Joel Osteen on Coronavirus, Kanye West and Keeping the Faith
By Allison Kugel
In these uncertain times, we can all do our part to raise the vibration of this planet and initiate collective healing on a mass scale, and that goes beyond our first responders in the medical and safety fields to whom we owe a debt of gratitude that can never be repaid. Something as simple as a smile, a wave or asking someone how their day is going has healing ripple effects that are much needed. We all matter, and we must all do our part.
One man, Pastor Joel Osteen, of Lakewood Church in Houston Texas, has been doing his part, and then some since taking over his late father, John Osteen’s, Lakewood congregation in 1999 as head pastor. Osteen’s eternal optimism, interpretation of bible scripture and his practice of radical acceptance, has skyrocketed his church and his message into the stratosphere. Osteen’s parishioners who attend his church and follow him on television, through his podcasts, many New York Times bestselling books, tours and radio broadcasts have responded in massive numbers to Osteen’s message of “come as you are.” During our conversation, we discuss his deep-rooted belief that human beings do not have to be perfect to embrace Christianity, or any faith for that matter. You simply must have the desire in your heart to be better today than you were yesterday; an all-inclusive qualification, that Osteen insists, allows us all to measure up in the eyes of God.
It’s not a surprise that millions around the globe draw inspiration and spiritual education from Joel Osteen, both, civilians and public figures, alike. The contagion of the COVID-19 pandemic we currently face is daunting, but the contagion of hope and faith is a powerful force that can indeed help to heal our planet, boost our immune systems and encourage us to reflect on how we can be better; how we can each be a miracle to the world around us.
Pastor Joel Osteen’s recent online streaming Palm Sunday service saw five million viewers tuning in to pray. The power of five million people in unified prayer is a powerful force, indeed. This Sunday’s live streaming Easter service anticipates even larger numbers, with numerous special guests sharing messages of love and inspiration for all who attend the service at JoelOsteen.com. Both Joel and I hope to see you there.
Over the years, when I have been interviewed about my work, people have asked me, “What are some of your go-to apps on your phone?” Perhaps expecting my answer to reflect our society’s obsession with social media, they’re often surprised when I say, “I listen to Joel Osteen’s messages every morning through his mobile app. It’s how I start my day.”
Allison Kugel: I’ve been listening to you and applying your advice in my life for many moons. What’s curious to me about that, is that I was born and raised in the Jewish faith. I’m wondering how many people of different faiths find comfort and inspiration in your words. Have you heard that before?
Joel Osteen: I’ve heard it a lot, Allison. Jewish people stop me every day. Somehow, I have that connection with the Jewish people, and interestingly, with some Muslims as well. I’ve sold many, many books in Muslim countries. I feel blessed to be able to connect with people from different faiths, and I even have people come to the church sometimes that are not from the Christian faith. My goal was to reach a broad group, and I feel honored that people listen to me from different faiths.
Allison Kugel: How has your ministry changed in the wake of this COVID-19 pandemic in terms of how you’re interacting with your congregation, and with the world at large? Are you approaching your messages differently?
Joel Osteen: You know, I wouldn’t say that I am. I guess I am approaching it differently in one sense. I’m speaking more to the subject at hand, and talking about choosing faith and not fear, and things like that. Other than that, it’s just a shift away from the people being here [in Houston’s Compaq Center] and being able to pray with people in person. Fortunately, we had our online platform, and this network of television stations already lined up. Other than not seeing everyone in person, it hasn’t changed that much.
Allison Kugel: Apart from 9/11, which was of course devastating, the last several decades we’ve just kind of had good times. We didn’t live through things like the Spanish Flu, The Great Depression, World War I or World War II, like previous generations did. Now we are faced with the enormity of this pandemic. Do you think the word “faith” has taken on new meaning now?
