Forget Billy Graham and Jimmy Swaggart – the most popular and influential pastor in the US is Joel Osteen. On the surface he is modest and quietly spoken, but his belief in the "prosperity gospel" is changing the way people pray.
The praise and worship brought me here," says Natalie, sitting beside me in the fifth row of Houston's Lakewood Church – a vast, converted stadium that seats 16,000. "I was raised Catholic, but I don't feel the spirit there like I do here."
Three enormous video screens advertise church groups such as Griefshare: From Mourning to Joy and the Freedom Series. But just as I'm wondering what the Quest for Authentic Manhood involves, the house worship band kicks out the jams.
It's 11am exactly and the day's second service has begun. The stage is dominated by an enormous revolving golden globe, in front of which is a rock orchestra flanked on either side by a multiracial gospel choir. Meanwhile, no fewer than nine lead singers are dancing about the stage, praising the Lord. And as if the stage isn't busy enough, down on the floor a small army of serious-looking men dressed in black suits stands alert, ever watchful, communicating with each other through radio mics. Theoretically they're church ushers, but they look more like secret service men guarding a president. Gently but firmly they guide latecomers to their seats, leaving nothing to chance, as if one wrong step could upset the delicate balance that keeps 16,000 evangelical Christians from erupting into violence and anarchy.
Men on wheeled chairs scoot past these special agents, thrusting cameras into the faces of the congregation, while overhead a camera on a crane swoops past, instantly transmitting the action on stage to the giant video screens above. Looking up, I watch as the walls and ceiling periodically change colour, from blue to purple to orange as if we were at an intergalactic disco. Make no mistake: Lakewood is no ordinary church, it's a megachurch. No, let's go further: it's an ultrachurch, the largest in America, with more than 40,000 attending five services weekly and a further 7 million watching in their living rooms. And let's not forget the tens of millions more joining us in 100 countries around the world.
The main draw is Joel Osteen, "America's pastor". He's at the edge of the stage with his glamorous wife and co-pastor, Victoria. I've watched his televised sermons, seen him on the cover of his bestselling books, and observed interviews on TV with megastars such as Larry King, Sean Hannity and Barbara Walters. Powerful politicians from both parties crave to be seen with him, just as in the past they paid homage to Billy Graham (who has endorsed Osteen). The Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, made sure to attend the grand opening of Lakewood in July 2005; Osteen in turn led the prayer during Perry's inauguration two years later. But Osteen doesn't pick political favourites; when Houston elected its first openly gay mayor this year (a Democrat), he said the prayer during her inauguration. The Clintons like to be seen worshipping at Lakewood when they're in town, and John McCain was happy to sing the praises of Osteen while campaigning in 2008. And while Obama is yet to pay a visit, last December he found the time to receive Osteen at the White House. These disparate and often opposed politicians recognise one thing: if anybody is the face of evangelical Christianity in America today, it is Joel Osteen.
And what a face it is! The smile is what I notice most of all. Impeccable, white, ultra-regular, it never vanishes: it's the natural setting for his features, the default look to which his face always returns, as if illuminated from within by radiant joy.
The music stops. Joel and Victoria welcome us. In a soft Texan drawl, Joel declares that we're going to take off the heaviness of the week and put on a garment of praise. No matter what has happened, it's in our power to decide we are going to be happy and make progress every day. We are God's people and we're going to be victorious!
"Lakewood was started by my father, John Osteen, in 1959 in a little feed store," says Joel. We are sitting in a meeting room below the church an hour after the service. He negates most stereotypes of the TV preacher: quiet rather than loud, reserved rather than extrovert, perhaps even a little naive. He looks boyish, delicate, much younger than his 46 years.
"Dad had been Southern Baptist," he continues, "but that was before I was born. He left to start Lakewood, partly because he didn't like all these denominations keeping people apart. We were in that remodelled store until I was nine or 10 years old. It held about 150 people, but we started with 90. I didn't realise it was that small. There was a centre aisle and a pew on one side and a pew on the other. So it had 20 rows or something. I just remember going there as a boy and sitting in the front row, listening to my dad. That's where I grew up."
"The talent is incredible," says Natalie, marvelling at the horde of singers and musicians blasting out electrified praise. The worship leader is Israel Houghton: his story is told in Osteen's third and latest New York Times bestseller, It's Your Time. The child of a drug-addicted white mother and absent black father, Houghton ultimately became a Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter.
