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.


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.


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.