Joel Osteen runs up to the stage, past the big golden globe, quickly enough that if you blink it's as if he appeared out of thin air. We’ve been standing for forty minutes, listening to pumping, jubilant music from a band of seventeen musicians, and now we are primed for the drop in volume for a still, small voice. Osteen closes his eyes and speaks. “We are living in the ages to come.” His twang-tinged speech is powerfully naked, bouncing off the walls of the former basketball stadium where we’ve come to see him preach.
He wears a blue checkered shirt, no tie, and shiny black shoes. He stretches out his arms on both sides and works his palms and fingers, contracting and expanding, as he continues to pray in a pulsing rush of ‘Thank you’s’ and ‘I hope that’s and ‘I pray for’s’ Osteen has an intoxicating cadence. He presides over one of the largest congregations in the U.S. This is a Saturday night service, one of the least attended of his many weekly gatherings, and there are still thousands of people, thousands of arms waving, thousands of voices in earnest unison.
Osteen’s sermon tonight is about personal prosperity. He tells us we must “make room for increase,” that God has big plans for us, but only if we let our expectations grow to accept those plans. He tells us Jesus’ parable about not pouring old wine into new wineskins. He tells the story about the widow who Elijah instructs to “borrow not a few” vessels, which God fills miraculously with oil. The biblical verses are flashed on the bottom of the two story tall screen. A few people turn to the relevant page in their bibles, brought from home, since there are none in the pews.
Then he tells us about a man who fishes, throwing back all the big fish and keeping only the small ones. The reason, met with a surge of laughter, is that the man only owned a ten-inch frying pan. He just couldn’t fry a big fish. Osteen uses the frying pan as a motif as he gives more contemporary examples. There’s the man who bought a house he couldn’t afford, who after years of prayer and worries that he wouldn’t be able to pay the mortgage, is left millions of dollars by a relative who has passed away and he never even knew existed. That man, Osteen quips, had a bigger frying pan, a more cultivated ability to take the things God wanted to give him.
Many in the audience, or at least those seated near me, are new. The regulars, who come to this church every week, seem to enact the emotions subtly implied by Osteen’s face. So, for instance, he smiles and they laugh. When he’s slightly indignant, they’re really indignant. When he winces with a single tear (“Here I go, I’m gonna do it, ya’ll”), a few begin to cry.
When his sermon ends, the band strikes up again; three guitarists, three keyboardists, two drummers, four horns, too many singers to count. A quarter of the audience, perhaps to beat the traffic, is already leaving, past the big golden globe, back out into the world.