Part Two: Joel Osteen's Rise To Riches
Date Posted: Monday, June 4th, 2018
He stumbled through sentences. He shuffled his notes. He shifted nervously in an oversized suit.
Joel Osteen had never delivered a sermon before.
Steadying himself, he directed the congregation to verses from 1 Corinthians. As several thousand worshippers at Houston's Lakewood Church flipped the pages of their Bibles, he read aloud: "Run your race with purpose in every step."
Then he offered his own gloss on the Scripture.
"You have value," he said.
"God has a purpose and a plan for you."
"You've got to realize that you are a person of destiny."
Those ideas would vault him from obscurity to the height of religious celebrity within the next few years. But on that January morning in 1999, he was just a stand-in for his father, televangelist John Osteen, who lay dying in a hospital bed.
His mother, Dodie, didn't know how long he'd last onstage. Maybe 10 minutes, she thought.
From that faltering start, Osteen went on to became Lakewood's new leader and visionary, and the church grew to become America's largest.
His rise is a rarity in the history of American religion. Seldom has the son of a famous evangelist eclipsed his father.
At first, few would have thought him capable of it. A college dropout, he lacked his father's theological training and mastery of Scripture. He had no experience as a preacher. But he had an intuitive feel for television and, later, social media. He understood that he could use both to reach large numbers of people and forge intimate connections at the same time.
He recognized that corporate-style marketing could make Joel Osteen a national, even a global, brand synonymous with his particular creed of personal empowerment through God. One of his earliest hires was a branding expert.
In his sermons and his personal appearance, he focused intently on the details — on finding the memorable word, the emphatic gesture, the right color combination, neither too bold nor too quiet.
To transform his church, he had to transform himself. Shy and private by nature, he learned to be ebullient, funny and self-deprecating before a crowd. He succeeded so well that in time, his closest friends barely recognized the man they saw on stage.
His father had filled churches with avid followers. He would fill whole sports arenas.
John and Dodie Osteen founded Lakewood Church in 1959, in an abandoned East Houston feed store.
The son of a cotton farmer from Paris, Texas, John had been working at a Fort Worth movie theater 20 years earlier when a friend introduced him to Jesus. He went to college to study religion and was ordained as a Southern Baptist minister.
He moved to Baytown, where he met and married Dodie Pilgrim. He preached at Houston-area churches before deciding to establish his own.
About 90 people gathered to hear his inaugural sermon at Lakewood.
Paul Osteen, the oldest of the couple's five children, swept the floors of the church as a young boy. They were so worn that dirt disappeared through the cracks.
"You didn't have to really have a dust pan," he recalled.
The church grew quickly in an era of healing revivals and miracle-making that gave rise to the prosperity gospel, the belief that God would reward his truest followers with material wealth so long as they invested in their churches. The notion had mass appeal and turned many fledgling ministries into megachurches.
By 1979, the little church in the feed store had moved into a new building next door with seating for 5,000. They called it the Oasis of Love.
The Osteens and their children lived in Humble in a ranch house on Mustang Trail. Joel filled his childhood days riding his bike and playing Little League baseball. He spent summers in the mail room at Lakewood, filling orders for his father's books. Eventually, he learned to operate the boxy cameras the church used to film services.
He played basketball at Humble High School, never making varsity. But he did stand out for a quality that would prove useful years later.
During his senior year, he was voted "best dressed" along with classmate Kerrie Outlaw. They appeared together — he in a suit, she in a white dress — at an awards ceremony that spring of 1981.
She remembers him as kind and well-liked. He was also quiet and introverted. That he would someday stand before thousands of people preaching the gospel would have been unimaginable.
"I could never have seen him doing that," she said. "He would never bring attention to himself."
He enrolled at Oral Roberts University to study broadcasting but dropped out after his freshman year. He returned to Houston, saying he felt God's calling to help his father start his own TV ministry.
He mastered camera angles that showed the congregation's size and racial diversity. While editing videotape of his father's sermons, he sometimes watched with the volume turned low to appreciate how much could be communicated by facial expressions alone.
The smallest details consumed his attention. He arrived at his parents' house every Saturday to pick out a suit, shirt and tie for his father to wear at the next day's service. Dodie recalled purchasing ties for her husband at Foley's, only to return them when he admitted he preferred the ones Joel picked.
Phil Cooke, a theologian and media consultant who helped produce John's TV programs, watched the younger Osteen's pursuit of perfection with astonishment as they shot openings and transitions. Gentle but determined, he would cajole his father to do another take. Then another. And another.
"I'd have to be the referee," Cooke said. "He had a vision in his mind of how he thought that scene should be like, and he would not let it go."
As the prosperity gospel gained influence, some televangelists rattled their collection tins on television, beseeching the audience to "sow more seed" in anticipation of a rich harvest.
