His is one of the most recognizable faces in America. Every week he beams into millions of homes across the world with a smile, delivering the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a lost and hurting world. To many he came out of nowhere, and suddenly became the pastor of the largest church in America. His rise to prominence is not what he expected for his life, but nonetheless Joel Osteen serves his Lakewood community faithfully continuing a legacy of honor.
Joel was born March 5, 1963 in Houston, TX to his parents, John and Dodie. His father was at that point a Southern Baptist Preacher. John was born in 1921 in Paris, Tx just in time for the roaring twenties, prohibition and the Depression.
People say that God always plays the long game, and sends babies when he wants the world to change, and with John Osteen’s birth things were definitely set in motion.
John says that his earliest memories were of working in the cotton fields with his parents. He remembers learning the concept that picking cotton meant making money, but somehow the money never appeared in his sack!
It was growing up in the Depression era and experiencing poverty first hand that set on a path toward discovering that God actually wants the best for everybody,
“People talk about being against the ‘Prosperity’ message. You just have to live in poverty to really know what you’re saying when you make a statement against prosperity. When you stood in bread lines, when you stood in milk lines to get ‘Blue John’ milk. When you’ve gotten up in the morning with nothing to eat, when you have to look at your mother with nothing to eat, you’ll never think poverty is a blessing anymore. There’s something about poverty that’s a curse
John was ultimately led to salvation in Jesus Christ through a high school friend, and it was only 30 days later that he began preaching. He knew this peace and love and security he found in Jesus Christ had to be shared with anyone he could get to listen to him.
“…anywhere I could find to preach. I was preaching in the jails, in what we called the poor farms then. In the rescue missions and on the street. Anywhere I could preach, I’d preach.”
That’s where his story began, but that was far from the ending.
His oldest daughter, Lisa, was born with Cerebral Palsy, and the doctors said she would never recover. John and his wife, Dodie were at a turning point in their faith. They believed in the God of the Bible, and they Him working miracles in the scriptures, and knew that that power had to be available for today. They began to call Lisa healed, every day, no matter what the circumstances looked like.
It took 7 months, but little Lisa was completely healed.
It was the discovery of the power of the Holy Spirit that enabled the miracle to take place, and once John learned that miracles can still happen today, he was not about to let them go by him again!
He was almost thrown out of his church, but the board voted to keep him, because they too had just been baptized in the Holy Spirit as well. Despite the decision, there was still much opposition in the congregation.
Instead of fighting his parishioners, he launched out on his own and formed Lakewood Baptist Church. The building was originally a feed store, but it became the launching ground for the next amazing chapters in his life.
Once in a storm the “Baptist” portion of the sign was blown off, and they just never got around to replacing it!
As the ministry grew, John and Dodie’s children kept them current with technological advancements. His youngest son, Joel helped pioneer and ran the television department. He shot and edited every televised serviced for over ten years. It was his vision and passion that helped his father’s ministry stand apart from the other programming on tv at the time.
“In my early teens, I knew I wanted to do television production. I loved cameras, editing and producing, anything that had to do with television production. My friend had a production studio across town, and we’d go over there at night and shoot and edit. I produced my father’s televised services for 17 years.”
Joel would travel with his Father extensively, and their relationship deepened as a result of that. John would try to get Joel to speak. His mother, Dodie, and sister, Lisa, would often speak. But Joel was content to stay behind the scenes, not seeking the spotlight in anyway.
In 1999, John was experiencing some health issues, and one last time he asked Joel to speak. Like every time before, Joel declined his father’s request, but then something made him call back and accept the offer.
Joel recalls that first time addressing the large crowd,
“I had to hold on to the podium, I was so nervous. My first thought was ‘Why is everyone staring at me?'”
His dad was in the hospital, he had been on kidney dialysis for the past 3 months, where he listened on a phone to Joel speak.
In an interview with Oprah, he shared his thoughts from that time,
“We went up to the hospital, we saw my dad. The nurses stopped me and said, ‘Joel, we’ve never seen your dad so proud. Little did I realize that next Friday, my dad had a heart attack, and he died, he went to be with the Lord. I thought, ‘What are the coincidences of me speaking the last Sunday of his life? “
Joel says that after the initial shock wore off of losing his dad, is when he began to feel the call that he was supposed to step up and lead the church.
He tried being his dad for the first few months, because he thought that’s what the people would expect, but he realized he wasn’t his dad. And then the bigger realization, that that was alright too. He knew he had a gift for encouraging people.
One day while praying and reading scripture, Joel came across, Acts 13:36, which states,
“Now when David had served God’s purpose in his own generation, he fell asleep…”
He knew that verse was for him in that time in his life. He knew his father’s approach was for his own generation, and he then felt released to be who he knew he was called to be.
