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Part One: Joel Osteen's Rise To Riches

Part One Joel Osteen s Rise To Riches
The divorce papers took Vickie McGinty by surprise. Distraught and alone after 22 years of marriage, she turned to friends and family — and to a stranger with a soothing voice and a sunny message.
 
She had discovered Joel Osteen's sermons a few months earlier. Now, she set her television and car radio to his broadcasts. His voice became a constant presence, urging her to focus on a bright future instead of the clouded past.

"God is arranging things in your favor," she heard him preach from the stage of Houston's Lakewood Church.
 
"You have a backbone made of steel."

"All you have to do is believe."

Listening to a sermon titled "Tame Your Tongue," she felt as though Osteen was speaking directly to her. "Some people, the only thing that's holding them back from a healthy marriage, from good relationships, from a promotion, is their mouth," he said.

The Wichita, Kan., homemaker thought of all the times she had lashed out at her husband for putting work above their marriage.

McGinty booked a room at a La Quinta on the Southwest Freeway, a few blocks from Lakewood, and drove south for more than 10 hours to see Osteen in person on a balmy May Sunday. Again, she felt a connection, even in an arena full of unfamiliar faces. She knew she'd be back.
 
This is how Osteen has become the nation's most ubiquitous pastor and one of its wealthiest. He has earned the allegiance of the hopeless, the doubtful and the downtrodden with a credo of beguiling simplicity: Don't dwell on the past. Think positive. Be a victor, not a victim.
 
A self-described "encourager," he rarely addresses or even acknowledges the fundamental mysteries of Christianity, let alone such contentious issues as same-sex marriage or abortion. Instead, he exhorts listeners to take charge of their destinies and confront whatever "enemies" they face — debt collectors, clueless bosses, grim medical diagnoses, loneliness.
 
In an era of bitter cultural and political divisions, he has redefined what it means to be evangelical by dispensing with the bad news and focusing solely on the good. His vanilla creed has proven irresistible, especially to those down on their luck.

Lakewood is the nation's largest church, attracting as many as 50,000 people a week to its cavernous sanctuary, the former Compaq Center where the NBA Rockets once played.

Broadcasts of its thunderous, music-filled services reach an estimated 10 million U.S. viewers each week on television — and more via websites and podcasts. Many of them go on to buy Osteen's books, devotionals, CDs, DVDs and other merchandise.

A 24-hour Sirius XM station, launched in 2014, expanded his domain to include people commuting to work or running errands.

He has taken Lakewood on the road with monthly Night of Hope events, lavishly produced spectacles of prayer and song that fill stadiums across the country at $15 a ticket. Attendees post branded photos from the events on Facebook and Twitter, where Osteen has amassed a combined 28 million followers.
 
His 10 books, self-help manuals filled with homespun wisdom about the power of positive thinking, have sold more than 8.5 million printed copies in the U.S. alone, according to NPD BookScan.

It's religion as big business, run by a close-knit family that excels at promoting Osteen as an earnest, folksy everyman. He is Lakewood's most valuable asset, the embodiment of the message itself.
 
Not everyone is sold. Some religious scholars and church watchdogs say Osteen's wealth clashes with Christian teachings about the corrupting effects of worldly riches, and that Lakewood's high-powered marketing exploits the vulnerable.
 
"There's always the question of how much money is too much for a pastor to earn," said Carl Trueman, a pastor and professor of church history at the Westminster Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania. "When you're looking at his lavish private lifestyle, I'd say that's too much."
 
Pete Evans, a licensed private investigator, has spent 20 years examining church misconduct for the Trinity Foundation, a donor-supported group in Dallas known for exposing financial abuses by televangelists. Evans said Osteen stays on the right side of the law.

But he views Osteen's message, with its promise that God will fulfill the needs and desires of the faithful, as misleading.

"He's a pitch man, selling congeniality and empty promises in the name of God," Evans said. "All you get is an empty box of hope for a better life someday."

Osteen responds that building a personal fortune is not in conflict with his belief that God wants all who worship Him to prosper. He casts Lakewood's expert use of marketing and media as the contemporary equivalent of shouting from the mountaintop. And he notes that millions of people find solace and strength in his sermons.
 
"I've outlasted the critics and figured out what I feel like I'm supposed to do," he said in one of two lengthy interviews with the Houston Chronicle. "If you have a message to get out, there has never been a better day."
 
