He looks like an excited little boy.
Sitting on the balcony of an upper-level suite at AT&T Park, Joel Osteen is staring out at the field—the home of the San Francisco Giants—but he isn’t watching baseball. He’s watching the construction of a stage. He’s watching the lights move into place. And he’s watching a series of expensive high-definition cameras finally going up on the massive dollies stationed around the infield. A breeze rolls in off the bay, and the late summer sun burns away some of the morning fog.
“Isn’t that a great shot?” Osteen asks, looking at the signal from one of the panning cameras. In one slow sweep, the cameraman has captured the picturesque bay behind the stadium, the thousands of seats they expect to be filled a day from now, and finally the LED-covered stage where Osteen will stand and preach.
“What is that going to say when that pans toward me?” he asks. “It says, ‘Let’s listen to him!’ It gets people’s attention. It’s the psychology of it. We played with that for a long time to put it right on that level.”
Osteen and his team of nearly 200 are in San Francisco for an event they call A Night of Hope. Most of the people working for him traveled together from Houston, where Osteen is the senior pastor at Lakewood Church, a nondenominational megachurch that gathers in the arena formerly known as the Compaq Center, where the Houston Rockets used to play. Tens of thousands attend his church every week, and millions more watch him on televisions around the world, making him easily the most popular preacher on the planet. His broad appeal means personalities ranging from Oprah Winfrey and John McCain to Khloe Kardashian have declared themselves fans. Osteen is also a best-seller machine, one of the biggest names in publishing. (His new book, The Power of I Am, debuted in October 2015 as a New York Times best-seller.) His net worth is reportedly somewhere between $40 million and $60 million.
In addition to all that, Osteen and his wife, Victoria, do live events. They’ve held roughly 150 in all, including a handful of packed-stadium special events like the one he’s preparing for here. This three-day affair includes dozens of volunteers doing charity work in the local community, building houses or giving food to homeless people. The main event, on Saturday night, is part old-fashioned revival, part epic Christian rock concert. In the last few years, he’s had similar events pack Yankee Stadium and Dodger Stadium to their respective brims. This is the Friday afternoon setup, something of a ritual for Osteen and his crew.
Soon he’s walking across the infield, toward the complex network of stages erected just behind the pitcher’s mound. There’s the main stage, where Osteen, Victoria and a number of guests will be preaching. There’s also a taller stage behind that, for the dozen or so musicians and their instruments. Most crew members wear skinny jeans, and a few are sipping from coffee cups. The entire arrangement, though, would rival any Pink Floyd road show.
Osteen is heavily involved with preproduction. Even after all of these shows, he’s still excited to see the booms, jibs and cranes. He has fun figuring out where the cameras go, like putting together a puzzle. A man walks slowly back and forth across the stage so Osteen can see how it looks on-screen. In the middle of the outfield, behind the stage, stand three tall LED screens that look as if they’re placed randomly until you see a close-up of the stage with those bright lights filling in the background.
“See, it all lines up,” Osteen says, his characteristically soft, gentle voice barely audible amid the sound of hammering echoing around the park. “We want there to be full, rich shots. We’ll have 30,000 people here with us, but most people will be watching on television. Most people are only gonna see those 40 inches.”
Production value is of utter importance to Osteen. “It’s got to look good, and you’ve got to be precise. There’s so much competing for the viewer’s attention these days. If you’re not prepared with what you’re gonna say, or it’s not relevant, or if something’s just not up to par—even if it’s in focus, but it’s not good lighting, or the sound is echo-y—you risk losing people.”
This dedication to a glossy, attractive final product—to “those 40 inches”—is part of the formula for Osteen’s success. There’s also his eternally positive message. He’s often called “the smiling preacher,” and he intentionally avoids using words like Hell or sin. He never says “Satan” or “evil,” instead preferring expressions like “the enemy,” which could mean any challenge, from an intense crisis of faith to mere self-doubt. Osteen is a motivational speaker with a religious bent, which makes him highly accessible and also a target for criticism.
He also comes across—both in person and on-screen—as genuine, a word most people wouldn’t associate with televangelists. At 52, he still seems like the awkward, fresh-faced preacher’s kid. He frets about how badly he talks sometimes. He incorporates his whole family into the ministry. As a policy, he never asks for money, although in his words, “We’re obviously blessed, and blessed with the ability to be generous and bless others.” He says he just wants to make people happy. He wants to deliver the gift of warm feelings. And every day he seems truly surprised by the way life has unfolded.