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Robert Seale for USA WEEKEND
Praying with a parishioner / Robert Seale for USA WEEKEND

The five largest protestant U.S. churches

1. Lakewood Church, Houston, Pastor Joel Osteen (43,500 attendance)

2. North Point Community Church, Alpharetta, Ga., Pastor Andy Stanley (24,325)

3. Second Baptist Church, Houston, Pastor Ed Young Sr. (24,041)

4. Willow Creek Community Church, South Barrington, Ill., Pastor Bill Hybels (24,000)

5. Southeast Christian Church, Louisville, Pastor Dave Stone (19,230)

Source: Outreach Magazine

Cathy Lynn Grossman writes on religion for USA TODAY and blogs at Faith & Reason: A conversation about religion, spirituality & ethics

With his wife, Victoria / Robert Seale for USA WEEKEND
Every weekend, more than 43,500 people cycle through four services at Osteen's Lakewood Church in Houston. / Robert Seale for USA WEEKEND
Joel Osteen on the April 22-24 cover

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Every pastor smiles on Easter, the joyful holy day at the core of Christian belief. But quite possibly no one smiles more, ear to ear, day after day, than Pastor Joel Osteen.

He is the blue-eyed beaming Texas preacher known worldwide for exuberant declarations of health, prosperity, wisdom, confidence and courage.

Small wonder that Osteen, 48, has built up the nation's largest congregation by far, thronged by people in Houston and global visitors who come to hear about hope and God's love — not his wrath. Let others carry spears in the culture wars and veer into politics: Osteen is the Lord's Pollyanna, looking on the bright side of all trouble and travail.

Lakewood Church is a megachurch so mega that it meets in a former basketball arena in downtown Houston. Every weekend, 43,500 people cycle through four services at the rebuilt Compaq Center.

His television ministry reaches nearly 100 nations. And every month he takes Joel Osteen Ministries on tour with Night of Hope events, packing sports arenas.

On a February evening in Corpus Christi, Osteen — 5-foot-9, whippet-thin, his dark brown curls bobbing, his suit so immaculate that CNN's Piers Morgan dubbed him “dazzling” — was embraced like a religion rock star. More than 8,500 believers there said amen to Osteen's message featuring biblical heroes who triumph against all odds.

Osteen, who says “my gift is encouragement,” cheers them on with such lines as “You may be beaten down in the natural (world), but take heart because you serve a supernatural God.”

His best-selling books Your Best Life Now, Become a Better You and It's Your Time are fonts of similar upbeat advice.

“Some people pay thousands of dollars for life coaches. I come to church. He's my coach,” says Claudette Ayers of Houston.

Osteen's most-repeated line is that God intends “his best” for his people. That, to him, “means what the Bible says — you are living the way the Bible says is the way to happiness.”

He has been tagged by some as a “Prosperity Gospel” preacher, one of those who say God intends for believers to have extravagant wealth.

But Osteen, who drives a 9-year-old, hand-me-down Lexus and owns no jets, rebuffs the label. He defines “prosperity' to mean “a healthy, peaceful life with good relationships and enough resources to be able to be a blessing to others. Talking about prosperity is not talking about money all the time. I never said God wants everyone to be rich.”

His answer to any question of net worth is that it's irrelevant. “We don't have to apologize for God's blessings. If God did it for us, he can do it for you.”

He also rebuffs criticism that he rarely says the word “sin.” “I do talk about sin. I just do it in a different way. Most people know we are all sinners. It's the goodness of God that leads people to repentance.

“I tell people, ‘You are created a masterpiece.' If you are missing the mark, that's what sin is. You are missing the best of what God offers you.”

Take gay people. Morgan called it news when Osteen told the talk show host that homosexuality is a sin and not “God's best for a person's life.” But Osteen calls this nothing new. Besides, he says, he's not the judge, God is.

His emphasis on people's spiritual experience, his humility and his reputation for personal integrity are all part of his great appeal, says William Martin, senior fellow for Religion and Public Policy and professor emeritus at Rice University. Author of a leading biography of evangelist Billy Graham, Martin sees similarities between them: “They both have an embracing spirit.” And neither calls himself a theologian.

Osteen quit college to come back to Houston, launch his father's broadcast ministry and run it for 17 years. Not until John Osteen died in 1999 did Joel feel a call to the pulpit. He differs from his father, an overtly emotional, faith-healing, speaking-in-tongues Pentecostal. Joel believes in these biblical “gifts of the spirit” as well, but he says they can be experienced in private. In his services and broadcasts, he says, he wants “nothing that might confuse people or cause them to turn away.”

With him at the helm, worship at Lakewood is tightly choreographed and totally accessible. There's a half-hour of rousing song. Then Osteen bounds up with a prayer and an invitation to all to “let all the bad, disappointing moments go and be open to a new week of blessings.”

Then there's a cascade of cheerful slogans: “We are victors, not victims.” “Magnify God, not your problems.”

Newlyweds Michelle and Jessie Sims of Crosby, Texas, have taken the Osteen empowerment message to heart and to wallet. A teacher and an entrepreneur, they give more than 10% of their income to the church.

Osteen's declarations are taped in front of Jessie's computer, where they can recite them daily.

“When you leave most churches, you feel badly about yourself. Here, you feel God believes in you and you are not out there alone,” says Jessie, 26.

In Osteen's sermons, bad times can be reimagined as opportunities. Someone left you? Lost your job? Thank God! You didn't need that person. A better job awaits. “God wants to double your blessings as he did for Job,” he says.

This all makes his critics livid. The Rev. Albert Mohler, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary president and powerhouse traditionalist, whacks him for “platitudes with attitudes.” The Rev. Mark Driscoll, who packs a Seattle megachurch for doctrine-laden sermons, says Osteen reduces the pursuit of God to “lollipops and skipping while singing hymns.”

Mohler? Driscoll? “I don't know who those people are,” Osteen says, looking genuinely mystified. He most certainly believes and teaches Jesus is the way. Beyond that, Osteen says, he's at peace with the gifts God gave him: “I just say to God, ‘I'm going to be who you made me to be.' ” And he smiles.

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