WHEN IT COMES to preaching Christianity, Joel and Victoria Osteen are "rock stars."
Lakewood, their church in Houston, boasts perhaps the largest congregation in the country - in the tens of thousands. They hold six services each weekend (one in Spanish) in an arena that formerly housed the Houston Rockets. They're on TV, on the Internet and when they were in Philadelphia recently for a prayer service (at that little neighborhood church known as the Wachovia Center), they also held a book signing at the Barnes & Noble in Rittenhouse Square.
Their flock flocked.
Folks who've never attended the Osteens' church and who know them only from their TV sermons or appearances on "Good Morning America" and "Larry King Live," greeted them like long-lost members of their families. They wept. They took pictures. They brought gifts. Those not too awed to speak whispered, "I love you" and "You've changed my life."
The Osteens took a moment with every person, smiled, shook hands, blessed, chatted. Their designated bouncer only gently nudged people, and said, "God bless you" to every person he moved along the line.
Even to this New York-raised, Ivy-educated cynic it seemed very real, and I wondered how the Osteens stayed grounded. How could you not have an ego the size of a Thanksgiving Day balloon when hundreds, thousands of people, every day, tell you how important you are to them? How you improved their lives? How many people hear that from one person in a day?
"You have to stay humble," said Andrea Davis, who works in communications for Lakewood. "And they're very humble, down to earth."
Down to earth enough that interviews weren't held in a suite at one of the city's fancy hotels but in the basement storeroom of Barnes & Noble, which might be a good place to hide if a nuclear bomb ever hits.
It was there that I sat with Victoria Osteen, who's promoting her first book, "Love Your Life: Living Happy, Healthy, and Whole." (Joel Osteen has a number of books, including, "Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day.")
The Osteens are all about self-improvement. And hope.
Although she seemed a little wary, Victoria couldn't have been nicer (her older brother Don Iloff, chief of communications at Lakewood, even went so far as to vet me by reading my stories on philly.com. He urged me to be nice to his sister). As a peace offering - not that one was needed - I brought bagels, lox and cream cheese. And noodle kugel.
They brought Jesus.
It seemed like a fair trade.
Q: So, I read your book...
A: Oh, good.
Q: I liked the message and thought that especially in the middle your religious advice dovetailed nicely with good, practical, cognitive therapy...
A: Oh, good. I take that as a compliment because God's word is really practical...But unless you start putting it into practice it's not going to change your life. [The book] takes God's word and puts it in a way people can really understand it, where they realize it is a good word and it is a good message and it's not necessarily always easy to do but we have to make changes in life if we want to get better.
Q: So what prompted you to write a book?
A: Joel and I have been in the leadership position at Lakewood for about the last 10 years and I've talked to so many people over those 10 years. This theme came out for me talking to people and I thought it was so encouraging that there are small changes that can make big differences. So I just wanted to encourage people that they could get more out of their relationships no matter what the economic times are, if they value themselves and their purpose. Our lives are meant to be enjoyed. We don't get these moments back. Things may not be going exactly the way you want them to, but you have to choose to be happy. You can't wait for everything to be perfect to be happy.
Q: It seems like your message has more love and hope than most of your fellow mega-churches. How do you think your church differs from some of the others?
A: We feel that our gift is to encourage people and that's where we come from. When you give people hope and you give them alternatives that are encouraging, I think we can all make changes and differences in our lives. It's like discipline or punishment. Discipline is to disciple, to make better. Sometimes I think people focus too much on punishment, which doesn't improve anything. Exercising discipline is not always easy, but it always brings back good benefits.
Q: I'm not a theologian, but it seems to me that when gospel (not your gospel) is based on sin rather than good, you have to keep ratcheting up sin to make the message stronger. Personally, I hate it when preachers from both sides of the spectrum use the Bible to promote their views. One preacher said, "If you vote for Obama you're going to hell." Where's that in the Bible?
A: Let's go back to sin. We all know when we sin. Everybody knows when they do wrong. We don't need to be told what we're doing wrong, but what we're doing right. When you nurture a child and you love them, they're going to respond to you better than if you're just talking harsh to them and beating on them. There's no hope in that. And we respond to hope.
Q: You're like Obama. You're the Hope Candidate.
A: (Laughing) We've been Hope for a long time...
Q: OK, you were Hope before him.
A: And I'm glad he is. You can't have faith without hope....People say to us, 'You don't talk about sin enough. You don't hit people over the head enough.' I think we're all pretty beat down already. We don't need to be beat down anymore. Let's talk about what's right, instead of what's wrong.
Q: Where does personal responsibility come into your preaching? My feeling reading the book was that if you give everything over to God it absolves you of a lot of the hard work.
A: You give your worry, you give your stress, you give your complaining -you give those things over to God. You don't give your responsibilities over to God. But there are a lot of times that we hold on to what we should let go of and we let go of what we should hold on to. Have you heard the joke, 'That's a beautiful garden, how'd you get it that way?' And the gardener (who's been planting the seeds and tilling the land) says, 'You should have seen it when God had it by himself.'
Q: Where does your church stand on science?
A: We believe that God created everything.
Q: But you can believe that and still believe in global warming...
A: Well, I don't know about that, but we can sure believe in global warming.
Q: It seems to me that when faith is at its best, richest, it's combined with education...
Q: ...And responsibility. Otherwise it's just...
A: Blind faith!
A: Well, I think God is brilliant so I believe in education. But I don't care what you believe in you can be talked out of everything if you allow yourself to be. You have to guard your beliefs and guard your heart, but be open-minded to other people. But you have to stand strong in what you believe.
Q: What would you hope people get out of the book?
A: I would hope they would get that they are created by God with wonderful things, with a purpose. They have so many gifts and talents they should be defined by and not what people say about them or what people have done to them or their current situation. They can rise above it...and they can change their life.
Q: Do you ever have a miserable day?
A: (Laughing) I try not to. It's not my goal in life....I have challenges, that's for sure.
Q: You have to be strong to get through the bad days.
A: You do. It's not for the weak at heart.