Joel Osteen’s ever-upbeat message – Good News to his fans, the gospel of getting rich to his critics – has made him perhaps America’s most popular Christian evangelist.
More than 10 million people watch his weekly sermons on TV. His books – with titles like “Become a Better You” and “Every Day is Friday” – routinely land in the #1 spot on best-seller lists. Lakewood Church in Houston, where he’s pastor, is the country’s largest, with a weekly attendance of 52,000.
And his national “Night of Hope” tour with wife Victoria, which has drawn more than 2 million people in the last decade, is returning to Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena on Friday night (Dec. 4).
The Observer recently spoke by phone with Osteen, 52, about money and religion, his reputation as “The Smiling Preacher,” Elevation Church pastor Steven Furtick, and his message of hope. Here’s the edited transcript.
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You’re coming to Charlotte for a “Night of Hope.” These days, even religious people seem scared, angry, worried. Are they open to such an upbeat message?
Yes, more than ever. In a sense, I think it works in our favor in that there are a lot of things trying to push us down in life. So to bring hope, bring faith – I think people respond more than ever.
Your new book is called “The Power of I Am: Two Words That Will Change Your Life Today.” “I Am,” of course, is close to how God identified himself (“I Am Who I Am”) to Moses in the Hebrew Bible. Do you mean it more as a boost to one’s self-worth?
Yes, it’s kind of a play on that. I find that there’s a lot of people today that are against themselves. There’s a recording playing in their mind: “I am not smart. I am unattractive. I am slow.” It’s being negative against yourself. I believe what follows that “I am” is what you’re inviting into your life. So I encourage the reader (to think) in their mind: “I am blessed. I am healthy. I am redeemed. I am forgiven.” So many people live guilty (lives): “God can’t bless me, I blew my marriage, I made mistakes.”
The theory is to pay attention to what you’re saying about yourself. The Scripture says. “Let the weak say ‘I am strong.’” We all struggle. Nobody’s perfect. But if you have the right recoding playing in your mind, what God says about you – “I am redeemed, I am blessed, I am healthy” – I believe you’re inviting that into your life.
You’ve heard this from your critics: So much of what you say is about us rather than about God. What’s your answer?
I believe God wants us to live a blessed, healthy and productive life. And if you don’t feel good about yourself, I don’t believe you can go out to be a blessing like you should.
You’ve said God cares deeply about all of us and empowers each of us to overcome and succeed. How do you define success? The Bible seems to draw a distinction between worldly success and being a follower of Jesus.
I would say success is fulfilling your purpose. It’s being who God created you to be. I have friends who are missionaries in Botswana and they just got running water. You couldn’t be more fulfilled (than they are). It’s doing what you feel like you’re called to do. I don’t think how rich or famous you are. It’s becoming what God’s created you to be.
You’ve been called a messenger for the “Prosperity Gospel.” Do you accept that description?
No, I’ve never liked it. I didn’t even know what it meant. I just started doing this 15 years ago. I grew up in this. I still don’t even know what the full definition is. I do believe this: I feel like our message is very balanced. That means how to overcome struggles, how to have good relationships, how to honor God with your life, how to break addictions. Prosperity to me is health and peace and peace with God and being able to sleep at night. I don’t ascribe that we’re supposed to be poor and broke and humble and live a defeated life. I don’t think that’s why Jesus came for us.
But he’s OK with us being rich? Jesus has some tough things to say about the rich in the Bible.
I think rich is all relative. I think everybody that’s going to read your paper or listen to me speak or watch on television – we’re all rich. All you have to do is go to India. I’ve spent months in India. They have people living in the slums. It’s all how you define it. Rich is good health. Rich is money to pay your bills. Rich is money to succeed in your dreams. Rich is good relationships. God started Christianity with Abraham and he was one of the wealthiest men of his day. God could have picked anybody. David left millions or billions of dollars for his son to build the temple. I think it’s about your heart. If you’re living for money and that’s your goal, that’s not what Christ came (for). He came that we might fulfill our purpose.