John Osteen's approach centered on overall well-being rather than financial riches. He never asked for money on television, an example followed by his son.
As sexual improprieties or financial scandals disgraced other TV preachers, Lakewood thrived. In 1988, the congregation moved into an 8,200-seat building in northeast Houston. Ten thousand people packed the sanctuary for the dedication. John delivered a fiery sermon that would usher in another decade of growth.
"The greatest day of the church is just ahead of us," he proclaimed. "Hallelujah!"
Joel's behind-the-scenes role perfectly suited his personality. He seemed to have found his niche within the family business.
By the time the church moved into its new sanctuary, he was married. He had met Victoria Iloff in 1985 when he walked into her family's jewelry store and saw her behind the counter. He wanted to buy a watch battery. She persuaded him to buy a new watch.
The couple sought challenges to tackle together, sometimes buying old houses to fix and flip.
"It was just fun," Victoria recalled of their early years. "Through that, we learned how to work together."
Their son Jonathan was born in 1995, followed by a daughter, Alexandra, in 1998.
Not long after, the Osteen clan faced a crisis. Their 77-year-old patriarch was gravely ill with heart and kidney disease, and he had never designated a successor.
By January 1999, he was in the hospital, too weak to preach. To Dodie's surprise, her husband called Joel to ask if he would fill in for him that Sunday. He agreed, reluctantly. Family members didn't know what to expect.
He spoke for 35 minutes, and for all his jitters, he had an unmistakable presence.
The elder Osteen died a few days later. At his memorial service, Dodie told a packed house that the family had discovered a new preacher in its ranks.
"Guess who asked me if they could preach again Sunday," she said. "Would you think it'd be Joel Osteen?"
He stared at his shoes as the audience rose to applaud him.
Victoria helped calm his doubts about whether he could carry the mantle. After his father's death, he called Lakewood's TV agent to cancel its Sunday night program on the Family Channel.
His wife persuaded him to call back and reclaim the time slot.
"I always knew Joel had something else in him," she said.
His earliest sermons had an edge. He spoke of Satan's deceit, the evils of temptation and the degeneration of a secularized society. He sounded like his father.
A few weeks after the Columbine massacre — the 1999 shooting that killed 13 people at a Colorado high school — he pointed to the tragedy as evidence of Satan's power.
"That is the devil and demon forces at work," he said. "We must realize who our enemy is."
He soon developed a style of his own, relying less on the Bible and more on stories about people who had triumphed over great hardship.
Victors, not victims, as he began to say.
"I realized I wasn't like my father," Osteen said. "He was more of a traditional pastor. I'm more of an encourager."
He began assembling a stable of metaphors to draw on. One Sunday, he told the congregation that psychologists had identified two main memory files in the mind, one to store successes, the other failures.
"They tell us that a person's outlook on life usually is dependent on which file cabinet you go back to," he said. "Don't you go back to that negative file."
He became more life coach than theologian, extolling the power of positive thinking in revealing God's plan. Interpretations of the Scriptures, with their wrenching dramas and divine mysteries, became simpler and fewer.
He began to craft sermons with the same meticulousness he had shown as a TV producer, retreating on Wednesday and emerging on Saturday with seven single-spaced pages that he had committed to memory. He rehearsed them until the delivery seemed effortless. After Sunday's service, he edited the recording for broadcast, frame by frame.
"He was extraordinary in the sense that he was all about details," Cooke said. "And he always had the long view in mind."
Osteen knew that the church's growth depended on exposure. His father's sermons had aired on one national cable channel and several local stations. Now, Lakewood bought airtime in each of the 25 largest TV markets.
As his fame grew, the church had to add another service, then another, to accommodate all who wanted to hear him.
In 2003, the church took in nearly $50 million in revenue, a five-fold increase since Osteen became head pastor. Almost all of it was in the form of donations from people moved by his message. Lakewood's attorneys trademarked his name and the church's.
Early the following year, Rolf Zettersten, senior vice president of Hachette Nashville, a publisher of Christian books, heard that Osteen had an idea for one and flew to Houston to discuss it. A Sunday lunch ended with a deal for "Your Best Life Now."
Osteen appeared at an annual convention for Christian booksellers to talk about the project. Company representatives formed lines around the hall to hear him.
"We knew we had lightning in a bottle at that point," Zettersten recalled.
The book, a seven-step guide to making the most of the moment with a little help from God, was an instant bestseller. At one of Osteen's first book signings, the store sold out of copies.
"People were bringing him stacks of Bibles and asking Joel to sign," recalled Victoria's brother, Don Iloff, an adviser and spokesman for the church.
The book became a board game. Players start on the "Today" space at the base of a mountain and ascend to the "Choose to Be Happy" space at the summit by answering questions about their goals and successes.
Along the way, they recite their positive attributes while looking into a palm-sized mirror.
