Power House

What do Lakewood Church and its pastor Joel Osteen have that most mainline Protestant denominations don't? People. Lots of them. And in an assortment of colors.

But perhaps it is not so surprising that Joel Osteen is no fan of small talk. That's because the last thing he ever wanted to do, he says, was be a preacher at Lakewood Church. The idea of getting up on stage in front of thousands made him physically ill. Even when his father regularly suggested he go for it -- after all, many of the Osteen children had preached at Lakewood -- Joel rebuffed the offers and chose to stay in the background. And it was in that background that he first helped Lakewood explode.

As a student at Oral Roberts, Osteen says, he found himself thinking of ways the church could reach more people. He'd always had an affinity for marketing ("If marketing's what you call it for a church," he says). How to get more people coming to Lakewood? The answer was easy: television.

"I think the possibility of going into someone's living room, in their own environment, it's such a great tool," he says. "When Coca-Cola wants to reach a generation, man, they go to TV and the people are watching."

Rice University sociology professor Michael Emerson says only a handful of congregations in the United States have as much racial diversity as Lakewood.
Deron Neblett
Rice University sociology professor Michael Emerson says only a handful of congregations in the United States have as much racial diversity as Lakewood.
Joel Osteen's wife, Victoria, often leads the closing prayer.
Deron Neblett
Joel Osteen's wife, Victoria, often leads the closing prayer.

John Osteen liked the idea, as long as the church never used the cameras to ask for money. The young son agreed and came home, immersing himself in the task of getting Lakewood's message to millions. It was the perfect role for a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. By the mid-'80s, Lakewood was broadcasting on Channel 11 and the Family Channel, and Osteen was busy picking out which of his father's suits would make his dad look the best on camera. The broadcasts were a success, and the church now regularly reaches more than 100 countries.

"We don't have much drive-by visibility where we are," says Osteen. "So TV was a big impact. That's when the church really began to grow."

In fact, it may have been the nationwide TV exposure that led to a bizarre incident in January 1990, when Lisa Comes, Joel's older sister, opened a pipe bomb that had been mailed to the church in a shoe box. The box was sent from a tiny town in North Carolina, and when Lisa opened it, the bomb exploded out the sides of the box and shot nails into the walls.

"If she'd opened it the other way...," remembers Osteen, shaking his head. His sister underwent surgery on her leg and abdomen, and spent about a week in the hospital. Not long after the incident, a similar bomb sent from the same town arrived at Pat Robertson's offices, where the employee who opened it was injured. Neither case was ever solved.

While the church followed police suggestions to get a mail scanner, which it still uses, the Osteen family closed ranks and didn't comment publicly on the scare. Even now Joel Osteen refers to it as "a weird thing," stressing that nothing like that has ever happened again.

"It was weird, because my dad was uncontroversial," he says. "I don't know."

While perhaps a bit more open than his father, Joel Osteen also avoids controversy during his sermons. Instead, he comes off as an infinitely likable motivational speaker. He can be self-deprecating, and lacks that holier-than-thou shine, making him more accessible and much less annoying than, say, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. And unlike Falwell and Robertson, he avoids preaching about divisive political topics such as abortion and homosexuality (although he admits he is politically and socially conservative on those issues).

His warm, lilting Texas accent would be fun to listen to even if you didn't understand English. And his sermons, with such titles as "Winning the Battle of the Mind" and "Enlarge Your Vision," are nothing but positive, easy-to-swallow messages about getting up when the world keeps beating you down. Osteen -- and other charismatic, evangelical pastors like him -- shun the notion that Christianity means living a sandals-and-loincloth existence. Instead, they focus on "blessings" -- good faith is rewarded with material and spiritual happiness here in this world and eternal salvation in the next. It's like a strange combination of Tony Robbins meets Jesus.

"That's just my personality," says Osteen, a father of two. "My dad wasn't like that as much. I don't know. My personality has always been one of an encourager. Even playing basketball, I'm like, 'Come on, man, step it up' and stuff."

But how did a man who avoided following in his father's preaching footsteps end up walking across the same stage today? In a fitting way, the story of how Joel Osteen came to be Lakewood's preacher has the sentimental, almost unbelievable quality of a TV movie of the week. While John Osteen was still head preacher, every so often he would ask his son to take the stage, but his son would always refuse, blaming a gripping fear of public speaking. Then, on a Monday night in January 1999, John Osteen called his youngest boy at home to ask if he would preach that coming Sunday. John had been suffering from kidney trouble because of his lifelong high blood pressure and was on dialysis. But he had still managed to maintain a work schedule, and no one in the family thought he was near death. But the younger Osteen told his father no. The father said, "Joel, you're my first choice." But the son still said he couldn't do it, hung up the phone and sat down to eat his dinner.

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