Long before Joel Osteen became “the next Billy Graham,” preaching to millions on television each week all around the globe, he was just a shy pastor’s kid praying for a pretty young lady to say yes.
He’d met her when he wandered into Iloff Jewelers in Houston, in need of a watch battery. The owner’s daughter, Victoria Iloff, the charming blonde behind the counter, ended up selling him a new watch.
Joel asked her to accompany him to a Houston Rockets basketball game. She said yes, but it turns out the date was nearly a disaster.
The first problem was getting in the door. Joel’s father, Lakewood Church founding Pastor John Osteen, owned courtside season tickets, but they were spoken for.
So the young man who one day would command a budget of nearly $100 million bought tickets from scalpers in the parking lot.
She made it through the turnstiles. He didn’t. He’d bought a ticket to the following night’s game. He went back to buy another ticket.
They ended sitting at the “very, very top” of the arena. “It wasn’t going the way I wanted it to,” Osteen confesses.
Despite Osteen’s vaunted optimism, the worst was yet to come.
At halftime, a fan from his nosebleed section was chosen to vie for a prize by taking a shot from half court.
“He goes out there at halftime,” Osteen says, “he shoots the basket, and he swishes it. He makes it! All of his friends are around us. When he made it, they jumped up and threw their hands in the air.
“The only problem was, they were all holding cups of beer. So when they did that, the beer went up in the air. It was like slow motion. I could see the beer up there, and I had time to pray. I said, ‘God, do not let that beer come down on Victoria. I’ll go to India, be a missionary, I’ll do anything.’ But God has a sense of humor. It missed everybody, but it totally drenched Victoria.”
That night, the quiet preacher’s son took his date home smelling of beer.
“I had to laugh,” she recalls.
One indication that Osteen’s trusting prayers have been mostly answered since then: He and Victoria were married 18 months later.
As Joel and Victoria Osteen celebrate their 24th anniversary this month, they may pause during the religious services they preside over and take a moment to gaze up at the exact spot in the Lakewood Church mezzanine where they sat together on their first date watching a Rockets game. They now lease the massive place.
Today, as pastors of the nation’s largest single congregation — weekly attendance is about 45,000 — the Osteens have risen to powerhouse status in the Christian religious scene. Their televised messages reach an estimated 7 million U.S. viewers a week, and millions more in broadcasts to more than 100 nations. Each new release in their book series rockets onto the best-seller list.
For many, the Osteens’ message of trusting in God’s love resonates with special power in these tough economic times. But extraordinary success rarely comes without controversy, and their approach to the gospel is no exception.
The Lakewood story is evidence that “God’s plan for our lives is bigger than our own,” Joel Osteen tells Newsmax.
In 2003, the Rockets left the Compaq Center for a new arena downtown. Desperately needing a larger sanctuary to accommodate overflowing crowds, the Osteens leased the site of their first date. In a financial leap of faith, the church spent a cool $100 million to turn the sports facility into a massive church.
Lakewood is unique in ways that transcend size. One thing you notice immediately: Churchgoers of every ethnic group and economic strata push their way through the front doors, filling the church to its rafters. It’s one of the very few U.S. churches to break the color barrier that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to in 1961 when he described 11 a.m. to noon on Sundays as the most racially segregated hour in America. Many churches still are that way, but Lakewood offers a respite from the monochromatic tradition of worship.
The congregants’ stories are as varied as their backgrounds. A lady from Dallas says she drove four hours with her two daughters because she loves the TV broadcast and wanted to see the Osteens in person. A divorced couple says they’re thinking about getting back together and need some godly wisdom. Others just come for a dose of inspiration and uplifting worship.
The common desire most of them share: the hope that, despite the most serious economic downturn since the Great Depression, their dashed dreams can be resurrected.
Inside, the crowd is rocking to a rousing rendition of “My Savior Lives.” To the uninitiated, Lakewood appears more concert hall than house of worship. The focal point isn’t a cross. It’s a huge revolving, golden globe — the familiar backdrop for the television broadcast beamed out to every major market in the United States.
Two-story waterfalls splash down each side of the stage. The choir runs 450 strong. An 11-piece band, led by worship leaders Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff and Israel Houghton, uses organ, drums, and electric guitar to jam out uplifting tunes. The music pulls the audience to its feet.
Spotlights dazzle, and cameras mounted on Hollywood-style booms swoop in to capture the service from every angle.
Each service draws nearly 16,000 worshippers. More than 40,000 will crowd in on a typical weekend to hear the Osteens speak; 8,000 will attend the Spanish-speaking service alone. As measured by attendance, Lakewood is almost twice the size of America’s next-largest church.
