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Joel Osteen’s still the name leaders know

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The Rev. Joel Osteen, the Houston-based pastor of America's largest church, has plenty of powerful friends: Bill and Hillary Clinton, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee of Texas and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Republican presidential nominee Sen. John McCain has met with him. Sen. Barack Obama's aides are trying to arrange a get-together.

"I just tell them I am praying for them," he said.

He wasn't always so sought after. For 17 years, Mr. Osteen, now 45, handled TV production for his father, well-known televangelist John Osteen. The younger Mr. Osteen was petrified at the thought of public speaking until his father died in 1999 at age 77.

The oldest son, Paul, a surgeon, was not available to fill in, so Joel, the second son, was asked to take over the 5,000-member church.

"I guess it's because I was there," he said in an interview Thursday. "I like to think my dad was easygoing and kind, and I think some of those things have been passed down. I am like him in a sense of being positive and hopeful. He was compassionate, and I've got a lot of that in me as well."

Today, Lakewood Church has 42,000 members, more than eight times the number when the senior Mr. Osteen led the congregation. Joel Osteen's televised sermons reach about 7 million viewers in 100 countries, his first book, "Your Best Life Now" has sold 5 million copies. and Lakewood now occupies the former Compaq Center. The venue, once home to the NBA's Houston Rockets, seats 16,000 people.

Mr. Osteen has just come out with a second book, "Become a Better You" and will be signing copies at noon Friday at Books-a-Million on Dupont Circle. Later in the day, he will preach at a sold-out 15,000-seat Verizon Center.

His message won't be Washington-focused or about politics. He won't say how he votes or what political party he favors.

His books and message are America's new civil religion: a packaging of advice on relationships, health and finances mixed in with shared values that appeal to people of all or no faith. About 40 percent of his worldwide TV audience identify themselves as nonbelievers.

His own faith got tested starting three years ago when his wife and co-pastor, Victoria Osteen, was sued by a Continental Airlines flight attendant who said Mrs. Osteen assaulted her while boarding a flight to Vail, Colo., in December 2005. A jury found her not guilty on Aug. 14.

"It was completely made up from A to Z," said her brother, Don Iloff, of the charges. "But for 2 1/2 years, in the eyes of the world, Victoria was guilty."

Mr. Osteen said the verdict, which jurors reached in less than three hours, showed the Almighty was on their side.

"We tried to keep the right attitude and believe. Victoria told the congregation the weekend before [the verdict] if things don't go our way, we will still continue on. I say, don't try to fight your own battles because God will do it."

Mr. Osteen's broad-brush style of evangelism has netted some criticism because of its emphasis on prosperity and his lack of sermonizing on sin.

"I would never do it purposely," the pastor replied when asked why his latest book contains little to no mentions of Jesus Christ. "Certainly He is my savior. He is in my messages and I always give people an invitation to receive Christ.

"I deal with more practical issues of the Bible. ... I don't like to beat people down. They need to be lifted up."

The book, which has chapter titles such as "Feed Your Good Habits," "Rising Higher" and "Keep the Strife Out of Your Life," does not dwell heavily on unanswered prayer. When he deals with people, Mr. Osteen said he aims at keeping their faith up.

"Faith is all about trusting God when you do not understand," he said. "I talked with a lady last week whose 16-year-old daughter hung herself. I just told her God has got her in the palm of His hand, to have strength, just believe and don't get bitter."

About the Author
Julia Duin

Julia Duin

Julia Duin is the Times’ religion editor. She has a master’s degree in religion from Trinity School for Ministry (an Episcopal seminary) and has covered the beat for three decades. Before coming to The Washington Times, she worked for five newspapers, including a stint as a religion writer for the Houston Chronicle and a year as city editor at the ...

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