In the late 1980s, I was asked to direct a series of prime-time TV specials from Lakewood Church featuring pastor John Osteen. The producer who invited me was his son Joel, who at the time was producing his dad’s TV program and leading the media ministry for the church. In 1982, Joel left Oral Roberts University at the end of his sophomore year to help his father launch the growing TV ministry nationally. For the next 17 years, Joel produced his father’s program, growing it into one of the world’s most successful media ministries.
During that time, Joel and I became close friends as well as colleagues. I was invited back many times, and after Joel took the helm as senior pastor at Lakewood, we created a new TV outreach, which would become the most watched inspirational program in history. To date, his TV broadcasts reach 10 million U.S. households each week.
When Ministry Today asked me to be the guest editor for this issue, I knew I wanted to sit down with Joel to ask him the practical lessons he learned behind the camera that have contributed to his enormous influence in front of the camera. After a few jokes about the old days and mullet haircuts, here’s what happened:
Phil Cooke: When exactly did you get interested in television?
Joel Osteen: Back in college, I’ll never forget taking a tour of the Oral Roberts TV studios and being overwhelmed with the power of television to reach millions of people. I applied to work there just pulling camera cables on Oral’s program, but before a job opened, my father made the decision to take his media ministry national. I jumped at the opportunity to help, although I have to admit, my mom wasn’t too happy about my leaving college!
Cooke: From a practical perspective, what do you think was the secret that gave your father such an impact on television?
Osteen: My dad was remarkably real and authentic. When he looked into a camera, there was no hype. He was warm and sincere, and people felt it. People today tell me they feel something similar when they see me on TV, and the truth is much of that comes from all those years studying my father.
Cooke: When you look back to those days behind the camera, what did you learn from that experience?
Osteen: My father had an amazing understanding of the Bible. As I edited his program, I was immersed in Scripture all day long. I think that’s one of the reasons I have so much Scripture memorized—I was reading it and hearing it every day in the edit room. At the same time, my dad wasbrilliant atextemporaneous speaking. Because he had so much experience, he could speak without notes, and he could improvise on the spot. That’s an amazing gift, and it helped him come across in a very compelling way.
However, it also meant he sometimes repeated a story or followed what preachers call “a rabbit trail.” So I often spent hours in the editing room cutting his message down to broadcast time. That experience taught me two things: First, I learned how to structure a great sermon through editing. To get the sermon down to TV program length, I learned what was essential and what could be edited out. Second, it taught me to spend more time preparing my own sermons, so I do the editing on paper ahead of time rather than cut things out later. I can’t express just how much editing those hundreds of messages from my father taught me about preaching.
Cooke: When it comes to preparing a message, what’s your usual process?
Osteen: One of the keys to being a successful TV producer is preparation. So I spend a great deal of time researching and writing my messages each week.
Cooke: I know you write them out word for word.
Osteen: That’s right. I literally write out my sermon each week as if I’m writing an essay. I want to know that it makes sense; has a beginning, middle and end; and teaches the congregation something important. I’ve never skipped preparation because it makes such a dramatic difference on Sunday. Other pastors may do things differently, but for me it’s all about preparation.
Cooke: When do you start actually prepping?
Osteen: Wednesday. I usually spend Wednesday reading and doing research. If you’re not feeding yourself, you can’t feed others. Then on Thursday and Friday, I go into “lockdown,” shut the door and focus on the message. On those two days, unless it’s my family or an emergency, I don’t take phone calls or schedule meetings.
Cooke: What would you say to pastors who prepare their sermon during the song service?
Osteen: (laughing) If it works for them, what can I say? All I know is that preaching the gospel in today’s world is tough. The stakes have never been higher. That’s why I focus so much on getting the message right and knowing exactly what I’m going to say. Obviously, I’m open to the impromptu leading of the Holy Spirit, but I’m not going to trust that I’m creative or spiritual enough in the flesh to not prepare.
Cooke: That kind of preparation becomes especially important on television, where the average cable system in America now has more than 160 channels.
Osteen: Absolutely. My congregation is captive. For the most part, they’re not going to leave the sanctuary during the service—at least I hope! But for the audience at home, they have other choices. I remember years ago when you and I discovered that people sitting at home with a remote control only take two or three seconds to decide what program to watch. In that context, every word matters. I think all pastors and speakers could learn a lesson from that. People have plenty of other options today, so we need to be the best in the pulpit that we can possibly be.
Cooke: You’ve always been very intentional about getting your message on as many media platforms as possible.