The music ends with a crescendo of drums and crashing cymbals and then, there they are: the first couple of Christendom jouncing on stage hand-in-hand to give the crowd a warm and hearty Texas welcome.
The Rockets-arena-turned-church rocks with applause.
“God bless you tonight,” Joel Osteen says. “We welcome you to Lakewood. It’s always great to have you here. We just appreciate you coming out.”
His close-up image towers behind him on three Jumbotrons: wavy, jet-black hair, trademark megawatt smile, one of the natty blue pinstripe suits he favors.
“You might as well get ready,” Osteen tells them cheerfully. “You’re going to go out of here with more joy and more peace, with more character, with more strength. God’s going to birth something in you on the inside tonight!”
When the cheering subsides, Osteen nudges the crowd to set their woes aside. “Remember,” he says, “we come into God’s presence not with heavy hearts, and ‘Oh God you’ve gotta help me tonight, I’m really down.’ The Bible says you enter into his presence with praise and thanksgiving. Praise is what precedes the victory.” Hope, faith, and encouragement. Confidence in God’s loving goodness no matter what the obstacles — it’s vintage Joel Osteen.
Some complain that it sounds too easy, but Osteen offers a different take. He says it begins with a choice.
“You can’t have faith if you don’t first have hope,” he tells Newsmax. “When you have that hope, it allows God to do great things.” It’s a message that really resonates.
Osteen’s followers know he’s had to learn to practice what he preaches. Not long after the Compaq Center renovation began, the church’s accountants delivered the bad news: The church would fall about $15 million short on its next payment due to the banks. “It was a very critical time,” Osteen recalls.
It could have been a tipping point for his ministry, the type of crisis that sends most TV preachers running to issue televised pleas for cash. But Joel’s late father had never asked for donations from his television audience, and Joel vowed he wouldn’t, either.
So, how to head off the looming embarrassment?
“I had put my name on the line,” Osteen says. “I should have been worried. I should have been losing sleep. These thoughts were telling me ‘It’s not going to work out; it’s going to be a big mess; you’re not even going to be able to move in.’”
Instead of worrying, however, Osteen decided simply to believe and trust with all his heart that God would take care of the church.
“I had an incredible peace,” he says. “I could sense everything is going to be all right; God is still on the throne; he’s in complete control.”
The church had tried for three years to sell Houston’s KTBV Channel 55, an independent TV station it operated in its early years. Its value had been estimated at about $18 million. But the church still owed $8 million on it, so even if a buyer miraculously emerged, the church still would be millions of dollars behind.
“A few weeks before the big payment was due,” Osteen says, “a buyer for the station came along. Things fell into place. And he bought it — for $32 million! We were able to make that payment, and we’ve been going strong ever since.” Osteen’s conclusion: “That was a moment of favor that God had already released into my future. All I had to do was believe. All I had to do was stay in faith, and not let doubt or unbelief stop or delay what God had already lined up.”
Osteen is a big believer in the power of what some Christians call “expectant prayer,” the notion that firmly believing that God will answer your prayers is the key to getting those prayers fulfilled (although not necessarily in the way you might anticipate).
It’s an approach familiar to the followers of the late Oral Roberts, who frequently urged his believers to “expect a miracle.”
But the power of belief is also a common element in popular motivational literature, including books by Napoleon Hill, Norman Vincent Peale, and Tony Robbins. Some theologians express concern that Osteen’s views, while biblically based, navigate a little too close to secular motivational perspectives.
Osteen believes not only that expecting God’s best really works but also that it can help those trying to cope with the bad economy. “The economic downturn has affected people of all ages and incomes,” he writes in his new book, It’s Your Time: Activate Your Faith, Achieve Your Dreams, and Increase in God’s Favor.
“Millions have lost their jobs. Millions more have seen their savings depleted. Many have lost their homes. Relationships have been strained. We’ve all been tested,” he says.
Talking heads may proclaim times are bad, Osteen says, but that doesn’t mean you have to submit to their negative thinking.
His book and sermons urge people to keep trying, stay rooted in faith, and never give up because, he says, “You’re closer than you think.” Can praying, keeping a positive attitude, living biblically, and trusting God really be the answer to surviving the Great Recession? Can it be that simple?
Fifty-three-year-old truck driver Calvin Francis says yes.
The moribund economy’s death wagon stopped at Francis’ door just a few days before Christmas 2007.
That’s when he lost the job he’d had for seven years and became a Bureau of Labor statistic.
Considering that his wife Elizabeth is a heart patient who requires costly blood-pressure medication, Francis knew the layoff could spell big trouble.
Still, he kept attending Lakewood, and ushering there, sporting an electric lime jacket and matching shoes.