Osteen, the son of televangelist John Osteen, Lakewood's founder, became head pastor after his father's death nearly 20 years ago. Since then, he has overshadowed virtually all his contemporaries, avoiding the sorts of embarrassments that have toppled other TV preachers.

His influence transcends political, economic and religious boundaries. His is a church that finds its followers, no matter who or where they are.

***

Osteen doesn't flaunt a life of luxury, but he does enjoy one. He and his family live in a $12 million River Oaks mansion with 13 rooms, a pool, an elevator and five fireplaces, public records show.

He and his wife Victoria, also a best-selling author, stopped taking salaries from the church in 2005. They live instead on book royalties. Unlike some other televangelists, they have not declared their home a parsonage, which would make it tax-exempt. They paid nearly $250,000 in Harris County property taxes last year, records show.

Yet the cost of operating the church and showcasing Osteen on its many platforms does not come out of their pockets. It is paid almost entirely by his millions of followers.

Lakewood took in about $89 million during the fiscal year that ended March 31, 2017, according to its financial statement. Of that total, nearly 93 percent was donated — via mail, the internet or collection buckets — in response to an understated yet persistent message that God will bless those who support the church's mission.

The church spent 70 percent of its budget on television broadcasts, weekly services and programs and Night of Hope events. Almost all the rest went to administration and fundraising, leaving little for humanitarian efforts such as feeding the homeless or helping at-risk youth. Lakewood spent less than $1.2 million on missions and community service that year.
 
The numbers reflect the high priority Osteen puts on expanding the church's reach and finding new adherents.

"That's what we feel like the media does," he said. "I know what my gifts are and where God has blessed me, and I'm trying to be a good steward of that."
 
Lakewood Church's Joel Osteen irks social media followers

Osteen's TV and radio shows bring in donations and promote sales of his books and spinoff products. But the exposure generates very little direct income for the church. As a result, the cost of buying air time, paying production personnel and other expenses has to be underwritten by the congregation.

Lakewood's teleministry alone cost about $25 million in the 2017 fiscal year. Royalties from both TV and radio, by comparison, totaled less than $1.2 million that year.

Still, growth in followers creates its own momentum. The bigger Lakewood's audience, the larger its financial base for further expansion.

Its TV broadcasts end with an appeal for "your faithful and consistent monthly support." Lately, they've included advertisements for the "You Are Healed Kit," a set of messages and scripture cards available in exchange for donations of any size. Those who send in $125 or more receive a deluxe version with a Bible and an Osteen-branded journal.
 
****
 
Amid the din of Lakewood's 16,000-seat sanctuary, congregants weep, shout in exultation or sit in quiet anonymity. The audience is black, white, Latino and Asian in roughly equal proportions. All have come to hear assurance that God has something better in store for them, that life's many obstacles are surmountable and that investing in themselves and their church will unlock the shackles of debt, addictions, bad luck or bad attitudes.

Setbacks, even painful ones, are the Almighty's way of bringing out the best in people, Osteen says.

"God wouldn't have allowed it if it was going to keep you from your destiny," he declared on a recent Sunday. "Shake off a victim mentality, and have a victor mentality."

At the start of the service, the arena's overhead lights fade to a soft glow. The choir fills the risers flanking the stage. An in-house band rides an orchestra lift to appear behind the pulpit.

'Dream bigger, expect larger'

The music swells as the last of thousands of congregants choose their plush seats. Osteen climbs the stage, raising a fist to rally the congregation in worship. He looks straight into the camera to welcome those watching online or listening on Sirius XM.
 
He invites congregants in need to come forward to pray with prayer partners lined up in front of the stage. The rich tones of a grand piano sound a gentle hymn as he takes his place within the line.

Then comes the offering — a standard church practice on an enormous scale. Osteen doesn't personally solicit the donations, in keeping with the church's meticulous, risk-averse management of his image. Instead, he cedes the stage to his wife Victoria or his sister Lisa, who remind the church's "cheerful givers" that God will bless those who tithe 10 percent of their income or otherwise donate.

On cue, dozens of volunteers file into the sanctuary to pass beach-pail-sized plastic buckets down hundreds of rows.

Osteen returns to deliver a half-hour sermon, the highlight of the service.

At 55, he is a lithe 5-foot-9 with thick, dark hair that he slicks into waves. He wears muted suits with bright but conservative ties, and speaks with a soft Texas twang.

