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.

The recently saved receive packets of information on Lakewood, including a pamphlet titled Eight Steps to Successful Christian Living ("Read the Bible daily. Be a witness for Jesus. Give to the Kingdom of God." And so on). The group is also invited to attend a series of classes to teach them the basics of God.

When the short meeting is over, they stumble out of the room, their eyes wet from crying, tightly clutching their children or their purses or their coats. And their faces are always a bit dazed. As if they aren't sure what's just happened to them in the past ten minutes. But you can tell they hope it really meant something. This time, things are really going to start looking up.

Joel Osteen's older brother Paul, the one Osteen thinks is such a people person, teaches classes for the new converts. He is a mirror image of his brother, only a touch grayer around the temples. Paul Osteen likes to say that Lakewood is not a museum of perfect people but a hospital for the wounded.

Paul Osteen left his medical practice in Arkansas to come work with his family at Lakewood.
Deron Neblett
Paul Osteen left his medical practice in Arkansas to come work with his family at Lakewood.

Why do they come? Paul says he is asked this all the time, and although his younger brother is too modest to admit it, the reason is Joel Osteen himself. Joel Osteen is the reason why the church has gotten so popular. Joel Osteen is the reason why Lakewood has one of the top-rated shows on the Trinity Broadcast Network. Joel Osteen is the reason why they've gotten so big they've added services and need to make the Compaq Center move. Their father, John, birthed this church, but it's his little brother who can't stop bringing them in.

"You know how John the Baptist paved the way for Jesus?" says Paul, beginning to make an analogy before catching himself and adding, "Now, of course, I'm not saying that Joel is Jesus."

Out in the lobby by the table with the free coffee and soda, Osteen shakes hands with the long line of people who want to meet him, greeting each one with a smile that makes one's cheeks hurt just to look at it. There are so many people who want to say hello. The Crow Indian from Montana who wants to bring the message of Christ to his reservation. Or the sisters from Michigan who used to watch the Lakewood Church program on television. They wanted a fresh start, says one, so a few months ago they picked up everything and moved to Houston. Now they can see their pastor for real.

And there, in the middle of the line, is Phillip Galbreath, a husky, bearded, 54-year-old single man who works for Federal Express. He waits patiently for almost 20 minutes to see Osteen. Although Galbreath lives in Fort Worth, he tries to make the four-and-a-half-hour drive to Lakewood several times a year.

"I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist," he says. "I always thought that religion was a rule book or a list of things I had to do to be worthy." He struggles to explain exactly why the Lakewood experience brought him back to church. Mostly, he thinks it's because of Joel Osteen.

"He's the real deal," says Galbreath, nodding his head in the direction of the pastor. "He's not real polished. He's not afraid to say 'ain't.' He's honest, and he reaches the people that nobody else can get to."

Finally, after almost an hour, the end of the line reaches Joel Osteen and the front lobby starts to clear out. When it's all over, the faithful walk out the double doors to the parking lot, clutching their Bibles and their free Lakewood literature. They climb into their cars and head home. Back to the house in Fort Worth, back to the apartment in Alief, back to the planned community outside Beltway 8. Back to wherever it is that their hungry souls have come from.

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