Media Events

A Preacher`s Credo: Eliminate the Negative, Accentuate Prosperity

HOUSTON, March 29

Last Sunday morning, as usual, the ever-smiling preacher, best-selling author and religious broadcaster Joel Osteen took the stage at Lakewood Church, formerly known as the Compaq Center, the 16,000-seat home of the Houston Rockets basketball team.

After a warm-up of rousing original rock and gospel hymns with lyrics and videos flashing on jumbo screens around the arena, Mr. Osteen began to speak. "We come with good news each week," he told the packed crowd at his gigachurch in his native Texan twang.

The news for Mr. Osteen has lately been very good indeed: two weeks ago he signed a contract with Free Press, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, that could bring him as much as $13 million for a follow-up book to his debut spiritual guide, "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," which, since it was published by Warner Faith in 2004, has sold more than three million copies. "I believe God wants us to prosper" is the gospel according to Mr. Osteen, 43, who offers no apologies for his wealth.

"You know what, I`ve never done it for the money," he said in an interview after Sunday`s service, which he led with his glamorous wife and co-pastor, Victoria. "I`ve never asked for money on television." But opening oneself to God`s favors was a blessing, he said. "I believe it`s God rewarding you."

Mr. Osteen (pronounced OH-steen) said he would write the second book, like the first, on his computer, without a ghostwriter, based largely on his sermons. "A lot of my book comes from my messages," he said. "So I`ll take what I did today and maybe massage that into some chapters." "Your Best Life," Mr. Osteen said, went through 10 versions with his editors at Warner Faith "until I felt it was right."

"I`ve got some material I haven't used, stuff on relationships, believing in people," he said. "That`s what I want to get into my next book."

But he may have written himself into a corner with the earlier title, he agreed with a laugh, leaving him next time around with something like "A Little Bit Better Than Your Best Life Now."

Mr. Osteen said the terms of the new contract were confidential, "so I don`t think I ought to comment one way or the other." But people involved in the negotiations have said that the contract is a co-publishing deal that gives Mr. Osteen a smaller advance, but a 50-50 split on profits from the book. (The author`s usual royalty is 15 percent of sales.) The new deal is potentially richer than the $10 million or more that former President Bill Clinton was advanced for his autobiography, "My Life."

Not bad for a college dropout who seven years ago was manning the television cameras at his father`s church and was too nervous to ascend the pulpit until succeeding him in 1999. "I feel God has put big things in me," he said.

Again and again in the first book, Mr. Osteen exhorts readers to shun negativity and develop "a prosperous mindset" as a way of drawing God`s favor. He tells the story of a passenger on a cruise ship who fed himself on cheese and crackers before realizing that sumptuous meals were included. "Friend, I don`t know about you, but I`m tired of those cheese and crackers!," Mr. Osteen writes. "It`s time to step up to God`s dining table."

Or, as he also puts it: "God wants you to be a winner, not a whiner."

He is not shy about calling on the Lord. He writes of praying for a winning basket in a basketball game, and then sinking it; and even of circling a parking lot, praying for a space, and then finding it. "Better yet," he writes, "it was the premier spot in that parking lot."

To millions of Americans, Mr. Osteen is already ubiquitous. Lakewood`s weekend services - one on Saturday night and three on Sunday, including one in Spanish - draw up to 40,000 attendees and are taped for broadcast in all 210 American markets, with an estimated seven million viewers a week.

The church, which was founded by Mr. Osteen`s father, John Osteen, in a former feed store in the Lakewood district of Houston in 1959, is still run as a family affair. But unlike some scandal-tainted TV ministries, Lakewood issues financial statements notable for their accountability.

Collections at the church`s service bring in close to $1 million a week, with $20 million or so a year more sent in by mail, said Don Iloff, Lakewood`s spokesman and Mr. Osteen`s brother-in-law. The money goes to pay the staff of 300, service the debt on the $95 million it cost to turn the Compaq Center into a church (now about half paid off), support ministries in India and elsewhere and buy television time around the country. Mr. Osteen stopped taking his $200,000 annual salary from the church after he sold his first book.

In "Your Best Life," Mr. Osteen counsels patience, compassion, kindness, generosity and an overall positive attitude familiar to any reader of self-help books. But he skirts the darker themes of sin, suffering and self-denial, leading some critics to deride the Osteen message as "Christianity lite."

"He`s not in the soul business, he`s in the self business," said James B. Twitchell, professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida and author of a forthcoming Simon & Schuster book on megachurches: "Shopping for God: How Christianity Went From in Your Heart to in Your Face."

"There`s breadth but not too much depth, but the breadth is quite spangly, exciting to look at - that`s his power," said Dr. Twitchell who called Lakewood "the steroid extreme" of megachurches. He said church critics fault Mr. Osteen for "diluting and dumbing down" the Christian message, "but in truth," he said, "what he`s producing is a wild and alluring community."

Laceye Warner, assistant professor of the practice of evangelism and Methodist studies at Duke Divinity School, praised Lakewood`s reach, but she said that "Christian faith is about relationship with God and neighbor and such form of worship has become entertainment."

Mr. Osteen acknowledged an ecumenism that may alienate some purists - there`s a globe, not a cross at what would be the apse - but he said, "I`m just trying to plant a seed of hope in people`s hearts."

"I don`t believe I ever preached a message on money," he said. "But I do believe, you know what, God can want you to have a better house. God wants you to be able to send your kids to college."

He has distanced himself from much of the Christian right, avoiding the issues of gay marriage and abortion and generally shuns partisan political functions. He said he knew he was under a moral microscope and was uncomfortable discussing the widely publicized episode last Christmas when the Osteen family was taken off a Continental flight to Vail, Colo., after Mrs. Osteen got into an argument with a flight attendant over cleaning up spilled liquid on her first-class seat. "It was blown out of proportion," said Mr. Osteen.

But his admirers remain adoring. The crush on Sunday included William and Varunee Rinehart and their 17-year-old daughter, Whitny, who drove 15 hours from Brunswick, Ga., to tell Mr. Osteen they were faithful watchers of his show and to share a miracle. "There was a tumor in my head," Whitny said. She said that after prayer she was cancer free.

Marin and Zori Marinov, now of Dallas, had driven down to tell him that intheir native Bulgaria they had hooked up a satellite dish to receive his broadcasts. To their amazement they found another Bulgarian a few steps away, Dyana Dafova, a singer who invited Mr. Osteen to preach in Sofia.

He signed autographs on church programs, copies of his book - even family Bibles. "I don`t know if I should be signing these," Mr. Osteen confessed, but he did anyway. In the day`s sermon he told worshipers they were constantly being tested by adversity. "Every test is an opportunity to come up higher," he said. "That`s God trying to promote us." Even a traffic jam like the ones that confound churchgoers around Lakewood every Sunday, he said, was God's test of patience.

"The question is not, Do you have a problem?" he said. "The question is, Does the problem have you?"

Before the collection was taken, Victoria Osteen urged generosity as a way of drawing God`s favor. "He not only wants to enrich you but do things for you you know nothing about," she said. "Let him breathe the breath of life into your finances and he`ll give it back to you bigger than you could ever give it to him," she said. To which the congregation, said, "Amen," and the buckets went around.