It's Your Time is a major plank of a media empire that comprises e-votionals, daily podcasts and much else. Osteen's mother, Dodie, also features in the book: she miraculously recovered from terminal cancer in the early 80s. Jesus, Job and King David make appearances. But Osteen mixes in more mischievous examples of God's favour – he is particularly fond of telling us about the Almighty's many intercessions to save Joel from a speeding ticket. His goal is to help us realise God's wonderful plan for "supernatural increase" in our lives, so we stay faithful no matter how bad the odds seem.
Osteen ran his father's television ministry for 17 years behind the scenes. He understands communication – not only the power of the word but also of sound and vision. A perfectionist, he hires only the best. Singing alongside Houghton is Cindy Cruse-Ratcliffe, scion of a famous Christian music dynasty. Every Sunday Lakewood delivers a flawless, high-energy spectacle, precisely the kind of thing that repulses church traditionalists. Yet although it appears ultra-contemporary, this style of worship is a manifestation of ecstatic praise, which is as old as religion itself, and much older than the hymn books and cathedrals which are no less engineered to engender certain effects in congregations.
Osteen, a college dropout, never planned to be a preacher. For years he rebuffed his father's invitations to preach, until in January 1999 he finally accepted. His father was ill at the time. "I didn't want to," he says, "but I just felt inside that I was supposed to. So I spoke that Sunday for the first time. And… that next Friday is when he died. We didn't think he was going to die. But… you know, when I put that together I knew it wasn't a coincidence that I spoke the last Sunday of his life. And then a couple of days after he died I felt that same feeling – that I was supposed to pastor the church. And so I just started."
Osteen was 35, married, a father. The next week, still grieving, he preached again. He hoped to maintain the 8,000-member megachurch his father had built. Instead Joel's uplifting preaching resonated and Lakewood quadrupled its membership. He had to find a new building, and after fighting multiple lawsuits he leased the Compaq Center in downtown Houston for 30 years at a cost of $12m (while agreeing to fund renovations costing $90m). The congregation moved into its new home in 2005. It was destiny.
"And that's why I encourage people… The phrase I use a lot is: 'God's dream for your life is bigger than your own.' You don't know what He has in store if you'll just keep being your best, keep being faithful."
Twenty minutes into the service and people are still flooding into Lakewood. "It was like this at the 8.30 morning service, too," says Natalie. "Every week it's packed."
The video screens show the view from the back of the arena: it looks like a stadium rock gig. But it's not just the size of the crowd that's stunning; it's also its diversity. Eleven o'clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, said Martin Luther King – and even today Christians frequently worship in predominantly black churches, white churches, Korean churches, Hispanic churches, Chinese churches. In Lakewood no single group dominates. I see Texas blondes, hair piled high atop their heads; men in dreadlocks; sloppy dudes in T-shirts; black women in their Sunday best; old coots in double-breasted suits. All of them are dissolving together, lost in praise. Decades of government intervention in the name of equality have never come close to achieving the success of Lakewood.
"There are no walls here; nobody judges you," says Natalie. "I feel incredibly free. Sometimes I think this is what heaven is like."
Lakewood was multiracial from the start. For years, sociologists and visiting pastors have tried to understand the phenomenon, but according to Osteen there was never anything conscious about it: his father was simply "for people".
"I wondered when I took over – I'm white and young – will I continue to draw Hispanic, black? Was that just something unique to my father? But I'm amazed even when we go in other cities, it'll be black, white, Hispanic…"
Osteen pauses: "I think now the spirit of the congregation itself is welcoming. It's not only very diverse racially but also socioeconomically. There's some very poor people and some very wealthy people, but I think… One thing about my parents and what we try to do as well… we try to… it's not about… We try to never even think about the race and… I don't know."
Articulate and assured when preaching, Osteen offstage is tentative and freely admits to areas where he lacks expertise. This humility has landed him in trouble: during a 2005 interview with Larry King he prevaricated over whether a non-Christian could enter heaven. It was classic Osteen: polite, nice, nonjudgmental. Cue outrage among fellow evangelicals. The next time Osteen appeared on Larry King he was certain faith in Christ was essential.
Even so, he is still open about his weaknesses: "Billy Graham, his gift was to go out and win people to Christ. It's different being a pastor. I'm trying to teach people – how do you live the abundant life? That's my gift. Some people are good at taking the scripture line by line and talking about how it was written, but that's not my gift… I believe you've got to repent of your sins; you've got to have a relationship with Christ. So I believe all the fundamental things, I just don't focus on that."
