The Rev. Billy Graham is the preacher. The Rev. Joel Osteen is the teacher.
Graham, at 95 still the best-known modern Christian evangelist, preached traditional Protestant sermons with themes such as Jesus’ atonement for the sins of humanity when he was executed on a cross 20 centuries ago.
Osteen, 51, may not yet have Graham’s international renown. But his audience is big and growing. He’s the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, which is billed as the largest Protestant church in America with more than 52,000 regular attendees. Each week, millions more watch his 90 Minutes of Hope on TV.
On June 7, Osteen set up a pulpit in the kind of venue that Graham would appreciate: Yankee Stadium in front of about 50,000 people. Osteen stood on a second-base stage. Instead of preaching, he was more of a teacher on Christian discipleship, offering instruction on dealing with adversity and finding purpose in life.
But at the end of the 2 1/2-hour service, Osteen made the same appeal to his listeners that Graham did for six decades.
“If your heart stopped beating in a few minutes, where would you spend eternity?” Osteen asked.
And as millions have done at Graham’s invitations, thousands stood in Yankee Stadium and Osteen walked them through a traditional prayer to commit their lives to Christ.
‘The stinky stuff’
Osteen said his approach is somewhat different from Graham’s, but he ends up with the same results.
“Dr. Graham was more of a traditional evangelist who traveled from city to city, whereas I come from the pastoral background,” Osteen said in an interview. “I tell people they can overcome, that they can become a better father, they can break addictions, they can let go of the past. They respond to that.
“And at the end of the meeting, maybe 50, 60 or 70 percent will stand to either commit their lives to Christ or to rededicate their lives to Christ.”
Osteen regularly conducts “Night of Hope” meetings in medium-sized cities in venues that hold 15,000 to 20,000 people. And for six years, Osteen has conducted one large meeting a year in a major U.S. city.
The first was in 2009 at Yankee Stadium. A year later, he packed Los Angeles’ Dodgers Stadium. Then he went to Chicago, Washington and Miami.
This year, Osteen was back at Yankee Stadium.
“It gives people who weren’t raised in church like I was an opportunity to come to an event that’s not in a church building,” Osteen said. “Their defenses are down.”
They come wanting to overcome their problems from a biblical perspective.
“People respond to the message of hope,” Osteen said. “There are a lot of things pushing people down these days. But our message is about lifting people up. When you can tell people they can move forward and have a new beginning and can experience good things in the future, it inspires them in their faith.”
He delivered the same type of message he’s proclaimed to his Houston congregation for 15 years and during weekly broadcasts.
“You can’t reach your highest potential unless you go through the stinky stuff,” Osteen said. “God would not have allowed it if it wasn’t going to work out for you. Trials are God’s way of getting us in position to go to a new level. Without the stinky stuff, you cannot reach your destiny.”
“When I look back at my own life, I didn’t grow all that much during the good times. But I grew a lot during the bad times.”
You can rebound from mistakes, he said. Some of the most famous people in the Bible had big flaws, he said.
“If God used only perfect people, then none of us would be up here,” Osteen said. “God is saying to us, ‘I’m the God of those who have blown it.’ ”
Osteen attracts people who are already aware that they are sinners but aspire to overcome their guilt from a biblical perspective, said Bill Leonard, professor of Baptist studies and church history at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
“Joel Osteen is an example of post-modern preaching where he holds up his Bible at the beginning of his sermon and says ‘This is the authority,’ ” Leonard said. “But then, he moves away from the traditional evangelist, which means he talks more about the human potential and about human happiness than he does about sin.”
Osteen does not preach much about doctrines of original sin or blood atonement, which tell people that they came into the world as sinners but can be cleansed of sin by the blood of Christ, he said.
“People in post-modern society already know that they’ve failed,” Leonard said. “They’re already full of guilt that’s deep down. They don’t have to be told that they are sinners. So, Joel Osteen tells them, ‘I know you are broken, and I know you are beat up.’
“He also often implies, ‘I know you are beat up by the church. And you don’t have to do that here. What you have to know is God cares for you and you should care for yourself and stop feeling guilty.’
“And then, he says, ‘By the way, I am a Christian preacher and you can discover the things that I’ve been telling you in Christ.’ ”
First comes hope
The New York Night of Hope service began with rapid-fire, contemporary Christian songs with Osteen’s two teenage children, Jonathan and Alexandria, in significant roles. Osteen asked a dozen pastors to make faith proclamations about what the gospel could do for the New York area. Osteen’s mother, Dodie, gave a testimony of being healed from terminal cancer, and Osteen’s wife, Victoria, spoke about her faith.
Estralitta Venning, 68, of the Bronx was in the audience. She said she listens to Osteen regularly on TV. “It takes me through the week at work,” Venning said.
Asked if Osteen’s messages are true to Scripture, Venning said: “The Bible is all there 100 percent. I like the ways that Joel Osteen puts himself into his messages and he says that God loves us all no matter who we are.”
Venning’s niece, Shanique Porch, 31, of Brooklyn, said Osteen’s messages help her work through challenging situations.
“Everybody has battles, but the most important thing is you will overcome them,” she said. “It’s like the Scripture from the Psalms [30:5] that he quoted in the service that says we will weep through the night, but there’s joy in the morning.”
Alex Gotay, 52, of Lakewood, N.J., said Osteen’s teachings helped him while he was in prison in 2007-08.
“I saw Joel Osteen on TV on a Sunday, and then was I released the following Wednesday,” Gotay said. “His message that Sunday was about forgiving those who have done harm to you and to keep going forward and keep thinking positive.”
Gotay said he has tried to practice that.
“I am now a substance-abuse counselor, and everything that I’ve learned, I share it with my clients,” he said.
In the interview, Osteen said: “People need hope because you can’t have faith if you don’t first have hope. People need to believe that there’s something good in front of them.
“Today, people deal with health issues, relationship issues and life in general. So, it’s important that you get reminded that God has you in the palm of his hand, that he’s guiding you, that he’s directing you and that he can help you through any situation.”