texasmonthly.com: Where did the idea to do a cover story on Joel Osteen originate?
William Martin: I’m not sure. As I understand it, [executive editor] Skip Hollandsworth had been pursuing the idea with the Osteen people, but had to abandon it because of other commitments. [Texas Monthly editor] Evan Smith asked me if I would be interested. I was delighted, since I have written about evangelists for more than thirty years and have often thought about doing something about the Lakewood Church, even before Osteen became pastor. I suspect it was the great amount of attention that Osteen has received in recent months—spurred by the church’s move to Compaq Center, his best-selling book, and news that he was now the pastor of the largest church in America and the speaker on the top-rated inspirational program in the country—that made him a natural subject for a cover story.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think successful megachurches tend to be nondenominational?
WM: Since the early seventies, denominational labels have mattered less and less. People, particularly people with no previous attachment to a church, have tended to choose churches not by denomination but because of such factors as proximity, friendliness of the pastor and congregation, and availability of various services. Enterprising pastors recognized that there was often little to gain by associating with a denomination. Also, doctrine has come to mean much less to the average churchgoer, and denominations tend to distinguish themselves by specific doctrines.
texasmonthly.com: Is blandness the new trend of popular religion?
WM: That seems to be a fair assessment. Alan Wolfe, one of the more astute observers of American religion, has noted that American religion has encountered the culture, and the culture has won. By this he means that the widespread tendency to want to build self-esteem and to be positive has led churches away from a hellfire and damnation kind of preaching to a more encouraging kind of ethos.
texasmonthly.com: In your mind, is Osteen’s ministry more religion or, as you put his detractor’s words, “a barely baptized version of secular positive thinking”?
WM: My preferred definition of religion is “an institution consisting of beliefs, practices, and values pertaining to the distinction between the empirical and the super-empirical.” Lakewood Church clearly meets those criteria. As I note in the article, some people criticize Pastor Osteen for being more of a Christian motivational speaker than what they regard as a proclaimer of an authentic Christian message. In the article, I have raised those questions and given Pastor Osteen and members of his family and organization the opportunity to answer them. They are certainly aware of the criticisms and have thought about them and provide answers that are obviously satisfactory to many, many people. Readers can judge for themselves as to how they regard the adequacy of the answers. I don’t feel it is my place as a sociologist or a journalist to judge the ultimate validity of a particular religious stance.
texasmonthly.com: Osteen preaches “health and wealth,” but he doesn’t ask for money from his TV audience. How sincere do you think the Lakewood family is about “using God’s money”?
WM: I have no doubt that the Osteens believe what they are preaching. Since they also believe that God wants them to prosper, I believe they have few misgivings about the fact that the church provides them with a good living.
texasmonthly.com: How was this story reported?
WM: I spent approximately six months on the story, though I did not work on it for all of that time. I accompanied the Osteens on the trip to Little Rock and Nashville, attended the tour event in Dallas, attended several services at Lakewood, watched many of the television broadcasts during that period, read sermons by Osteen and his father, John, on the Lakewood Web site, read many newspaper and magazine articles, read both positive and negative comments about Osteen, and interviewed all the people who are quoted in the story. In addition, mostly for background, I read observation reports written by dozens of students in my sociology of religion course at Rice.
texasmonthly.com: What is your opinion of Joel Osteen? Did it change as you reported and wrote the story?
WM: I had no fixed opinion. When Osteen took over the church in 1999, I was skeptical about his ability to succeed his father. In the interim, he had clearly overcome that skepticism. I had seen his program several times and had read reports from my students, and I also knew several members of the Lakewood Church, so my opinion was basically positive. Insofar as my opinion changed, it was in a more positive direction.
texasmonthly.com: Did you ever find yourself personally affected by Osteen’s message or presence?
WM: I was quite impressed by his ability to relate to a wide range of people and to express sympathy to the point of tears that I take to be entirely genuine. I have had the opportunity to be around a good many famous and important people, so I can’t say that I felt any sense of awe around him, but I did come to genuinely like him and his wife, Victoria, as well as the other members of the family and staff that are mentioned in the article.
texasmonthly.com: Were the subjects of your story ever reluctant to talk to you?
WM: I did not sense any reluctance whatsoever to talk to me. Lisa, Joel’s sister, and Dodie, his mother, both indicated that they did not usually look forward to interviews, but they had enjoyed our conversation. Osteen, at least, was aware of my biography of Billy Graham and seemed to feel confident that I would treat him fairly, which I believe I did. I felt I got great cooperation and was given any assistance or information that I requested.
texasmonthly.com: Why are parts of Osteen’s emotion and humor edited out of the telecast?
WM: I take it to be an effort to avoid seeming manipulative. He leaves in most of the humor, but tends to edit out scenes of him or members of his family crying, particularly during the portion of the service when he and a considerable number of “prayer partners” pray one-on-one with members of the congregation. Perhaps he is aware that television preachers such as Jim Bakker and Jimmy Swaggart were lampooned for their frequent crying, which seemed to indicate a sincerity that their off-camera actions, when revealed, belied.
texasmonthly.com: Is there something about the bigger-is-better Houstonian mind-set that uniquely lends itself to Osteen’s success?
WM: Perhaps. Texans in general may agree with D.H. (Dry Hole) Byrd, who said about Big Bertha, the “world’s largest drum” that he donated to the UT Longhorn band, “You know, to have the biggest of anything—that’s something” (quoted in John Bainbridge, The Super-Americans, 1961, page 19). But I think it has more to do with the conviction of Evangelicals and Pentecostals—that they have a responsibility to win over as many people to Christ as is humanly possible and to use whatever legitimate means are at their disposal to do so. The United States now has an impressive number of quite large churches, several of which number more than 10,000 members, and by no means are all or even most of these in Texas.
texasmonthly.com: Is there anything that was cut from the story that you wish you could have left in?
WM: I was told I had 5,000 words. My first, fairly closely edited draft topped 15,000 words. I cut 5,000 of those, not without some pain, and then wrote another 3,000 words in response to editorial suggestions that I enlarge some sections. Like most writers, I found it somewhat painful to cut almost anything. Like most writers with any sense of perspective, I recognized that not every reader would find every sentence quite as compelling as I had. Overall, however, I feel that I said most of what one can reasonably expect to say in a magazine article.
texasmonthly.com: Did anything surprise you about this story?
WM: Absolutely! I was floored and suffused with relieved delight when I was told that I could have 10,000 instead of only 5,000 words. I honestly don’t know how I could have written a satisfactory story at half the length. I hope readers will feel the editors made a wise decision.