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'The Smiling Preacher' Builds on Large Following

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2005; Page A01

HOUSTON -- The pastor once startled his own mother by exhorting the women in his congregation to shop at Victoria's Secret to improve their marriages. Last weekend, his glamorous musical director led four services in a hot pink coat and black spiky boots, stomping around the stage and singing the praises of Jesus in rousing, original rock sounds.

No one needed to know the words. The lyrics scrolled high above, across three gigantic screens, as a dynamic 10-piece orchestra and 100-person choir shook the church. The captivated flock of 8,000 stood singing for 30 minutes.

Joel Osteen is pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston. (Pat Sullivan -- AP)

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And then, not unlike in a Las Vegas production, the stars of this show bounded up to the pulpit of Lakewood Church. Pastor Joel Osteen and his wife, Victoria, were greeted like royalty.

Osteen is called "the Smiling Preacher," and he is perhaps the hottest commodity in the world of multimedia religion these days. His is the new face of Christianity, upbeat and contemporary, media-smart with a heightened sense of entertainment and general appeal.

The charismatic, nondenominational church he inherited from his late father six years ago has quadrupled in size, and today is the largest and fastest-growing in the country, welcoming upward of 30,000 visitors a week, according to Church Growth Today, a research center that follows church trends. Osteen's television broadcast is shown in every U.S. market, reaching 95 percent of the nation's households, and in 150 countries.

This summer, he will move his church into Houston's 16,000-seat Compaq Center, former home of pro basketball's Houston Rockets. The $92 million renovation is, Osteen says, "a leap of faith" that if he builds it, they will come.

All this from a man who dropped out of Oral Roberts University after one year and never received formal theological training -- although he does note that religion is the family business and he benefited greatly from on-the-job training. (He was ordained through his father's church in 1983.)

Osteen, 41, does not sweat or yell, or cry for sinners to repent. He preaches an energetic, New Age gospel of hope and self-help -- simple Scripture-based motivational messages, notably devoid of politics and hot-button policy issues.

"You'll never be what you ought to be if you play it safe," he told his audience last weekend. "I want to challenge you today to get out of your comfort zone."

He was impeccably dressed in a navy pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt and gleaming black dress shoes. He aims to present himself as neutral as possible, he says, in order not to offend or generate controversy. If he thinks he looks too emotional as he edits a tape of his service for television broadcast, he cuts the segment out. "I don't want to give anyone a reason to flip it off," he said.

The crowds he attracts in Houston come away inspired. "He pushes us to a level God wants us to be at," said Juli Hain, who attends regularly. "He kicks us in the rear to take steps that will take us to a higher [personal] level."

Osteen's approach to religion and his goals are not totally new. For at least a decade, shrewd preachers have been attracting tens of thousands of people to nondenominational "mega-churches," where the faithful are unknown to their pastor, as are the people in the next pew. They come to listen to messages of self-empowerment -- not just salvation.

"Joel is doing it better than most," said William Martin, a sociology professor and religion expert at Rice University. "He is purposely seeking to lower the barriers that keep people from going to church. They don't know the hymns; they don't have to learn the creed. It's all there for them."

Detractors criticize the style as "Christian-lite" -- all show and platitudes and no theological depth. Osteen's older brother Paul, a surgeon who left his practice to help the church, differs. "There is a disconnect between religion and what people need," he said, calling some sermons in traditional churches impenetrable, "almost goofy."

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