December 17, 2007 12:00 PM

It doesn’t take much to make Joel Osteen cry. Talk to him about his deceased father, and Osteen, the pastor of America’s largest church, is likely to tear up. Or tell him you were picked on as a kid. Or just ask him about the Hannah Montana tickets he scored for his daughter’s birthday. Standing outside his Houston megachurch on a recent Sunday, with a white stretch Hummer waiting to whisk his family to the sold-out Disney show, Osteen blinks back tears like the luckiest man in the world. “It’s just such a blessing,” he says.

Osteen has plenty of those to count these days. A Bible college dropout with great hair and even better teeth, he could have been a fine TV weatherman. Instead, eight years after taking over his father’s Houston ministry, Osteen has become a superstar of the American religious scene. He is pastor of Lakewood Church, with a weekly attendance of 47,000 (twice as big as the nearest competitor); the main attraction of Sunday services broadcast in 100 countries; an author of two bestselling books (his first, in 2006, outsold Billy Graham’s latest); and the headliner of touring motivational-meets-worship shows that sell out venues like New York City’s Madison Square Garden.

Shorter in person than he appears on TV, Osteen, 44, is also noticeably shy. It doesn’t get in the way of his charisma. “I need God right now,” says Lupe Luna, 54, a frail man with liver cancer who has come to Houston from San Antonio. Osteen—accompanied as always by his wife and co-pastor Victoria, 46—leans over Luna’s wheelchair and prays for “many, many good years” for the Roman Catholic man, who, with 15 relatives, leaves the church with tears and smiles. “He’s a precious man,” says Luna of Osteen. The next day at a Christian bookstore outside Dallas, during a signing for Osteen’s latest bestseller Become a Better You, 300 people separate retired teacher Debra Matthews, the first to arrive at 6:30 that morning, and Sandra Pitcock, the last in line, who calls out from behind big sunglasses, “Thank you for making religion a pleasure.”

That notion—the positive, feel-good aspects of Christianity—is the core of Osteen’s appeal. And not everybody likes it. Skeptics from across the religious spectrum accuse him of turning his back on Biblical teachings less likely to please, like the importance of obedience and the evil of sin. They say he spends more time in front of the camera than performing funerals and baptisms and visiting the sick, as clerics have done since the days of Jesus Christ. But Osteen describes his calling as this: to give hope. “Most people are beaten down by life already,” he says in a soothing southern accent. “They don’t come to hear me say, ‘You know what? You’re all sinners.’ They already know that. I’d rather say, ‘You know what? God’s on your side.'”

Osteen didn’t preach his first sermon until the age of 35. The son of a noted Pentecostal minister of the fire-and-brimstone school, he spent his youth playing basketball and tinkering with the church’s TV equipment before spending less than a year at Oral Roberts University. But 1999 brought an event that launched his career, a story now famous with his followers. One weekend Osteen’s father, John, felt too ill to preach and asked his son to take his place in the pulpit. Paralyzed with stage fright, Osteen declined—then had a change of heart. As his sister Lisa Comes, 49, also a pastor, tells it, their father listened to Joel’s performance from his hospital room. “He was just beaming,” she says of the elder Osteen. Then, just six days later, he died of heart failure.

After a rocky start, Lakewood’s new preacher soon hit his stride—upbeat, and always smiling. As a Christian, Osteen believes sin lives in every man and woman. He just doesn’t like to dwell on it. “There is an awful lot of gloom and doom and uncertainty in the world,” says Princeton sociologist and Osteen fan Robert Wuthnow. “So if you have someone out there saying, ‘Look on the bright side, God wants things to go well,’ that’s attractive.”

And hugely profitable. The publishing house Free Press paid Osteen an advance reported at $13 million for his latest book. He lives in a 5,000-sq.-ft., four-bedroom house shaded by 65-year-old live oaks. There’s an elaborate tree house in the back for the children—Jonathan, 12, and Alexandra, 9—and a fenced-in mini-lawn for their rabbits. Staff helps Victoria—whom Joel, who had never been on a date, met in a jewelry store and married in 1987—with the cooking, cleaning and driving, and the kids are privately tutored. “Victoria wanted ‘French,'” he says of the decor. “I call it ‘fancy.'”