Sophisticated marketing helped power the church's rise. Soon after taking over, Osteen hired Duncan Dodds, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who was also a branding specialist.
Dodds served as executive director of the church and helped guide its growth. He preached the importance of building Lakewood's name the way corporations promote their products.
"We wanted to be on the leading edge," he said. "What better thing to market than the Gospel?"
Dodds saw no ceiling on Osteen's popularity. With the right marketing support, he thought, Osteen could match the name recognition achieved by no less a figure than Billy Graham, the 20th century's preeminent evangelist.
"I became a believer during the Billy Graham crusades," Dodds recalled. "I saw that there was that potential."
He developed a strategy designed to deliver on that ambition. It had four elements: "Jerusalem," an effort to become a dominant congregation in Houston; "Judea," a regional strategy to draw visitors from Dallas, Austin and San Antonio; "Samaria," national outreach through television, radio and traveling shows; and "Uttermost," a worldwide effort to attract followers through television, crusades and missions.
Dodds emphasized that all of the church's "brand touchpoints," from sermons to letterheads, had to work in unison to reinforce Lakewood as the ultimate religious brand and Osteen as its embodiment.
No detail was too small: When Osteen preached in Houston, the pulpit was adorned with an "L" for Lakewood; on the road, it bore an "O" for Joel Osteen Ministries, a better-known name outside the city.
Dodds often cited "Mickey's Ten Commandments," the famous set of principles written by then-Disney executive Marty Sklar. They included knowing your audience, communicating with "visual literacy" and creating interactive settings for guests to "exercise all of their senses."
The focus on branding and guest experience would shape one of Osteen's boldest undertakings, an audacious project he had conceived shortly after succeeding his father.
The church was outgrowing its 8,200-seat sanctuary, and a bigger building, one of the biggest in Houston, would soon become available.
City officials were looking for a new tenant for Compaq Center. The Rockets would leave after the 2003 NBA season for the new Toyota Center.
Osteen was confident he could draw enough people to fill the arena's 16,000 seats and collect enough donations to pay for the necessary renovations, which were expected to cost $80 million or more.
Lakewood marshaled well-connected lobbyists and two teams of lawyers to negotiate a 30-year lease with the city, paid in a lump sum of $11.8 million. Dave Walden, a political insider who was Mayor Bob Lanier's chief of staff in the 1990s, led the effort.
A separate fleet of consultants helped Lakewood craft a plan to transform the arena, adding indoor waterfalls, an orchestra lift for musicians, and 5,500 holders for offering envelopes.
The church hired René Lagler, an Emmy Award-winning production designer who had worked on the Academy Awards, Olympics ceremonies and other high-profile events, to construct a curved stage with a spinning golden globe in the background and giant video screens framing the pulpit. The goal was to keep congregants transfixed from the moment they chose a plush stadium seat.
Osteen asked his congregation to help shoulder the cost of the overhaul through a three-year fundraising campaign. The appeal depicted donations as obligations to God, investments in a spiritual legacy. Cash, property, jewelry and stocks were all accepted.
"Trust God to provide what He lays on your heart to give, even if the amount is more than your current resources can readily identify," a solicitation read. "Remember, these gifts are above and beyond your regular tithes."
By the end of 2004, donors had given about $35 million for renovations, according to church estimates. Subsequent contributions and the sale of a church-owned TV station generated another $60 million. The project ultimately cost $115 million. The church closed the gap with $20 million in bank loans, which it is still paying off.
Lakewood moved into its new home in 2005 (it later bought the building from the city for $7.5 million, in addition to its earlier lease payment). By then, weekly attendance had grown to more than 30,000.
Osteen would never again enjoy anonymity. The family had vacationed at Disneyland for years, but when they returned in 2005, they found themselves under siege.
"All of a sudden, it's like, 'Why does everyone know who you are, and why does everyone want a picture?'" recalled Osteen's son, Jonathan, then 10.
Osteen eventually went back to the hotel for a hat and sunglasses.
In 2006, Lakewood hosted a ministries conference that offered the religious community the chance to learn, for a small registration fee, how the church had more than quadrupled its audience under Osteen's leadership. Dodds held a session on branding.
Phillip Sinitiere, a professor at Houston's College of Biblical Studies and author of a book about Lakewood called "Salvation with a Smile," was in the audience. He described the presentation in a recent interview and shared handouts he had saved.
He recalled his wonder at the boldness of Lakewood's marketing strategy, one that few churches at the time could rival.
Dodds asked the assembled church leaders to identify luxury car brands. BMW and Lexus came to mind. When he asked about coffee, most people thought of Starbucks.
Then, Sinitiere recalled, Dodds brought up the Lakewood pastor.
When Americans thought of religion, Dodds said he wanted them to think of Joel Osteen.
Date Posted: Monday, June 4th, 2018 , Total Page Views: 1667