. ''I think God has given me a lot of favor to reach people."
Osteen is energetic and youthful-looking on-screen; his broad smile and optimistic messages have earned him the nickname ''the smiling preacher." He believes viewers are connecting to him because his sermons offer hope in a way that is relevant to everyday life. Recent sermon topics include: ''Trusting God When Life Doesn't Make Sense," ''Have the Courage to Be Different," and ''Listen to the Warnings on the Inside."
With so many negatives in life pulling people down, Osteen says, his viewers are looking for encouragement. ''To come on the weekend and get some practical advice from the Bible is a real lift," he says.
Now on a national tour to 15 cities to promote his book and ministry, Osteen is selling out venues like New York City's Madison Square Garden. He plans to come to Boston next year, which is good news for people like Karen Beld, an Osteen fan who owns the pastor's book and one of his cassettes for her car.
''My family watches Joel every Sunday morning before we go to 10 o'clock Mass," says Beld, a 43-year-old homemaker in Braintree. ''He's uplifting and positive. It's not like you're doomed to death. He makes you realize that no matter what you've done, God forgives you. I need that in my life right now."
Two topics Osteen sidesteps are hell and damnation.
''I think people are used to ministers beating them over the head with condemnation," Osteen says. ''The Scripture says that it's the goodness of God that causes people to repent. Jesus didn't condemn."
But Osteen's upbeat approach annoys some critics who prefer a sterner doctrine. ''What he's talking about has nothing to do with Christianity," says Ole Anthony, president of the Trinity Foundation, a Dallas-based religious media watchdog group that investigates fraud among televangelists. ''He's popular because we live in a nation that demands cotton-candy theology. His service is just a pep rally. It's all about you.
''What about preaching the demands of God? What about helping the poor in society? Houston has thousands of homeless people. What is he doing for them?"
Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College and the author of ''The Transformation of American Religion: How We Actually Live Our Faith," says Osteen is in a bind. ''If he weren't as upbeat, he wouldn't be as popular," Wolfe says. ''The cost of being positive is you don't have as much to offer in purely religious terms. That's a difficult dilemma. I can't say which is better. But, clearly, if he preaches a stricter message, he will get a smaller audience."
In the November/December 2004 issue of The Door Magazine, a Christian satire magazine published by Trinity, a spoof appeared of Osteen's top 12 sermon titles. They included: ''Everybody Shout Happy-Lujah!" and ''I Once Was Lost But Now I Smile."
Despite the criticisms, however, Anthony concedes that after years of investigating Lakewood, ''I have never found any fraud with Joel."
Lakewood, which has an annual budget of $50 million and a full-time staff of 200, says it helps the community by sending volunteers to prisons and hospitals and by supporting agencies with donations that feed and clothe the needy.
Unlike other television ministries, Lakewood has never asked for on-air donations. The move to the Compaq Center and the television ministry are being paid for by the church and its members. ''We have a policy that we don't grow beyond what we can pay for," says Osteen. ''We're not out to get your money or get you to join our church. We have a big enough church."
Osteen, who was paid $200,000 last year, has voluntarily given up a salary this year because of undisclosed profits from his book, which has sold about 3 million copies so far.
The pastor's lack of salesmanship boosts Lakewood's credibility, some observers say.
''Osteen has an incredible air of authenticity. You just believe the guy," says Quentin Schultze, author of ''Televangelism in America: The Business of Popular Religion." ''He represents a renewal of TV evangelism as a more positive enterprise."
Still, warns Schultze, a professor of communication at Calvin College, ''it's critically important that he not ask for money. I still run across a lot of people who want nothing to do with organized religion because of Jim and Tammy Bakker."
Osteen, who has two children, ages 6 and 10, never wanted to be a preacher.
Described by his brother Paul as a ''painfully shy" boy who skipped his prom and preferred baseball over parties, Joel dropped out of Oral Roberts University in 1982 because he wanted to manage Lakewood's television production department.
His father, John Osteen, who started Lakewood in 1959 with 90 members, was appearing nationally on two networks. The church then had about 15,000 members.
''Lakewood billboards and bumper stickers were all over the city. The church had a real presence even before Joel took over," says William Martin, a professor of sociology and religion at Rice University and author of ''A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story."
One day in 1999, a sickly John Osteen called Joel's home, Joel recalls, and asked him to preach the coming weekend, which Joel had never done. ''I said no," Joel Osteen said. ''Then something down inside said that I needed to do it."
Onstage that Sunday, Joel gripped the podium through his sermon, recalls Donald Iloff, his brother-in-law. ''He was very nervous."
The next week, John Osteen died, and suddenly Joel was in charge.
Osteen has five siblings. His oldest brother, Paul -- a surgeon who gave up his practice to help Osteen -- manages the church's ministries, attending funerals and weddings so the Lakewood pastor can concentrate completely on his weekly message. Sister Lisa preaches at a Wednesday night service.
Sisters Tamara and April both co-pastor their own churches in Texas. Justin, another brother, operates an unrelated business.
Unlike some TV evangelists before him, Osteen is not an electric personality. On-screen, he comes off as polished and energized but not theatrical. He avoids formalities like a robe or an elevated seat. At times, particularly when he refers to his late father, he becomes emotional, struggling to finish his sentences.
''My father was more preacher-y. He came from a Southern Baptist tradition," says Osteen. ''I'm just more laid-back."
What's memorable about Osteen is his sense of humor. In what has become a signature for him, each week he starts his sermon with a joke related to church, religion, or the Bible. He's also fond of surprising family members sitting in the audience by unexpectedly sharing personal stories about them. His wife, Victoria, is a frequent target because of her fondness for shopping.
''He got me good yesterday," Victoria said during a recent interview. ''He was talking about how he likes order and I like variety, which is why I go to every mall in the city."
With Osteen's increasing fame -- he was a guest on CNN's ''Larry King Live" last month -- he has found himself more and more under a microscope. ''To me, it's not a downside. I like people, and I'm honored that they know me," he says.
On Houston's roadways, however, Osteen has made some changes.
''I used to speed. I'm just high-strung. I wouldn't think anything of going 70," he says. ''Now I make myself go 50 or 60."
Suzanne Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.