The regular dose of optimism he received from the Osteens may help explain why he considers the Christmas a couple weeks after he got laid off as “our best one ever.”
In just a few months, Francis found a job driving a cement truck. But his troubles weren’t over, because the construction business nose-dived. Soon that company didn’t have any work for him, either.
Francis took on odd jobs, put up fences, and cut down trees for his neighbors — anything to make ends meet and he “never missed a beat” at Lakewood.
“I know that God looks down upon us and he loves us and he cares about us,” Francis says with unwavering conviction. “That’s the driving force that keeps me going. All I’ve got to do is hold on.”
Hold on he did. He found another truck-driving job delivering trash bins to construction sites, but his new employer didn’t offer benefits. He applied for a job driving at WCA Waste Corp., which offers a strong benefits package, but they said he lacked experience.
It was a big letdown, but he continued praying and working hard, choosing to walk down what jazz chanteuse Billie Holiday called “the sunny side of the street.” And just as the Osteens preached each Sunday, Francis was closer than he thought.
In late 2009, WCA bought the smaller firm where he worked. They welcomed him, provided health insurance, and set him up with a retirement plan. Now, he says he earns more money than he did before.
“It was hard,” Francis says, reflecting on his tumultuous journey over the past few years. “But man, we made it, because we kept a positive attitude.”
Francis credits the Osteens. “You have to see how real their love is,” he says.
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Social Issue: Alcoholism/Chemical Dependency
Studies have shown that alcoholics participating in support groups are more likely to stay sober, but medical treatments are often necessary as well to help patients overcome withdrawal symptoms and other health issues. Drugs such as Antabuse have been successful in helping people stop drinking.
Christian treatments use fellowship, prayer, and Bible study. The best known treatment program for alcoholism, Alcoholics Anonymous, incorporates belief in a “higher power” to help avoid relapses. Researcher Dr. Everett L. Worthington says faith-based treatment has proved to be as effective as secular programs.
Advantage: Patient’s Choice
DID YOU KNOW? 95 percent of all alcoholics experience withdrawal issues when they stop drinking.
Social Issue: Depression
Secular prescription: counseling and drug therapy. In February 2010, Newsweek reported that the placebo effect — patients’ belief that any drug they’re taking must be helping them — accounts for 75 percent of the effectiveness of antidepressants. However, studies indicate drugs may not help moderate depression much.
A 2008 study by two British researchers found regular church attendees are more likely to be satisfied with their lives and can weather life’s setbacks with less disappointment.
Research indicates that Christian-based therapy works, but treating serious depression requires medical diagnosis and treatment.
DID YOU KNOW? About 1 in 10 Americans takes antidepressants. That’s about 30 million people.
Social Issue: Family Counseling/Divorce
A study recently compared outcomes for couples randomly assigned to either a Christian counseling program or a secular counseling program. The two approaches were shown to be equally effective. Worthington’s review of various studies supports those findings.
There is evidence that faith-based programs enhance participants’ sense of spiritual well-being. They do not appear to be more effective than standard secular therapies at saving marriages, however.
Advantage: PATIENT’S CHOICE
Divorce appears to be a problem that doesn’t discriminate based on religion — it’s a scourge for Christians and non-Christians alike.
DID YOU KNOW? 41 percent of first marriages end in divorce, as do 60 percent of second marriages, and 73 percent of third marriages.
Social Issue: Recidivism
States offer prison counseling, vocational training, and other training programs. They aren’t very effective, however. According to the Bureau of Justice, 52 percent of inmates will end up back in jail within three years of their release.
Incorporating in-prison Bible studies has been shown to cut recidivism by 66 percent, according to the Academy of Criminal Justice Science’s Justice Quarterly.
DID YOU KNOW? About 2.3 million people are behind bars in the United States — more than in any other country.
If there were ever a time Americans needed a measure of the same blind faith Francis has, it’s now.
The economic landscape is strewn with wreckage. By some estimates, the true unemployment rate — including those who are out of work, plus those who have given up looking for work, plus those who are underemployed — is above 20 percent.
Nearly 3 million homes are in foreclosure, and the Mortgage Bankers Association reports another 4 million mortgages are delinquent by at least three months.
Untold trillions of dollars, much of it set aside to support seniors in their retirement years, have been lost in the stock market. And depending upon which economist you speak with, deficit spending is so high that another downturn could be in the offing.
It’s not just folks on the lower economic rungs getting hurt, either. Feeding America, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, reports that 1 in 8 Americans — a staggering 37 million people — received some type of emergency food aid last year. That is 46 percent more than in 2006.
