Joel Osteen is one of the most influential religious figures in the world.
He's a New York Times best-selling author. His television program reaches more than 10 million households in the U.S. and is seen in more than 100 nations across the globe. On Sunday night, he's hosting America's Night of Hope at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.
Osteen is the pastor of the largest church in America: Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which meets in what used to be a sports arena and holds 16,000 seats.
Unlike many of his peers — fellow prominent evangelical Christians — his message is less fire and brimstone and more motivational preaching.
Pushed Into His 'Destiny'
Osteen's father, John, was also a pastor. He started Lakewood Church in 1959 and helped it grow into a thriving congregation. He had his own televised program.
Osteen worked for his dad for 17 years behind the scenes, producing the program. Although his father would always ask him to preach at their church, he had no intention of following in his path. Osteen says he was "naturally more quiet and reserved," and he would get nervous and stumble making announcements.
He finally did give into his father's requests, thinking it would be a one-time thing.
"Little did I know, that next Friday he had a heart attack and died," Osteen says. "It sounds weird, but a couple days after I got over the shock of him dying, I thought ... I'm supposed to pastor this church. And I had only spoken one time."
That was in 1999. He says he still felt nervous for the first few years, and still gets nervous at times today.
"God puts things in us we don't know we have, and sometimes God has to push us into our destiny, and sometimes it's through adversity," he says. "You know, when my dad died ... I thought, 'What am I going to do?' What I thought would be my darkest hour, it launched me into my brightest hour."
The Person 'God Made Me To Be'
Osteen's first approach to preaching was to follow his dad's Southern Baptist tradition. He has never had formal training, though he considers his years of closely following his father's sermons while editing video as a kind of hands-on education.
"He had his certain style, and people had heard him for 40 years there at the church, and I thought, I gotta be like my dad. They came to hear him," he says.
But as he grew into the person "God made me to be — that is, encouraging people, talking about everyday life," Osteen's message began to change. He used less scripture and stuck with the positivity.
"I think that's where ... we've seen a lot of the success, if I can say that, is that I just ran my race," he says. "I didn't try to copy my dad or fit into the pressure or the mold that everybody tried to make me fit into."
Success In Broad Appeal
Now, in order to connect with the thousands listening in person and the millions more watching on TV, Osteen says he acts as though he's talking to one person.
"And I also, after every service back at home, I'll talk to 500 visitors, just greeting them. I get to hear their stories. What are they going through?" he says. "And so, when I sit down to write my messages, I always think, OK ... here's who I'm talking to."
He takes common issues like financial, health and job issues and gives advice about keeping "a good attitude when times are tough."
"So I think, too, talking about everyday life, that ... it resonates with people versus just going to church and somebody reading scriptures to you," Osteen says. "And that's not bad, but I think that's the difference."
He also sets himself apart in that he hasn't publicly supported a particular political party. Osteen stays away from contested issues like gay marriage and abortion.
"The reason I do is because I feel like I'm called to reach a broad amount of people," he says, "and when you start ... getting political, almost immediately you divide [your followers] 50/50."
As for the future, Osteen says he would love to have his two children follow in his footsteps.
"I'm not gonna, obviously, force them. But you know, I just think there's something about heritage and legacy," he says. "The ultimate thing would [be], hey, come follow after me and take this and take it much, much further than I did."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.
Joel Osteen is one of the most influential religious figures in the world. His Sunday sermon at Lakewood Church in Houston is beamed to more than 10 million households in America and is seen in 100 countries around the world. Part of what makes Joel Osteen so popular is his message, but probably more importantly his style. There is no fire and brimstone, not even a whole lot of scripture, almost no talk of sin and definitely no politics.
Joel Osteen is at the vanguard of what's come to be known as motivational preaching. And for that reason, he's easy to like. Here's how he began a recent sermon.
JOEL OSTEEN: I heard about this 92-year-old man. He wasn't feeling up to par, and he went to the doctor for a checkup. A few days later, the doctor saw him out walking in the park. He had this beautiful young lady by his side, and he seemed as happy as can be. The doctor said, wow, you sure are feeling a lot better, aren't you? He said, yes, doctor. I'm just taking your orders. You said get a hot mama and be cheerful. The doctor said, I didn't say that. I said you got a heart murmur. Be careful.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
OSTEEN: Hold up your Bible.
RAZ: Joel Osteen stopped by our studios earlier this week. He's in Washington, D.C., now where, tomorrow night, he'll speak to a capacity crowd at the baseball stadium here in Nationals Park. For 17 years, Osteen worked behind the scenes at the church. He produced his father's televised sermons, and he says he never intended to become a pastor, even though Osteen's father, John, encouraged it.
OSTEEN: He tried to get me up there to minister many, many times.
RAZ: He asked - he would say, Joel, just give it a try.
OSTEEN: He would. He'd say you'll be a good minister, I could tell. But I'm naturally more quiet and reserved. And every once in a while, I'd go up and make some announcements or something, and I would stumble. I was so nervous I didn't want to do it. But the week before he died - of course, we didn't know he was going to die - he asked me to minister and I did that Sunday.
And I thought, well, I'll do it one time and just make my father happy. Little did I know, that next Friday, he had a heart attack and died. And so, you know, it sounds weird, but a couple of days after I got over the shock of him dying, I thought, you know what, I'm supposed to pastor this church. And I'd only spoken one time.
