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It's 15 minutes before the second Sunday service at Lakewood Church is scheduled to begin, but already half of the 7,800-seat sanctuary is filled. By the start of the service, it will be packed all the way up to the rafters.
As the people take their seats, a slight buzzing sound starts coming from the stage. It's the bleachers for the choir, rising up almost magically on a hydraulic lift. The choir members, in royal blue-and-white robes with tiny gold crosses embossed at the throat, begin to take their places. Behind them is a ten-piece band. Directly above them are three Jumbotrons, displaying a polite request that all cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices be turned off before the service. On either side of the stage are large banners with images of the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. And on those banners is a comforting slogan: We Believe in You.
Suddenly, the lights dim a bit and the people shift slightly in their seats. Something important is about to happen, and they can feel it. Several men in suits wearing tiny black microphones attached to headpieces press their fingers to their ears and march up the aisles, giving the impression that they are Secret Service, and perhaps the president of the United States is about to walk in. In fact, these gentlemen are the church's ushers.
Then, like a punch in the gut, someone cues the music.
"The only thing that matters starts today! The life that you've been looking for is not so far away!"
Up on the Jumbotrons, the familiar Lakewood Church television commercial is playing, complete with its catchy jingle and a shot of the boyishly handsome 39-year-old Pastor Joel Osteen announcing, "God takes pleasure in seeing you prosper in every area of your life!"
The music director, a sweet-faced blond named Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff, runs out from the side of the stage to take her place in front of the choir. She begins to lead the crowd in song, pumping her fist in the air and jumping up and down. The lyrics, in case someone should need them, appear on the Jumbotrons. All that's missing is the bouncing ball.
"Shout with a voice of praise! Shout with a voice of praise!" she sings.
The congregation -- equal parts black, white and Hispanic -- jumps to its feet. They are loving it, adoring it, dancing and throwing their arms up in the air. One woman has her own tambourine, wrapped in colored scarves, and she whips it over her head as she plays. The mood is intoxicating, and infectious. And not just here in this room, but in Zimbabwe and Louisiana, in Estonia and South Dakota. In any of the countless places around the globe where Lakewood's services are televised each week.
Finally, just when it seems the audience can't take any more excitement, Pastor Joel Osteen runs up on stage with his photogenic wife of 15 years, Victoria. Osteen has led this congregation for only three years, since he reluctantly took over the church when his father, John Osteen, the legendary founder of Lakewood, died suddenly. To look at Joel Osteen today -- dressed in a sharp dark suit -- is to see no evidence of a former behind-the-scenes man who used to get so nervous before preaching that he'd wear his father's shoes on stage for courage. No, to look at Joel Osteen today is to see one of the most dynamic preachers in the United States.
"You gotta start saying, 'I can do all things with Christ!' " he cries in his warm, thick Texas twang. "Don't settle for mediocrity! God wants to take us all to a higher level of victory!"
The crowd hollers back in agreement, shouts "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" and then there is more music, more dancing, more singing, more upbeat messages.
It goes on like this for two hours.
The service is a glorious spectacle of marketing genius, a happy marriage of television know-how, motivational speaking and Jesus. And at a time when mainline Protestant churches are hemorrhaging members and are desperate to understand why, this self-described charismatic, nondenominational congregation has grown so rapidly since Joel Osteen took over that church leaders have ambitious plans to move the whole operation into Compaq Center in 2003. Some business and city government leaders aren't too happy about turning the public arena into a church, so Lakewood has come under a certain level of scrutiny that it is unaccustomed to, given that it has gone out of its way to avoid political involvement.
But that controversy is not up for discussion today. Instead, Joel Osteen continues to address the congregation in a lively, spirited voice.
"Father, we are the victors, not the victims!" he cries. "Start seeing yourselves as the overcomers you need to be!"
The people cheer with excitement.
Welcome to Lakewood Church. Welcome to the new religion.
Before there was a 7,800-seat sanctuary or television hot lights above the stage, before there was the need for Traffic Ministry volunteers to help direct the roughly 30,000 members into 20 acres of parking several times a week -- before all of that, there was simply a high school dropout from Fort Worth named John Osteen, an abandoned feed store and a basic message: God loves you, Jesus saves you, and the Bible is the truth.