A Compaq with the Lord

Osteen (shown at a ballpark rally) has stepped up to the plate for Lakewood.
Daniel Kramer

It's a few days before Easter, and the old Compaq Center looks like a dusty skeleton of its eventual self. The arena buzzes loudly with heavy-duty construction work as Joel Osteen steps inside and surveys what will become the 16,000-seat home for his Lakewood megachurch when it moves in this summer.

Osteen is 42, but his smallish build, twinkling blue eyes and bright skin still invite the adjective "boyish." More than that, when he speaks and preaches, he seems to be fighting back a big broad smile that's squirming to wrap itself across his whole face. In that smile, you find Lakewood's theology, its media savvy and just maybe the secret of what's made it one of America's largest churches.

"It's been really overwhelming. I'd never really dreamed I'd be doing this part," says Osteen. "I just think there's a lot of things in you that you don't know until you're put up to the test."

Osteen has -- perhaps inadvertently, perhaps consciously -- wandered into the church's slogan: "Discover the champion in you." Six years ago, he discovered his inner champion when he became the senior pastor and brand-name face of Lakewood. That revelation followed the death of his father, John Osteen, who founded the nondenominational Charismatic church in 1959.

"I think I've grown just in the fact that I didn't like to get up in front of people," says Osteen. "Was very reserved and quiet and probably still am a little bit, but I just, I don't know, I guess that's the main thing: It just brought all this stuff out of me."

By now, the Lakewood mythology has all the warm, well-honed touches of any good fairy tale: the church's humble beginnings in an empty feed store, the son wearing Daddy's shoes for the first few months of preaching. What Lakewood Inc. mushroomed into under the younger Osteen is nothing short of astounding.

Traffic jams take on a kind of rock-concert cultural energy on Sundays, when some 25,000 members flood the sanctuary for services on the northeast side of town. With the giant rotating globe behind the altar, the vast assortment of flags and the fact that someone in Tatarstan might be watching the international broadcast, it's tempting to wonder if the sun ever sets on the Lakewood empire. One might also notice the conspicuous lack of Christian icons, giving the scene a convention- center ambience.

Few things seem more critical to Lakewood's success than Osteen's Warholesque insight into the power of the media -- the "pipeline," as Osteen calls it. For 17 years, following a brief stint in college, he worked in the church's television ministry, helping edit his father's sermons.

"To think that our message is there in northeast Houston and you watch it in Russia -- I mean, that's the power to me," says Osteen. "I just see the power of getting into somebody's living room. It's a dream to get in there and share your message and hopefully plant that seed of hope."

Two years ago Forbes reported that Lakewood was spending $12 million a year on television airtime. Of course, even if you have the marketing firepower, you've still gotta have game. Crisp delivery and a breathless pace mark the services. And Osteen's message might be boiled down to a kind of Gospel of Optimism -- a relentless, unfailing spiritual pick-me-up short on hellfire 'n' brimstone (or even intellect) and long on emotional exuberance.

"I just think that if we're going to relate to people and help impact their lives, you've gotta talk in everyday language," says Osteen, who mentally spot-checks to make sure his sermons can be understood by his YMCA basketball buddies. He suspects that some traditional, formal churches have failed to grow because they haven't changed with the times. "I always tell people if Jesus were here today, he wouldn't be riding a donkey. He'd be taking a jet or he'd be using the media and things like that. Times change."

Lakewood's only real flicker of controversy came in 2001 when some city council members and a competing bidder argued that the city had given Lakewood a sweetheart deal for the Compaq Center, the home of the Houston Rockets before the Toyota Center opened. That other bidder, Greenway Plaza owner Crescent Real Estate, later alleged in a lawsuit that the Lakewood deal violated deed restrictions. Crescent dropped the case, however, when it struck a separate agreement with the city regarding the sale of another property.

By then, Lakewood had upped its offer, paying the city $35 million to rent the space for 60 years.

Lakewood is not, of course, the only Texas-sized church in town. Second Baptist, to name just one, counts 'em by the thousands as well. Osteen suspects that there's something intrinsic to Houston that makes it megachurch-friendly. And he's not the only one.

John N. Vaughan, author of Megachurches and America's Cities, calls Houston "a microcosm of what's happening in some of the other places."

"When you get to a church of this size, they're churches that they've learned to trust the pastor -- they allow him to lead," Vaughan says of the most important factors to growth. He doesn't think that the media alone can explain Lakewood's climb.

"I feel like people have a strong sense of value," Osteen says. "And the city's so spread out, people are used to driving" to worship. Indeed, the Texas Department of Transportation may have had just as much influence in creating giant congregations as Houston's Bible Belt positioning. One local trend of the past decade that's affected Lakewood has been the influx of those from south of the border.

"We see a whole bunch of Hispanics now, and so we started a Hispanic service," he says. "That's affected how we minister, just to kind of know the demographics." One of Lakewood's often-cited virtues is its ability to muster diversity even during what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once called "the most segregated hour in America."

All of which still surprises Osteen, he says, recalling his trepidation in taking over for his father six years ago. At that time, some noted that huge churches, often built on a cult of personality, rarely got passed down successfully. Last fall Osteen published Your Best Life Now, which hit No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list. His vision for the future remains as bold as ever.

"First off, I'd like to see this grow to -- I don't know what the number is -- but I'd like to see this fill up four or five times and really set a new standard and raise the level for churches all over to say, 'You know what, it's no big deal to have a church of 10,000. You can believe for a church of 50,000,' " he says. Beyond that, his plans include branching out into prime-time television specials and touring more of the United States and Europe.

"I believe we're set up to do it like no ministry before," he says. "We're set at a time when we're young; we got the media; we got a strong base behind us, and I feel like we can really make an impact."

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