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.

To this day, Joel Osteen isn't entirely sure why his father called him his first choice that night. After all, he could have picked any one of his siblings, all of whom are involved in the ministry. (Justin, the oldest, does missionary work out of New York; Paul, Lisa and April all work at Lakewood; and sister Tamara pastors a church in Victoria with her husband.)

John's choice didn't even necessarily have to be a son. Charismatics, believing women can be touched by the spirit just as men can, have always supported female preachers.

But his father's insistence stuck in Joel's head, and sitting there eating his dinner, something came over him. He felt like he had received a message, like God was saying he should go for it. So he called his father up, told him yes, and then spent the rest of the week thinking he'd made the biggest mistake of his life.

Joel Osteen's wife, Victoria, often leads the closing prayer.
Deron Neblett
Joel Osteen's wife, Victoria, often leads the closing prayer.
Lakewood Church has no dress code -- and welcomes tattoos and leather.
Deron Neblett
Lakewood Church has no dress code -- and welcomes tattoos and leather.

By the time Sunday rolled around, John Osteen was in the hospital. Still, doctors reassured the family it was nothing serious. The Osteens didn't want John to miss the preaching debut, so they hooked up a phone line from the hospital to the church, so John could hear his youngest son deliver a sermon for the first time.

But back at the church, just before the service, Osteen became so frightened that his mouth dried up, and his lips refused to separate from his teeth. He decided to slip on a pair of his father's shoes for a little bit of extra assurance. Once on stage, he burst through his sermon at a nervous, breakneck pace.

"You know, I just told stories about our family, I made them laugh," he remembers. "The Lord just helped me get my message, and I could speak. But once I spoke, I just thought, man, I'll never get another message."

Afterward, Joel Osteen went to visit his father in the hospital. His father was so proud, he says. Then the younger Osteen went home.

A few days later, John Osteen died of a sudden heart attack. He was 77.

It seemed both the actual father and heavenly father had a divine plan. Whether he liked it or not, Joel Osteen was Lakewood Church's new pastor.

Tucked in one wing of Lakewood is the church bookstore. Between Sunday services it's packed with a line 20 deep at the cash register.

"God bless you!" says the cashier, as she rings up each purchase.

It is a veritable Christian candy store, complete with clothing, cards, CDs and a large children's section. Those eager to spend their money can buy ballpoint pens called Pens of Praise. Or a T-shirt for their father emblazoned with the slogan "Dad of Dads -- Because King of Kings was already taken!" There are wooden towel racks for the bathroom inscribed with the phrase "Create in me a clean heart, O God," and stuffed dogs named Happy Hank and Happy Hannah who, if their bellies are squeezed, say things like, "God loves me because I am me!" Joel Osteen's taped sermons also can be purchased ("Now available on compact disc!"). So can the sermons of his late father. There are dozens of books written by a who's who of the evangelical Christian set: Benny Hinn, Kenneth Copeland, Joyce Meyer, James Dobson. Most tapes and books are also available in Spanish.

Lakewood has exploded under Joel Osteen's leadership. While his folksy, genuine feel helps, his innate marketing skills haven't hurt. The church didn't always have such a huge bookstore, just as Lakewood was not always 30,000 members strong (the count is an estimate, because the church doesn't keep an official membership list). But the astonishing growth under Osteen's leadership forced the church to add a second Sunday service ("And right off the bat, we had 4,000 or 5,000 extra people come," he says). Osteen hired the dynamic Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff to direct music, and chose the well-respected Christian producer and director Phil Cooke to create the catchy "We Believe in New Beginnings" ad campaign.

The church's weekly newsletters look like a catalog for a small college campus, which in a sense Lakewood is. There are so many activities, seminars, parties and groups to join, it's no wonder the church needs a staff of around 150 to sort it all out. There is a Single Parents Ministry, a Men's Ministry, a Young Adult Ministry (which regularly draws 400 twentysomethings to the church on a Friday night -- and no, they don't serve alcohol). There are camping trips and support groups, Bible classes and coffeehouses. Although Lakewood doesn't boast a Starbucks or McDonald's, other megachurches across the country do (there are about 700 megachurches in the United States, each with at least 1,000 members, and most popping up in the past 20 years). In a transitional world, churches like Lakewood have taken on the new role of community center.

As Cheryl Ward, a single mother of four who drives to the church twice a week from Alief, put it, "They have everything for everybody. Anything you want, you can find it here."

And because of their broad appeal, churches like Lakewood are fast becoming the envy of the religious community in the United States.

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