Megachurch pastor Joel Osteen brings message of hope to Lowcountry faithful
It’s hard to imagine now that the man whose sermons reach millions of global faithful, a pastor with nearly 1.9 million Twitter followers and whose books have all become No. 1 best-sellers, was nervous.
If you go
What: “A Night of Hope” with Joel and Victoria Osteen
Where: North Charleston Coliseum
When: Doors open at 6 p.m., program starts at 7:30 p.m. Friday
Cost: Tickets are $15 at the box office or through Ticketmaster.com or Ticketmaster outlets (which may charge ticketing fees).
For more: Go to joelosteen.com or lakewood.cc.
But on that Sunday 14 years ago, his first ever in a pulpit, Joel Osteen wished to God that he was still working behind the scenes televising his father’s sermons.
“I was so nervous, I had to hold the podium because my hands were shaking,” Osteen told The Post and Courier last week.
Yet, that moment, and the tragic week that followed, set Osteen on a new course, one that would see him become a new generation’s most popular preacher with a message of hope and redemption.
Osteen will bring that message to the North Charleston Coliseum on Friday in an event expected to attract more than 10,000 of the Lowcountry’s faithful and seeking.
“A Night of Hope” will include a sermon by Osteen and worship music along with words from his wife and fellow pastor, Victoria, and testimony from his 80-year-old mother, Dodie, about her recovery three decades ago from terminal liver cancer.
In the end, he’ll hold an altar call and offer the names of local partner churches, including Seacoast Church, Cathedral of Praise, and Truth and Fellowship Global Outreach Ministry.
Why? So Charlestonians who feel moved to pursue a deeper, or an altogether new, faith can find a church home.
And that, ultimately, is the megapastor’s top goal.
Losing his father
Osteen grew up as the son of a former Southern Baptist minister in Texas who built his own church from scratch. John Osteen must have asked his son 100 times: Would you preach this Sunday?
Losing his father
The son always declined.
“Then he’d try to get me to do the announcements,” Osteen recalls. “But I didn’t even want to do that.”
More reserved at heart, the younger Osteen preferred working behind the scenes at the nondenominational Lakewood Church. He had studied radio and TV at Oral Roberts University and then returned home where, for 17 years, he was quite happy televising his father’s sermons.
But in 1999, when John Osteen had to undergo dialysis, he again asked his son: Preach for me Sunday?
Once again, Joel Osteen declined.
This time, it nagged at him.
“Something said, ‘Joel, you really need to do it,’ ” he recalls.
So he summoned his courage, said his prayers and stepped up to the podium before thousands of people. His hands shook.
By then, his father had led Lakewood for 40 years. Osteen knew the people before him were cheering him on, supporting him, praying for him. They wanted him to succeed.
And, on the other end of a telephone in a nearby hospital room, John Osteen listened to his son preach to the church he had built.
When Joel Osteen arrived at the hospital afterward, a nurse stopped him: “Joel, I’ve never seen your dad so proud,” he recalls her saying.
Five days later, John Osteen died suddenly after a heart attack.
“I spoke the last Sunday of his life,” Osteen recalls. “I felt it was God speaking to me, that it was all a part of my destiny.”
Without his father, Osteen returned to the pulpit the next Sunday. And the next.
“When Dad died, I knew God wanted me to get up and try,” Osteen recalls.
So he did.
He had no inkling of what was to come.
Lakewood had 6,000 attendees when John Osteen died. Today, it numbers 45,000, the nation’s largest.
Yet, even after being named senior pastor, it took a good year in the pulpit before Osteen’s nerves eased.
“Over time, I’ve learned that it’s not a performance. I just need to get up there and be myself,” Osteen says.
Those nerves are hard to imagine given the easygoing, upbeat style that draws millions to hear Osteen speak today.
Now 50, his influence reaches worldwide. His Sunday sermons broadcast each week are viewed by 7 million Americans, not to mention viewers in another 100 countries worldwide.
His books have all ranked atop The New York Times best-seller list. Church Report magazine named him the Most Influential Christian in 2006. And so on.
But success hasn’t come without criticism for such things as not talking enough about sin, focusing too much on personal happiness and preaching a prosperity gospel.
“Any serious evaluation of Osteen and his preaching must take into consideration the degree to which he points people to important biblical themes such as Jesus Christ’s person and work, the kingdom of God and Christian discipleship,” says Michael L. Bryant, a Southern Baptist who is dean of Charleston Southern University’s School of Christian Studies.
Bryant would like to see Osteen more often discuss Jesus as God’s divine son and Messiah and Christ’s role as the substitute for humanity’s sin to appease God’s wrath, along with repentance and obeying Scripture.
“Unfortunately, Osteen’s preaching frequently omits these foundational biblical themes,” Bryant says.
To criticisms, Osteen tries to demur.
“I’m just going to keep running my race,” he says.
He says he’d rather uplift people by focusing on God’s love and promise of redemption rather than beating a religious drum of sin.
“People are beaten down enough by life. They know what they’ve done wrong,” Osteen says.
He gets lumped in with prosperity gospel ministers, he says, because he doesn’t believe that poverty and suffering must be part of a deep faith.
And while he has become wealthy and believes that God delivers to the faithful, he doesn’t promise the financial wealth that defines prosperity theology preachers. To him, “prosperity” refers to gifts of fulfillment such as health and people to love.
“We never talk just about money,” he says.
Studies have shown roughly half of his audiences either don’t go to a church regularly or have fallen away from faith. He points to scriptural message in Romans 2:4, which says the goodness of God will lead people to repentance.
“My goal is to reach people who are probably not typically going to go to a church or going to watch a TV preacher,” he says. “I focus on the good and the positive. God will bring you out of it.”
Love and Rockets
Osteen has become so popular that he cannot go in public, even sans his normal business suit, without being recognized.
Love and Rockets
His success has opened many doors, including the one to the Rev. Billy Graham’s home. Osteen and his family met the evangelist’s late wife, Ruth, which Osteen names as a highlight of his ministry.
“He told me to just keep doing what I’m doing,” Osteen recalls.
After all, it wasn’t all that long ago when the Osteens went on their first date, to a Houston Rockets basketball game in the team’s old stadium. Little could they know that stadium was the future home of the nation’s largest church, which they would pastor together.
After Osteen became senior pastor, Lakewood grew so much that the two-lane roads around it couldn’t handle the traffic nightmare caused by its services.
In 2005, and after $95 million in renovations, the church moved into its new 16,000-seat home, the former Compaq Center, the site of his first date with Victoria.
“I feel very blessed and humbled to do this,” he says. “I never dreamed of it. It is bigger and greater than I ever dreamed of.”
Which is what he encourages audiences to see in themselves.
“You don’t know what God has put into you or where he’s going to take you,” Osteen says. “We talk about how you can be a better parent, you can make better decisions. It’s always hopeful and positive. That’s just who I am.”
Reach Jennifer Hawes at 937-5563, follow her on Twitter at @JenBerryHawes or subscribe to her at facebook.com/jennifer.b.hawes.