A sellout crowd craving a hopeful, positive God that “wants to supersize” joy turned a Nationals Park sunset into an unusual Sunday church service led by Joel Osteen, pastor of the country’s largest church.
The “Night of Hope” service led by the Texas celeb-evangelist was a blend of worship, musical performance and the beaming encouragement that has made Osteen one of the most-watched American spiritual figures today. The Sunday show was rescheduled from the night before because of rain, but the ballpark was largely filled. It was the biggest faith event since Pope Benedict XVI’s 2008 visit.
Tens of thousands who paid $15 per person for a ticket were largely quiet, as if they were listening to a fireside storyteller, when Osteen and his wife, Victoria, offered multiple personal tales and prayers during the three-hour event. But they treated him like a rock star when he entered, screaming and snapping photos.
“You know when restaurants ask you whether you’d like to supersize it? That’s what God’s like. He wants to supersize it. He wants to supersize your joy,” Osteen told the roaring crowd.
Critics — typically of the more orthodox type — say Osteen belongs more in the category of self-help than Christian faith, but experts on religion say the college dropout has tapped into his followers’ need for a God who loves unconditionally and who cares little about whether you know doctrine.
Osteen stood on a stage at second base; to his right was a 150-person choir made up of local singers and those from Osteen’s home church in Houston; to his left were about 150 pastors from around the country who work with Osteen, including some from D.C. area nondenominational evangelical churches. Among them were pastor Michael Collins of Extraordinary Life Church in Glen Burnie, pastor Dennis Pisani of Capitol City Church of D.C. and pastor Mark Batterson of National Community Church on Capitol Hill.
“Everyone in our house loves him despite differences of perspective,” said Wayna Wondwossen, a musician from Bowie who came with her 2-year-old daughter, her mother and husband. Wondwossen was raised Ethiopian Orthodox and her husband a Catholic, but the family attends a “metaphysical Christian church,” she said.
“He talks about the fruit of spirituality. Whatever you’re hoping to gain from your faith, he inspires you about what’s at the finish line,” she said.
The lure of Osteen’s message stretches beyond organized religion, and his staff says at least half of the people who watch him on television do not regularly attend church. Osteen drew a big laugh retelling the story of how his late father, who founded Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, was torn about moving away from his Baptist denomination but felt it providential when the word “Baptist” blew off the sign a few decades ago.