Osteen: You and I both come from broadcast backgrounds, and I thought my TV program was all I needed. Then I realized my team was taking my messages and uploading them to iTunes on a podcast, and I discovered we had nearly 11 million people downloading that every week. That’s when I woke up to the power of other media platforms.
Cooke: It’s not really how you want to share your message anymore; it’s how the public wants to receive it.
Osteen: That’s exactly right. So we started exploring platforms like social media, and without knowing much about what I was doing, the New York Times listed my Twitter as one of the top accounts worldwide. People may want to hear my message in the car, at the gym or on a plane. TV is still our biggest audience by far—and I really encourage pastors and leaders not to discount broadcast TV as a powerful tool for reaching this culture. But I’m also committed to exploring every possible platform for making the gospel available to people.
Cooke: What has been your secret to succeeding with social media?
Osteen: Being consistent. For instance, on Twitter, I don’t tweet about having coffee with friends or what I had for breakfast. People follow me for three things: hope, joy and inspiration. So I stick to that. I want anyone who sees me on TV, reads my books or follows me on social media to receive the message that there is hope in whatever circumstances they’re in at that moment.
Cooke: With so much happening in your media ministry—and you being the central figure of it—time away must be very precious. How important is it for you, personally, as well as your ministry, to take time off?
Osteen: Actually, taking time off is a critical key to what we’re able to accomplish at the church. I think far too many pastors and leaders get too caught up in areas that aren’t really their strength. As a result, it grinds them down, and they eventually burn out. I’m a big believer in taking a break. After this interview, I’m going to spend the rest of the day with Victoria and the kids. As pastors, we need to discover where we have the most impact and focus on that area. For me, it’s the time I spend in the pulpit, so I’ve developed a great team to help me with leading our staff and managing the church.
Cooke: What about leaders of smaller churches that don’t have these great, diversified teams?
Osteen: You can still encourage volunteers to help, or train interns to assist with the load. Find out where God has called you to be the most effective, and start focusing your time and effort on that area.
Cooke: I remember back in the days we worked on your dad’s TV program, you were always driven by quality. Back then, we even shot the program opening on 35mm motion picture film, which was the best film you could use. Quality has always been important to you. Why?
Osteen: Two things: The world is far more sophisticated than any time in history, and second, audiences have more choices where to spend their time and energies than ever before. That means if your church, ministry or media outreach isn’t one of quality, then people will go somewhere else. If you want people to spend their time with you, then you must give them your best. And understand that “quality” isn’t always about budget. Back in the days when we had very little money and resources, we were still committed to finding the best personnel and equipment we could afford. We’ve always felt that we were doing this for God, and that He really deserves the very best we have to offer.
Cooke: And recently you partnered with [Survivor producer] Mark Burnett and Roma Downey to promote their TV series, The Bible, on the History channel.
Osteen: I’m a passionate believer in the idea that we need to be engaging today’s culture in a wide variety of ways. When Mark and Roma told Victoria and me about their vision for the The Bible series, we were excited to help them in any way we could. We travelled to Morocco during filming and offered advice when they asked. We helped promote it on TV, through social networking, online and even through direct mail.
Mark and Roma did an amazing job. I would love to see more movies and TV programs based on biblical stories, and I applaud the History channel for devoting 10 hours to this project. It’s exciting to see it do so well in the ratings. We really believed in it, so I love that America tuned in.
Cooke: What would you say to pastors about communicating their message to their church, community or even wider audiences?
Osteen: When you study Jesus, you find that He spent His life where the people were—in the marketplace, the temple or social gatherings like weddings. While people still gather in these same places today, millions of them worldwide are doing so in a virtual way.
For hundreds of millions of people today, their marketplace is online, their social gatherings are happening on Facebook and Twitter, and church is often (and perhaps, unfortunately) a TV or Web streaming experience they decide to participate in. Like it or not, these are the facts.
Yet there is a bright side. These virtual gatherings are huge—much larger than in Jesus’ day—and they are global.
Think about this: Pastors and teachers today can preach the gospel to more people during a 30-minute live Web stream than the crowd that would fit into the world’s largest stadium. And, they can reach more people in more countries during that same 30-minute sermon than they could reach were they to travel the world for 10 years.
Victoria and I see this as a great and wonderful time to live, a time when technology allows us to preach the good news to more people in more places than our fathers and grandfathers could have ever imagined. My advice to pastors and teachers is simple: Embrace it!
In 1958, Joel Osteen’s father, John Osteen, received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and started Lakewood Church in an old feed store on the poor east side of Houston. After John’s death, Joel Osteen succeeded his father. Under his leadership, Lakewood Church has grown into a multi-ethnic church with the largest attendance in the United States. His TV ministry reaches 10 million U.S. households each week.