The worship ends. Osteen takes centre stage. He invokes God's power, urging the congregation to release negative emotions: "Let go of offence. Let go of fear. Let go of revenge. Don't live angry, let go now!" Some respond with an "Amen!" or "Hallelujah!" Osteen himself eschews traditional "gospel" stylings.
Now he explains the importance not only of thinking positive thoughts, but also speaking them aloud – for the Bible says that spoken words have power. We must dare to ask God to fulfil our dreams! For He loves us, and His dream for each of us is bigger than we can imagine. Get ready for supernatural increase because… "You're going to be anointed, redeemed, blessed, prosperous, disciplined… You've got a great week coming!"
Osteen is often labelled a preacher of the "prosperity gospel", a movement that dates back more than half a century. It is resolutely worldly, focused on receiving blessings and gifts from God now as well as in the afterlife. According to a Time magazine poll in 2006, 17% of Christians declare themselves adherents, while a total of 61% believe God wants His children to prosper.
But many evangelicals despise the doctrine. Rick Warren, the California megapastor who gave the invocation at Obama's inauguration, told Time magazine: "This idea that God wants everybody to be wealthy? There is a word for that: baloney. It's creating a false idol. You don't measure your self-worth by your net worth. I can show you millions of faithful followers of Christ who live in poverty. Why isn't everyone in the church a millionaire?"
Many have attacked Osteen personally, pointing to the scarcity of references to Jesus in his books, the absence of a cross on stage, his lack of theological training, his refusal to talk about sin. Michael Horton, a professor of theology, more or less called him a heretic on national TV. Others say he's not a preacher at all, but a secular self-help showman, selling platitudes and false hope.
And then in a whole other league there's the distinguished journalist Barbara Ehrenreich, who included Osteen in her spirited evisceration of America's Oprahfied culture of positive thinking in her recent book Smile or Die. Throwing him in with other prosperity preachers, assorted health gurus, faith healers and new age "philosophers", Ehrenreich accused Osteen and co not only of peddling falsehoods and pseudo-spiritual claptrap, but of contributing to a culture of mass self-delusion that left Americans unable to contemplate negative outcomes and thus led to the great banking collapse of 2008. According to Ehrenreich, the nation's CEOs just could not believe in a world where their desires did not translate into results, while Americans in general just can't believe in the terrible things that are obviously coming down the pipe: they have been conditioned to believe that everything is going to be just grrrreat!
Osteen is sanguine about criticism, accepting it as a result of his high profile. He doesn't talk about sin because "people have been beaten down enough" and "it's better to encourage than condemn". Nor does he get involved in moral or political controversies. He did not attend Bible college, but points out that he did spend 17 years editing his father's sermons for broadcast. And you don't have to be a Lakewood true believer to think that Ehrenreich is over-egging the pudding with her wilder claims; the banking crisis was a global phenomenon, not just restricted to readers of Osteen's Your Best Life Now. The label of prosperity preacher does sting, however. "It's just the way I grew up. We believed God is good and He wants to bless you and He wants you to be healthy – but when I think of a prosperity preacher, that to me is somebody who's on TV asking for money every second. I don't talk about money."
The first time I watched Osteen on TV I kept waiting for the appeal for cash. It never came. I was confused. This was a decision Joel made at the inception of his father's television ministry in 1983. He wanted to give people as few reasons to turn off as possible, and nothing alienated an audience more than a begging preacher. (Another principle was to keep the message broad, so non-believers would keep watching.)
The strategy works. The church brought in $80m last year. Osteen is personally wealthy: after his first book sold 5m copies, rumours swirled that he received an eight-figure advance for his second. Even tithing 10% still leaves him with an immense chunk of change. Osteen cites Abraham as an example of a wealthy man supported and loved by the Deity. And then there's Malachi: "Bring all the tithes into the storehouse… and try me now in this, if I will not for you open the windows of heaven and pour out for you such blessing that there will not be room enough to receive it."
But Osteen insists that his idea of prosperity is broad: "It's not just money. God wants you to have good relationships, to have healthy children, to have peace in your mind; you know, have friends – that's prosperity. If people know you are sincere, then they will respond to you."
