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Pastor Joel Osteen: An Everyday Message, Magnified

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Joel Osteen is one of the most influential religious figures in the world.

He's a New York Times best-selling author. His television program reaches more than 10 million households in the U.S. and is seen in more than 100 nations across the globe. On Sunday night, he's hosting America's Night of Hope at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C.

Osteen is the pastor of the largest church in America: Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas, which meets in what used to be a sports arena and holds 16,000 seats.

Unlike many of his peers — fellow prominent evangelical Christians — his message is less fire and brimstone and more motivational preaching.

Pushed Into His 'Destiny'

Osteen's father, John, was also a pastor. He started Lakewood Church in 1959 and helped it grow into a thriving congregation. He had his own televised program.

Osteen worked for his dad for 17 years behind the scenes, producing the program. Although his father would always ask him to preach at their church, he had no intention of following in his path. Osteen says he was "naturally more quiet and reserved," and he would get nervous and stumble making announcements.

He finally did give into his father's requests, thinking it would be a one-time thing.

"Little did I know, that next Friday he had a heart attack and died," Osteen says. "It sounds weird, but a couple days after I got over the shock of him dying, I thought ... I'm supposed to pastor this church. And I had only spoken one time."

That was in 1999. He says he still felt nervous for the first few years, and still gets nervous at times today.

"God puts things in us we don't know we have, and sometimes God has to push us into our destiny, and sometimes it's through adversity," he says. "You know, when my dad died ... I thought, 'What am I going to do?' What I thought would be my darkest hour, it launched me into my brightest hour."

The Person 'God Made Me To Be'

Osteen's first approach to preaching was to follow his dad's Southern Baptist tradition. He has never had formal training, though he considers his years of closely following his father's sermons while editing video as a kind of hands-on education.

"He had his certain style, and people had heard him for 40 years there at the church, and I thought, I gotta be like my dad. They came to hear him," he says.

But as he grew into the person "God made me to be — that is, encouraging people, talking about everyday life," Osteen's message began to change. He used less scripture and stuck with the positivity.

"I think that's where ... we've seen a lot of the success, if I can say that, is that I just ran my race," he says. "I didn't try to copy my dad or fit into the pressure or the mold that everybody tried to make me fit into."

Success In Broad Appeal

Now, in order to connect with the thousands listening in person and the millions more watching on TV, Osteen says he acts as though he's talking to one person.

"And I also, after every service back at home, I'll talk to 500 visitors, just greeting them. I get to hear their stories. What are they going through?" he says. "And so, when I sit down to write my messages, I always think, OK ... here's who I'm talking to."

He takes common issues like financial, health and job issues and gives advice about keeping "a good attitude when times are tough."

"So I think, too, talking about everyday life, that ... it resonates with people versus just going to church and somebody reading scriptures to you," Osteen says. "And that's not bad, but I think that's the difference."

He also sets himself apart in that he hasn't publicly supported a particular political party. Osteen stays away from contested issues like gay marriage and abortion.

"The reason I do is because I feel like I'm called to reach a broad amount of people," he says, "and when you start ... getting political, almost immediately you divide [your followers] 50/50."

As for the future, Osteen says he would love to have his two children follow in his footsteps.

"I'm not gonna, obviously, force them. But you know, I just think there's something about heritage and legacy," he says. "The ultimate thing would [be], hey, come follow after me and take this and take it much, much further than I did."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit


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