Joel Osteen made it big in the boom times, wooing millions with the message that, as he says, "God wants you to have a big life" or, as his critics put it, God wants you to be rich. When the financial crisis hit, some analysts blamed preachers of the so-called Prosperity Gospel for helping bring it on and predicted that their churches' popularity would tank along with parishioners' portfolios. But Osteen, at least, is going strong: donations at Lakewood Church in Houston, where he is senior pastor, are steady. Attendance is up 10%. He preached to a sold-out Yankee Stadium in April. And he has just released a new book, It's Your Time, out Nov. 3. TIME talked to Osteen about whether his message helped cause the financial crisis, why his teachings are so popular and his advice for making it through hard times.
I read that 40% of your worldwide audience are nonbelievers. What do you think it is about your message that resonates so widely?
We're doing our best to give people hope, to lift their spirits and to teach them how to live an abundant life. I believe, as a Christian, that that starts with a relationship with Christ. But once you're past that, the teachings of the Bible and the Scripture are practical for anybody of any faith. When you talk about how to have a good attitude or how to forgive somebody that did you wrong or how to just overcome difficulty, I think that resonates with people. These days there are so many things trying to pull us down, with the economy and the swine flu. I really think there's something [that affects people] on the inside when somebody tells them, like I do, God's still in control. He's got good things in store for your life. And when you trust, when you believe, you can see amazing things happen.
You say in your book that these hard times make you feel like a man on a mission. Tell me more about the book.
I wanted to write something to say seasons come and seasons go. This season may be difficult, but there's a new season coming. You've got to keep your hopes up. You've got to believe that God has something great in your future.
How do you respond to criticisms that that sort of relentless optimism may be one of the things that got us into this mess in the first place?
I've never heard that criticism. But I think the opposite [of my message] would be to be negative, to be bitter, to say, "You know what? I've reached my limits, and this is as good as my life gets." I don't think that's the way God wants us to live.
You see so many people down on their luck. Do you ever start feeling down?
It's easy to be overwhelmed. At our church yesterday I was praying for some parents, and their little daughter had cancer. I cry worse than them when I pray for them. But more than ever, that's when I want to instill into you hope to let you know that God's going to give you strength for this battle. He's going to give you peace, and you've got to dare to trust him.
Considering the hard economic times, is there any part of your message that you've adapted?
I've probably been more focused on lifting people's spirits. My first two books were about how to improve or how to reach your full potential. But this new book is all about just inspiring people in their faith. The last year or so, I've just felt like every time I get up in front of people, I need to do my best to somehow lift their spirits.
In your 2004 book, Your Best Life Now, you wrote, "God wants to give you your own house," even if it feels out of reach. What do you say to someone who took that advice and has now gone into foreclosure?
I would tell them to keep believing. I don't necessarily correlate that message with the housing crisis. My thing is to believe that you can rise higher. My thing is to believe that God can bless you in your career. You have potential and gifts and talents on the inside. Don't just get stuck there and say, "Well, this is all my family has ever done." My father grew up during the Great Depression. And they were very poor. They were the ones that got the Christmas basket because they were the poorest family. But my dad made a decision when he was 17. He said, "My children are not going to be raised like this. They're not going to be raised not having enough food and milk to drink." So he made a difference with his life. He used what God put on the inside. I believe that God has put gifts and talents and ability on the inside of every one of us. When you develop that and you believe in yourself and you believe that you're a person of influence and a person of purpose, I believe you can rise up out of any situation.
What message do you want to leave people with?
I believe if you keep your faith, you keep your trust, you keep the right attitude, if you're grateful, you'll see God open up new doors. And you won't get stuck here, but you can rise higher. You're closer than you think.