RAZ: That was 1999. You were 36 or 37.
OSTEEN: That's right.
RAZ: And what happened? You went from being nervous and stumbling to just switching on, being able to do it right away?
OSTEEN: It wasn't overnight. But I think there was - what I like to see and I encourage other people is, you know, God puts things in us we don't know we have and sometimes God has to push us into our destiny, and sometimes it's through adversity. What I thought would be my darkest hour, it launched me into my brightest hour.
RAZ: Joel Osteen, your church has now become the largest in the United States. You did that. I mean, your father begun this church, but you made it what it is today - 16,000 seats in the arena, what used to be a sports arena, where you preach. That is a lot of people. Millions watching around the world. How are you able to connect with all of those people watching you in those chairs and the millions watching you on television?
OSTEEN: When I prepare my messages, I always act like I'm talking to one person. And I also - after every service back at home, I'll talk to 500 visitors just greeting them, and I get to hear their stories - what are they going through, what are their challenges. And so when I sit down to write my messages, I always think, OK, here's who I'm talking to. You know, no matter who we are, we have relationship issues and, you know, health issues and financial issues. And so, you know, I try to talk about how do you keep a good attitude when times are tough, or how do you forgive when somebody did you wrong. So I think talking about everyday life, you know, it resonates with people. I think that's the difference.
RAZ: You don't talk a whole lot about sin. You don't quote from scripture all the time. A lot of what you talk about is being positive. Your latest book is about how to be happy or how to think of every day as Friday. How did you develop that message? I mean, how did you come to focus on what some of your greatest fans and your critics, as you know, have called a form of positive psychology?
OSTEEN: Sure. You know, when I first started - you may find this interesting. When I first started, I tried to kind of be like my dad because, you know, he was a Southern Baptist, raised Southern Baptist. And he, you know, he had his certain style, and people had heard him for 40 years there at the church, and I thought, I got to be like my dad. They came to hear him.
In the first few months, I was trying to find myself. But when I really stepped into who I believe God made me to be - and that is encouraging people, talking about everyday life - I didn't feel like, you know what, I don't have to quote 22 scriptures like my dad. I don't have to have the text exactly like him. I'm just going to try to do what I'm good at.
And, you know, my thought was if it doesn't work, I'll go back to TV production. You know, it wouldn't be the first thing I failed at. But the point being is I just ran my race, and I didn't try to copy my dad or fit into the pressure of the mold that everybody tried to make me fit into.
RAZ: And you are not formally trained.
OSTEEN: I'm not. I've never been to seminary. You know, I do say that those 17 years when my father would preach one of his message, and I would listen to it over and over to edit it down for the television program, because I was editing them. So you get to follow trains of thoughts and stories and scriptures. So in a sense, I was hands-on trained but not formally.
RAZ: You are one of the most influential religious figures in this country, whether you want to be or not, as you have been made aware. But unlike many of your peers, you haven't come out in support of a particular political party or talked to a whole lot about gay marriage or abortion. Why do you shy away from taking positions on some tough issues?
OSTEEN: You know, the reason I do is because I feel like I'm called to reach a broad amount of people. When you start getting political, almost immediately you divide 50-50. And so I don't want them to think, well, he's Democrat or Republican or for this or for that, then half of them are going to turn you off. So that's really the reason - not wanting to divide the people.
RAZ: Do you think both of the candidates running for president - President Obama and his eventual challenger, Mitt Romney - do you think both of them are Christians?
OSTEEN: I do think they are. Mitt Romney, of course, is a Mormon, and some people debate whether or not that's Christian. But when somebody believes that Jesus is the son of God and raised from the dead and believes he's their savior, to me, that's good for me. And so - and, of course, I've heard President Obama. I've been with him in the Easter fellowships where he talks about his faith. So I do believe they both know the Lord.
RAZ: Your father always wanted you to be a pastor. Even though you didn't, you became one. You and your wife, Victoria, have two children of your own. Is that something you would want for either of your kids?
OSTEEN: In terms of following in our footsteps - yeah, I would love that. You know, I would love that. Again, I'm going to do like my parents. I'm not going to obviously force them. But, you know, I just think there's something about heritage and legacy.
Now, you know, my son loves filmmaking. Maybe he'll be a great filmmaker and spread hope and love and, you know, God's message that way. I don't know. I mean, the ultimate thing would, hey, come follow after me and take this and take it much, much further than I did.
RAZ: What is the one thing that you think everybody needs to do every single day to achieve happiness?
OSTEEN: I think the one thing would be to find something to be grateful for. I think when you're grateful, it's hard to be unhappy. So I always tell people if you get up in the morning - and you know what, don't start the day off thinking about all your problems, and it's raining, and I got to go to work. Get up and think, OK, you know what, I'm grateful that I'm alive, or I can breathe without pain, or I've got healthy children. Get the day started off in a grateful attitude. It helps the day to go better.
RAZ: Well, Pastor Osteen, I know that your time is short. And thank you so much for coming in.
OSTEEN: Thank you. I've really enjoyed talking with you.
RAZ: That's Joel Osteen. He's the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. His new book is called "Every Day a Friday." And he'll be hosting America's Night of Hope at Nationals Park tomorrow right here in Washington, D.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.