Joel Osteen: I think it has. I think our faith is tested and tried in the difficult times, and you make a good point in that we haven’t lived like previous generations did. We haven’t had to endure that. This is such a time of uncertainty, but I do believe this is when we turn to our faith. This is when you can feel that peace and that hope to get through it. That is what I feel faith is all about. It’s not just for the good times. Even though we hadn’t previously experienced those kinds of things in our generation, we all experience difficulties in relationships, finances, the loss of loved ones and with health issues. I think our faith can be seen there.
Allison Kugel: Faith comes into play any time we have to believe, in the absence of concrete physical evidence…
Joel Osteen: I think we can see we are not really in control as much as we think we are. I think for me, I’ve encouraged people that it’s a great time to re-evaluate your life, and your priorities; and to ask, “Do I have things in order? Am I taking people for granted? Am I loving the people God’s given me to love?” These things can cause us to ask those important questions. That’s how good can come out of it. We can reevaluate and maybe make some adjustments.
Allison Kugel: Any personal “aha” moments over the last few weeks you’d like to share?
Joel Osteen: I don’t think I’ve had an “aha” moment, per se, but I do think I’m like a lot of people. We can go 90 miles an hour, because life is so busy and we’re always in a hurry. It’s a fast pace and this has kind of made us slow down. It’s made us not be able to travel and it’s made us spend some time. I do think that’s hit me, to think, “Wow, it’s good to slow down sometimes and enjoy life, just let stuff go by, and not take people for granted.” I hate that people are dying and that people are sick, but in one sense I’ve learned to just embrace where I am. We can’t have services on the weekend, we can’t do all that we used to do, but you know what, I’m just going to slow down, take it at this pace, and not fight it; not live upset, and not live fearful.
Allison Kugel: What’s your take on destiny versus free will as it applies to us humans?
Joel Osteen: I do think that God’s planned out things for each one of us. Like you said, he gives us a free will. We can make choices that can keep us from becoming who we were created to be, but I believe that when you’re honoring God, when you’re being your best, I believe that God will get you to where you’re supposed to be. So, a sickness, or a virus, or another person can’t stop your destiny. I believe that. I know that sometimes it’s hard to reconcile that God gives us free will, and he knew all that we were going to do wrong, but I think he gives us the free will, and I believe when you’re doing your best, God will get you to where you’re supposed to be.
Allison Kugel: People often comment about the enormity of your church. My feeling is that it took courage for you to preach a message that it doesn’t matter what you did yesterday, you’re welcome here today. It doesn’t matter what mistakes you’ve made, if you want to do better and be better, you can. It certainly goes against traditional concepts of sin and guilt.
Joel Osteen: I do believe everything you said, Allison. It probably does go against the old school, or the generations that had hellfire and brimstone, where you go to church to feel guilty. People are already feeling guilty enough. I do believe that is what the scripture teaches, that, you know what, you move forward, and your past doesn’t have to stop you. You go through the scripture and you see it again and again, with different examples. When Jesus was here, he lifted the fallen, he restored those who were broken, and so I do believe that. Of course, I believe in sin and repentance from sin, but we’ve all made mistakes. Life beats us up, and I feel like my message is to tell people to get back up and go again, because God gives us another chance and He can still get you to where you’re supposed to be.
Allison Kugel: Have you been revisiting scripture to connect to all that is going on in the year 2020, and this seismic shift in our world?
Joel Osteen: I’m always searching the scripture and I’m always studying. I don’t know if it’s specifically that, but I agree with what you are saying that some scripture becomes more real right now. I talked the other day, and I think it was from the Book of Matthew, where it says in the last days, there will be pandemics. And I think, “Well, you know, we’re stepping into these times.” But Jesus said, “Even then, don’t lose faith. Keep your faith and don’t live in fear.”
Allison Kugel: Do you feel pressure to be perfect? If you are the person that millions of people look to for guidance, what or whom do you look to when you are troubled?
