Evangelist’s Encouraging Words Are Hard To Resist

The Rev. Joel Osteen preaches forgiveness and optimism, and each Sunday, thousands fill his Houston church to hear his message.

The Rev. Joel Osteen is a rising star among America’s TV evangelists. He is the pastor of the 30,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston, the fastest-growing church in America last year.

And he seldom utters a discouraging word.

He reminds me of one of my favorite aunts, who would always take up for us if we had done something wrong. “He didn’t go to do it,” Aunt Allie would say kindly, and perhaps we really didn’t mean to do something bad
— on that particular occasion.

Osteen, 41, has a similar forgiving touch, telling people not to dwell on past shortcomings and to pick themselves up after misfortune and move on. Millions respond to his message of forgiveness. Others criticize him for not focusing enough on sin.

I admit that when Osteen comes on the tube, telling us to put our bad experiences behind us, that God loves us and that our future is bright, it’s a hard-to-resist message. While on vacation, I decided to drive a few extra miles to see what Osteen was like in person.

We were greeted by some of the 7,800 worshippers attending a Sunday-morning service, just part of the more than 20,000 people who attend Lakewood Church on any given weekend. Osteen was preaching to a racially diverse congregation, telling them not to judge people by their outward appearances.

“We judge people and don’t know anything about them . . . ,” he said. “All we know is that they dress different, are too short or too tall, or not the same color as I am.”

He used his dad, the late Rev. John Osteen, as an example, saying that the elder Osteen, who grew up in Fort Worth, dropped out of school and didn’t look like a man who someday would become a famous minister.

“My dad walked around swinging a chain” and wore a zoot suit when he worked at the New Isis Theater in Fort Worth, the younger Osteen said.

But after a spiritual transformation during a tent revival in Fort Worth, John Osteen, a Southern Baptist who was criticized for accepting charismatic teachings, affected many lives. He founded the Lakewood Church in a feed store in 1959, began the TV ministry and wrote many books.

When his father died in 1999, Joel Osteen reluctantly became pulpit minister. The younger Osteen had helped develop his dad’s TV ministry, but he had always been behind the scenes.

“I was scared to get out in front of people,” Joel Osteen told me after the sermon. “But when my father died, I suddenly had a desire to preach. I was still nervous, but I did it. And it just took off from there.”

The church has tripled in size since he became pastor. John N. Vaughan of Church Growth Today ranked it as the fastest-growing church in America in 2003. The congregation is raising $75 million to move into the 18,000-seat Compaq Center vacated by the Houston Rockets professional basketball team.

One critic, Jackie Alnor, writing on the watchdog group Christian Sentinel’s Web site, puts Joel Osteen in the same category as prosperity preachers who say faith-filled words can get people what they want. But Osteen says that’s not his main focus.

“We preach a simple message . . . that God loves us and wants to bless us. It’s a message of hope for the rich and poor,” Osteen said.

Today, Osteen lives in a $1 million home. Osteen said he and his wife started in a smaller house, fixed it up and sold it at a profit and used capital gains to keep investing in larger houses.

“Yes, God wants us to prosper, but he wants us to prosper in order to help other people,” Osteen said. “It’s not living for yourself, not always praying for what can I get.”

Osteen invites people to accept Christianity after each sermon, asking them to repent of their sins. But, like his father, he doesn’t focus on condemnation.

“People have been beat down long enough,” he said. “They’ve been criticized enough. I’m not going to judge them. I’m going to tell them there’s hope, there’s a place of victory.”

He sounds a lot like my Aunt Allie.

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