WASHINGTON – Joel Osteen, the pastor of Houston's Lakewood Church, hopes his fame will put a face on the nation's Christian community. The New York Times bestselling author is leading Lakewood's Champions Network, a national network that helps Christians find churches in their area.
"I feel like God said 'Joel, go connect with other pastors and get people into good, Bible-based churches,’" he said Monday at a Champions Network meeting in Washington, D.C. "I'm trying to throw a wide net of hope and catch people flipping through the channels unaware of Christ."
Osteen's ministry first reached the mainstream with his 2004 Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential. The self-help book was a publishing hit, and Osteen followed it with another bestseller, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day, in 2007. His latest work, Every Day a Friday: How to Be Happier 7 Days a Week, was released last month and offers advice on making the most of each day's experiences.
The popular pastor's ministry now reaches millions around the globe. He's since used his visibility to spread his signature uplifting messsages with "America's Night of Hope," a monthly event combining sermons and praise music at arenas across the country. Osteen said he's hoping to hit a homerun in Washington, D.C., when the program takes to the green April 28, 2012, at Nationals Park.
"This is an amazing city," he said of next year's visit to D.C.'s baseball field. "There's going to be a great harvest here."
"Night of Hope" events succeed, Osteen said, on account of the Champions Network churches backing them. The program places those saved by Osteen's testimony in area churches, thus ensuring their faith gains a strong foundation.
"Joel is in touch with the everyday person," said Phil Munsey, pastor of Irvine, Calif.'s The Life Church and a Champions Network member. "He's an incredibly positive person passionate about bringing hope to people. Any time you have increased unity it's pleasant for God's people."
Osteen's "positive" messages, however, have also drawn critics who say he preaches more self-help messages than about sin and the cross of Jesus Christ.. The Lakewood pastor is often criticized for preaching messages that are "theology lite" and what critics call the “prosperity gospel,” a belief that prosperity and success – particularly financial – is a sign of God’s favor.
Still, his messages seem to be resonating as his outreach is already creating new growth for church communities. A congregation in Martinsburg, W. Va., added 500 new members after allying with Osteen Ministries and now numbers 1,200 strong. Last month's "Night of Hope" in Chicago, meanwhile, had so many attendees Lakewood staff filled 71 buses.
"I like the ability to share the Gospel and impact the lives of people around the country," said Van Moody, senior pastor of Birmingham's The Worship Center, another Champions Network affiliate. "It helps bring us together. Joel is a man of integrity and tremendous character."
Osteen said such success occasionally overwhelms him given Lakewood's humble origins. Started in 1959 by his father John, he originally worked behind the scenes as the church's television producer. Taking over for his ailing father one fateful Sunday, he found himself leading the entire Lakewood flock following John's untimely passing in 1999 after a heart attack.
"That first Sunday rolled around and I was so nervous," Osteen said. "I had to grip the pulpit hard as my heart was beating so fast. God puts things in us we don’t know we have. He puts a treasure in each one of us."
Upon assuming his father's pastor position, Osteen said he didn't believe Lakewood would grow into the megachurch it is today. Having achieved staying power beyond his wildest dreams, he said he hopes the Champions Network shines God's grace on other churches so they can attain the same success.
"I stand of amazement of what God has done," he said. "You never know where He will take you if you're faithful. I have a responsibility to use any leverage we can to grow other churches. We want to build His kingdom."