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063 The Day I Interviewed Megachurch Pastor Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen
Picture: Facebook, Joel Osteen Ministries 

The complaint emails began once our promo spots went to air. ‘The guy you’re having on your show this week is a heretic’, wrote one concerned listener. And the complaints continued after the interview aired. ‘I can’t believe the way Sheridan questioned Joel’s teachings!’ wrote another. As became obvious, this Open House interview with Joel Osteen would upset someone.

Joel Osteen stepped into the pulpit of his father’s 6000-strong Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, at the age of 35, having preached only once before. Today, Lakewood is a church of 45,000 and counting. Joel’s television program is the highest-rated religious program in the United States and airs in 100 countries. His books—Your Best Life Now, Become a Better You and It’s Your Time—have sold millions, and his live events fill stadiums.

Fans adore Joel Osteen’s positive-thinking sermons. Critics say he’s more self-help guru than gospel preacher. When I sat down with Joel at the 2009 Hillsong Conference, I met a meticulously styled man with a friendly smile and courteous spirit. I put the critics’ concerns to him, got some answers, left thinking well of Joel, but also with a bunch more questions. Here’s the interview and transcript (taken from my book Open House Volume 3). I share some additional thoughts on the experience, and Osteen’s popularity, in the podcast.

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A Conversation with Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen praying

Picture: Facebook, Joel Osteen Ministries 

Tell me about the growth of Lakewood Church and how its leadership was passed from your father to you.

For seventeen years I worked behind the scenes with my father in the ministry. My dad and mum started the church in 1959 and when my dad passed away in 1999 the church had about 6,000 attendees on a Sunday. I had never preached before. I didn’t know I had any of this in me. I liked being behind the scenes, working more in production—doing the lighting, the sound and things like that—and thought that’s what I’d do with my life. But when my dad died, I know it sounds kind of odd, I just knew I was supposed to step up and pastor the church.

So I took that step of faith and started speaking most Sundays. And, you know, we never dreamed that it would grow. We thought that if we could just keep the 6,000 people we had we’d be doing really great, but within a year or so it just started to grow and I never dreamed it would be where it is today. Now we have 30,000 to 40,000 people come out every Sunday and all kinds of things have opened up.

It just lets me know that God’s dream for our life is bigger than our own. I think we all have things on the inside—potential, gifts and talents that God put in us—that we don’t even know we have. And I believe that if we stay in faith and dare to take some steps of faith that we’ll see those things come out.

Was there an actual ‘handing over’ of the ministry from your father to you?

It wasn’t ever anything official because my dad died unexpectedly of a heart attack one night. I did speak the last Sunday of his life—the first time I ever spoke in front of the whole church—and then he died five days later. I didn’t know he was going to die, of course, so that was one of the things that let me know that this wasn’t a coincidence. I hadn’t spoken in 35 years. My dad had asked me a thousand times but it just wasn’t in me. Then for some reason I felt like I should do that one time and then he died five days later. So, I felt like it was…

Ordained?

Yes, it was meant to be, it really was.

The Incredible Growth Of Lakewood Church

Joel and Victoria Osteen

Picture: Facebook, Joel Osteen Ministries 

To grow from 6,000 to 40,000- odd visitors on a Sunday is phenomenal. What do you put the growth of Lakewood down to over the last decade?

You know, I don’t know what it is. I know a lot of it is God, I think, rewarding my parents for their years of service and their faithfulness. I think too that a younger voice was all of a sudden on the scene. And my dad had a good base of ministry already, so all of a sudden here’s somebody that was 35 and was maybe a little bit different.

I don’t know if I can put my finger on it because there are a lot of other great pastors. I don’t know if there was something that I was doing or what, but people just caught on. I think somehow God’s given me an ability to reach everyday people; non-church people; people that wouldn’t say they were religious; people that like me and say, ‘I’m an atheist but I watch [the TV program] every week.’

My thing is just to plant a seed of hope in people’s hearts. It seems that people respond when you tell them that God is good, that he’s on their side, and no matter where they are in life they can rise higher. I think we need to hear that.

