Joel Osteen is supposed to be a proponent of "prosperity theology," an idea that suggests a person's financial and physical well-being are the will of God, and that faith, positive speech and donations to religious causes can increase one's material wealth.
Osteen, however, senior pastor at the Lakewood Church in Houston and perhaps the most popular televangelist today, says not so fast.
"I don't know, I just don't like the term, especially when they categorize us that way," said Osteen, who will bring his "Night of Hope" tour to the Times Union Center Friday at 7:30 p.m. "I don't know what it means to me. I'm about being positive, and believing that you're supposed to live a blessed life. You're supposed to have good health and the means to pay your bills. That's what God wants for us. That's what I take away from it."
Lakewood Church, a non-denominational "charismatic" Christian megachurch in Houston, was founded in 1959 by Osteen's father, John. Originally located in an abandoned feed store in the northeast section of the city, the congregation grew steadily under Osteen, who had been a Southern Baptist minister before breaking away and forming his own independent church. By 1979, Osteen had more than 5,000 members, and in 2003, four years after Joel had taken over for his father, who died of a heart attack, Lakewood had 30,000 members and its meetings were seen worldwide on television in over 100 countries.
Osteen says he's also a little uncomfortable defining the terms "charismatic" and "megachurch."
"My dad left the Baptist church and started his own non-denominational church, which to me means that anybody could come," he said. "I don't know if I know what charismatic and megachurch mean. I don't like all these labels. I do know that my father had great compassion for people, a great love of people, and he was not judgmental in any way. He looked out for the underdog; people that were down on their luck. He wanted to lift people up and I think a lot of people really appreciated that message."
When the elder Osteen died in 1999, his son claims he was unprepared to take over the job although there's little evidence of that in the church's history the past two decades.
"I never planned on being a minister," Osteen said. "I was behind the scenes and had never really ministered before. I'm as surprised as anyone over the past 17, 18 years, at the growth of our church. To me it just came out of the blue."
One of the secrets to his success might be that he doesn't get too political.
"My father realized that our church was very diverse, so he never got too involved in politics," said Osteen, whose wife Victoria and their two children (a son and a daughter) all work in the church. "I'm sure that we have as many Democrats as Republicans, along with plenty of independents. Our members mirror the community we live in, and I always felt my message was for the general public. I have friends who are very political, but for me, if you get political you start to divide people, and why turn people off before you even get started."
Osteen and his church, housed in a 16,000-seat arena that was formerly home to the NBA's Houston Rockets, took some criticism in 2017 for a failure to make their building available to those escaping the rising flood waters during Hurricane Harvey.
"We could always do better, but we didn't know we were going to have a flood of epic proportions," explained Osteen. "I feel like we opened the door when it got safe, but people didn't know all the facts and some I'm sure just wanted to discredit us. They complained that we didn't open our doors 12 hours sooner, but it was a complicated situation. I live two miles from the church and I couldn't get to the building.
"We've been in that city for 60 years," added Osteen. "That's what we're all about. Helping people. If we had known what exactly was going to happen, then yes, we would have had the facility ready and staff in place to handle everything. We do the best we can, and we learn from that."
Osteen made an earlier appearance at the TImes Union Center back in 2012, and over the years has developed a friendship with a number of local pastors, including Fred Sanles at the Reigning Life Family Church in Albany and Buddy Cremeans at the Northway Church on Pearce Road in Clifton Park.
Sanles, who along with his wife, Evelyn, came to Albany 36 years ago, worked with Osteen's father after graduating from Rhema Bible Training College in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.
"Joel was still growing up when we were there, but you couldn't find a better family than the Osteens," said Sanles, a Newark, New Jersey native whose church is located in downtown Albany at 33 Rensselaer St., just around the corner from the Times Union Center. "They are as sincere as they can be, and they're not in the gospel for the money. They love people, and the love of God is in that church and it is awesome."
Sanles said Joel's preaching style is a bit different than his father's, but still very effective.
"Joel has a message of hope, and he doesn't beat people over the head with it," said Sanles. "His bottom line is to put hope into the hearts of people. His compassion and his passion is the same as his father's but they do have different ministries. His father was a preacher, and he never lost his flair of the evangelist. He was a fireball and he never lost it.
"Joel is a bit more laid back," continued Sanles. "He's not a in-your-face preacher. He doesn't want to hurt people. He is a minister of the gospel and has a special gift that allows him to lead people. He is different from this father, but you have to remember that when God calls someone to the ministry, there is a uniqueness to each and everyone one, and God is looking for a balance."
Cremeans, who started the Northway Church with his wife, Debbie, back in 2002, is also a big fan of Osteen's.
"I've known Joel for a decade now and we have become great friends," said Cremeans. "He is one of the most humble people you'll ever meet, and one of the most likable as well."
While the Lakewood Church lists the Northway Church as one of its affiliated churches on its web site, Cremeans said their is no official connection.
"Our relationship is emotional, based on shared values," said Cremeans. "I think Joel's message is one of encouragement. Life has a way of beating you up and Joel's message is hope. You can't have faith if you don't have hope. That's what Joel's preaching is about, and here at the Northway Church that really resonates with us. I feel like we share the same heart as Joel's church."
Along with the success of his church and its large television audience, Osteen has written seven books, all of them New York Times Best Sellers. According to the Christian web site, beliefnet.com, he is the fourth richest pastor in the U.S., his net worth measured at $40 million. He says he's very familiar with Matthew, Chapter 19, Verse 24, where Jesus was telling his disciples, "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God."
"Without getting too theological, the scripture says the love of money is the root of all evil," he said. "But money is also a tool to help the poor and the needy. In America I like to think that all of us our rich. I've been to India where they don't have running water. The important thing is are you using your money to be a blessing for others. Abraham was one of the richest men in the Bible, and David left his wealth to help build the Temple. God blessed them, and they used what they had to bless others."