The city of Houston responded well to Joel’s style, and church growth exploded.
People have been trying to figure out what exactly it is about Joel Osteen that attracts people to him. Because as likable as he is, he’s extremely polarizing.
On any given Sunday preachers around America will have worked in some criticism to put down Joel and his success. But do they realize that Joel’s success is only possible because of what his own father and mother built?
He’s criticized because he doesn’t talk about Hell enough, but he readily admits that he believes the entirety of the Bible.
When asked to explain it for himself, he puts it like this,
“There’s so much negativity pulling people down, that I think they respond when you say, ‘You know what: God’s not mad at you; He’s on your side, He’s got a good plan for your life, and when we obey what He wants us to do, we’re going to prosper.'”
He’s not saying that you should deny the existence of Hell, but that people are already in his church because they’re going through hell themselves, they need a way out. They need a savior. They need Jesus.
Jesus, was strong when he needed to be, but also preached life ‘more abundantly.’
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.”
Traditional Christian messages would include plenty of references of the unworthiness of man, and his sinful state, themes that compound the weight of guilt on church goers. Osteen says,
“I know what I’m called to do is say, ‘I wanna help you learn how to forgive today. I wanna help you to have the right thoughts today. Just simple things.”
It’s his fellow Christians attacking him that gives the world even greater permission to attack him as well. Jesus said that the world would be able to tell who his true disciples are if you loved your fellow brother in the faith.
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
The bitterness shown him by his brothers in the faith, allows for even tougher meaner attacks in the secular realm, where he is repeatedly criticized and lambasted.
Could you imagine if a major morning talk show began viciously attacking Billy Graham tomorrow morning? All of Christendom would rally together and that would be the end of the attack, and major apologies would be issued.
The amazing thing is that through all of this, Joel and his family stay above the fray. He may get called out in dozens of sermons every week, or in twenty different podcasts, but he never stoops to those levels to get even or address his accusers.
Joel knows who his source is and who his defender is.
“The church doors have always been open. We took people in as soon as the waters receded…We’ve always been open, this is what Lakewood is all about.”
He explains how the flood waters were within one foot of breaching the flood gates themselves, and that if they didn’t have the gates they wouldn’t be there.
When asked if he had anything to say to his critics,
“You know, I don’t pay much attention to it. You just keep moving forward…Life’s too short to let that negativity in… Some of it is some people don’t like people like me, or people of faith…as long as you can stand true before God.”
See, there’s his secret. He knows he can stand true before God. When Joel crosses over, many decades from now, he’s going to be answering to Twitter, or YouTube comments. He knows he’ll only have to answer to his Creator for how he ran his race.
You can criticize a man for the joy he carries, but do you think a man or a woman full of joy is going to let themselves be brought down by naysayers? No.
The Osteen family has always gone out of their way to be beyond reproach.
In the beginning of the television broadcasts, John was weary of being perceived as another ‘televangelist’ who appeared to be asking for money all the time. He went out of his way to never ask for donations. They simply stood their ground, and believed for the money to come in, and it always did.
Even today, Lakewood goes out of its way to assure the people that it’s not fleecing the flock or that it’s misspending the donations to the church.
Every year the church allows itself to be audited, and Joel himself stopped taking a salary in 2005, when his first book, “Your Best Life Now” sold over 1 Million copies.
When asked if his church is a business, he replied.
“It would be naive to say, ‘No, we’re not a business,’ We obviously are a business because we’re dealing with millions of dollars. And I say that because we don’t take that lightly. We have to be good stewards of God’s money, so we run it by sound, solid business principles,”
If there’s a take away from the Osteen story, it can be summed up in faithfulness and honor. When asked if there was a secret to his success, he didn’t say it was his plan that they took action on, or anything because of him whatsoever. In every step of the way he deflects taking credit or receiving recognition for anything to his parents, and to the plan of God.
In one interview he states,
“You know, I don’t know what it is. I know a lot of it is God, I think, rewarding my parents for their years of service and their faithfulness. I think too that a younger voice was all of a sudden on the scene. And my dad had a good base of ministry already, so all of a sudden here’s somebody that was 35 and was maybe a little bit different.”
His father, John, had a good clean reputation, and out of fear of disparaging parent’s legacy, Osteen tows a tight line of Bible based believing and daily actions.
He might not be your cup of tea, but Joel doesn’t answer to you, and he would encourage you like he does at the end of every service, to make sure you’re right with Jesus, and to get in a good Bible believing church.
It’s easy to believe in God. People need help believing in themselves so they can go and be productive for God. That’s the message of Joel Osteen.