I’m interested in how you developed that philosophy of ministry. The messages we see you give on the TV programs are very positive and all about thinking correctly and the possibilities of having our deepest dreams come true. How did that message come about?

You know, I don’t know. I think I had it since I was younger. Even before I was a minister I was always very positive and very hopeful. There’s just something in me, I guess, and I’m sure God put it there. I don’t know if I was born with it but there’s just something in me that wants to help empower people to become who God created them to be. My father probably talked more about doctrine and taught more line by line [from the Bible], but what excites me and gives me passion is when I can say, ‘You know what? Here’s how you can rise higher. Here’s how you can really accomplish your dreams and become what God created you to be.’

The ‘Goodness Of God’ Gospel

Joel Osteen on Success Magazine

Image: Joel Osteen on the cover of ‘Success’ magazine.

I once read you saying in an interview that you considered yourself more of a life coach than a pastor.

Well, I get asked about that [but] I don’t remember when I said it. I think my main calling is to be a pastor but the thing is I like to, again, help people to become everything God has created them to be. And I think sometimes that takes thinking right, it takes talking right—maybe it’s not just all about doctrine. I believe the first step is a relationship with Christ but then so much of it is just taking steps of faith, having courage, having confidence, thinking right, believing that you are empowered and equipped with what you need from God. Let me put it better like this: I feel like my calling is to help people live the Christian life—to live an abundant life, the life that Jesus came and died for us to have.

You’re also considered one of the foremost ‘prosperity’ preachers around. Is that fair?

You know, I’ve never liked that term because I don’t talk about money and things like that. I get labelled that but to me prosperity is not just about money. It’s about having good relationships, it’s about having health, it’s about having peace in our minds, so in that sense I believe we are all are supposed to prosper. [But] I’m never on [the TV] telling people how to make more money and all that. I do think we’re supposed to rise higher and excel in what God has called us to do, but I never liked that term myself.

To me there is one gospel—it’s not a prosperity gospel or a poverty gospel. I do believe in the goodness of God and that we’re not supposed to live life defeated and depressed and suffer through and ‘let me show how humble I am by being as poor as I can be’. It takes money to further the gospel. It takes money to run the radio program, the TV program and run the other events and things. So I just believe God’s got plenty of peace, joy and victory for everybody. To me that’s prosperity.

Amid The Victory, What About Suffering?Osteen Quote

Picture: Facebook, Joel Osteen Ministrie

I’m interested to know your theology of suffering. I don’t think anybody can watch your TV program and come away sad or depressed. You really have that gift of encouraging people and it is so positive. But does God want us to be happy all the time? What is your understanding of suffering, particularly even suffering for the faith?

I think that God always wants us to be content. The apostle Paul talked about being content when I have a lot or have a little. To me it’s all about your attitude. I know people right now that have cancer and yet when I see them they inspire me. They’re not depressed, they’re not defeated; they still believe that God is in control.

I don’t think we’re going to be laughing all the time. We all have struggles to go through. But the scripture says, ‘Count it all joy when you face trials and tribulations’.  And I think we all suffer for our faith at times, although some more than others, even if it’s somebody making fun of us in the workplace. But to me I don’t think the suffering part is about being poor and being defeated, like some have taught down through the years. I’m not being critical of anybody, I just think that if I don’t have anything but the clothes on my back and my health I’m not going to suffer. I’m going to look up and say, ‘God, you’re good. You’ve given me this much and I’m going to choose to enjoy this day and choose to see the bright side.’

God has given us so much in the gift of today and to live it depressed or defeated is a waste of that day. That’s why I try to tell everybody to get up in the morning and say with [King] David that this is another day that the Lord has made. Look at what’s right and not at what’s wrong. I think we all have something to be grateful for.

Joel Osteen Quote

Picture: Facebook, Joel Osteen Ministrie

The reason I ask is because we’ll soon be talking to a couple who sold everything they had, left Australia and now live in a slum in a developing country to live alongside the poor and downtrodden. Where does something like that fit into your thinking?

