Katrina and I were planning a visit to Houston in connection with a family reunion when I realized that the world’s most successful televangelist at the moment, Joel Osteen, operated out of a church there. It is one of the largest mega-churches in the country—20,000 people attend each of two worship services weekly. His services are carried on several networks.
In the book “Brands of Faith: Marketing Religion in a Commercial Age,” the author states, “The previous generation of televangelists—Jerry Falwell, Jimmy Swaggart, and Pat Robertson … used ‘fear’ to market salvation. … Joel Osteen’s message is very different from previous generations. There is no hell. There is no fear. There is positive thinking, and there is promise of being successful in life, including, maybe especially, financial success.”
Being interested in marketing and religion and also being a motivational speaker, I had to see for myself what attracted 40,000 people to attend his church—as well as countless millions to watch him on TV—each Sunday.
The service—or more appropriately, the show—started with a 12-piece band and a group of singers performing uplifting music and songs of a more or less religious bent with the lyrics on the giant screens in front on both sides of the stage so the congregation could sing along.
After about 15 minutes of rousing music, Osteen’s wife, Victoria—articulate and attractive—spoke for about 15 minutes. She did a credible job talking about the importance of healing broken relationships.
This was followed by more music and singing. All the while, Joel and Victoria were singing and worshipping in the front row, about 3 feet from where our family was seated. At times, she would raise her right hand in praise, seemingly moved by the spirit. He, too, was participative, enthused and joyful.
Joel then spoke for about 20 minutes. As a professional speaker myself, I could appreciate his pacing and understated gestures. While displaying his trademark smile, he is an effective speaker with an upbeat positive message: God wants you to have whatever you truly desire and, with His help, you have the power within yourself to achieve your goals! And so on.
Another positive tactic used by the current popular televangelists is to omit “requests for contributions” from the service. There were none. This is where marketing comes in. Older televangelists characteristically spent the end of every broadcast and service in an emotional plea for money. But Joel wants you to have more money! The new televangelists sell their products through their Internet store. In Osteen’s television programs, the website “JoelOsteen.com” is continuously displayed at the top of the screen.
As the above-mentioned book stated, “More than a sermon, [the] Joel Osteen [show] is an infomercial. The product is Joel.” There was no request for money, but the entire service—event might be a better word—was selling Joel and his latest book. Those of us in attendance were also told the location of the various bookstores in the building, where we could buy Joel’s books and other items designed to help put his advice into practice. After the service, there were long lines of people waiting—including two of my sisters.
The fact that all this adds to the church’s coffers does not diminish the good it can do for people who heed his advice. Both his sermons and books promote a philosophy of abundance and not hell fire and damnation. People feel good and motivated when they hear or read him and that is the beginning of change and accomplishment.
My guess is that 90 percent of the 40,000 people who attended these two services would probably not be in any church or synagogue if they were not there. Our little family group felt as though we were part of a real happening and felt warmed by the experience.
As you plan your trips, check to see who or what might be happening in your destination city. It might be something apart from the customary sightseeing opportunities—much like this experience in Houston. It might just become the highlight of the trip, as this was. In traveling, it’s really the experience that counts.•
Basile is an author, professional speaker, philanthropist, community volunteer and retired executive of the Gene B. Glick Co. His column appears whenever there’s a fifth Monday in the month. Basile can be reached at [email protected]