This recession, sociologists say, is biting deeper than previous economic downturns in part because the time-tested institutions people used to turn to in tough times — close-knit communities, secure marriages, extended families — have been weakened. “In previous recessionary periods, the community was still much more close-knit and connected in an extended family sort of way,” says Scott Thumma, a sociology of religion professor at the Hartford Institute for Reli-gion Research in Hartford, Conn.
“The population was far less centered on sprawl city, suburban life, separated from one’s extended family,” Thumma tells Newsmax. “So if someone in the family fell on hard times, the family was in the community as well as in the area.” Nor are faith-based charities able to provide the economic buffer they once did. The slump has been so deep and so prolonged that the churches and synagogues that operate financial ministries, food pantries, and assistance programs have been hurt as well.
In part, those difficulties reflect the fact that, while most large nondenominational megachurches such as Lakewood continue to do well, U.S. church attendance overall has been stagnant for decades. Conventional wisdom holds that people flock to their houses of worship in times of crisis — a temporary phenomenon many churches reported immediately after 9/11 — but Thumma says that is not the case this time around.
In April 2009, Gallup reported that the percentage of U.S. Protestants saying they had attended church in the past seven days has hovered at between 40 percent and 45 percent since 1975. Catholic attendance, meanwhile, has dropped precipitously from a high of 75 percent in 1955 but has leveled off and has remained essentially unchanged since 1995. In 2009, Gallup projected that about 47 percent of Protestants and about 42 percent of Catholics surveyed had attended a church service in the past seven days.
As for those who avoid church altogether, 100 million Americans — about 1 in 3 — fell into the “unchurched” category, meaning they had not attended a religious service of any type during the past six months, according to the Barna Research Group. Overall donations to Protestant churches dropped 7 percent last year, Barna reported. And nearly a quarter of church donors had cut contributions by 20 percent or more.
Those numbers help explain why even large churches, including Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, Calif., and the Without Walls International Church in Tampa, Fla., have encountered significant economic challenges.
What all the statistics ultimately mean is that millions may be left on their own to find a way out of the economic valley this time. Churches have fewer resources to meet needs that are greater than ever.
The Osteens believe they can help those seeking a path to prosperity. They say attitude about God and the promises in the Bible can lead to either joy or bitterness. In the face of adversity, they say, the choices folks make determine what kind of people they become.
At the beginning of every service, Joel Osteen holds up his Bible, closes his eyes, and declares: “I am who the Bible says I am.” Each service, the members of his congregation recite those words together.
Those words mean that God loves you so much that even setbacks that appear devastating turn out to be God’s way of preparing one for even greater blessings ahead, Osteen says. Once a person understands that, that person becomes what he calls “a bounce-back person” — someone who can absorb a blow and come back stronger.
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Evangelist Billy Graham has led U.S. Protestants for decades, counseling nine presidents and presenting the gospel to more than 200 million souls. Some call him the American Pope.
Graham may be irreplaceable. “I want him to stay around as long as he possibly can because I can’t imagine a world without my daddy,” daughter Anne Graham Lotz, a prominent Christian figure in her own right, tells Newsmax.
The 91-year-old Graham’s last crusade took place in July 2006.
Believers long have asked whether there will ever be another preacher like Billy Graham. Son Franklin is the natural heir. Like his father, he’s a gifted speaker who presents solid theology. But he has yet to earn his father’s elevated status as a counselor to presidents and a global statesman.
Pat Robertson, the 700 Club pioneer, appeared for decades to be the front-runner to assume Graham’s mantle. But his political inclinations and his penchant for controversial statements — he claimed the Haiti earthquake occurred because the impoverished nation had made “a pact with the devil” — have not always been well received. And Robertson isn’t getting any younger, having turned 80 years old in March.
Joel Osteen, the pastor of the nation’s single largest congregation at Lakewood Church in Houston, would appear on any list of up-and-coming Protestant leaders. Other contenders include:
Samaritan’s Purse, Boone, N.C.
Notable Achievements: As leader of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and the Samaritan’s Purse ministry, Graham has dedicated himself to carrying his father’s message to a new generation. He presented the opening prayer at former President George W. Bush’s inauguration in 2001.
Inspirational Quote: “No matter what storm you face, you need to know that God loves you. He has not abandoned you.”
The Potter’s House, Dallas, Texas
Notable Achievements: Jakes pastors a nondenominational megachurch of 30,000, and his annual MegaFest draws more than 100,000. He is a best-selling author whose sermons air nationwide on the The Potter’s Touch broadcast.
Inspirational Quote: “I don’t care if it’s a recession; I don’t care if it’s a depression — there are people who became millionaires in the middle of a depression because they didn’t allow the news on the outside to affect their thought life on the inside.”