(But) I can play both sides. It takes money to run our ministry. I believe God wants you to succeed and be blessed, but money is a tool to fulfill your purpose, to advance the kingdom. I don’t even talk about money in the pulpit because people are already skeptical of TV evangelists. I don’t have to tell you there in Charlotte. They think that’s what we’re out for. So, I stay away from that. We’ve never asked for money on television. I don’t take a salary. God’s blessed me more than I can imagine. Victoria and I live like we’ve never dreamed in our life. That’s part of our message: God can take you places you’ve never dreamed.
We’re coming up on Christmas. Jesus was born in the humblest of circumstances and the first people who came to see him were these lowly shepherds. So some what would say that’s more the model. And the pope has made fans by having a humbler style than other popes. So where does humility come in?
I think humility is a huge part of it all and being a blessing and service to others. I like the pope’s stand. He could be living so much differently. But, you know, it’s up to every individual. If you go overseas, every one of us would be rich. To me it’s a matter of your heart. Where is your heart at? How do you treat other people? Are you living to be a blessing to somebody or are you living to kind of get blessed all the time? My father came from poverty. He had no money growing up. He came out of the Great Depression. Seventeen years old. He had no food, no money. Barely surviving. He made the decision: My children are not going to be raised in this.
So part of our message is that you can rise out of where you are. We talk to all kinds of people. We don’t talk to all people that have money. Somebody said, “Well, Joel, your message wouldn’t play in Africa?” But you know what? I get the most response in Africa. Because I’m telling people, “You can come out from where you are. God has a plan for your life when you believe. You can get an education. You can do things.” Challenging people to rise higher. That’s a big part of it. It’s about fulfilling your purpose and living a blessed life.
Q. You’ve been called “The Smiling Preacher.” Do you like that? And what puts that smile on your face?
I think people originally did it to be derogatory. But I don’t mind it. I’ve smiled my whole life. If you look at my little baby pictures – I just think it’s just my natural personality. Even people asked me when I became a minister, “Joel, why did you decide to be positive? Why the encouraging message?” That’s just who I’ve been my whole life. God gives you natural gifts and personality. Mine’s always been easygoing and I had that smile.
How do you re-charge your batteries? You seem to always be traveling, preaching, writing, talking with the media. Even Jesus went away to be alone, to pray, to listen.
I take the first half hour of almost every day to read my Bible, pray, meditate, thank God. And to really search my heart, too: “God, am I on the right path?” I try to start every morning: “God, am I making good decisions? Am I doing what you want me to do?” I find that, if I start that day, get refreshed, re-energized, I can go in there tired and leave after 30 minutes ready for the day. I’m also good at staying balanced. I work out. I take time for my family. I speak about 40 weeks in the year. That’s 12 weekends that I’m not having to prepare a message. Preparing for me – that takes my whole week. You’re better when you’re balanced.
The last time I covered you here (2009), I saw Steven Furtick, the pastor of Charlotte’s Elevation Church, in the crowd. He became controversial two years ago when we and others reported that he was building a big house – 16,000 square feet. You live in a big house, too. How do you answer people who question that choice by a Christian minister?
Steven’s a friend. I reached out to him, and I think he’s a great minister. I’d be glad to help him walk through it. I don’t know all the answers. I really don’t. I don’t take a salary here. You invest your money in different things. But I know his heart is to help people. I don’t know. What’s big to some people is not to others. So I’m not sure.
How big is your house?
I don’t know what my square footage is. I’m on an expensive piece of property. I don’t really like to talk about it much. But it’s not just my house. It’s my office, it’s many, many other things. I don’t have an office at the church. But I go back to: God’s blessed us. We give and try to be a blessing to others.
Editor’s note: Osteen’s house in Houston reportedly measures 17,000 square feet.
If you go
Joel and Victoria Osteen will hold their “Night of Hope” event at 7:3p p.m. Friday (Dec. 4) at Charlotte’s Time Warner Cable Arena, 333 E. Trade St.
Doors open at 6 p.m.
Tickets are $15 (plus fees and taxes) and are available at the arena box office, at Ticketmaster.com and at Ticketmaster outlets.