Joel Osteen: You know, I feel like I have a good family around me that I can turn to. I start the day off with prayer and meditation. That helps me to stay grounded. I feel a responsibility, but I don’t really feel that pressure. Again, I have good people around me, and I try to live in a place of peace and strength, and not take on more than I have to. I think God gives you the grace for certain things.
Allison Kugel: In what ways is your wife Victoria the backbone of your family?
Joel Osteen: Victoria is a strong woman. She is wise, she’s determined, and she is very loving, fun, joyful, and she does keep our family filled with hope and joy. I feel blessed to have somebody that has seen things in me that I never saw in myself. She’s got that ability to pull them out of people, not just me, but in others as well. I know I wouldn’t be who I am if she wasn’t in my life.
Allison Kugel: I was going to ask if you think you would be where you are now if Victoria wasn’t in your life…
Joel Osteen: No. I tell people all the time I wouldn’t be half of who I am. She saw, before my dad passed and I stepped up to pastor, she used to tell me I was going to pastor the church. That was like telling me I was going to go be an astronaut. I said, “Victoria, I would never be a pastor. I don’t know what to say.” She saw this in me before I saw it myself, so I think having her believe in me early on, way before my dad died, that really helped me to step up.
Allison Kugel: I ask everyone this question, and I think it’s really fitting considering who you are. What do you think you came into this life as Joel Osteen to learn? And what do you think you came here to teach?
Joel Osteen: Hmm, what did I come here to learn? Maybe I came here to learn about the goodness of God; how good God is. I feel like that is what I’ve seen in my life, and that’s why it’s easy for me to tell people that God is for you and that he can restore you, and he’s got a great plan. I’ve just seen that my whole life. I had a great mom and dad. My mom’s still alive, but a lot of people get the image of God from their earthly father. My dad was just for everybody, and for me. I feel that maybe I came here to see the goodness of God. I think I came here to teach people about the goodness of God, and to make God good again. We touched on the fact that a lot of people were raised to believe that God is mad at them, and they were taught guilt and that you can’t measure up. But I just have a different view of God, so maybe it’s to spread a different message.
Allison Kugel: And what do you think is your spiritual mission, overall?
Joel Osteen: To bring good into the world, to lift people up, to give them hope, to help them forgive, and to help them feel better about themselves. My mission is to help them to know who God is, and to know who they are. A lot of people, we don’t know who we are. We think we’re just average. I believe we are all made in the image of God, and that we have greatness in us. So, it’s to lift people up and help push them into their destiny.
Allison Kugel: I watched one of your services where you invited Kanye West to come up on stage to share his testimony. He said something interesting. He said that for a while he was caught up in being of service to fame, rather than being of service to God. Have you ever felt yourself getting pulled in that direction, where you felt like you were being of service to the fame you have achieved?
Joel Osteen: I don’t know that I felt that so much. One of my strengths is that I get up every morning and I search my heart and my mind, and I ask myself if I’m on the right path. Am I making good decisions? I think there’s opportunities that come along with what I do, where I think, “You know what? That would feel good for my ego, but that’s not for me.” But I don’t feel much different than I did twenty years ago when I was working for my father, behind the scenes. I have more influence now, but I don’t really see myself as a celebrity, or as somebody with fame. I don’t feel like I have that temptation too much.
Allison Kugel: How did your relationship with Kanye West start?
Joel Osteen: It started with a text from a friend of mine saying, “Kanye West wants to talk with you.” I then got a text one day from [Kanye] that said, “Can we talk?” I called and we talked for an hour or two that first day. It started from his journey of faith, this new twist that he’s taken. During that first conversation he told me his background and what he was all about. My next question to him was, “What do you need from us?” He said, “I don’t need anything. I was just looking for friendship.” And so, it started off as friendship, and I was very impressed with him. He didn’t call to come to the church, and he didn’t really need anything from me. I found him to be very genuine and very respectful over the last six or eight months. He’s just a very genuine, respectful, kind, quite person. Not the Kanye that you see out there.
