Reluctant pastor’s son to most-viewed preacher: Shooting puts new spotlight on Joel Osteen

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - APRIL 02: Joel and Victoria Osteen visit SiriusXM Studios on April 02, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Santiago Felipe/Getty Images) (Santiago Felipe, 2019 Santiago Felipe)

Joel Osteen is one of the most familiar faces in American religion.

The pastor who leads the Houston megachurch where a 5-year-old boy was critically wounded in a Sunday shooting that also hit a man in the hip — before the shooter was killed by off-duty police working security — is known for his megawatt smile, wavy hair and widely popular brand of Christianity.

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The 60-year-old regularly preaches to about 45,000 people a week in a former basketball arena and he's known to millions more through his television sermons.

Osteen inherited his calling from his father and increased the size of the congregation almost five-fold. His book, “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living Your Full Potential” sold nearly 3 million copies. In the mid-2000s, Osteen was viewed by more people than any preacher in the United States, reaching 95 percent of all households, according to Nielsen Media Research.

His services over the years have drawn an almost equal mix of whites, Blacks and Hispanics — a diversity not seen in most churches across the nation.

Nicknamed the “smiling preacher,” Osteen told The Associated Press in 2004 that his message of hope and encouragement “resonates with people.”

But his laid-back preaching style has also drawn criticism for focusing on feel-good messaging over fiery sermons.

Osteen follows a thread of evangelical Christianity called the Prosperity Gospel, which believes that following God brings rewards to followers who devote themselves to him, said Mark Ward Sr., a professor of communication at the University of Houston-Victoria who writes about evangelical mass media.

“Essentially, God wants to bless you. And if you have enough faith, he will,” Ward told The Associated Press on Monday. “You can prosper. And you can live your best life now. And that is a very appealing message to both white and Black evangelical audiences.”

Authorities said the critically injured boy is the son of shooter Genesse Ivonne Moreno, 36, who authorities said had a history of mental illness, including being placed under emergency detention in 2016.

The weekend shooting at Joel Osteen’s megachurch in Houston is not the first time gunfire has caused panic and tragedy at a Texas house of worship.

Osteen told his 10 million followers on X, the social media platform, that his church community was “devastated.”

“In the face of such darkness, we must hold onto our faith and remember evil will not prevail,” Osteen stated. “God will guide us through the darkest of times. Together, we will rise above this tragedy and stand firm in our commitment to love and support one another.”

Decades before Sunday's shooting, Osteen said he never dreamed he would be a preacher and never imagined leading a flock so large.

Osteen had never preached — and never had the desire, he has said — until the Sunday before his father died in 1999. John Osteen had founded the charismatic Christian Lakewood Church in an abandoned feed store in 1959.

Osteen told The Associated Press in 2004 that as his father’s church grew he preferred to be behind the scenes. He had left his studies at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., in 1982 and joined his father’s staff as a television producer.

When the elder Osteen was hospitalized, the preacher's son reluctantly stepped to the pulpit. His dad listened to the sermon by telephone from his hospital bed.

“The nurses said they’d never seen him so happy, so proud,” Osteen recalled in 2004. John Osteen died five days later, and his son “just knew it down on the inside” that God wanted him to preach.

Critics have taken Osteen to task for downplaying the sinful nature of humanity and the need for repentance. But Osteen's mother, Dodie Osteen, told the AP in 2005: “We don’t preach the gospel sad, we preach it glad.”

“To me, it’s cotton-candy theology,” Ole Anthony, president of Trinity, a Dallas-based religious watchdog group told the AP in 2004. “There’s no meat. They just make everybody feel good.”

Osteen is “quite sincere,” said William Martin, a professor of religion and public policy at Rice University who lives near the Houston church.

He said Osteen often opens his sermons with a joke and doesn’t shout at his congregants.

“He’s upbeat. Doesn’t claim to be theologically or philosophically deep,” Martin said.

Osteen's father expanded Lakewood's already huge congregation at the perfect time: The American media landscape was rapidly changing with the rise of the internet and the deregulation of broadcast media, said Ward, the University of Houston-Victoria professor.

Television preachers receiving a large number of donations from their congregations could buy airtime on large cable networks such as the Trinity Broadcasting Network instead of making a hodgepodge of deals with “mom-and-pop” TV stations.

“In order to be able to raise that kind of money, you have to have a message that is broadly appealing,” Ward said. “And so we have televangelists like Joel Osteen or T.D. Jakes, who have a broadly popular message.”

Osteen is not overtly political and megachurches like his provide a different experience than many others, Ward said.

“You get a feeling of transcendence that’s not through vestments and creeds and organ playing but essentially multimedia,” Ward said. “The lights go down. You’ve got large screens with videos. You’ve got a praise band that’s playing at rock-concert decibels.”

Ward added: “People who are watching are getting a sense of the transcendent through the televised spectacle.”

Osteen's leads his flock in the former home of the Houston Rockets, where they won two NBA titles in the 1990s and the Houston Comets of the WNBA when they won four.

It was also the site of Osteen's first date with his future bride, Victoria, when they went out to watch a Houston Rockets basketball game.

Turning the former arena into a church took 15 months and about $75 million to complete. When it opened in 2005, it featured two waterfalls, three gargantuan television screens and a lighting system that rivals those found at rock concerts.

Two choir lofts with 12 rows of rich purple pews sat between the waterfalls, accented by live foliage.

Absent, however, was a cross, an image of God or Jesus Christ or any other traditional religious symbols. Osteen told the AP in 2005 that his father never displayed such symbols and he simply continued the tradition. Osteen speaks in front of a large golden-colored globe that rotates slowly.

Along with classrooms, the addition includes a chapel, a baptismal area, meeting space for young adults and an entire floor dedicated to the church’s television broadcast efforts.

Osteen told the AP in 2004 that he was providing something that people wanted.

“It’s sort of like to me it’s a good restaurant — if you’ve got good food, people will come,” he said. “So we know we’ve got to make our services good. They’ve got to uplift people. They’ve got to walk away saying, ‘You know what, I feel better today.”’