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Joel Osteen is arguably America's most popular preacher. His Lakewood Church in Northeast Houston is America's largest, attracting some 30,000 worshipers to its weekend services. But far more Americans know Osteen through TV. Over the course of the average month, some 18 million individuals tune in for one of his sermons, making him the most-watched preacher on television.
Osteen didn't even begin preaching until shortly before his father, John, who founded Lakewood, died in 1999. But since Joel took over the pulpit, attendance has quadrupled. Now Lakewood is spending $90 million to renovate the 16,000-seat Compaq Center in downtown Houston as its new home. Once Lakewood moves there in late July, Osteen predicts attendance will skyrocket.
Osteen is also a leading proponent of what is sometimes called the "prosperity gospel," which teaches that God wants people to prosper in all areas of their lives -- including material success. He outlines these beliefs in his best-seller, Your Best Life Now, which has sold over 2.5 million copies since it was first published last fall.
He recently talked with BusinessWeek Boston Bureau Chief William C. Symonds in a dusty office inside the construction zone in the Compaq Center. Here are edited excerpts from their conversation:
Q: Some of your critics say that your so-called prosperity Gospel isn't in keeping with the traditional Christian message, which has often been suspicious of material wealth. How do you respond?
A: I believe that God's dream is that we be successful in our careers, and that we be able to send our kids to college. I don't mean that everyone is going to be rich, and I preach a lot on blooming where you're planted. But I don't have the mindset that money is a bad thing.
[My views] may go against some of the older, traditional teachings. But I think we should have a mindset that God wants us to prosper in our relationships, our health, and our finances. God's desire is that we excel. And we see business leaders who are good strong Christians running [big] companies.
Q: How do you explain the growth of Lakewood? Who is coming out to your church?
A: Many of them are people who have not been to church in years, and some have not been to church at all.
Q: So what leads them to Lakewood?
A: The No. 1 thing that brings them in is our TV [broadcasts]. My assessment is that they watch for three months or so, get used to it, and then say, "Let's go out there and try it."
Q: Of course, most of the millions who watch your TV broadcasts don't live in Houston, and so can't come to Lakewood. Who's watching your broadcasts?
A: It's now 7 million people a week. I get a lot of letters and phone calls, and 99.9% of them are positive. I bet at least 30% of them will say that, "I never watched a TV preacher before, I never went to church before, but I was flipping through the channels and you made sense, you were talking about what I was going through."
Q: How would you describe your message?
A: It's a message of encouragement. I always try to put a seed of hope into people's hearts. I'm not there to teach them doctrine necessarily, but to let them know that God is a good God, and has a plan for their lives. Hopefully, that will restore their faith, or draw them into faith. So I am absolutely trying to bring them to Christianity.
Q: How much have you increased your TV broadcasts in recent years?
A: When my father died, we were on locally in Houston, and on one national cable channel. But after I took over, we really started expanding. We decided to go to the 25 largest TV markets and buy airtime on one of the four top networks [in each market]. We also were very strategic [in increasing our cable-network] airtime buys.
Q: Do you ask for money on your broadcasts, like televangelists have done in the past?
A: We never have. There are so many skeptics and so many things that turn people off. We want to give as pure and as sincere a message as possible. I didn't want people to get to the end of our broadcast and say, "What he really wants is our money."
Q: So you don't get contributions from your TV viewers?
A: It's amazing how people will give when you don't ask. Many of them send money because they believe in the message.
Q: Why are you moving to the Compaq Center?
A: We knew we needed a bigger auditorium [than the 8,000-seat auditorium the church has in its current home in Northeast Houston]. And the roads near Lakewood aren't designed for the thousands of people who come out there. On a typical Sunday, they might sit in traffic for 30 minutes. So we started looking, and word came that the Compaq Center might be available.
Q: What will happen when you move into the Compaq Center, with its 16,000 seats?
A: Practically every Houstonian has been to the Compaq Center. It attracts 2 million visitors a year. So I think we're going to grow. If everyone comes who tells me they're going to come, we're going to need a bigger auditorium. I feel we're going to see a day where we see 100,000 people come and worship with us on a weekend, between our five services.
Q: How do you explain the fact that Lakewood is so integrated, with huge numbers of blacks, Hispanics, and whites?
A: That started under my father. All I can say is that we offer a simple message. It is the love and acceptance people feel when they come here.
Q: What are the prospects for evangelical Christainity?
A: I see it continuing to grow. The election [last November] stirred it up, with the President being outspoken like he is. I think that has given more credibility to the idea that it is O.K. to be a Christian today, that it is O.K. to say "I go to church, that I love God, and live by Godly principles."
Q: Do you get involved at politics at Lakewood?
A: We really don't. We get a lot of opportunities, but it isn't my thing. We encourage people to vote, but not for any one party. And we don't have political leaders speak at Lakewood.