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Fate put him in pulpit, Joel Osteen does the rest with an upbeat message and media savvy, the Texan rises to stardom

ChristianityTelevisionBilly GrahamJoel OsteenColleges and UniversitiesProtestantism

Few would have predicted Osteen's impact that Sunday morning in 1999.

After less than a year at Oral Roberts University, Osteen had returned home to work at Lakewood's television ministry, where he spent the next 17 years behind the scenes.

Joel Osteen, whose gospel of optimism and telegenic good looks have turned him into a fast-rising star in the nation's evangelical firmament, is nothing if not confident.Just days after his father, the Rev. John Osteen, died suddenly in 1999, the minister's son stepped into the pulpit for the first time, facing thousands of worshippers at Houston's Lakewood Church.

"I had never preached before," recalls Osteen, 41. "It was kind of a weird thing. I never wanted to preach, but I knew in my heart it was what I was supposed to do. I knew I was supposed to step up."

In the five years since he preached his first sermon, Osteen's rise has been meteoric. While his congregation has grown from 7,000 to 30,000, Osteen has become one of the most popular religious broadcasters in the country, filling arenas as far away as Madison Square Garden.

Today, Osteen is expected to draw a large crowd at Books-a-Million in Fern Park, where he will be signing his first book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. Largely based on his sermons, the book is No. 4 on the New York Times best-seller list and was recently No. 1 on the Wal-Mart list with 800,000 copies in print.

A SIMPLE MESSAGE

But since taking over as pastor of Lakewood, he has turned it into the largest and fastest-growing congregation in the nation, according to Church Growth Today, a megachurch research organization.

"There is a simplicity to his message," explains John Vaughn, president of Church Growth Today. Almost immediately, Osteen is able to win the trust of those who hear him. "His age has a lot to do with it," Vaughn says. "He's able to tap into a whole new generation. He's like the guy next door."

Osteen's father, a former Southern Baptist, founded the nondenominational Lakewood in 1959 in an abandoned feed store and later referred to it as the "Oasis of Love."

Starting early next year, the congregation will move to a new home at Houston's 16,000-seat Compaq Center, a basketball arena once home to the Houston Rockets that the congregation has leased and renovated at a cost of $80 million.

UNDERSTANDS MEDIUM OF TV

The young minister, who bears a passing resemblance to comedian Jerry Seinfeld, is connecting with believers through his upbeat, motivational approach to Christianity.

"I don't condemn," he says. "I don't believe in being judgmental. What I preach is that it is the goodness of God that leads people to repentance -- that's right out of the Bible. God has a good plan. It doesn't matter what we've done. We can ask for forgiveness and move on."

The message clearly resonates beyond Houston.

Osteen's weekly television show -- which airs three times a week in Central Florida, on WOPX-Channel 56 and WACX-Channel 55 -- is carried on six cable networks and in 150 countries, at an annual cost of $20 million. According to Nielsen Media Research, Osteen's broadcast is the highest-ranked inspirational program in the nation, based on average television viewers per market.

"He strikes me as very self-confident, and that seems to project across the airwaves," says Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Barnard College in New York. "He is similar to a young, up-and-coming corporate executive, a go-getter."

Scott Thumma of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research agrees.

"A lot of his success I attribute to his savvy understanding of the media and the technology," says Thumma, who studies megachurches. "There is a real media gift there," including knowing which markets, cable systems and time slots to buy for his show.

This year, Osteen began taking his ministry on the road. In addition to selling out venues in Dallas; Fort Worth, Texas; Birmingham, Ala.; Anaheim, Calif.; and Atlanta, "An Evening With Joel Osteen" sold out in Chicago and two nights at New York's Madison Square Garden. Next year, he plans 12-15 such appearances.

Despite his success, Osteen has his detractors, who charge that his theology is watered-down Christianity. Other critics, such as Jackie Alnor, an online critic of Christian organizations and cults, have charged that his message is what some evangelicals call "health and wealth" and "name it and claim it." "People put me in that category without listening to my message," Osteen replies by cell phone from Disney World, where he has been visiting with his family. "God wants us to be happy and live a fulfilled life, so we can be a blessing and help others. I never preached a message on financial prosperity."

Nor has he appealed for money on his television broadcasts, he adds.

INTRIGUING SUCCESS

Nevertheless, his critics charge that Sundays at Lakewood are more of a show than a service, that little is asked of those in the seats. Ole Anthony, of the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, has described Osteen's message as "cotton candy."

"I am a Christian and I live by those principles," Osteen says. "I have never felt it was necessary to explain the Bible. I want to teach people how to live by biblical principles. I talk about everyday living. I use stories from my life and tie them back to biblical principles."

In some ways, Osteen's success is an anomaly. Although some sons of megachurch pastors have been successful, few of the second generation of national Christian leaders, broadcasters and evangelists have yet emerged from the large shadows of their parents, men such as Pat Robertson, Bill Bright, Robert Schuller, Paul Crouch, Oral Roberts and Jimmy Swaggart.

"Usually there is a lot of angst in passing ministries from father to son," says Barnard's Balmer, author of The Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism. "Generally, the son can't keep the legacy alive. That does make Osteen remarkable."

Joel Osteen suggests that because his father died so suddenly, and because he assumed the pulpit so unexpectedly, there was less time to compare him with his predecessor.

Osteen's promotional materials hint that the man sometimes described as "The Smiling Preacher," may have the makings of a 21st-century Billy Graham. The Texan's upbeat approach is in sharp contrast to Franklin Graham, Billy's son and designated heir, whose darker personality, judgmental message and penchant for criticizing Muslims and Hindus have caused head-scratching in national evangelical circles.

"Joel won't alienate as many people, that's clear," says William Martin, author of A Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story. "But nobody is going to be the next Billy Graham in the sense of being the dominant person in American Christianity."

Osteen's success "so far is unanticipated and quite remarkable, and his stature may continue to rise," says Martin, a Rice University professor who sends his students to study Osteen.

And there are similarities with Billy Graham.

"He is certainly not threatening. He's non-political, and he's an appealing guy."

Mark I. Pinsky can be reached at mpinsky@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5589.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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