North Point Community Church, Alpharetta, Ga.
Notable Achievements: The son of renowned theologian Dr. Charles F. Stanley, Andy Stanley presides over a church that has more than 20,000 attendees a week. He spoke at the National Prayer Breakfast following the inauguration of President Obama.
Inspirational Quote: “As we wait, God will shape and mature ideas into visions that can survive in the real world.”
Luis Palau Association, Beaverton, Ore.
Notable Achievements: Palau’s evangelistic festivals and crusades reflect his long discipleship under Billy Graham. His sermons have reached tens of millions in more than 70 countries.
Inspirational Quote: “One encounter with Jesus Christ is enough to change you instantly, forever.”
Saddleback Church, Lake Forest, Calif.
Notable Achievements: His Purpose Driven Life has sold more than 30 million copies. In January, he gave the invocation for President Obama’s inauguration.
Inspirational Quote: “If God only used perfect people, nothing would get done . . . God will use anybody if you’re available.”
Thomas Roads Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Va.
Notable Achievements: Jonathan Falwell is carrying on the legacy of his father, the late Baptist evangelist Jerry Falwell. He presides over the church and serves as executive vice president of spiritual affairs at Liberty University. In July 2009, he delivered the opening prayer to a session of the U.S. House.
Inspirational Quote: “We can never depend on ourselves to make it through the trials and tribulations of life. We have to focus on what God can do and will do through each of us.”
“It’s God’s dream for your life, for you, to be healthy, to be whole, to be victorious,” Osteen explained to his flock during a recent broadcast. “We’ve said it earlier: If God is for you, who dare be against you? You’ve got the creator of the universe on your side!”
That notion — God is on your side with his finger touching the scales of justice to help you to succeed — is a cornerstone of the Osteens’ teaching.
As Victoria tells Newsmax, “I believe that God will help you, because God is our helper.” It also represents a marked departure from the approach of old-school evangelists, who believed that hellfire-and-brimstone sermons would convict sinners and persuade them to change their ways.
Unlike Osteen and a cadre of other prominent evangelists, they taught that a judgmental God was looking down at people with a scowl on his face because of what they’d done wrong.
Joel Osteen says life has beaten people down enough these days. What folks need most, he says, is reassurance that God really will help them find a way back to spiritual and material prosperity. He repeatedly tells people, “God isn’t angry at you.”
Osteen sees John 3:16 as evidence that God genuinely loves the people he sent his son to save. He often cites Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
In fact, that scriptural passage is written in giant letters that people see when they walk through the church’s front doors.
For Osteen, everything begins with that mind-set of obediently trusting in God’s goodness. He acknowledges Christ’s oft-cited counsel in John 16:33 that “in the world ye shall have tribulation.” But he prefers to focus on the second part of the equation: “But be of good cheer: I have overcome the world.”
Victoria Osteen echoes this view. She plays a major role in their ministry, and her Lakewood bio describes her as “an integral part of each service.” In some ways, she’s even more comfortable in front of the camera than her husband, and Thumma describes her as “an extremely powerful figure” at Lakewood — a notion causing ripples through the spiritual pond for those who adhere to the Pauline view that women in church should be seen and not heard.
Victoria appears perfectly comfortable operating in a supportive role to her husband. But she seems equally ready to step forward and speak out when necessary.
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Years before President Obama emerged on the national stage, Joel and Victoria Osteen were preaching their own special brand of “hope and change.”
Not surprisingly, they tell Newsmax that they remain hopeful that Obama will deliver. “I believe that he is in the process of doing it and, of course, I’m optimistic and I try to see the best in people and I know that that job is unbelievably complicated and hard,” Pastor Osteen tells Newsmax.
“So my thing is that he is doing the best that he can. I like what he stands for .â€¯.â€¯. and I don’t know all of the economics and political side of it, but you know what I can’t help but think: that he has given his heart and soul to it and [is] doing the best that he can.”
Newsmax then asked Victoria Osteen what advice she would give the president if she had two minutes to share her thoughts with him in the Oval Office.
Her response: “I would tell him that he needs to get up every day and commit his life to Christ and believe that God is going to lead him and help him and, you know, that every day is not going to be that successful. But if he will stay committed to Christ, I believe that God will help you, because God is our helper. “You know what, when we commit our way to him, he says that he will make our way prosperous. It’s not always easy, but in the end, you can say, ‘I did my best. I followed God and . . . that’s the only thing that I can do and that’s all I can do is just try and do my best.’” She adds: “I just think that you inherit a lot when you get into an office like that, or any responsibility like that. If you are a CEO of a company, I would encourage them that we got to get up and just do our best and keep our focus on God. And just believe that he speaks to us, and leads us.” — D.P.