Allison Kugel: Let’s talk about your live streaming Easter Sunday service. You’re having some interesting guests, including Mariah Carey and Tyler Perry; as well as the Houston Chief of Police and the Houston Fire Department Chief. How was it all put together?
Joel Osteen: We wanted to do a segment where we honored the first responders and the medical professionals, and we asked the police chief and the fire chief to come out. They’re always supportive friends, and so we asked if they would come out to represent the first responders, nationwide. I also called Tyler Perry because he’s spoken here at Lakewood Church before, and people love him. I just kind of wanted something special this Easter season, during these times that are so uncertain. So, he made us a five-minute video. He’s very warm and inspiring. And then Kanye West texted me just a few days ago and said, “What are you all doing for Easter?” I asked him if he wanted to do something together, and he said, “Yes, I would like to get my choir involved.” I said absolutely, let’s do it. So, he’s working on that end. I don’t know what it’s all going to be, but he’s going to do something with social distancing and all the right things.
Allison Kugel: And Mariah Carey?
Joel Osteen: I’ve known Mariah from years past and she wanted to do something to honor the First Responders. She called and asked if we could do something together, and of course I thought it would be great. She wants to sing her song, Hero, which she’ll do from her apartment in New York. We’ll put footage of the First Responders over her song. She has a real heart to say thank you to people, and so we thought it would work with our other segments. She’s an amazing lady, too, so it just kind of fell into place.
Allison Kugel: What is Lakewood Church doing in terms of donations of medical supplies, food, or whatever kind of support you’re working on for your local hospitals and other service providers in the Houston area?
Joel Osteen: We’re doing something called Boxes of Hope. These are for the elderly, and for people that have special needs children. These are boxes filled with groceries, water, soaps, and things that they need if they can’t get to the grocery store. My brother Paul is a medical doctor and he’s working with some of his contacts, and we’re donating masks and medical supplies down to the large medical center we have here in Houston. Another thing we are doing is taking food trucks down to the medical center for the first responders, nurses and doctors, so they can step outside and have some free food. We also did a blood drive last week at the Gulf Coast Blood Center. We’re always their biggest blood drive in North America. We’ll have another couple of thousand people that will come through and give blood. People here at Lakewood [Church], they love to help, they love to give, and they love to share.
Allison Kugel: In times like this I know that you preach positivity, which is so important, but in these times do you think it’s okay for people to have moments of anxiety, depression, or even moments where they feel a lack of faith?
Joel Osteen: Yes, I definitely do, Allison, because we are human. Jesus, even in scriptures, one time he was so depressed he sweat great drops of blood. I think that’s normal, and I don’t think we need to beat ourselves up for that. But I would encourage people to not stay there. Don’t live there. Don’t live out of the anxiety and fear and lack of faith. But I wouldn’t beat myself up for that, or for even people saying I’ve doubted, and I’ve gotten away from God. Well, come back. You don’t have to stay there.
Allison Kugel: Do you think at some point we’ll all transcend religion and religious denominations, and simply gain knowledge from, as Deepak Chopra would say, “all of the great wisdom traditions,” and from all the great prophets that have walked the earth? Perhaps, at some point, as a human race, do you think we’ll feel that all roads lead to Rome, so to speak?
Joel Osteen: I really don’t know. I go back to how I grew up fifty years ago, when the denominational walls were so strong. My dad was basically asked to leave the Baptists because he didn’t believe exactly like them. I see how far we’ve come, that it’s not like that today, so I do think these walls are coming down. I think the things that have separated us are getting less and less, and I don’t know where it will end up, but I do think that just like when we talked earlier, so many people from different faiths watch us and listen to us. I do think it’s a good thing that we don’t have all these things separating us.
Allison Kugel: How can people tune in to your Easter service this Sunday?
Joel: They would have to watch our live stream at JoelOsteen.com, this Sunday morning at 8:30 AM central time, and then at 11:00 AM central time. It will then replay on Facebook and YouTube, and all those platforms.