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.

While Osteen echoes Wilson in saying the deed restriction fight is not personal -- the church reads the restrictions one way, and Crescent reads them another -- Tollett says Crescent's claim is silly.

"There's not a coliseum or arena in the country that's not been leased to churches for 100 years," he says. "We've rented [Compaq Center] to Jehovah's Witnesses before. As far as I'm concerned, [with Lakewood] it's an every-week convention. It's a gathering of 16,000 people."

Some of Crescent's larger tenants, including the mutual fund management company AIM Funds, declined to comment for this story. But Bob Cromwell, a Moody Rambin Interests real estate agent who has sold and leased property in the Greenway Plaza area for years, says the general sense among business folks in the area is that the lease is a bad idea.

Well-connected lobbyist Dave Walden helped the church score Compaq Center.
Deron Neblett
Well-connected lobbyist Dave Walden helped the church score Compaq Center.
Despite the contemporary service, the church still preaches that the only way to salvation is to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.
Deron Neblett
Despite the contemporary service, the church still preaches that the only way to salvation is to accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.

"I'm sure they're all wonderful people and that's a great church," says Cromwell. "But the feeling is it's an overall negative for the area and the business climate. It's the amount of people who are going to converge on that site. It's gonna be a lot more than Rockets games. The bottom line is that's a mixed-use commercial development, and it's just not the place for a church."

But no matter which side prevails in court, the Compaq Center deal brings to light just what an enormous entity Lakewood has become in Houston. And while it's perfectly legal for a church to lease from a city as long as no special treatment is given, the deal does make it easy to wonder what kind of role megachurches like Lakewood will have as they grow bigger.

"This is a new animal," says Steve Benen, a spokesperson for Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, in Washington, D.C. "As recently as 50 years ago, nowhere in the country could you find a church that big with that kind of money even being able to hire a lobbyist."

And while Lakewood and Osteen take pains to never publicly address politics -- in fact, their lack of commentary on explosive social issues just might be part of the church's broad appeal -- Benen still thinks the Compaq Center situation is worth watching.

"Inevitably, they will gain a certain influence over civic affairs that smaller churches don't have," says Benen. "If you're in a religious minority, in a synagogue or mosque or temple that has maybe 50 families or smaller, your eyebrows might be raised a little bit, knowing that their phone calls to the mayor might be returned quickly, and yours won't."

But Osteen, in his down-home voice, insists becoming a power player isn't Lakewood's intention.

"I had never done anything in politics," he says. "I don't know politics."

Walden insists Osteen is telling the truth, calling him more of a "visionary" than a "wheeler-dealer type."

"Anytime I get a client who really listens to me and doesn't try to do my job, they're worth their weight in gold," says Walden. "That's kinda how he was. You know, I was afraid to smoke in front of him, hell, yeah. Only one time did I say a cuss word around him."

Ironically, a man who avoids religion seems to have been just as taken by Osteen as the thousands who trek to see him preach each week.

"Let me tell you," says Walden, "I'd run through a wall for the guy."

At the end of each Lakewood Church service, Joel Osteen invites those who have not yet given their souls to Christ and those who want to recommit themselves to the Lord to approach the stage. The church brochure refers to this as "The Most Holy Moment."

"We're not here to condemn anyone, we're here to help you find God," says Osteen. "Don't let the enemy keep you in your seat!"

Above him, right over his image on the Jumbotron, is the phrase "Thank you for staying until after the closing prayer." This is to encourage those who like to dart out early to beat the traffic to stay seated. Most do, and as those who want to be born again trudge down the aisles, the congregation erupts in applause.

Those who want to be saved are young and old and all different colors. Several are young mothers clutching babies and children -- some of whom look slightly bewildered as they make the walk to the stage. A few women are already sobbing as they approach the front. Osteen, who encourages them to put one hand on their heart and one toward the sky, leads them in a simple prayer.

After the holiest moment and closing prayer are complete, the crowd spills out from the aisles and makes for the parking lot, ready to face the snakes of traffic that will take almost 30 minutes to weave down Dockal Street and out toward the freeway. Like the mood after a rock concert, there lingers a collective, dizzy energy in the air, as if it wouldn't be completely out of place to blurt out, "Man, Joel was on tonight! And the crowd was really into it!"

Those who have been born again crowd into what's sometimes called the Salvation Room, where Pastor Osteen addresses them briefly from a tiny lectern before slipping out to greet other members and guests. It is a small carpeted room, and in the back sits a simple wooden model of the original feed store that once housed this megachurch. "Lakewood's First Sanctuary," says a small gold plaque attached to the table supporting the model. The plaque also informs visitors that the feed store sat only 234 people.

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