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Joel Osteen doesn’t preach just to the choir

TV evangelist Joel Osteen aims to send a message of hope and victory to his followers. "Today" correspondent Jamie Gangel reports.
/ Source: TODAY

He's been nicknamed "the smiling preacher." A college dropout who has never been to seminary school, Joel Osteen has nevertheless made a name for himself in the world of Christian evangelism. Once you meet him, it is quickly apparent why so many are captivated by his message. “Today” national correspondent Jamie Gangel talked with Osteen in Houston, Texas, in his first national television interview.

At first glance, the prayer and the music may sound familiar, but make no mistake — 41-year-old Joel Osteen is not your father's TV evangelist. There is no fire and brimstone in his church. If the message sounds simple and upbeat, that’s just the way he wants it.

Jamie Gangel: For people who have not seen your show, a lot of people say it's more motivational speaking, more self-help guru than preacher. How do you feel about that?Joel Osteen: You know, that doesn't bother me because I want to help people. I think that Bible principles will help anybody.Gangel: You get called the smiling preacher [laughter]. Does it bother you?Osteen: No, you know what? I like it. I like it. I love to smile.

Funny and charismatic, Joel has a lot to smile about.

In the past five years, he has built the largest megachurch in the country, with 25,000 attending each week. The Christian-based, non-denominational congregation draws a remarkable mix of races, and his televised self-help sermons are number one in Nielsen ratings and broadcast all over the world.

And if that’s not enough, his book, "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," has topped the New York Times best-seller list, selling 1.5 million copies.

Gangel: If someone had told you growing up that this would happen, you would have said?Osteen: That doesn't seem possible [laughter]. I'd just think there's no way.Gangel: Because?Osteen: Well, it just didn't feel like it was in me to get up in front of people to do that. I was very shy, really. Even today I'm very shy.

Hard to imagine, but for years Joel refused to preach.

His father John Osteen actually founded Lakewood in 1959 in an abandoned feed store.

He often asked his son to fill in, but Joel insisted he had stage fright, and instead worked behind the scenes of his father’s TV ministry.

Then one day, in 1999, his dad became ill and for the first time Joel said yes. Joel says he was so scared he clutched the podium the whole time and vowed he would never do it again. But six days later, his father suddenly died, and Joel felt it was his calling to take over.

Since then, he has doubled the size of the congregation, and developed his own style — sermons are strictly optimistic and address practical, everyday issues, like time management. His critics say it is all too simplistic, that Joel is part of a new trend called prosperity gospel.

"It sort of treats the Bible as a collection of fortune cookies," says Michael Horton, a theologian with the Westminster Seminary. "If you claim the right verses, then you can have health, wealth and happiness."

Gangel: I know you don't like that [criticism].Osteen: When I think of that, I think of somebody getting on TV and all they do is ask for money. I've never preached one sermon on money, on just finances. I want to stay away from it.

Gangel: You do have critics and some feel that this is more promotion than preacher — that it is “watered down Christianity.” One quote was, “It's cotton candy theology. There's no meat. They just make everybody feel good.”Osteen: I can't say that there's not meat when you're talking about letting go of the past and forgiving people and not being selfish. It just seems like the more known we get, the more critics we have.But I don't apologize for anything. I just have a message of hope and victory.

Joel may not like the idea of prosperity gospel, but his can-do message has reached an audience and made the church rich.

He does not ask for money during his television broadcasts. But Lakewood still took in $50 million this year — much of it from the local congregation.

For the record, Joel says he no longer takes a salary from the church. His new book has made him a millionaire, and because of his new celebrity he is selling out arenas across the country, including Madison Square Garden.

Gangel: Why do you think you are so popular?Osteen: Maybe it's the fact that I'm younger, I'm not beating people over the head, and that I'm saying that there are good things in store — you can make it in life. Most of the stuff that I minister [is] not real complicated deep things.  Gangel: You admit that it's not complicated and not deep.Osteen: No, I admit that. It's [the] simple things.