Evan Smith: The last time we saw each other, in early 2005, it was before your first book, Your Best Life Now, had sold four million copies and before you had moved your congregation, Lakewood Church, from its spot north of 610 into the Compaq Center, southwest of downtown, the old home of the Houston Rockets. It’s been a remarkable two years.
Joel Osteen: It really has. It’s been amazing. I never dreamed what the book would do. It opened so many doors that it put us at a different level of exposure. And, of course, when we got this facility, it mushroomed from there.
ES: To what do you attribute your success? People in your line of work have written books and moved into bigger churches, but this seems different.
JO: Our message is very positive. There are a lot of negative things happening in the world and in people’s lives. What we share is hopeful, and I think that resonates. I don’t know why we’ve taken off, but maybe it’s because I’m younger, because I’m from a new generation.
ES: Was the decision to be positive and upbeat a calculated one on your part?
JO: It’s who I am. When I took over for my father, in 1999, I didn’t change. Playing sports growing up, I was always the encouraging one, the one telling the team, “Hey, we can beat these guys.” I’ve never condemned people or beaten them down. I’ve always tried to bring out the best in them. People knock me for not talking about sin or not preaching against sin, but I don’t think that’s true—I just do it in a positive light. I talk about integrity and morality and faithfulness, but I end by saying, “You know what? All of us can do better in this area.”
ES: How did your father’s philosophy differ from yours?
JO: My father was very positive and very optimistic. Coming from a Southern Baptist background and being more than forty years older than me, he preached more doctrine and explained scriptures in detail. I don’t go as deep into Scripture. I feel like the gift I have is to help people in their everyday lives, and it’s not just me. There are a lot of ministries and churches now where the message is the same but how it’s presented has changed. It’s more practical.
ES: Speaking of change, how has your life changed now that you’re a celebrity?
JO: I never think of myself like that. [My wife] Victoria and I were talking about that yesterday, because a reporter asked us about our “fans,” and it had never crossed my mind that we had fans. But I do think my life has changed. I’ve become aware over the last six months of the influence that God’s given us. I have got something that God has entrusted me with, and I have to make the most of it in helping other people.
ES: It’s not a burden to have so many people’s eyes on you?
JO: I don’t feel like it’s a burden at all. It’s a responsibility, but it’s also a joy. It’s rewarding. It’s what I was born to do. When people stop me on the street and say, “I watch you,” or “You’ve helped me,” it’s very humbling. My father built the other church, and the Lord helped him. This is something we built, Victoria and I, with the Lord’s help, and it really [boosted] my confidence. I stepped into my own shoes here. The fact that it’s centrally located meant we immediately saw 10,000 more people each weekend.
ES: It’s more convenient?
JO: It is. We loved the other place, but it was two miles off the interstate, and it would take you 45 minutes to go those two miles. Everybody in Houston has been to the Compaq Center, so instead of “I don’t know where it is,” it’s “I know how to get there.” And the parking! There are nine thousand covered spaces.
ES: It’s also a state-of-the-art building.
JO: Oh, it is. The high ceiling, the bowl seating, the huge lobbies: These are the things you dream of. It’s more than we could even ask for. If we built this place today—
ES: You’d have to sell a few more books to pay for it.
JO: They built the Toyota Center for $202 million. We got in here for $12 million rent on the first thirty years of a sixty-year lease, plus $95 million in renovations.
ES: Is there a difference between preaching to 6,000 and preaching to 42,000?
JO: I don’t think there is. From the time I started, I always wanted to make my message very broad. I used to play basketball with a group down at the Y, and they didn’t go to church. They weren’t raised like I was. When I first started, I told Victoria, “If those guys can’t understand what I’m saying on Sunday, then I don’t think I can use the language I grew up with.” I’ve got to talk like we’re talking today. And if I’m going to preach to 50 or 50,000, I feel like I have to prepare the same or deliver the same, to put the same effort into it. As a matter of fact, a lot of people ask me, “Hey, can you come speak to my neighborhood group?” Or a book club or something. And I have to turn it down, because the way I prepare, I need a day or two to do it right. I can wing it if I’m just greeting somebody but not if I’m giving a lesson or a motivational talk.
ES: Is there any subject that you’re reluctant to talk about before an audience this big?
JO: It’s funny that you should ask, because I was rereading one of my messages about men and women in which I touched a bit on sexual things, and I thought, you know, I wouldn’t do that today.