Joel Osteen describes himself as “naturally shy” and “reserved.” Not the first words you’d expect to hear from a minister who preaches weekly to a 43,000-strong congregation and reaches tens of millions more on TV and online.
“I walk into a room and I’m not the center of attention,” said Osteen in an interview with ABC News correspondent Byron Pitts. “If I go into a room, I’m going to go find the two people I know.”
Yet as the cheerful and commanding presence at Lakewood Church in Houston, Osteen said he has overcome that natural reserve with careful preparation, working on his Sunday sermon up to four days in advance. It’s those sorts of barriers – in his case, shyness –that he hopes others can get beyond through his new book, “Break Out!”
“You cannot let where you are today cause you to get stuck,” said Osteen. “I’m going to be my best right now. That’s what faith is all about.”
He lays out what he calls “5 keys” to get beyond a tough situation:
- Believe bigger: “Many times there are barriers in our mind.”
- Consider God, not your circumstances: “When you believe, all things are possible.”
- Pray God-sized prayers: “A lot of times we pray over our food or pray for protection, but we don’t pray for our dreams.”
- Keep the right perspective: “What we focus on is what gets bigger.”
- Don’t let good enough be good enough: “God always wants us to be growing.”
The keys may be easy platitudes but, in his interview, Osteen clarifies that he’s “not saying it’s easy. But I’ve seen the power of faith and the goodness of God.
“I think a big test we all face in life on a regular basis is that discouragement test. Life’s not always fair but I believe if you keep doing the right thing, God will get you to where you are.”
Osteen seems to have been born into his ministry. His father, John Osteen, began Lakewood Church more than five decades ago, drawing churchgoers with his old-school, Southern Baptist services. Joel Osteen worked behind the scenes, editing his father’s sermons for television every week. But when his father passed away in 1999, Osteen stepped into his shoes and grew the church’s following exponentially. Half the people who watch his sermons don’t even attend the service. Today, Lakewood is an Osteen family affair. His wife, Victoria, is a pastor. And his mother, siblings and two children are involved in the church.
“My parents laid a great foundation,” he explained. “But my style is more conversational and my message is not geared just toward a church audience. I think most people desire to have a relationship with God and they’re looking for something bigger.”
But his ministry has brought controversy as well. Critics point him out as one of a large group of televangelists preaching the “prosperity gospel,” the idea that God blesses those who donate to churches. Osteen explained that prosperity means something different to him.
“I purposely don’t talk about money because people are already skeptical about TV preachers,” he said. “But I do say that I want you to be blessed. To me, prosperity is having health, having great children, having peace, good relationships. It’s not about the money. I do believe that God wants us to be blessed and to excel and to be leaders.”
It’s just that sort of faithful optimism for which many people see him as the Norman Vincent Peale of this generation. And which has made him a bestselling author and a minister who has counseled U.S. presidents, including President George W. Bush.
The first President Bush recently attended – and served as witness to – a same-sex wedding in Maine. Osteen said he would not officiate at a gay wedding.
“As I believe the Scriptures show, marriage is between a man and a woman,” explained Osteen. “But if a minister from a Christian tradition chose to do that, I wouldn’t criticize anybody. But I wouldn’t feel comfortable with that in my faith.”
Though Osteen stands firm with his Christian beliefs, he said he doesn’t feel it’s his job to judge others: “Especially in the church world, there’s been a lot of ‘Here’s what we’re against,’ ‘Here’s what we don’t like,’ ‘You better not do this or you’re not welcome here.’ They’ve been good at telling people what they don’t like. But I want to be known for what I’m for. I’m for people, I’m for new beginnings, and I’m for second chances.”
And what about the afterlife? Osteen said the guarantee for going to heaven is having a relationship with Christ, as the Bible teaches.
“As to who goes to Heaven, I can’t be the judge of that,” he said. “There are good people, there are different religions. I just thank God that I’m not the one who gets to choose or who gets to decide. God’s mercy is big and broad. If you call on the name of the Lord, you will be saved. I don’t know who’s going to call, but I hope everybody will.”
It’s a message he’s interested in expanding to even more people, to “get outside my preacher’s outfit.” He already holds several “A Night of Hope” events around the country which draw tens of thousands, but sees new opportunities in media, especially social media.
“My core is a pastor but I’m just for bringing hope and light to as many people as we can.”