- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 6, 2005

He’s sold out the MCI Center, but Joel Osteen isn’t a rock star. At least not outside the world of evangelical Christianity.

Mr. Osteen and his wife, Victoria, senior pastors of Lakewood Church in Houston — said to be America’s largest church, with 40,000 members — will have a full house for their Friday night worship event in downtown Washington.

Large crowds are nothing knew for Mr. Osteen. This summer, his church moved into Houston’s 17,000-seat Compaq Arena, becoming one of the largest worship centers in the country. The church — featured in weekly television broadcasts — has an annual budget of $75 million.

A simple message is what Mr. Osteen credits as the reason for this success. His beliefs are summarized in his No. 1 New York Times best-selling book, “Your Best Life Now.”

Make good choices. Have a positive attitude. Don’t be selfish. Let go of the past. Forgive people for their mistakes. Speak blessings, not cursings. Live a life of divine favor.

“I believe that God is a good God,” Mr. Osteen says. “I believe that when we serve Him and we try to live a life that’s pleasing to Him, a life of integrity, I believe God wants us to be blessed. I think He wants us to excel. Some people don’t agree with that. I do believe God wants us to be happy. He wants us to be healthy.”

Since becoming a best-selling author, Mr. Osteen says that he doesn’t take a salary from his church. Although he believes in tithing, he says he doesn’t ask for money on television.

“I don’t want to do anything to turn people off,” Mr. Osteen says. “People in general are skeptical of television ministries.”

Mr. Osteen’s high profile has drawn admiration — and some skeptical attention.

“A concern that one could have about Joel Osteen would be that his message is more than a little truncated,” says Michael Cromartie, vice president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington.

The Christian message should be a holistic gospel that includes joy and suffering, security and conflict, service and compassion, Mr. Cromartie says.

“The jury is still out, but [Mr. Osteen] seems to edge up close to a prosperity gospel, that he certainly would want to avoid,” Mr. Cromartie says. “Surely, Mr. Osteen would want to remember that Jesus called His followers to pick up their crosses, deny themselves and follow Him. Not much there about ‘your best life now.’”

A Maryland pastor, the Rev. Brian McLaren, author of “The Last Word and the Word After That,” praises Mr. Osteen for avoiding some common temptations.

“There are so many people who have become very political, especially with the religious right,” says Mr. McLaren, pastor of Cedar Ridge Community Church in Spencerville. “I really appreciate that Joel hasn’t let himself be squeezed into that mold.”

Mr. Osteen says that, through adverse circumstances, Christians should be content and know that God is in control.

In 1981, Mr. Osteen’s mother, Dodie, was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. While doctors gave her only a few weeks to live, Mr. Osteen says prayer is responsible for her complete healing.

“She fought the good fight of faith,” Mr. Osteen says. “She’s as healthy as can be today.”

However, his father, the Rev. John Osteen, who with Dodie founded Lakewood Church in 1959, met an untimely death in 1999.

“My father came out of the poorest of the poor families,” Mr. Osteen says. “I don’t think that’s God’s best, to live like that. I try to encourage people not to have a poverty mind-set. If my dad would have done that, I wouldn’t be sitting where I am today, if he hadn’t believed that he could rise higher. I’m not saying that God wants us all to be millionaires.”

Prosperity is a relative term, Mr. Osteen says. In general, most people in the United States are rich compared with many of the people living in India, he says.

“I have some good friends that are living over in Botswana,” Mr. Osteen says. “They don’t have running water. They don’t have electricity. You would think that they were the happiest and wealthiest people in the world, because they are doing what God has called them to do.”

Some of Mr. Osteen’s critics say that he dilutes the faith and repentance message of Christianity. Mr. Osteen says he believes in repentance, but he doesn’t preach condemnation.

“It’s the goodness of God that leads people to repentance,” Mr. Osteen says. “I focus on the fact that no matter what you’ve done, no matter where you’ve been, God wants to give you a new beginning.”

In a recent appearance on CNN’s “Larry King Live,” Mr. Osteen raised eyebrows with statements that some viewers said failed to clearly articulate the message that faith in Jesus Christ is the Christian hope of eternal salvation. Later, on his Web site (www.joelosteen.com), Mr. Osteen posted a message affirming that fundamental belief: “Jesus declared in John 14, I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me.”

“My point [in the CNN interview] was, I’m not here to judge people,” Mr. Osteen says. “I’m not here to judge and say who goes to heaven and who doesn’t. That’s not my job.”

Other Osteen critics say they are concerned that his ministry is not part of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA), based in Winchester, Va. The Rev. Billy Graham founded the organization in 1979 to help Christian organizations maintain standards of accountability. Membership now includes 1,182 organizations.

“As far as I know, Joel Osteen has not violated any standards, but I wish he would run his ministry in compliance with the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability,” says Marshall Shelley, vice president of Christianity Today International in Chicago. “I think that would be wise for him in the long run. A public ministry is usually better run with public standards than with private standards.”

Mr. Osteen’s family helps run his ministry, whereas ECFA requires an independent board, fewer than half of whom can be related to the senior minister.

“Ultimately, it comes down to my heart,” Mr. Osteen says. “Am I going to stay pure before God and have the right motives? Nobody can make me do that. I have to choose to do that. I’m just going to believe that I will and carry on my father’s legacy.”

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