“Whatever you’re going through,” Victoria said during one recent service, “God knows where you are. You can trust him with your challenges. You can trust him with all the good things; you can trust him with all the bad things. Know that God sees you, and he loves you with an everlasting love.”
Trusting God’s good is a key part of the Osteens’ prescription for becoming a bounce-back person. Here are some other maxims to live by:
• Live in gratitude. People who focus on life’s negatives miss obvious opportunities.
• Start each day right. “How we start the day has a big effect on how the day is going to be, and how our life is going to be. Faith is just all about what we are expecting, what we are believing,” Joel Osteen advises. When you wake up, try to find something to look forward to, he says.
• Find your purpose. Recognize that “you are a person of destiny, that you are here for a reason.” Osteen believes there’s always someone who needs what you have to give. “You have to realize you are not here by accident,” he says.
• Surround yourself with positive friends. People, just like plants, need the right conditions in order to thrive, Victoria Osteen says. “When people want to grow in their faith and see the world through the eyes of faith,” she says, “they’ve got to get in a place that is faith-filled. It has a lot to do with how strong you become and what you are feeding yourself.”
• Don’t just survive. Thrive! Osteen writes in his book: “News reports of a sinking economy or personal problems of our own can tempt us to think: ‘If I can just hold on, maybe I can make it through another day, another month, another year.’ If we’re not careful, we develop this survival mentality. We stop releasing our faith. We stop believing we can rise any higher.” Sadly, he says, some folks who adopt the survival mentality never snap out of it.
• Let go of bitterness, anger, and disappointment. Joel Osteen admits it can be hard to move on. But you can and must, if you expect to receive God’s best for your life. “We all have a remote control that we [use to] change the channel at home. A lot of times, you’ve got to change the channel in your mind. You have to say, ‘I’m not going to dwell on the person that hurt me or the anger or the offense. I’m going to let that go. I’m not going to let something that happened in my past destroy my future.’”
• Remember the less fortunate. Tithing and giving show obedience to God and help you keep things in perspective, Joel Osteen says, adding, “There are so many ways that God can pay us back.”
• Accept the new normal. Things may never quite be like they were before, but that’s not always bad. “To reach up for the new, you must let go of the old,” Osteen writes in his book. Victoria Osteen explains it this way: “When you begin to say, ‘God, this may not have been what I wanted; it may not be what I asked for, but I know you can do something good out of all this.’ God will open up the windows of heaven and pour out blessings, and he’ll make sure you get where you need to be.” Their bottom line: Don’t bemoan the good old days so much that you miss opportunities.
• If possible, pay down your debt. The Osteens recommend biblical frugality. The ideal thing, Osteen says, is to eliminate all of your debt. Although you may not be able to achieve that right now, you usually can find ways to begin exercising better stewardship over all of your resources.
• Live with “the eyes of faith.” Expecting God to bless your life, he says, is more than just wishful thinking: “It’s the faith that God wishes us to have.” With the eyes of faith, “You can turn any situation around and you don’t get desperate and despondent. Difficult things happen, but there is a peace and a strength knowing that God is guiding you.”
• Maintain family unity and support. The Osteens are devout champions of strong families. Whether the main breadwinner is the husband or the wife, Victoria Osteen says, “We’ve got to support one another.”
• Recognize that adversity builds character. “The hard times can bring the best out of us,” she says. “That is what has happened to this nation. It is bringing the best out of us and is making us support one another. Especially in the family and showing our kids that we can make it.”
• Never give up. You’re closer than you think. In his book, Joel Osteen tells of hiking up a mountain trail during a recent vacation. The thin air began to take its toll, and he wasn’t sure he could make it. Then another hiker walking down from the summit told him: “You’re closer than you think.” With those encouraging words, he made it to the top.
Osteen believes that, like Calvin Francis, most people just need to hang on a little bit longer. “You will feel the wind of his spirit lift your sails once again,” Osteen says, adding, “You are not meant to simply endure life. Barely getting by is not acceptable. You were meant to dance on top of the waves.”
The man who now shares God’s love with millions of viewers each week once was considered a long shot to take over the family ministry. He preferred staying behind the scenes, working for his parents, Pastor John Osteen and wife Dodie, who started the church inside a converted feed store in 1959. His father tried to get him to try his hand at preaching. But Joel confessed, “I didn’t have it in me.”
