Why Joel Osteen, “The Smiling Preacher,” Is So Darn Appealing

It’s hard to quantify charisma, but by any measure Joel Osteen has some pretty impressive stats. Every week, the man some call “The Smiling Preacher,” draws an estimated 43,500 individuals to his Lakewood Church, which he moved into a former professional basketball stadium just off Houston’s Highway 59 in 2005. Osteen’s weekly sermons are beamed across seven networks in the United States and, by some estimates, reach 95 percent of the nation’s households and more than 150 countries.

The 53-year-old pastor, with his boyish good looks, ubiquitous incisors, and his impeccably coiffed mane of wavy, brown locks, oversees a budget estimated at upward of $70 million. He has penned no less than seven best sellers (most derived from his sermons), has amassed a net worth estimated at $40 million, with book sales and related revenue reportedly exceeding $55 million, and lives in a 17,000-square foot, $10.5 million mansion. All of it is built upon the personality—the words, the wisdom, and in no small part the charisma—of the man the congregants of the nation’s largest charismatic church refer to, simply, as “Pastor Joel.”

So, what is it that makes Osteen different from the rest of us? What is the source of his magical magnetism?

Many—including Osteen himself—might attribute his gifts to the favor of a higher power. After all, charisma, wrote the early 20th century German sociologist Max Weber, who gave the word its most widely used modern definition, is a quality that sets an individual “apart from ordinary men,” and causes others to treat him as “endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.”

But there’s a small but growing group of individuals who have another explanation. Using brain-scan technologies and modern statistical techniques, a band of committed academics in recent years have set out to decipher that mysterious quality from which legendary leadership is born. And some have reached what a previous generation of observers might have considered a dubious conclusion: That it’s possible not just to reverse-engineer charisma, but that it’s something, at least in part, we might learn to master.

“Charismatic tactics can be taught, and the more charismatic leadership tactics used, the more individuals will be seen as leader-like by others,” says John Antonakis, a professor of Organizational Behavior, and Director of the Ph.D. program in management at the University of Lausanne. (Read the Nautilus feature about how we create charismatic leaders and the dangerous consequences of their power.)

By studying well-known charismatics and replicating their actions in the lab, Antonakis has identified a series of what he calls Charismatic Leadership Tactics (CLTs), which range from the use of metaphors and storytelling, to nonverbal methods of communication like open posture and animated gestures at key moments.

t the request of Nautilus, Antonakis assigned a doctoral student, Benjamin Tur, to sit down and code the first 10 minutes of a 2012 sermon by Osteen, “The Power of I Am,” a speech that Oprah Winfrey says changed her life.

The sermon opens with a photographic montage that includes an image of a smiling Osteen, standing with his photogenic family—son, daughter, and wife—autumn leaves cascading joyfully down around them. It moves to snapshots of his son throwing a football, his daughter kissing a puppy dog, and finally lands on Joel standing with his beautiful wife Victoria, her long blonde hair billowing gently in the wind. The screen cuts to a camera slowly moving over a huge multiracial stadium crowd of all shapes and sizes, panning in and resting with the handsome Osteen. That’s when the magic begins.

Osteen is clad in an impeccable Cerulean blue suit, crisp white shirt and purple, paisley tie, and he is at that very moment, extending his arm and open hand outward toward the screen—toward me—toward all of us—beckoning viewers to join him.

“God bless you! It’s a joy to come into your homes,” Osteen says, pointing his index finger E.T.-like at the viewing audience for just a second, flashing a humble smile, then leaning his right shoulder ever so slightly toward the camera, while blinking his long eyelashes rapidly, as if awakening to a bright, glorious morning. “We love you. If you are ever in our area, please stop by and be a part of one of our services! I promise you we’ll make you feel right at home. Thanks so much for tuning in.”

Osteen shambles over to a wooden podium, places a hand gently on its edge, and tells the audience he likes to start with “something funny.”

“I heard about this 92-year-old man,” Osteen begins. “He wasn’t feeling up to par and he went to the doctor for a checkup. A few days later the doctor saw him walking in the park. He had this beautiful young lady by his side and he seemed as happy as can be. The doctor said, ‘Wow you sure are feeling a lot better aren’t you!’ He said, ‘Yes, doctor, I’m just taking your orders. You said, ‘Get a hot mama and be cheerful.’ The doctor said, ‘I didn’t say that, I said ‘You got a heart murmur be careful!’”

With the tone set, Osteen is off, exhorting his followers to hold their Bibles aloft, repeat a prayer, and then launching into an inspirational message.

Right out of the gate, Osteen is using three of Antonakis’ identified tactics: an animated voice, facial expressions, and gestures. All three figure in Osteen’s opening, even before he has launched into his actual sermon. Taken together, the gestures cue the audience that they have arrived on friendly territory, and encourage them to let down their guards. Osteen begins his sermon. “I want to talk to you today about the power of I am,” he says. “What follows these two simple words will determine what kind of life you live. I am blessed. I am strong, I am healthy. Or, I am slow, I am unattractive, I am a terrible mother. The I ams that are coming out of your mouth will bring either success or failure.”