I think God has called everybody to do different things. I would certainly celebrate what they’re doing and if they feel good about it and that’s their vision I’d get behind them and do everything I could to help them, encourage them and support them if I could. I have good friends that live in Botswana. Until recently they had no running water but they couldn’t be any happier. They’re young, they have all kinds of potential and could be making plenty of money in the States or somewhere else. But that’s what God’s called them to do and I think there’s nothing wrong with that. If they feel good about getting in there… Again, I have friends that live in India that got in there and learned the tribal things and they couldn’t be more excited doing that.

I don’t think you can make a doctrine and say that everybody should sell everything they have. Everybody’s called to do different things.

Yes, sure. The contrarian would say that Jesus didn’t live the prosperous life though. If Psalm 22 is right, he was a man of sorrows as well.

Sure. I don’t know about all the theology and the doctrine of it. It could be true. I just believe that when Jesus was here he went around healing people, teaching people, feeding people and lifting people’s spirits. When I study his life I think let’s live our lives to give and help others. It’s not all about money—everybody knows money isn’t going to make you happy. Money is just a tool. How can we have a conference like this that we’re at today [without money]? I’m sure it cost a lot of money. God has blessed people that can further the kingdom, so I just think we’re all called to do different things.

Joel, the majority of people know about you and your ministry from your TV program. Based on that program there are a number of critics who consider the gospel you’re preaching to be inadequate. What do the critics not know? What don’t they see that goes on behind the scenes?

I think that’s a good way to put it. I think what they don’t see is the thousands—and I dare say, the millions—of letters and phone calls and emails that we receive from people who say, ‘I haven’t been to church in thirty years and you got me back in church’, or ‘I’ve never been a church person but I watch every week and I pray that prayer along with you’. Everywhere we go people stop us and say, ‘You got me back in church’; ‘You helped restore my faith’. I think if the critics just followed me around for one day or came to one service at Lakewood and met the people afterwards that I talk with, they would realise that there’s a place for everything and that we’re seeing many, many lives changed.

Is there a discipleship process that happens within Lakewood that, again, isn’t seen through the TV program?

Sure.

Are the aspects of doctrine that you’re criticised for not teaching taught in some other way?

They are. We have services on Wednesday night, we have Bible classes in between services as well, and that’s where more of the doctrine is taught. We baptise thousands of people in water every year and so there are all kinds of discipleship programs run. Even at the end of my program on television, I always encourage [viewers] to get into a good Bible-based church so that they can grow and be discipled.

But again, you’ve got to know what you’re called to do. What I’m called to do is to plant a big seed of hope. I’m casting a big net trying to get, say, somebody flipping through the channels who doesn’t care about God or who thinks that TV preachers are all crazy, but who’ll maybe turn you on for ninety seconds. Let’s try and tell them something about God being for them and on their side. That’s what I feel like I’m called to do.

Criticised For Avoiding Messages Of Judgment

Joel Osteen preaching

Picture: Facebook, Joel Osteen Ministries 

Another criticism is that you don’t preach on sin or the judgment of Christ. How would you respond to that?

Well, I think I do. I do it sometimes in a different way. I probably don’t focus on that but I talk about living an obedient life and at the end of every broadcast I give people an opportunity to repent and have a relationship with Christ. The scripture says that it’s the goodness of God that leads people to repentance and it seems like the more I preach on God’s goodness—that, yes, you’ve made mistakes; yes, we’ve all fallen; yes, we’ve done wrong, but God is still for us and you can come into relationship with him and receive his forgiveness—it seems like people respond to that. And what I’ve found is that most people, in general, already know what they’re doing wrong. They’re looking for somebody to say, ‘You know what? God’s not mad at you. He’s already forgiven your sins if you’ll just accept it; if you’ll repent, turn to Christ and believe that he’s the Son of God.’ To me, that seems to spark something more than the other route.

What have you learnt about God and about Christ recently that has surprised you? Let us into a little of Joel’s Osteen’s personal life and walk in faith.

