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'The Smiling Preacher' Builds on Large Following

"What people want is an unchurch," Paul Osteen said. "They don't want pressure. Joel makes faith practical and relevant."

Joel Osteen has been likened to Billy Graham in terms of appeal, if not message. At any given service, his church is filled with people of diverse races and economic backgrounds. His book, "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," has sold 1.5 million copies. (Because of the royalties, Osteen will not take his $200,000 church salary this year, he said.)

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

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During his few forays outside of Houston last year, he filled New York's Madison Square Garden twice, and had to turn 4,000 people away in Atlanta. This year, he will visit 15 cities. An appearance in Dallas next month is sold out. (The $10 tickets cover costs and are not a moneymaker, Osteen said.) Tapes of his sermons are for sale.

"For a long time, churches beat people down," he said during an interview in his home office. "People are looking for inspiration and encouragement. So many negative voices are pulling us down during the week. People respond when you tell them there is a great future in front of you, you can leave your past behind."

His goal, he said, he is to "get beyond the church walls . . . I want to reach the guys in the high-rise, the people in the neighborhoods . . . the people who are not quite comfortable with their faith."

The pitch for money is quick and low-key, usually made by Victoria Osteen in a less than two-minute appeal before the buckets are passed. Osteen does not solicit offerings on television. "We're not on television to beg people for money," he said. "Television is an outreach."

He is unapologetic that he lives well in a $1 million house in an upscale neighborhood and that he is pouring the church's offerings into the Compaq Center these days, not into charities.

"I feel like God wants us to prosper," he said. "My dad grew up in the Depression. . . . It is not God's will for anybody to live where you can't support your family. . . . [Houston Astros pitcher] Roger Clemens just signed for $18 million -- man, don't tell me I can't have a nice house and send my kids to college."

Osteen said if the church "had that vow-of-poverty mentality, I don't know if we could raise $80 million" for the Compaq Center.

Osteen acknowledged that the church has cut back on its charitable giving because of the Compaq project. He said that this is the "season" for establishing the church and building his base.

The services are surprisingly intimate considering the size of the congregation. People who need a special prayer are invited up front to counsel with a "prayer partner" -- which could be a member of the Osteen family or a volunteer trained for the job. Behind them stand more volunteers holding boxes of Kleenex.

At last week's service, one man asked Osteen to bless his marriage, another came up with his children, who wept as the father told of losing his job. Others talked of illness and death. Later, Osteen stood in the lobby and greeted congregates who wanted to shake his hand or get an autograph -- or just a hug. At least half a dozen people said they saw him on television and he changed their lives.

Laurie Beppler, whose first visit to the church was last weekend, said she watches Osteen on television regularly because "he tells us that with God, we can be empowered. He doesn't get bogged down."

Jodee Schallehn said she was up late, unable to sleep on the eve of her wedding last year, when she caught Osteen preaching while channel surfing. "I had been married before, and he was talking about not letting the past [impede] the future," she said. "I believe God gave me a sign . . . I was very inspired."

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