To connect through a verbal message, Antonakis says, a leader must do three things. He must

  1. frame” a vision or paint a picture by using metaphor or stories. He must
  2. express sentiments of the collective. Finally, he must
  3. deliver it all in an in animated and passionate way. In the minutes that follow, Osteen will continue to do all three.

Of the 12 different CLTs that Antonakis and Tur look for, nine are verbal. They are:

  1. metaphor and comparison,
  2. story,
  3. rhetorical question,
  4. contrasts,
  5. lists and repetitions,
  6. moral convictions,
  7. expressing the sentiments of the collective,
  8. setting high and ambitious goals, and
  9. creating confidence that goals can be achieved.

Osteen uses on average one charismatic verbal tactic every two sentences. By comparison, Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech has well over three times as many verbal signaling techniques per sentence—his language is infused with powerful imagery and metaphor. “Osteen’s speech is rather average when it comes to use of verbal signaling techniques,” the academics say.

But Osteen makes up for his relative poverty of verbal CLTs by the way he delivers his sermon. He takes full advantage of the medium of the television, which allows us to watch him up close.

Antonakis and Tur say that Osteen shows an open body posture and uses representative gestures at key moments; for instance, when he says, “I am so old,” he mimics wrinkles at the corner of his eyes. There is also his voice. He displays variation both in term of pitch and speed, slowing down, using pauses or speeding up. “Like MLK, his voice sometimes vibrates in this preacher style,” Antonakis and Tur say. Finally, there is Osteen’s facial expression. “He is smiling constantly and accompanies that by raising his eyebrows, making his face more expressive.”

In conclusion, say Antonakis and Tur, the handsome Osteen “embodies his speech and smiles constantly throughout the talk. This combination of nonverbal behavior makes the speech captivating for the audience.”

Richard Rohr Meditation: The Living Word of God

Fundamentalism is a growing phenomenon, not only in Islam and other religions, but within Christianity as well. Fundamentalism refuses to listen to the deep levels of mythic, metaphorical, and mystical meaning. It is obsessed with literalism and exclusion. The egoic need for clarity and certitude leads fundamentalists to use sacred writings in a mechanical, closed-ended, and quite authoritarian manner. The ego rarely asks real questions and mostly gives quick answers. This invariably leaves ego-driven, fundamentalist minds and groups utterly trapped in their own cultural moment in history. Thus they miss the Gospel’s liberating message along with the deepest challenges and consolations of Scripture.

There is an especially telling passage in Mark’s Gospel where Jesus becomes angry with his disciples, who are unable to understand his clearly metaphorical language. He tells them to watch out for “the leaven” of the Pharisees and “the leaven” of Herod. Taking him literally, they began looking quizzically at one another because they did not have any bread (see Mark 8:14-16). Is Herod Bread a new brand that they had not heard about? Is Pharisee pumpernickel something to be avoided?

I can imagine Jesus responding with a bit of impatience and frustration: “Do you think I am talking about bread? You’re still not using your heads, are you? You still don’t get the point, do you? Though you have ears, you still don’t hear; though you have eyes, you still don’t see!” (see Mark 8:17-18). They do not yet know that the only way to talk about transcendent things is through metaphor! But early stage religious people are invariably literalists, and not yet poets and mystics. It takes inner experience of the Holy, and your own attempts to describe it, to finally move you toward a necessary reliance upon symbolic language.

.. Jesus consistently uses stories and images to describe spiritual things. Religion has always needed the language of metaphor, simile, symbol, and analogy to point to the Reign of God. Note how frequently Jesus begins teaching with the phrase: “The Kingdom of God is like. . . .” There is no other way to speak of the ineffable.

Against conventional wisdom, this simple, seemingly childlike approach actually demands more of us—not just more of our thinking mind, but more of our heart and body’s attunement. Maybe that is why we so consistently avoid sacred story in favor of mere mechanical readings that we can limit and control.

The final and full Word of God is that spiritual authority lies not just in ancient texts but in the living Christ of history, church, community, creation, and our own experience confirming its truth. The mystery is “Christ among you, your hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27)—this is the living Bible! Keep one foot in both camps—the historical text and the present moment—and in your fullest moments you will find yourself also saying “it is like. . . .” Words are fingers pointing to the moon, but words are never the moon itself. Not knowing this has kept much religion infantile, arrogant, and even dangerous.

Let Calm and Cool Trump ‘Fire and Fury’

The Cuban Missile Crisis came at a less dangerous time, and involved less dangerous men.

 What is happening with North Korea is not analogous to what happened in 1962, except for the word crisis. Fifty-five years ago was a different age with vastly different players and dynamics. We all mine the past to make our points, but Mr. Gorka’s evoking of the Cuban crisis to summon political support is intellectually cheap and self-defeating.

  • The Soviet Union and Cuba were trying to hide what they had—offensive missiles in Cuba. Kim Jong Un enjoys showing what he has and taunting the world with it.
  • President Kennedy gave great and grave attention to reassuring a nation and world understandably alarmed by nuclear brinkmanship. Does Mr. Trump? Not in the least.

