FOR MOST PREACHERS, MONDAY IS A DAY OF REST. FOR JOEL Osteen, the 42-year-old pastor of Houston’s mammoth Lakewood Church and the face of the world’s most popular religious television program, Mondays have become devoted to meeting his public. On this particular Monday in mid-December, his first book, Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential, had just hit the top spot on the New York Times’ “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” best-seller list. To show its appreciation, the book’s publisher, Warner Faith, had provided Joel with a private jet and liveried town cars to ease the burden of a book-signing trip that included events in Arkansas and Tennessee on the same day.
At the first stop, a Wal-Mart Supercenter in Little Rock, a few hundred adoring admirers were already lined up as Joel and his wife, Victoria, made their way to the store’s book section. Some fans applauded them ecstatically or squealed with delight; others handed them flowers or reached out to touch them, tears of joy streaming down their faces. One woman said to her husband, a tinge of disappointment in her voice, “I thought he was taller. He’s no bigger than you are.” In fact, Joel is not a particularly imposing figure. A trim five nine, he looks and stays in good shape by running, lifting weights, and playing basketball at the YMCA. On television or before any sizable gathering, he wears a conservative dark suit and an attractive but not flashy tie, with thick black hair moussed and curling down his neck past his collar line his only nod to youthful fashion. He is not classically handsome, but his face is instantly appealing, both because of the lively energy in his intense blue eyes and a smile that never seems forced and is seldom missing; he is often referred to as the Smiling Preacher.
As Joel sat down, Lakewood executive director Duncan Dodds announced that the pastor would not have time to listen to testimonies or to personalize his inscriptions. But these restrictions detracted little from the excitement. A large woman laughed and jumped up and down while taking pictures of friends having their books signed. Another woman clutched her autographed book to her breast and said through rapturous tears, “I’m signed. I’m blessed. It’s all good!” Many were content simply to let Joel know that they were his greatest admirers, but some used their precious seconds to attempt a more personal connection: “I been keeping up with you since you first started.” “You saved my husband’s life.” “Shake my baby’s hand. He needs the anointing.” “This is Bailey Ann. She claps when she watches you.” One man handed his cell phone to Joel and asked him to say “Hi, Jamie” to his wife. (“She started a new job today and couldn’t come.”) Joel happily obliged. A young minister who identified himself as Chopper handed the pastor a DVD of his sermons, noting that he often used Joel’s. (Among preachers, plagiarism has long been considered more homage than offense.)
A few aisles down, past an area where a young woman from Warner Faith stayed busy opening box after box of Joel’s book, Victoria held court with a smaller but no less enthusiastic crowd. A tall blond woman blessed with a beauty queen’s features and smile, she wears clothes well. On this day, the vaguely dominatrix look of her high-heeled black boots, black mock turtleneck sweater, and long black leather coat with silver buttons down the front was erased by the warm friendliness she showered on her adorers: “Hi, sweetheart. How are you, darling?” “It’s so good to meet you. You look so pretty.” “You watch every week? Oh, that’s wonderful!” “Bless your heart.” “We love you too.”
After two hours, during which Joel signed nearly 1,200 books, we hustled back to the airport and headed to Nashville, where a reception was awaiting the Osteens at Warner Faith’s suburban Brentwood headquarters. The staff there were duly solicitous, giving Joel a plaque for having reached number one on the best-seller list. Though the young house, a Time-Warner subsidiary, publishes the work of several popular religious authors, Joel is clearly its prize of the moment. I was told that a woman who had represented Doubleday in the bidding for Joel’s book had told her successful competitor, “You have just guaranteed the success of Warner Faith.”
It’s an audacious claim, especially when you consider that just six years ago Joel Osteen was largely unknown—probably even to most members of Lakewood Church, whose beloved founder and guiding spirit was his father, John Osteen. And even among those who did know Joel, it is difficult to find anyone who imagined that the mantle would fall to him when his father died, in 1999. At the time, Joel was a college dropout who ran the church’s television ministry and hadn’t preached a single sermon. Yet within a few years, he’s positioned himself as one of the country’s premier “pastorpreneurs,” a term often used to describe the leaders behind America’s rapidly expanding megachurches. Preaching a consistently upbeat, can-do message that some detractors refer to as “Christianity Lite”—references to biblical passages are few, and he rarely takes a stand on controversial political issues—he’s attracted one of the largest and most diverse flocks this side of the Vatican. Under his stewardship, Lakewood has grown from an impressive 6,000 congregants to more than 30,000. His personal-appearance events are packing arenas in major cities around the country, including Madison Square Garden, in New York, where an extra night had to be scheduled to keep up with demand, and the American Airlines Center, in Dallas, where scalped tickets fetched as much as $100. His television show, Joel Osteen, is now broadcast in more than 150 countries. And in mid-July, Lakewood Church moved into the former home of the Houston Rockets, the 16,000-seat Compaq Center, where he and his staff expect their congregation to swell before long to 50,000. In less than a decade, Joel Osteen has