Perhaps you’ve seen him as you were flipping channels — a youthful, soft-spoken evangelical minister holding a huge auditorium full of congregants spellbound. At age 47, Pastor Joel Osteen has written two best-selling books; runs the world’s largest television ministry, reaching into 200 million homes across the globe each week; and leads Lakewood Church in Houston, the nation’s largest, with a weekly attendance of 47,000. And Pastor Osteen never preached a single sermon until the week before his father’s unexpected death 11 years ago.
These days, Osteen travels the country, filling stadiums with his message of hope and spiritual self-help. On Saturday night, Osteen and his wife, Victoria, will be preaching to an audience expected to number 40,000 at Dodger Stadium, at an event called ‘A Night of Hope.’ Last week, I sat down with Pastor Osteen in a suite in Dodger Stadium overlooking the soon-to-be-filled seats. As a rabbi, I know we Jews have a lot to learn from someone who has successfully brought so many back to their faith.
This is an edited transcript.
Rabbi Naomi Levy: I watched an interview you did with Larry King. I was so amazed when you said Jews can indeed go to heaven, and then I saw that you later took heat for it, and you rephrased yourself. Is it wrong to believe that people who don’t believe in Jesus have a place with God and have a place in heaven?
Pastor Joel Osteen: Sure. You know, to me it’s up to every person. I mean, what the Scripture teaches is that Jesus came so that we could have salvation through him.
NL: Your Scripture.
JO: Yeah, that’s true. So that’s why I don’t judge anybody else. ... You know, I don’t believe in telling one group who can and can’t go to heaven. I believe that’s up to God.
NL: So do you think it’s possible that our God, the God of the universe, might have an equal plan for all good people?
JO: I believe that any of that is possible.
NL: I saw another video where you spoke about how you’ve stopped eating pork, and I’m curious if you’ve taken on other aspects of being kosher.
JO: I just see that in the Scripture as well. I don’t always follow it 100 percent. But I appreciate the Jewish tradition and what’s in the Scripture, what it says about it.
NL: How do you respond to the person who says, ‘I’ve prayed, and it’s done me no good. I hear what you’re saying about what God can do for a person, and if you pray, look how this person was healed. But my child died, and I prayed with all my heart.’?
JO: You know, I try to encourage people to believe for the best, but that God will always give you the strength to make it through and faith is all about trust. ... Yesterday I prayed for a family. They had a little girl that had cancer and she’s in a wheelchair. You know, our prayer is that she’s going to live every day that God’s planned out for her. I hope it’s until she’s 90 years old. I don’t know if it will be, but I also pray that God gives these parents strength, and they get to that place of trust to say, ‘OK, God, I believe you’re in control of my life, that you have a plan for my little girl and a plan for my life.’ I think when you come back to that place of trust to believe that there’s something bigger than yourself, that’s what gives you the faith and strength to move on.
NL: Why do you think the mainline churches are losing members right now, and churches like your own are growing?
JO: I think that these days people are not as interested in being, whether it’s Baptist or Methodist or some denomination. They’re interested in churches that are relevant and practical and help them live their life better, and I’m not saying that the other ones don’t, but I think that the churches that I see growing are teaching you how to forgive and how to have a good attitude and how to love one another and practical things that help people. ... I mean, I can guess that it’s positive, it’s hopeful. We all face difficulties in our health, our marriages, our finances, and our message is: God can help you in these areas. He can give you strength like we talked about. I think that’s part of the message that people, I hope they walk away saying, ‘You know what, I can be better, I can overcome this addiction, I can make it through another day.’
NL: What do you think is so unique about what you’re doing and what you’re saying that’s different from what other pastors are saying?
JO: My dad was Southern Baptist, and then he left the Southern Baptist to become nondenominational, but when he died, I thought, ‘I’ve got to be who I am.’ I’m not a fiery preacher ... I’m more laid back. I’ve always been laid back.
NL: Do you speak from notes or do you have a teleprompter, because as a rabbi, I noticed while I was watching you that you could go on for a really long time without looking down at all. So was there a teleprompter, or do you just have a photographic memory?
JO: I have a good memory. There’s no teleprompter.
NL: You must have a really good memory.
JO: I’ve been doing this 11 years — you know, I didn’t do it at first, I’d just write some notes and I’d go back and look at them, and I wasn’t as smooth, but as I kept using it, your memory’s like a muscle, it grows. ... I write down what I’m going to say for my main messages I speak each week, but if I go over it for a few hours, most of it is I’ve got it.
NL: So let’s talk about this ‘Night of Hope’ that’s happening on April 24 at Dodger Stadium, and what you’re hoping to get across.
JO: The thrust of it is to just have people come that maybe wouldn’t necessarily go to a church service. Maybe they weren’t raised in church like me, but they’ll come to a ball field. ... What we’ll do, basically, is just inspire them, talk to them about how God has a great plan for their life and just try to build their faith. It’s not just me; my wife, Victoria, will be there. She speaks as well, and we’ll have a lot of the music and a couple other speakers that will help us, but it’s a fun night. We like to sing, we like to celebrate.
NL: And is your goal to get those people to get connected to some local church?
JO: Absolutely. It’s that, it’s to let them, first off, know that God can be relevant in their life, to maybe draw them back to the faith. Some of them already know that, but maybe they’re not plugged into a good church, and so we’ll have about a hundred churches that are cooperating with us, and I’ll encourage them.
NL: So they’ll all be bringing publicity materials.
JO: Yeah ... it’s in the [brochure] we pass out, so that’ll be there.
NL: What is your relationship with the Jewish community and Israel?
JO: We have a great relationship with the Jewish community. ... We’re big supporters of Israel. I’ve been in Israel with my dad, but that was years ago, before I was a minister. ... Haven’t been in a long time. I’ve gotten a lot of invitations.
NL: When you speak to Jews, is your goal to say, ‘And now that you’ve come this far it’s time to embrace Jesus,’ or can a Jew remain a steadfast Jew and learn from you?
JO: I think anybody can learn. I put what we believe as Christians at the end of almost every broadcast and every service, but I just don’t believe in forcing anything down anybody’s throat. I believe it’s the spirit on the inside that reveals who we’re supposed to be. So I give that opportunity, but maybe this is a better way to put it: I don’t look down on anybody because they don’t believe just like me. ... I’ve spent a lot of time in India with my father, and those were loving, kind people to us, very caring. They were Hindus, they don’t believe like we do, but I don’t look down on them. They know my faith, I know theirs, and I always let my light shine, but I’m not going to force anybody. I don’t think you’re supposed to go forcing something down somebody’s throat.
Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva and is the author of “To Begin Again,” “Talking to God” and the forthcoming “Hope Will Find You.”