He knew that precisely because you are a nuclear power, you can’t make nuclear threats. A thing too easily referred to will lose its horrifying mystique, its taboo. So don’t go there when you speak, or allow people to think you’re going there.

.. He famously called his blockade of Cuba a “quarantine,” because a blockade is a military action and a quarantine is—well, whatever you think it is. He worked hard with aides on public statements, hammering out each phrase. He sometimes used dire language—we don’t want “the fruits of victory” to become “ashes in our mouths”—but he knew who he was up against, a Soviet premier whom he’d met in summit, and whose understanding of such messages could be at least roughly gauged.

.. It is not clear Mr. Trump is up against a rational player. He must therefore ask if inflammatory language is more likely to provoke than inform.

.. More than half the world at this point would see Kim Jong Un as mad, and some significant number might view Mr. Trump similarly. Thus the current high anxiety, and the need from America for calm, cool logic, not emotionalism.

.. Kennedy was quoted in the Oval Office saying his generals had at least one thing going for them: “If we listen to them and do what they want us to do, none of us will be alive later to tell them that they were wrong.”

.. JFK himself called the publisher of the New York Times , the president of the Washington Post and the owner of Time magazine to request pledges of cooperation and discretion. All agreed. He filled in his Republican predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, on the plan to blockade Cuba. “Whatever you do,” said Eisenhower, “you will have my support.”

..House Majority Whip Hale Boggs of Louisiana was fishing in the Gulf of Mexico. “A military helicopter found Boggs, dropping a note to him in a bottle. ‘Call Operator 18, Washington. Urgent message from the president.’ ”

.. The U.S. military, he told the ambassador, was pressing hard to invade Cuba. The president would have to agree if Khrushchev didn’t take the missiles out now.

.. Actually, it was lucky the players in the Cuban crisis lived in a slower, balkier world. They had time to think, to create strategy and response. The instantaneous world—our world—is so much more dangerous.

Soviet Shoe Factory Principle

The factors that are easiest to measure or most visible are the ones that get the most attention, regardless of their importance in comparison to other factors. Another way of saying this is that factors that are easiest to measure or model are not necessarily the most important ones and/or a complete picture, but human nature often forgets this.

In Soviet Russia there is a story of a shoe factory that was pressured to increase production, as measured by quantity of shoes produced. However, the factory was a bit short on materials. So to increase production, the factory decided to produce more children’s shoes, which require less material. Eventually there was a severe shortage of adult shoes, especially larger sizes. However, the factory was meeting its production goals on paper.

We can also imagine that if size quotas were given, there’d be lots of ways to skimp on quality. For example, less threads could be used. If the authorities start counting threads, then old thread can be used. If they find a way to measure the age of the thread (however unlikely), then use cheap leather, cheap glue, cheap paint, etc.

.. I remember one story from a high-school history textbook which was a factory making toy plastic balls had to meet a quota of balls per month, but was never supplied with enough plastic, so it ended up making them thinner and thinner to meet production requirements without any regard for whether they would pop as soon as one kicked them.

“Schrodinger’s Immigrant” Is No Paradox: Welfare and Work Go Together in Today’s America

the American welfare system has become increasingly focused on buttressing low-wage workers rather than supporting non-workers. Put more simply, welfare and low-wage work go together. Just as natives with low levels of education and large numbers of children are apt to consume welfare, immigrants with those same characteristics are also likely to be on welfare. A strong work ethic does not change this reality.

To repeat, immigrant-headed households consume more welfare than native households not because they don’t work, but because they have fewer skills on average and, as a consequence, have lower earnings. As long as we pursue a policy that encourages low-skill immigration, many more “Schrodinger Immigrants” will come across our borders.

Trinity: The Tea Cupboard

One day when Murat visited them, the old couple were bursting with pride, eager to show him the new tea cupboard that their son had just shipped from Istanbul. It was indeed a handsome piece of furniture, and the woman had already arranged her best tea set on its upper shelf. Murat was polite but curious. Why would their son go through such an expense to send them a tea cupboard? And if the purpose of this piece of furniture was storage, why were there no drawers? “Are you sure it’s a tea cupboard?” Murat asked. They were sure.

But the question continued to nag at Murat. Finally, just before taking his leave, he said, “Do you mind if I have a look at this tea cupboard?” With their permission, he turned the backside around and unscrewed a couple of packing boards. A set of cabinet doors swung open to reveal inside a fully operative ham radio set.

.. But what if inside the Trinity is concealed a powerful communications tool that could connect us to the rest of reality

How to Design a Metaphor

For five years I worked full-time as a metaphor designer at the FrameWorks Institute, a think tank in Washington, DC, whose clients are typically large US foundations (never political campaigns or governments). I continue to shape and test metaphors for private-sector clients and others. In both cases, these metaphors are meant to help people to understand the unfamiliar. They aren’t supposed to make someone remark: ‘That’s beautiful.’ They’re meant to make someone realise that they’ve only been looking at one side of a thing.

.. It was the Princeton psycholinguist Sam Glucksberg who in 2003 argued that metaphors are really categorisation proposals.