GREENSBORO — During one of Joel Osteen’s visits to the home of the Rev. Billy Graham, one of his boyhood heroes, television’s most popular preacher asked the beloved pastor to presidents what he should be doing differently.
“He thought about it and said, ‘Joel, I wouldn’t change anything,’ “ said Osteen, speaking by telephone from his Houston church. “I’d just keep doing what you are doing. I’m still inspired.”
Osteen, the best-selling Christian author with the largest church congregation in the country, brings his “Night of Hope” tour and a book-signing to Greensboro later this month. His appearance here is the only one in the state this year.
The public’s fascination with Osteen has translated into sales of millions of books, a 52,000-member diverse church and an even larger following on social media — so large the New York Times lists him as one of the most influential people on Twitter.
He is credited with leading people around the globe to Christ while encouraging others to be better spouses or even to beat cancer.
Some rank Osteen right below Jesus and Graham.
Yet, critics call him misguided. His theology, they say, dumbs down Christianity, taking the focus away from God to man.
He’s not bothered by this — not even those “Joel Osteen: America’s Most Worthless Preacher” blog posts littering the Internet.
“I don’t really focus on the praise or the criticism, I just try to run my race and do what God’s called me to do,” Osteen said. “The Scripture says people will know you by your fruit. People are coming to the Lord. I can’t go anywhere without someone saying, ‘Joel, you helped me change my life.’ “
The thread through his sermons and weekly broadcasts is that God cares deeply for everyone and empowers people to overcome and succeed.
So he doesn’t preach to stadium audiences about same-sex marriage.
“I believe that the Scripture teaches that marriage between a male and a female is the biblical way,” Osteen said. “That’s the way I chose to live my life, and that’s the way I encourage my church.”
But also, “In my life, in my ministry, I’m focused on what I’m called to do, and that’s to bring people hope and encouragement and to bring them to Christ.”
With telegenic good looks and a toothy smile, Osteen, 51, who copastors Lakewood Church in Houston with his wife, Victoria, has — even his critics agree — an uncanny ability to connect with people and do just that. He shares personal stories about real-life struggles, including the problems his sister and her husband had with conceiving a child and how God instead chose to bless them through adoption with twins.
That could describe any number of people in ministry, but he is the most-watched inspirational figure in America, according to Nielsen Media Research. His weekly sermon is broadcast into homes in 100 nations.
The church is housed in a converted NBA arena.
“I never lose that awe of what God has done,” Osteen said.
When his pastor-father died of a heart attack in 1999, Osteen made the move from behind the scenes to the pulpit of what would within a decade become the largest church in the United States.
Nearly half of the visitors and those who write him after a broadcast, indicate they don’t go to church or haven’t been in a long time.
“It’s, ‘I watch this guy, and he makes sense,’ and they all of a sudden realize I’m teaching from the Bible — and I may not be quoting a hundred scriptures — but I’m making one biblical principle relevant,” Osteen said.
Osteen, who is criticized for having a multimillion-dollar home with a guest house on the property, says Christians shouldn’t be ashamed of blessings — monetary or otherwise. He no longer takes a salary — at one time $200,000 annually — from the church; however, he reportedly receives as much as $13 million in book advances.
He points out that Abraham, whom God anointed, was one of the richest men in the Bible.
But he also believes that those who are blessed financially should be a blessing to others.
He is often compared to Graham, one of a few Christian leaders to experience such popularity in his own right and who spent a lifetime preaching suffering, salvation and sin.
Osteen’s most recent book, “You Can, You Will,” lingers on bestseller lists.
“Now, don’t have just a little vision,” Osteen writes in the book. “You’re not inconveniencing God to believe big.”
When asked to assess Osteen, the Rev. Jerome Lee of St. James Baptist Church, historically one of the local seats of the civil rights struggle, says he doesn’t hear Osteen talk about unjust economic, social or political conditions.
“He’d lose a great deal of his audience if he did that,” Lee said.
A bigger issue for Lee is Osteen’s avoidance of the topic of sin.
“Addressing sin is every preacher’s calling,” Lee said.
Others point out the scriptures are replete with apostles with different assignments that produced the same result — connecting people to God.
“The comments are it’s cotton candy,” said the Rev. Marcus Johnson of Hungry Church, who recognizes believers may be at different levels and are drawn to what they can grasp.
“It’s almost like going to a fancy restaurant and giving a child a steak,” Johnson said. “You can’t get upset when they say, ‘I want my chicken nuggets.’ What they’re saying is, ‘I want it on my level.’”
There’s nothing wrong with that, though people should grow as they dig deeper, Johnson said.
Osteen says that’s why, at the end of every broadcast, he admonishes listeners to find themselves a “Bible-believing church.”
“I’m throwing a wide net,” Osteen said of his aim. “I’m trying to get them to start thinking about God, but I know to really grow they need to get in a Bible-believing church.”