HOUSTON, Texas (WATE) – His message reaches seven million people weekly, and at one point he was named the most influential Christian in the United States. For the first time ever, Joel Osteen is bringing his message to Knoxville.
Osteen and his wife victoria will be bringing their message to Thompson Boling Arena with their “Night of Hope” this coming Friday, but before he arrives 6 News wanted to ask him everything from, “Why Knoxville?” to “What are your thoughts on gay marriage?”
Thousands of volunteers are on hand every weekend to greet worshipers inside Lakewood Church. On this particular Sunday, the crowd quickly picked up filling up the 16,000 seat sanctuary, the former home of the Houston Rockets.
It’s the largest single church in the United States and often seems more like an elaborate rock concert.
All of this is a far cry from Lakewood Church’s humble beginnings in old feed barn. Osteen’s father John, once a Baptist minister, started the non-denominational church in Houston in 1959.
“I realize I am not a traditional pastor as my father was, where he would just go and teach the book of the Ephesians or Colossians, but I don’t think that’s my gift,” said Osteen.
In a one-on-one interview, Osteen told 6 News he never intended to be a pastor. In fact, growing up Osteen says his father would often ask him to take the pulpit. He had a different route in mind.
Osteen studied TV production and instead of preaching, he started televising his father’s services. That practice continues today with a staff working in precise rhythm, sending the service to more than 100 countries.
Osteen finally moved from behind the cameras in 1999, preaching for the first time. It was the same week his father passed away.
“What are the chances of me in 36 years never ministering, and then five days before he dies? I think that was God saying, ‘Joel this is what you are supposed to do,'” said Osteen.
Today he has more than five million followers on Facebook and an estimated seven million watch his weekly services. However, what you see on TV is actually only one third of the 90 minute service.
During a traditional weekend service, Victoria Osteen will preach, but her sermon is not televised. There is also a moment for personal prayer with one of the church’s 3,500 volunteers acting as a prayer partner.
And finally, no matter how long it takes, Osteen will greet churchgoers after every service.
“I was without hope. A lot of things happened to me. When I started listening to his message and what the Lord was saying through him, I knew God loved me and believed in me,” Elisa Mell, from California, told us as she waited in line.
Many critics say Joel Osteen is too positive, too general and not a true religious leader.
“I hear that, and it never bothers me in a couple senses,” Osteen explained. “I want to motivate people. I want to motivate them to trust God more. Motivate to be a better father. Motivate them to break an addiction, let go of the past There is just that part of me that it’s naturally in me to motivate. It’s all based out of the scripture.
For others, the big issue is money. Osteen’s net worth is well into the millions, but he claims all of his wealth comes from his book sales.
Others question why he charges for his “Night of Hope” events, like the one in Knoxville. We found tickets online for more than $300 a piece.
“I grew up a preachers kid. You don’t charge tickets to go to religious meetings, but in Atlanta, the auditorium held 20,000 and 40,000 to 50,000 came. And New York heard about it and said ‘You can’t come to our auditorium without a ticketed event,’ so we charged $10. That’s what it was born out of,” Osteen explained.
Osteen stresses scalpers drive up the prices on many online sites, but that you can always get them through his website for $15 or less. He also said all the money pays for the event, and that sometimes they don’t break even.
In fact, Osteen says he never preaches about money, but does feel God wants us to be prosperous, in every sense of the word. At the same time he never forgets the reputation of televangelists.
“You know you cant let any of the success get to your head. You go down a lot quicker than you went up,” he said. “I use that as a responsibility to say ‘Joel, be careful how you live, and just don’t take it lightly and try to be responsible with it,”
With his charismatic style, and seemingly never ending smile Osteen has been nicknamed “the smiling pastor.” He doesn’t seem to mind the title because it echoes his message of positive thinking.
Some, though, say he’s the next Billy Graham. That makes Osteen take pause.
“I am always honored when somebody would say that, because Billy Graham is a hero to me, and just an amazing man and minister. I don’t think it is a fair comparison. He’s one of a kind,” Osteen said.
Osteen also went on to tell us he feels a connection with another religious leader – Pope Francis. While their methods of reaching the masses are quite different, Osteen says some of their beliefs seem right in line.
“I like Pope Francis. You know I have not read everything about him, just the general tone he was setting. I think one of the first things he said that I so agree with, seems like for a while, not just the Catholic Churches, but other churches trying to make it so narrow and push people out, and I get criticized for it. But it does not matter to me who comes to the service. Let’s not try to push everyone out. I love that part about him.”
Some say they get a mixed message from Osteen when it comes to certain groups, in particular, homosexuals.
“I believe the Bible says it is a sin. That is what the scripture says, but there are a lot of other sins it talks about. We don’t harp on one sin. I am not against anybody,” he said. “We have plenty of gays that come to our church, so I am not one of those who is going to be a gay basher,”
We went on to press the issue further, asking specifically about gay marriage.
“I don’t like redefining the term of marriage. I think that’s where people of faith struggle, not just me. There has been this term for many many years,” he answered.
When we asked if that means gays should not be afforded the same benefits from the government, he had a different answer.
“I think there ought to be a way where we should all be treated fairly. Not everyone follows scripture like I do. I am not opposed to anyone being treated fairly.”
Chances are if you attend one of Osteen’s services you will see a very diverse group of followers, as we experienced in Houston.
Remember, if you attend the event here in Knoxville, it will be different than what is televised each week. A full service is 90 minutes not 30, but Osteen says the message here in Knoxville will still be the same.
“I want to take our core message that God is for you. I think he has a lot of good things in store for you,” he said.
We also asked Osteen why he chose Knoxville. He said he has been doing these live tours for 10 years now, and wanted to visit cities he had never been to, but where he had a strong following.
Tickets are still available. This is not expected to be a sell out here, like it is in other cities.