I guess what I continue to learn everyday is just about the goodness and mercy of God. I’ve been doing this for ten years now and whether you’re rich or poor, or black or white, everybody faces somewhat the same issues. We all have health issues, loved ones that are going to die and just different problems to deal with. I’ve probably become more compassionate and more merciful to see just so many people in need.

When Jesus was here on this earth, as he walked places and people came up to him, I think that’s what he experienced. When you’re known for preaching goodness and bringing hope and trying to help people overcome… I don’t know, it just feels like I feel stronger than ever—even though the critics are probably stronger than ever—that this is what God’s called me to do. God is merciful and he’s compassionate. Of course, I know there’s the other side—that we have to live right, be obedient, walk in integrity—but there is just a lot of people who can smile on the outside but on the inside they’re hurting. I guess that’s what I’ve seen more than ever because before I was doing this we were just living life. But people really do face issues.

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  • Andy

    Good questions Sheridan. I always thought of him as the US megapreacher who wasnt really nuts.

  • Timothy

    Listening to your interview I feel I understood something of why J.O and other pastors would clash. In his own words he is responding to what he sees as a massive need. People are hurting and his message at first must feel like a balmy-lotion. But I feel that he really doesn’t have a thorough-enough theological grasp of the nature of the Spirit’s work as revealed in scripture. I do think though that his impact should challenge us, especially as we think about how we preach and discuss issues of judgement.

    • Right. And it’s that meeting of needs and scriptural depth that’s needed together.

  • hodge publishing

    Yeah really upbeat in Western culture away from the poverty/war/disease/exploitation/climate/environment/etc problems! Oh yes, and domestic abuse? And … he sadly preaches a gospel from and for the privileged. And ignores the depth of Jesus’s teaching, and a few other things! On the other hand, maybe that is okay for those who tune into it? Or not? Your questions tried, Sheridan …

  • Sherron Watkins

    Hi Sheridan, we love Joel and Lakewood here in Houston. It’s fun to be surrounded by 15,000 folks holding up their Bibles on a Sunday morning declaring it to be the Word of God. The Wednesday night worship services attract about 8000 regulars and the sermon is a teaching sermon with powerpoint slides walking folks through the Bible lessons in the sermon. The Wednesday night and Sunday services include Sunday School by age, when Marion was in 2nd grade she joined about 200 other 2nd graders in a class that included a binder of kid-friendly Bible lessons and if she did her ‘homework’ during the week, she’d earned reward certificates that earned her great little treats. I have attended the women’s ‘small group’ studies which were 300 ladies strong. Everyone at Lakewood – from services to bible studies, has their Bible and knows what’s in their Bible. I listen to Joel’s Sirius radio broadcast and I hear gospel messages and I hear the obedience part too – I think his haters chose not to hear and not to be open to the anointed work he is accomplishing for the Kingdom. Thank you for posting this interview. Joel is actually pretty humble – you don’t see him defending his church by listing all that goes on in discipleship classes and Sunday school, etc. The church has a large pastoral counseling staff as well – so despite its size, it can minister to folks on an individual basis. Staff also supervises over 3000 volunteer ushers and prayer ministers for the Sunday services. It’s truly an amazing place.

    • Thanks so much for adding this insider’s perspective, Sherron!

  • Kathy Cheer

    “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off and….” Yessir, you’ve lost your house, your car, your job as well, but what the hey! Smilin’ Joe says, “Having faith will allow God to turn your situation around. He’s got you in the palm of his hand, He’s working in your behalf right now, behind the scenes, he’s lining up things in your favor.”

    Then, citing a passage from the Bible, “God will ‘restore’ what ‘the enemy’ (Mother Nature?) is trying to take. Let’s don’t have a victim mentality, let’s have a restoration mentality. Lord, that you’re going to pay back what we have lost, we thank you.”

    “My brethern and sistern, collection plates are being circulated; please contribute what you can and we thank you God for restoring all that we have lost.” Dig deep God, the costs of Harvey’s devastation will be huuuuuge.