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KELLNER: The steel and substance behind Joel Osteen’s charm

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ANALYSIS/OPINION:

HERSHEY, Pa. — Traffic snaked into the Giant Center here, an arena usually accustomed to hosting Hershey Bears hockey games, on the last Friday evening in May, with lines of vehicles packed tighter than the Beltway at rush hour.

At the doors, people were respectful of the bag inspections required before entering the 10,500-seat facility. Once in, more than a few stopped at concession stands for something to munch on or drink to fortify themselves for the 2½ hours ahead. It was a near-capacity crowd, including row after row of metal chairs unfolded on a floor where players wearing skates and helmets usually opposed each other.

But there was no sporting event this evening, no ballet, no stop on the Eagles' latest "last" tour. Instead, an unconventional minister from Houston, who weekly fills the 16,000 seats at his Lakewood Church three times between Saturday evening and Sunday morning, was the draw for the thousands who came in cars, vans, buses and small trucks bearing license plates from six states as well as Pennsylvania.

Such is the appeal of Joel Osteen, America's "Apostle of Hope," whose television program is viewed by 10 million people weekly.

Mr. Osteen's sunny worship-and-evangelization meeting bears scant resemblance to the old "sawdust trail" tent revivals of decades gone by, or even to the equally packed stadium events Billy Graham conducted for more than 50 years. The music is far more up-tempo than anything heard at Mr. Graham's events, and there's no overt hellfire-and-damnation talk to jolt sinners into repentance.

"I'm not here to condemn anybody," Mr. Osteen, who turned 50 just three months ago, told the crowd while making an appeal for faith commitments. "I'm here to help you find a new beginning, and that comes from a relationship with Jesus Christ."

Cynics might deride that as a kind of "cheap grace" in which "sinners" don't linger at a "mourner's bench" to formally repent. Those cynics, I believe, would be wrong: Mr. Osteen is serious about having those who respond connect with a local church congregation — seven area pastors shared the stage with him at one point, each praying for the crowd and identified on projection screens — and that new believers shun those who would lead them back to destructive old habits.

"Instead, call them up and take them to church. Tell them, 'We're going to have some fun on Sunday,'" Mr. Osteen advised his listeners about those in their circle who are not yet believers.

For those whose primary exposure to Mr. Osteen is his meticulously engineered weekly 30-minute television program, Mr. Osteen told Phil Cooke (in a "Ministry Today" magazine interview) that a keen awareness of viewers' choices demands high-quality editing and production values. The prospect of a session five times that length might seem daunting. It wasn't: The evening moved swiftly, helped in no small part by rock-influenced worship music (lyrics projected on screen) with Mr. Osteen's 18-year-old son, Jonathan, on bass guitar. Daughter Alexandra Osteen, 14, sang several songs, including a closing appeal for converts.

"A Night of Hope," as the evening is called, is indeed a family affair: Victoria Osteen, 52, the evangelist's wife, told the crowd, "Too many people think God is mad at them, when in fact, He's madly in love with them." Together, Mr. and Mrs. Osteen are the kind of warm, reliable neighbors you'd love to have next door. Dodie Osteen, Mr. Osteen's mother, who turns 80 in October, shared her own experience of overcoming a diagnosis of terminal cancer through faith 31 years ago.

But while "Miss Dodie" endorses prayer, she also told the crowd they should seek appropriate medical care if necessary, and bring prayer into the mix.

It wouldn't be a Joel Osteen service without the pronouncement of a wholesale blessing for the crowd, the minister asking for health, prosperity and emotional and financial healing for those present. To any skeptics in the room, he said, "If you don't believe this, then this is not for you; this is for those who believe!" A roar of approval went up in reply.

The cynical might also smirk about the offering taken at the event, but that revivalist staple received just a passing mention from Mr. Osteen, who instead played a three-minute video appealing for child sponsorships through World Vision, a Christian charity. He said the goal was to gain 1,000 sponsorships — at $35 per month — and it appeared the goal was substantially met. Mr. Osteen's ministry receives nothing from that effort, he said.

Mr. Osteen's 2012 event at Washington's Nationals Park filled that venue. His next area appearance is set for Nov. 15 in Baltimore. Those wanting to see the next level of American evangelism, or those who need a prescription of hope in a stress-filled age, would do well to claim tickets early.

Mark A. Kellner can be reached via email at mkellner@washingtontimes.com.

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