Addressing the hushed audience, he appears both relaxed and rehearsed, emphasizing each point with a well-practiced gesture. He begins with a joke, then recounts stories about ordinary people in difficulty — at work, in relationships, in struggles with addiction or illness.

"Maybe you're facing a Goliath today," he tells the congregation. "You have to know that on the other side of that Goliath is a new level of your destiny."

From the first word to the last, he never stops smiling.
 
***

In some Christian traditions, repentance is a process heavy on reflection and confession.

In Osteen's church, it's condensed to a single moment. At the end of each service, he asks those willing to accept Jesus Christ as their savior to "take a step of faith." Hundreds stand to recite a simple prayer.

"The moment you stood up, God washed away all of your sins, your mistakes, your failures," he tells them. "You are starting with a fresh, clean slate."

The scene encapsulates a key aspect of Osteen's appeal. He asks little in the way of tradition and formality, and there's no threat of judgment.

He challenges his followers to consider not a Godly vision for humanity, but rather how to make the most of their individual circumstances. His sermons are for problem solving, not contemplation.

Phil Cooke, a theologian and media consultant who worked with Lakewood for years, said he didn't fully understand Osteen's appeal until the day the pastor took live calls on Sirius XM for the first time. It was 2014. Osteen had asked Cooke to call in and ask the first question, a softball to ease his nerves.

Cooke lingered to hear the second question. It was from a woman who had lost her job, her relationship and her savings. She didn't know how she would take care of her children. She asked Osteen what to do.

"You just have to keep getting up in the morning," he replied.

Cooke was irked at Osteen's seemingly vapid response. Then he heard the woman begin to cry. She thanked Osteen for the best advice she'd ever received.

"Then it hit me," Cooke said. "A theologian would have never reached that woman in that moment, but Joel was able to."
 
***

On stage, Osteen is commanding. In unscripted settings, he is shy and cautious, seemingly wary of straying off-message.

He is thoughtful and matter-of-fact in talking about the church's finances and operations. But he will not take firm positions on fraught topics such as same-sex marriage. Nor does he readily share reflections on the persistence of suffering or other enigmas of the faith. Asked his perspective on such matters, he can seem at a loss for words. His sentences trail off. He glances at the ceiling. Often, he says simply, "I don't know."

Though raised in a preacher's household, Osteen did not seem destined for the pulpit. He did not pursue religious studies. His interest was broadcasting and developing his father's TV ministry.

Pressed into service when the elder Osteen fell ill in January 1999, he showed an unexpected flair for preaching. His father died that month, and Osteen became head pastor within a year.
 
John Osteen had been an ordained Southern Baptist minister who parted ways with the denomination to preach a blend of charismatic Pentacostalism, born-again Christianity and the prosperity gospel — the notion that those who donate generously to their churches will reap rich rewards.

The son reshaped that creed for a new century, emphasizing self-help and positive thinking. Attendance more than doubled in his first year, and kept growing.

Running what has become a multimedia empire requires about 400 staff members (the church had fewer than 30 when Osteen took over) and a bevy of outside consultants. Still, Lakewood remains very much a family affair.

Osteen's mother, Dodie, 84, is the matriarch, occasionally preaching and holding prayer services for the sick and disabled. His wife, Victoria, serves as his co-pastor.
 
Her brother, Don Iloff, a former Republican campaign strategist who served in the White House under President George H.W. Bush, is an adviser and spokesman for the church.

Osteen's older brother Paul, a surgeon, oversees the church's many pastoral ministries and leads medical missions to Africa and the Middle East. Paul and his sister, associate pastor Lisa Osteen Comes, often teach Monday night Bible study. Her husband, Kevin Comes, is Lakewood's chief financial officer.

Family members and church staff handle traditional pastoral duties for Joel — weddings, funerals, counseling — so he can preach, write and travel.

They run the church with a focus on shielding his reputation from even a hint of impropriety.

Appeals for donations are edited out of Lakewood's TV broadcasts, and the church takes pains to minimize any appearance of overlap between its finances and Osteen's personal wealth.
 
Under an arrangement devised by Lakewood's attorneys, the church keeps royalties from Osteen's books if they're sold through its in-house bookstore or Joel Osteen Ministries. Osteen keeps royalties from sales through outside retailers such as Amazon.

