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News / Churches & Religion

Reluctant pastor’s son to most-viewed preacher: Shooting puts new spotlight on Joel Osteen

By BEN FINLEY, Associated Press
Published: February 12, 2024, 10:34am

Joel Osteen is one of the most familiar faces in American religion.

The pastor who leads the Houston megachurch where a woman opened fire on Sunday — critically wounding a 5-year-old boy and hitting a man in the hip before she was killed by off-duty police working security— is known for his megawatt smile, wavy hair and widely popular brand of Christianity.

The 60-year-old regularly preaches to about 45,000 people a week in a former basketball arena and he’s known to millions more through his television sermons.

Osteen inherited his calling from his father and increased the size of the congregation almost five-fold. His book, “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living Your Full Potential” sold nearly 3 million copies. In the mid-2000s, Osteen was viewed by more people than any preacher in the United States, reaching 95 percent of all households, according to Nielsen Media Research.

His services over the years have drawn an almost equal mix of whites, Blacks and Hispanics — a diversity not seen in most churches across the nation.

Nicknamed the “smiling preacher,” Osteen told The Associated Press in 2004 that his message of hope and encouragement “resonates with people.”

But his laid-back preaching style has also drawn criticism for focusing on feel-good messaging over fiery sermons.

Osteen told his 10 million followers on X, the social media platform, that his church community was “devastated.”

“In the face of such darkness, we must hold onto our faith and remember evil will not prevail,” Osteen stated. “God will guide us through the darkest of times. Together, we will rise above this tragedy and stand firm in our commitment to love and support one another.”

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Decades before Sunday’s shooting, Osteen said he never dreamed he would be a preacher and never imagined leading a flock so large.

Osteen had never preached — and never had the desire, he has said — until the Sunday before his father died in 1999. John Osteen had founded the charismatic Christian Lakewood Church in an abandoned feed store in 1959.

Osteen told The Associated Press in 2004 that as his father’s church grew he preferred to be behind the scenes. He had left his studies at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., in 1982 and joined his father’s staff as a television producer.

When the elder Osteen was hospitalized, the preacher’s son reluctantly stepped to the pulpit. His dad listened to the sermon by telephone from his hospital bed.

“The nurses said they’d never seen him so happy, so proud,” Osteen recalled in 2004. John Osteen died five days later, and his son “just knew it down on the inside” that God wanted him to preach.

Critics have taken Osteen to task for downplaying the sinful nature of humanity and the need for repentance. But Osteen’s mother, Dodie Osteen, told the AP in 2005: “We don’t preach the gospel sad, we preach it glad.”

“To me, it’s cotton-candy theology,” Ole Anthony, president of Trinity, a Dallas-based religious watchdog group told the AP in 2004. “There’s no meat. They just make everybody feel good.”

Osteen’s leads his flock in the former home of the Houston Rockets, where they won two NBA titles in the 1990s and the Houston Comets of the WNBA when they won four.

It was also the site of Osteen’s first date with his future bride, Victoria, when they went out to watch a Houston Rockets basketball game.

Turning the former arena into a church took 15 months and about $75 million to complete. When it opened in 2005, it featured two waterfalls, three gargantuan television screens and a lighting system that rivals those found at rock concerts.

Two choir lofts with 12 rows of rich purple pews sat between the waterfalls, accented by live foliage.

Absent, however, was a cross, an image of God or Jesus Christ or any other traditional religious symbols. Osteen told The AP in 2005 that his father never displayed such symbols and he simply continued the tradition. Osteen speaks in front of a large golden-colored globe that rotates slowly.

Along with classrooms, the addition includes a chapel, a baptismal area, meeting space for young adults and an entire floor dedicated to the church’s television broadcast efforts.

Osteen told the AP in 2004 that he was providing something that people wanted.

“It’s sort of like to me it’s a good restaurant — if you’ve got good food, people will come,” he said. “So we know we’ve got to make our services good. They’ve got to uplift people. They’ve got to walk away saying, ‘You know what, I feel better today.”’