Working in his father’s TV ministry all those years bore its own fruit, however: Osteen developed a keen eye for using the visual medium to convey the gospel, a talent still evident in the up-tempo, engaging services that Lakewood presents today. “I think he’s a master at using the television and the visual media,” Thumma observes. The last words his father spoke were from Psalm 136: “His mercy endures forever,” and Joel Osteen never forgot them. He stepped up to the pulpit after his father died, held fast to his father’s vision of Lakewood as an “oasis of love,” and watched Lakewood expand more than five-fold.
Today, Osteen’s books are huge best-sellers almost before the ink dries. He and Victoria fill stadiums when they speak. In fact, they opt not to accept a salary from the church because they earn plenty of income from their other endeavors spreading God’s word.
Osteen has received his share of criticism along the way, much of it from fellow Christians.
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“It is appalling that the most segregated hour of Christian America is 11 o’clock on Sunday morning . . .”
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, 1958
Martin Luther King Jr. surely would welcome this trend: U.S. megachurches finally appear to be breaking through America’s Sunday-morning color barrier.
Any visitor to Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston will be struck immediately by the diversity of folks streaming through its doors: about 30 percent black, 30 percent white, and 30 percent Hispanic.
Osteen says it’s always been that way, even back in the days when his father, John, pastored the church.
“I just think it’s a testimony to the people here and their love for God and their love for each other,” Osteen relates to Newsmax.
Most churches would love to have the attendance Lakewood draws for its Spanish-language service alone: about 8,000 people on any given Sunday.
It’s part of a growing trend that could erase the color barrier in America’s Protestant pews for the first time in American history.
Although “the vast majority” of America’s 350,000 congregations continue to be divided sharply along racial lines, there are signs that’s changing, says Scott Thumma, sociology of religion professor at the Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Hartford, Conn.
“There are a number of trends,” he says, “that already are pointing to a kind of erosion of some of the race-based categories that have kept churches mono-racial for so long.”
Thumma has identified five characteristics of churches that have been able to exorcise the black-and-white religious division:
• They are nondenominational. Churches with racially blended congregations are much less likely to identify with a religious denomination.
• They are large. Churches with large congregations — 2,000 or more — are much more likely to exhibit racial diversity.
• They have a suburban membership. Even if they’re based in a city, they draw members from the culturally homogenized, consumer-centric meccas in the ’burbs.
• They offer contemporary worship music. Thrumming electric-guitar strains, thumping drumbeats, clashing cymbals, and pop-style vocals are the mainstays of today’s megachurch worship experience.
• They are more likely to be charismatic or pentecostal. Churches that emphasize spirit-filled worship appear more likely to attract ethnically diverse congregations, Thumma says.
Those characteristics define the large, nondenominational churches whose membership rolls are growing today, even as traditional church attendance continues to decline. “There are a lot of shifts taking place that will lead, maybe not to completely erasing the color line in churches, but will certainly change the complexion from what it was a hundred years ago for sure,” Thumma predicts.
Thumma describes him as “a masterful speaker who radiates hopefulness” but he also hastens to add: “In terms of solid theology and knowledge of the Bible, and his ability to understand what’s orthodox Christianity and not, I think it is a little appalling when you hear him on Larry King misquote Scripture, or imply that everyone’s going to be saved, or some universalist message . . . it’s a little surprising.” Osteen has been called the “smiling preacher,” a term he likes. But he’s also been called a purveyor of “prosperity gospel,” the controversial doctrine that God showers material prosperity on those who expect his blessings and live in obedience to the Bible (especially the directive to sow in faith by tithing).
Osteen doesn’t care for the “prosperity gospel” label at all. There’s only one gospel, he says, and its the gospel of Jesus Christ.
However, Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, has an interesting take on what happens when Christians try to make the gospel more palatable to contemporary society.
Although Donohue is very respectful of the Osteens’ contributions, he cautions that Catholics still are dealing with repercussions from Vatican II in the mid-1960s, an effort to harmonize Christian doctrine with a rapidly changing society.
“Quite frankly, there are not too many atheists who would object to most of what they were saying in the Catholic religion books in the 1970s,” Donohue says. “Now they’re much improved. But there was a period after Vatican II, with all the need in the ’60s and the ’70s to get people in touch with each other, and to be relevant and the like, where they basically gutted the heart and the soul of Christianity in the textbooks.”
Osteen maintains that his view of prosperity connotes much more than just material wealth, and includes fruitful relationships, sound marriages, and good health.
He also notes that Abraham, the founding father of the world’s three major religions, was considered the richest man in his region of the Middle East. If God hates wealth, Osteen implores, why would he choose to start everything with Abraham?
Many Protestant preachers concur that the key to understanding St. Paul’s advice in I Timothy 6:10 — “For the love of money is the root of all evil, which while some coveted after, they have erred from the faith, and pierced themselves through with many sorrows” — is recognizing that the issue isn’t money per se, but rather the human tendency to lust after it.