Lakewood's marketing messages reflect that distinction. Ads for Osteen products do not refer customers to traditional retailers. They include only a phone number and website for Joel Osteen Ministries.

Yet Lakewood can't fully separate its financial interests from Osteen's. By broadcasting his sermons and funding his Night of Hope extravaganzas, the church inevitably promotes his brand and his books, wherever consumers choose to buy them.

***

The careful curation of Osteen's image extends to social media. In that free-wheeling arena, detractors are ready at all hours to deride his message as corporatized Christianity, condemn his wealth as sacrilegious or post satellite images of the mansion, guesthouse and pool on his 1.8-acre property.

BrandStar, a marketing firm in Deerfield Beach, Fla., manages Osteen's social media feeds and crunches data to determine which messages resonate.

The company tracks fluctuations in his millions of followers and responds to some of the thousands of comments that flood his accounts. Each month, its analysts send Lakewood a detailed report examining audience engagement and the tenor of the online conversation.
 
"There is always someone talking about Joel, for good or for bad," said Forrest Haag, BrandStar's executive vice president of digital marketing. His smartphone buzzes anytime someone mentions Osteen in a post.

Haag and his team were especially busy late last August, when Osteen's reputation took a rare hit.

As Hurricane Harvey barreled across the Gulf, Lakewood's staff did not make preparations to open the huge building as a shelter. Afterward, they said they had been concerned that high winds and driving rain could have shattered the church's tall glass windows or flooded its lower level.

The storm stalled over the Houston region on Saturday night, Aug. 26, inundating wide swaths of the city. On Sunday morning, Lakewood posted on social media that severe flooding had made the church inaccessible and listed places that were accepting evacuees.

It was not a popular message in a city under water. The blowback was harsh and aimed squarely at Osteen.

"Joel Osteen won't open his church that holds 16,000 to hurricane victims because it only provides shelter from taxes," one Twitter user wrote in a post that generated 113,000 likes and 45,000 retweets.

BrandStar's social media experts lived in their operations room for days, monitoring a wall of TV screens showing CNN, Fox News, Google trends and other metrics of social sentiment. They stayed in constant contact with the church's communications staff, detailing the extent of the outrage and crafting a response.

On Monday, the church hurriedly bought cots and supplies and opened as a shelter the following morning, housing as many as 450 people for several days.

"Victoria and I care deeply about our fellow Houstonians," said a message that BrandStar posted to Osteen's Twitter account. "Lakewood's doors are open and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter."
 
The company also posted videos of scenes from the shelter — Victoria hugging a young girl on her birthday, Paul and Dodie sorting donations — while Osteen took to national television to try to repair the damage.

When the floodwaters receded, Lakewood collected more than $1 million in donations for Harvey victims and organized more than 7,200 volunteers to gut 800 homes. The church has since rebuilt 20 of them with help from Samaritan's Purse, a Christian relief organization.

For Osteen, the social-media furor still stings, even months later. He can handle criticism for being wealthy, he said. But not for being heartless.

"It bothers me for people to think we weren't there to take care of the city," he said.

***

In his books and sermons, Osteen offers general advice for overcoming life's many challenges: Improve your habits. Change your thinking. Have faith that God will open doors.

Yet to his followers, it's a deeply personal message. Like Vickie McGinty, 56, many feel as though he has the answers to the very problems that keep them up at night.

For months last year, McGinty drove from Wichita to Houston every few weeks to hear him preach. She prayed for her husband to change his mind about the divorce and come back home. He didn't. So she decided to move to Houston.

She found an apartment down the street from Lakewood and put her divorce settlement toward the rent.
 
One day while settling in, she paused a sermon playing on a CD. She grabbed a Post-it and jotted down a phrase she wanted to remember:
 
"Complain, and you'll remain; praise, and you'll be raised."

She stuck it to the bathroom mirror.

The Post-its have multiplied. They line the kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator and the doorways.

She attends five services a week, walking from her apartment to the church's wall of glass doors.

"Now I'm one of those people, hands up, singing loudly," she said. "I think this is the best church in America."

At the end of March, when her six-month lease expired, she faced a choice: Move back to an empty house in Wichita or stay in Houston, close to Lakewood. She renewed for six more months.
 
 
 
 
 

 

 

Source: houstonchronicle.com

Date Posted: Friday, June 1st, 2018 , Total Page Views: 466

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