Whenever about 10,000 people gather to hear a religious sermon along the Wasatch Front, the speaker is typically an elder of the predominant faith, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
But on Friday, the draw will be one of America's most popular pastors, Joel Osteen, preaching to an anticipated sellout crowd in West Valley's Maverick Center. The handsome, wavy-haired and always smiling Osteen, along with his wife, mother and daughter, will bring his upbeat message that has attracted millions of followers across the globe.
The 50-year-old evangelist knows the seat of Mormondom isn't an obvious place to hold his "Night of Hope," which usually packs 45,000-seat baseball parks in the largest metropolitan areas of the country. But Osteen isn't known for being conventional — a characteristic that has brought him praise and criticism.
"We’ve been doing this for 10 years, the Nights of Hope, and we've been looking forward to hitting some different cities," he said in an interview. "I know Salt Lake is a little bit different, but we have a following everywhere, so I am looking forward to it. Our desired goal is to reach the general public, and we reach a lot of different people who don’t believe exactly like us."
His stay will include a book signing and a meeting with leaders of the LDS Church. "I am just there to say hello, let them know we are friends and that I am supporting you," he said of his visit to LDS Church headquarters.
Osteen can't quantify his following in Utah, but his ability to tailor a message to a broad audience has drawn millions of followers who belong to a variety of faith traditions.
News accounts of the event in other cities describe a diverse mix of upper class, middle class, black, white, Muslims, Christians and nonbelievers flocking to hear his motivational sermons that substitute hellfire and damnation for a message that says God is on your side and wants you to be happy.
"I feel like life is beating people down enough and we all have enough struggles, so you come to our meetings and I am going to tell you that you can overcome an addiction, you can be a better father, you can get rid of bad habits," he said of his unorthodox style of preaching.
But Osteen's message has its critics, who characterize it as doctrinally unsound and a deceptive prosperity gospel that teaches about a God who serves people rather than people serving God.
"It’s an ego-centric gospel: God wants you to be happy; God wants you to prosper; serve others so God will bless you," said Pastor Paul Robbie of South Mountain Community Church in Draper. "There is no dying-of-self in this gospel, but Jesus said you have to lose yourself to find yourself."
Asked about claims that he preaches a cotton candy gospel, Osteen sighed and defended his message as simply a positive spin on traditional Christianity.
"In the old days you went to church and you heard what you were doing wrong and if you didn’t leave feeling guilty the pastor didn’t do his job, in a sense," he said. "I still talk about what’s right and wrong, I just do it from a point of view of, hey, you can overcome it."
Osteen, who attended Oral Roberts University but never graduated or received a divinity school degree, developed his upbeat style of preaching after he unexpectedly inherited a ministry when his father died of a sudden heart attack in 1999.
"I heard my dad my whole life and I felt like I had to preach like him because that’s what I had heard," Osteen said. "It took me about a year to find out who I was as a minister. I discovered I was good at encouraging people, talking about everyday life and not trying to explain deep doctrine."
He was also good at the finer points of media, having spent 17 years filming his father's lengthy sermons and editing them down to 25 minutes for television. Osteen explained that experience taught him to prepare every aspect of his sermons, from the message to the language to the camera angles.
"If you start repeating yourself, people will switch the channel real fast," he said.
His attention to detail appears to be working. His weekly broadcast is aired in more than 100 countries and viewed by more than 10 million people in the United States. More than 1.2 million watch it streamed on his website JoelOsteen.com and more than 45,000 faithful attend the weekly sermons live in his Lakewood Church in Houston, making it the largest congregation in America.
Osteen believes that speaking in a language that his unchurched basketball buddies at the YMCA could understand also has something to do with why it resonates with so many people. In fact, he said that early in his ministry his target audience would be the rough crowd he played ball with before he became a full-time preacher.
Avoiding theological jargon is a distinction of his five best-selling books, a podcast that is one of the most popular on iTunes, and a busy Twitter account that puts him among the top three users of the social networking site, according to press information that cites numerous ranking agencies and news article to back up the claims.
While he avoids "church language" in his sermons, his hope is that listeners will head to church for help.
"That's the goal we have in mind for those attend our 'Night of Hope,’ ” said Lakewood spokesman Don Iloff. "(Osteen) is a gentle messenger that really opens up doors to churches."
Contributing: Joe Walker
If you go...
What: Joel Osteen book signing
When: Thursday, Oct. 10, 7 p.m.
Where: Barnes and Noble, McIntyre Center, 1104 E. 2100 South, Salt Lake City
What: “A Night of Hope” with Joel and Victoria Osteen
When: Friday, Oct. 11, 7:30 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.)
Where: Maverick Center, 3200 Decker Lake Dr., West Valley City
Notes: Arena tickets are $15 and available at the venue box office, Ticketmaster.com or Ticketmaster outlets.
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