Osteen's only brush with scandal came in December 2005 when Sharon Jones, a flight attendant, accused his wife, Victoria, of assault on a flight from Houston to Vail, Colorado. Jones alleged that Victoria was so enraged by some liquid that had been spilt on her first-class seat that she grabbed her by the shoulders, rammed her against a toilet door and then elbowed her in the chest – as you do – and all this while passengers were still boarding. As a result of the traumatic incident, Jones claimed that she not only lost her faith but also developed a terrible case of piles. Clearly she deserved at least $400,000 in damages.
For nearly three years the lawsuit hung over the Osteens, and when it finally went to trial in August 2008 the national media gleefully descended upon Houston, hoping for some fun with a classic TV evangelist scandal. It was certainly dramatic. Words such as "devil" and "cult" and "racist" were thrown at the Osteens by their accuser. Alas for Jones, a key eyewitness retracted her support of Jones's story in court and with nobody else backing her version of events, the jury tossed the case out after three hours, declaring it "a waste of time". The Osteens were exonerated, although Victoria Osteen did pay a $3,000 fine to the federal aviation authority for "interfering with a crew member". She stressed, however, that she was guilty of no wrongdoing and was only doing so to put the experience behind her.
Osteen is now alone on stage, the golden globe revolving behind him. He is so quiet, so gentle, so modest; his speech stripped down and lacking in rhetorical flourishes – and yet although he is addressing millions, it feels as if he is talking directly to you. This is the miraculous moment. Osteen knows what's going on inside your soul, he sees your frustrations, your loneliness, your hopes, fears; and he knows what you must do.
The theme is: bloom where you're planted. The tone is darker than in the books. Sometimes we don't seem to be fulfilling our dreams; sometimes we suffer for no apparent reason. But look at Joseph, who was tossed in a pit and enslaved. He didn't lose faith and God made him viceroy of Egypt. But victory can be a long time coming – and more often than not God wants to change us, not our situation. Even if you can't see any benefits to your situation, know that God is using you to work in someone else's life. Do your best where you can, when you can. Be a flower among the weeds. God has a plan.
Sixteen thousand souls are sitting in perfect silence. For 25 minutes there is perfect concentration in the stadium. I've never experienced anything like it.
Osteen's great aunt Johnnie Daniels was a good Christian woman. Her door was always open. She provided money, food and shelter to those in need. As a reward for her kindness, she was beaten to death in her home by a crack addict with a claw hammer. She was 86.
"Surely," I say, "when a thing like this happens it's difficult to keep 'living your best life now'?"
But Osteen – unflustered, calm, polite – disagrees. "I don't want to sound like I'm super spiritual or anything but… I don't… I haven't… From the time that I was little I've had a good sense of trust and confidence that God was in control. Even with my great aunt. I believe part of faith is trusting… Maybe this would be a better example. We had a good friend and their 16-year-old boy left one night and he wasn't supposed to take the car. He hit a tree and killed himself. They're still not over it. And you know, they're good people. It's hard to explain, but… I believe that God can keep you… that you won't leave this earth until you're supposed to go. That's kind of my thing now. Now I know it would be hard if someone was taken away tomorrow, but I just think that's the way you have to look at it. You know, God's in control and we don't understand everything. I don't have to understand why my mother got healed and a lot of people, they're in the hospital and they're not going to make it. But I look at them and say this: 'God's got you in the palm of His hand. You won't leave one second before your time. If God wants you to be here, then you're going to be here.' So I try to see it like that."
After the service I tour the complex. I see the Wall of Champions, the study rooms for new believers, the baby rooms, the media centre selling DVDs, CDs, Bible studies and the collected works of Joel and Victoria.
Osteen is signing books. Indefatigable, he will spend an hour posing for photographs, listening to problems, giving advice and blessings. The main hall is filling up for this afternoon's Spanish-language service, led by another Grammy winner, Marcos Witt – 8,000 will attend.
There are more than 300 full- and part-time staff at Lakewood, and approximately 5,000 volunteers. It is a vast, thrumming God-machine. But that metaphor only goes so far, for without the man at its centre – gifted, elusive, open, childlike; the anti-preacher who is the most successful preacher of them all – there would be nothing. Joel Osteen is the brilliant, unquantifiable, animating essence. And after meeting him, while there is much I still don't understand, I do recall Jesus's words to his disciples in Matthew's gospel: Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
The Observer Sunday 7 March 2010