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When it comes to consoling grief-stricken people, perhaps no pastor has more experience than Jim Pace of New Life Christian Fellowship.
His Blacksburg, Va., congregation meets at the student center on Virginia Tech’s campus, the site of the worst shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history. Even more tragically, that April 2007 shooting rampage in which Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 people was just the beginning.
In January 2009, a Chinese doctoral student having coffee with a Chinese female student in the campus cafÃ© suddenly grabbed a knife and horrifically decapitated her.
The motive for the attack remains a mystery.
Then in August, two Virginia Tech students, David Lee Metzler, 19, and Heidi Lynn Childs, 18, were murdered at a nearby campground.
Given that context, Pace doesn’t try to sugarcoat reality for his congregation. He skips the soothing platitudes and homilies — his congregation has witnessed too much evil and bloodshed.
Instead, Pace does a lot of listening, and he encourages people to be honest with God about their feelings. He’s even written a provocative book about his experience, titled Should We Fire God?
Some people come back stronger than ever after adversity, Pace says. His get-real-with-God approach, he says, can help people overcome losing a job, a mortgage, or a business.
His advice on facing adversity:
• Don’t deny your feelings. And don’t run away from your faith because you’re feeling angry at God.
• Forget about recapturing the way things “used to be.” Rather, Pace counsels, “Know that, at the end of it, he truly can restore you. He can heal you, and you won’t be the same. But the old normal is gone. There’s a new normal.”
• Surround yourself with patient friends who are willing to listen. “Don’t make me think that I’m on a schedule that I’m not keeping, and don’t make me feel bad .â€¯.â€¯. for saying things that you might not say because you haven’t been through that,” he says. There is no set timetable for how long it takes to work through emotional trauma.
When the heartache becomes too great — and Pace believes that it does for everyone, sooner or later — he gently encourages people to consider his belief that “this world is guided by a God that has lost a kid because of it, too, and he knows what it is like, and he will walk you through it.”
Pace doesn’t promise anyone a happy Hollywood ending. But he joyfully recalls the story of one student who lost her best friend in the April 2007 massacre.
She was just crushed, Pace recalls. But after a few years of trying to understand what happened, she founded a ministry of her own. Now she uses her experience to help other young women overcome their own traumas.
“It doesn’t take away the ugly of what happened,” Pace says. But God “allows beauty to get infused into parts of it, and it gets redeemed a little bit. And that’s what makes me excited for the future.
“You see it. There’s redemption, even in the most horrid moments.”
They also point out Christ’s admonishment in Matthew 19:24 that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” The timeless battle over the real meaning of Christianity appears to have no end.
Joel Osteen doesn’t let his critics weigh him down.
God, he explains, has placed a particular calling on his life: to encourage people rather than condemn them. His plan, he says, is to stick with what God has called him to do.
“Everybody has the right to have their own opinion, but I believe that, when you are secure in yourself and what you feel like you are called to do, that we don’t have to — and I say this respectfully — but we’re not going to answer to the people,” he tells Newsmax.
He says, “We have to answer to God and say, ‘God, did I follow the path that I believe you had me to go down?’ And you know, that’s why I get up every morning. And I believe that I am. So I really don’t dwell on [the criticism] much.” As you might expect, Osteen appears to have a gift for turning adversity around and finding motivation in the things that otherwise could be construed as obstacles.
He recalls, for example, the extremely difficult period when church leaders were trying to persuade Houston officials to lease them the current Lakewood facility.
One of Houston’s leading business executives privately boasted, “It will be a cold day in hell before Lakewood [Church] ever gets the Compaq Center.”
Today, Osteen practically sounds grateful for that opposition. “I don’t know if we would have one of the country’s largest churches today if it were not for him,” Osteen writes in It’s Your Time. “God used him to light a new fire on the inside, to give me a new determination, a new passion. He didn’t happen to me. He happened for me.”
Mastering that attitude, he says, can help anyone overcome and live “a resurrected life.”
After avoiding preaching for several years, Joel Osteen finally decided in January 1999 to give it a try.
Just one week after Osteen delivered his first sermon, his 77-year-old father, whom he describes as his best friend, died of a heart attack. Osteen recalls the tragedy as “the darkest hour of my life. I don’t know how to explain it; it sounds kind of odd,” he recalled years later during an interview on CNN. “But I just knew down to here I was supposed to step up to the plate, and pastor the church.
“So I see how in my darkest hour, something new was born. I believe that God always opens up a new door.”
As originally published in Newsmax magazine.