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.

"Pastors around the country, the clergy, they read books written by pastors of these megachurches, because they're trying to see what it is they do that causes them to grow so much," says Rice University sociology professor Michael Emerson, who has studied mega- and racially integrated churches. While Emerson says most megachurches are, like Lakewood, apolitical and theologically conservative -- that is to say they are Bible-based and still preach that the only way to heaven is through Jesus Christ -- they have marketed themselves quite progressively. And that's something mainline Protestant churches and the Roman Catholic Church still haven't really learned.

"There's been a progression in our culture," says Emerson. "Everything's become part of the marketplace. I'm a consumer, and I choose. And religion's become that way. These megachurches provide all kinds of services, programs for the kids. They have everything."

And while prayer partners and home-study groups provide a feeling of community, there is also something deliciously anonymous about attending a huge church like Lakewood. No one is going to ask the new people to stand up and introduce themselves, because the church is just too big for that. An usher will hand out a newsletter and say, "God bless you," but no one is going to approach you unless you act like you want to be approached, call you unless you ask to be called, or beg you to volunteer unless you really want to volunteer. In fact, it would be completely possible to attend Lakewood for years and not know a soul personally, if that's the way you wanted it. At the same time, if you let it, it could become your whole world.

Lakewood Church has no dress code -- and welcomes tattoos and leather.
Deron Neblett
Lakewood Church has no dress code -- and welcomes tattoos and leather.
Lakewood Church has no dress code -- and welcomes tattoos and leather.
Deron Neblett
Lakewood Church has no dress code -- and welcomes tattoos and leather.

John Osteen's vision of a multiracial congregation is still the norm at Lakewood, although now there are just as many Hispanics as blacks and whites -- and they interact easily with one another. While other churches have tried to bus in people of color, Lakewood's diversity is much more organic. Some say the nondenominational, charismatic approach appeals to a wide variety of ethnic groups. Professor Emerson thinks a church that was always multiracial just builds momentum, as people bring more and more friends to each service. Emerson also believes the large number of Spanish-speaking immigrants who attend are attracted to the wide variety of activities and services offered by the church; they can immediately start to feel like Houston is home. But if you ask Joel Osteen why Lakewood is as mixed as it is, he's at a loss to explain it.

"Daddy always wanted racial diversity, he really did," says Osteen. "We've had reporters come from all over the world to figure out how we did it, but I always feel kind of bad because I don't have a good answer for them. It's just, all these people started coming."

But with all those people coming, Lakewood is fast growing from a megachurch into a super-megachurch. The church didn't want to add more services -- it had already done that, and the traffic was just getting worse. So what's one of the biggest churches in the country to do when it's bursting at the seams? Easy. Just hire one of the most expensive lobbyists in town and make a move into Compaq Center.

It follows that a church of Lakewood's size draws in an enormous amount of income. As a church and a registered nonprofit, it doesn't have to reveal its budget. But public records show Joel and Victoria Osteen's home in Tanglewood is worth more than $1 million -- God has blessed them indeed. And when it came time to hire a lobbyist, Lakewood settled for no less than one of the best: Dave Walden, right-hand man for former mayor Bob Lanier.

The straight-shooting Walden, who smokes Marlboros and swears freely, might have seemed like an odd choice at first for a bunch of Christians. After all, when asked if he goes to church, Walden answers bluntly, "I don't like the circus."

But Walden likes working out deals, and so when Lakewood's attorneys suggested him as a lobbyist to negotiate a Compaq Center deal, the church went for it, says Joel Osteen.

Hiring a lobbyist and taking over Compaq Center wasn't Lakewood's first choice, says Osteen. When initially pressed for space, the church considered expanding its $50 million facility. But with the small two-lane roads leading into the current location, studies commissioned by the church showed that a bigger facility would only mean more traffic snarls. The church then attempted to buy 100 acres near the Ship Channel, but the owner sold the land to someone else.

Osteen says he discovered while reading the paper last fall that the Rockets would be leaving Compaq Center in November 2003 to move into their brand-new downtown arena.

"We thought, you know, maybe that's an opportunity for us," remembers Osteen. "And so we called the mayor's office, and five minutes later he put me in touch with Jordy Tollett and doors just started opening up."

Tollett, president of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau, told Osteen that the city would be putting out a request for proposals in about six months. And in March of last year, Lakewood turned in its proposal, offering to lease the space from the city for 30 years at a cost of $9.5 million.

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