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. The audience is too big, and there are too many kids out there. Also, I think it’s best not to get real specific—to talk just to single people or just to married people. I think, “You know what. If this is all about marriage and Joe Blow’s single, I might lose him.”
ES: Let me ask you about your new book, Become a Better You. I notice that there are seven keys to becoming a better me, just as there were seven steps in the first book to living my best life now. What’s with the number seven?
JO: We debated whether to do ten or five, but I thought that seven just feels right. It’s supposed to be the perfect number.
ES: Do you worry that maybe the message of the two books is too similar?
JO: It has been brought up, but I’d never thought of it. Ninety percent of the seven areas I cover in the new book were not in my last book. The theme is, “Don’t get stuck where you are.” It’s my core message. That’s what I wanted to get across: You should never quit growing.
ES: Is this advice you’ve taken yourself?
JO: It definitely is. I can say of every one of the principles in the book, “I’m passionate about it because I know it works.” I don’t want to teach something or share something that I don’t feel works for me. I think about the second part, where I talk of having an internal dialogue. I have good thoughts about myself, and I believe I can accomplish things.
ES: Do you ever get down? You’re known as the Smiling Preacher, but surely there are times during the day when you frown.
JO: There are times when everybody does, but I’m pretty good at switching over and realizing what’s bothering me. I do what I tell people to do: If I get up and I find that I’m in a bad mood, I get my mind off myself. I think, “I’ve got this problem to deal with, but I’m going to leave that and go help somebody else.” I’ll pick up the phone and call somebody and encourage them. Or I’ll think of something I can be grateful for. I’ll look at my kids. You know, we’re healthy. God has given us the Compaq Center. I try to turn it around.
ES: Another thing I know you’re grateful for is your relationship with your wife. Is it true that you and Victoria had your first date in this building, at a Rockets game?
JO: It’s a true story. I met her at her mother’s jewelry store, and I invited her to a Rockets game. We had season tickets. That was our first date. Right there in section 105. I know where the chairs are and everything.
ES: I’d hope you’d have put a plaque up.
JO: I know. We should. It’s just amazing. If you had told us eight years ago, when my father died, that one, I was going to be a minister, and two, we would be at the Compaq Center with influence in the world? We never would have believed it. I tell people that God’s dream for our lives is bigger than our own.
ES: I want to ask you about a criticism you mentioned earlier: that you won’t preach against sin, that you refuse to be judgmental of people.
JO: It goes back to who I am. There’s a scripture that talks about how it’s the goodness of God that leads people to repent. When I’m preaching about God being good, he’s for you. You may not be living right or doing what you know you should be doing, but there’s a God of mercy who will forgive you if you’re willing to change. I see more people respond to that than being beaten down and told, “Don’t do this, don’t do this, don’t do this.” Still, I can’t be critical of other ministers. I was watching Billy Graham two nights ago, and his message was very much “Don’t do this.” He’s a friend of mine; he’s one of my mentors. That is what he was called to do. He’s an evangelist leading people to Christ.
ES: You consider yourself an evangelist as well, don’t you?
JO: I do in a sense. The way I grew up, if you were an evangelist, the main message was salvation. “Here’s how you need to get to heaven: You need to believe that Jesus is your Lord.” I believe that and I preach that, but not every weekend. I’ve got to teach people how to live their lives.
ES: Another criticism I’ve heard is that you don’t display the cross in your church.
JO: When my dad founded the church almost fifty years ago, he never had a cross. He always used a map, and then it became a globe; he was very missions oriented, interested in helping people all over the world. We continued on with it because it was our mark. It wasn’t an intentional slight. We’re Christians. We believe in the cross. This has to do with the tradition of our ministry and our church.
ES: Is there any sort of person who might have sinned to whom you would say, “We don’t agree with you or support your lifestyle. We don’t welcome you into this church”?
JO: No, there wouldn’t be anybody. It’s open to anybody of any faith. That’s what the church should be.
ES: In any circumstance?
JO: In any circumstance. I mean, unless it was a legal situation.
ES: I want to ask you about your sister’s church [High Point Church, in Arlington], which had planned to host a memorial service for a soldier, a veteran of the first Gulf War, but reversed course when the soldier turned out to have been gay. A lot of people have asked if Joel Osteen, in a similar situation, would have allowed the service to go on at his church.
JO: We have buried and honored anybody from any walk of life, and in defense of [my sister and her husband], they have too. [The family] wanted their own officiants to come in there, their own pastors to come in there, and [my sister and her husband] didn’t feel comfortable with turning their church over to somebody they didn’t know. That’s the difference. My brother-in-law and my sister would do anybody’s funeral in the world.
ES: Have they previously done memorial services or funerals for homosexuals in the church?
JO: I have not asked, but I would almost guarantee you that they have.
ES: Have you done services for gay people in your church?
ES: So in a similar situation, if the family had come to you and asked for its own officiants at your church, your policy also may have been to turn that down? It has to be your officiants?
JO: It does.
ES: It’s a management issue more than a moral issue.
ES: If the family had not asked for its own officiants and said, “We would like to have the service here . . .”?
JO: We would do it. I’d take anybody.
ES: Where do you come down on the question of lifestyle determining whether you get to go to heaven? I seem to remember some controversy surrounding something you said on Larry King’s show two years back.
JO: I thought it was misunderstood. What I was saying to Larry King, and I’ll say it here, is that I can’t be the one deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. God has got to judge people’s hearts. But what I in my Christian faith believe, and what all Christians believe, is that Christ died for our sins and that we have to receive his forgiveness. That’s our way to heaven. That’s the only guarantee I see in the Scripture.
ES: But what if you’re a member of another faith? What options are there for people who don’t believe in Christ?
JO: I go back to the foundation of the Christian faith, which is that Christ is the way to heaven.
ES: You mentioned Billy Graham a few moments ago. Recently a story about the Reverend Graham’s relationship with presidents was on the cover of Time magazine, and I thought of you. I thought of the last time we were together, when you told me, “I steer clear of politics. That’s not my place.” Do you still feel that way two years later?
JO: Yeah, I do. I stand by the idea that I shouldn’t get political, because it divides the people I’m trying to reach. I’m very open to talking with leaders. I’m honored to do it. I’ve been able to talk with, but not advise, President Clinton, who was very kind to me. The first President Bush was very kind to me as well. [Speaker of the U.S. House] Nancy Pelosi came through. I want to meet the presidential candidates. But I don’t get involved in policy.
ES: What happens next for you? Let’s assume the new book, with its initial printing of three million copies, is a success. Do you have more books in you? How else do you get the message out?
JO: I don’t know what’s next. We’ll see what happens. There are some opportunities that we’re looking at in other media.
ES: Last night I was on the iTunes store, and what should I find among the ten most popular podcasts but the “Joel Osteen Audio Podcast.” I thought to myself, “Could John Osteen have imagined such a thing?”
JO: He couldn’t have imagined it. It’s a great day that we live in. When I was growing up, I was taught that TV programming is the thing. But podcasts and the Internet have opened my mind. They told me my podcast was in the top ten, and I said, “Among religious stuff?”
ES: No, top ten, period. People on the elliptical machine want to listen to you telling them to keep going.
JO: I hear that all the time.