Osteen has long harbored aspirations of reaching enormous numbers of people. Early in his career, when he published his first book, Osteen’s public relations team pitched him as “Billy Graham meets Tony Robbins.” His message of positive thinking and attaining personal prosperity through Christianity has attracted both devout followers and strident critics, who argue he preaches a watered down version of the Bible that overemphasizes material wealth. But his breed of self-empowerment evangelicalism — “Be a victor, not a victim,” “[God] wants us to enjoy every single day of our lives” — has proved so popular, Osteen delivers his song-filled sermons to traveling Night of Hope events held monthly in different cities around the world. He’s also authored several bestsellers and reaches 10 million homes a month via his weekly TV broadcast. He has a passion for television and doesn’t seem to have ever met a camera he didn’t like. “TV is Joel’s heart,” notes Madding.
But seeing new opportunities to expand his following and spread his brand of inspiration, Osteen has lately sought to master a new field: digi-vangelism.
In his telling, social media enables him to “impact more people in a positive way” — an impact he no doubt hopes will ultimately tether believers and non-believers closer to his congregation (and maybe even sell some of his books or DVDs along the way).
Other churches, like Oklahoma’s evangelical LifeChurch, have been more ambitious and creative with their approaches to technology, though none can yet rival Osteen’s reach.
And Osteen, born in an era where the dominant screen was a television, not a computer, is facing some of the same challenges other churches are confronting as he attempts to update his message for the Facebook era. Larger churches have traditionally been technology’s early adopters, and smaller congregations are likely to crib from Osteen’s social media strategy.
Here’s where devotees can currently find Osteen online: YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, on podcasts, delivered to their email inboxes, as a blog on JoelOsteen.com, livestreamed via his website, in an iPad magazine and, coming soon, on two standalone iPhone apps. To handle the deluge of prayer requests posted to Osteen’s Facebook wall and phoned into his church, Joel Osteen Ministries has even launched a dedicated site, Pray Together, where people can post prayer requests for the ministry’s entire congregation to respond to. Just click “pray” to pray.
“It’s kind of like — are you familiar with Reddit or Digg?” asks Brian Boyd, the chief executive of Media Connect Partners (or MCP), a social media consultancy that assists Joel Osteen Ministries with their with day-to-day online outreach efforts, as well as their Night of Hope events. “You can vote a prayer request up or down, and actually pray.”
Some evangelical Christians view these developments with alarm, decrying what they portray as an insincere reach for souls with social media and a trend that could undermine the draw of in-person gatherings of people in one place. Evangelical Christian pastor John MacArthur railed against “flat screen preachers” in a 2011 interview with Christianity.com, declaring their form of ministry an “aberration” that moved “away from the core of sound doctrine.”
But Osteen’s social media consultants maintain they have witnessed the faithful finding real fellowship and solace in a virtual setting.
“You don’t have to sign up for an email, you don’t have to go to church, and you don’t have to go out and find it: you can literally log onto your computer or your phone, and you can get the encouragement or inspiration that you need,” says Kelly Vo, a twenty-something social media analyst manager with MCP who helps Osteen, along with other Christian figures, on his web strategy. “People share things on social media, with Joel, that I don’t think people would even share with their pastor in person.”
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