But can a man so obviously rich be a man of God at the same time? Does it bother him to see people less fortunate? “I don’t know if it bothers me, but my whole heart is to help people and empower them to rise higher. I don’t think everyone is necessarily going to have a book deal. But I do think God wants us to be blessed,” says Osteen, who stopped taking his $200,000-a-year salary from Lakewood in 2005. Asked what he is worth, he says he has no idea, and, unlike so-called “prosperity preachers,” he scrupulously edits out the collection portion of his services before putting them on TV. “I don’t want to sound naive, but I was never in it for the money,” he says.

What the public doesn’t see is how hard Osteen works at his calling. A fitful sleeper, he’s out of bed in the middle of the night several times a week to jot down inspirations for his sermons, then rises at 5:30 a.m. to begin writing in his office above a garage lined with religious and motivational books (and a copy of Success for Dummies). “He is extremely routine. You could set your clock by him,” says Victoria, who knows not even to speak to her intensely focused husband on Wednesdays, his crunch day. During breaks, Osteen takes two-mile runs—”I don’t jog, I run,” he says—or works out on the weight set parked next to the family’s white Escalade.

Victoria has her own workout room in the main house, where she fills a traditional role of (working) mom, supportive of her husband. “Joel is not a small-talk man, he’s not a hang-out kind of person,” she says of their relationship. “Absolutely, he’d rather be with me, which is great for me.” Fashion conscious, Victoria is the butt of jokes in Joel’s sermons about her shopping (Zara for blouses, Macy’s for shoes), but in fact, she says, she is careful to dress modestly. “We were in the car laughing yesterday,” says Joel, “because the hairspray she uses is called Big Sexy Hairspray and she forgot it, so she was saying, ‘I gotta get some Big Sexy Hairspray.'” Joel’s weakness: expensive ties.

The Osteens maintain a Friday dinner-with-candles date night at home or restaurants, but with constant travel these days the focus falls on the kids, they say. Jonathan, old enough now that he no longer lets his mom highlight his thick brown hair, plays guitar and likes to shoot hoops with his dad, who was a point guard in high school (despite being so short that classmates dubbed him Peanut). Both Jonathan and Alexandra—a “girly girl” who loves to style hair, according to her mom—perform music at church, and Joel hopes someday one or both will step to the pulpit. In the meantime the Osteens are protective: Nickelodeon is fine for the kids, says Victoria, and “they are on the Internet, but they don’t have computers in their bedrooms.”

Over Thanksgiving the family traveled to Disneyland—but they did not fly commercial. Stung by a dose of bad publicity, last year Victoria paid a $3,000 fine to the FAA stemming from a 2005 incident aboard a Continental Airlines flight the family intended to take to a ski holiday in Vail, Colo. After a disagreement with members of the cabin crew, a flight attendant—who filed a suit, still pending, for damages—accused Victoria of physically assaulting her. The Osteens dispute the attendant’s account of events.

Joel declines to talk about the details. “It was the worst thing we ever went through,” he says. And a lesson in living with fame, he adds. “When you’re in the public eye, it’s a different story…. You can become a target.”

Then again, success has its advantages. Eight years into his career as a minister, Osteen says he is just getting started: There are things he dreams of, like opening hospitals; things he doesn’t rule out, like plastic surgery (“I want to look good!” he jokes); and people he’d like to meet, like Bono and Barack Obama. For guidance he relies on the word of God. He hears it, he says, not in his head or heart but in his gut “deep down, down here.” And as for fears, Osteen says he doesn’t have them. “Am I going to make every decision right? Should I be doing these appearances on the road? Should I be doing this interview?” he asks. “I say, ‘God, you just got to lead me.'”

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