Power House

It's 15 minutes before the second Sunday service at Lakewood Church is scheduled to begin, but already half of the 7,800-seat sanctuary is filled. By the start of the service, it will be packed all the way up to the rafters.

As the people take their seats, a slight buzzing sound starts coming from the stage. It's the bleachers for the choir, rising up almost magically on a hydraulic lift. The choir members, in royal blue-and-white robes with tiny gold crosses embossed at the throat, begin to take their places. Behind them is a ten-piece band. Directly above them are three Jumbotrons, displaying a polite request that all cell phones, pagers and other electronic devices be turned off before the service. On either side of the stage are large banners with images of the American flag and the Statue of Liberty. And on those banners is a comforting slogan: We Believe in You.

Suddenly, the lights dim a bit and the people shift slightly in their seats. Something important is about to happen, and they can feel it. Several men in suits wearing tiny black microphones attached to headpieces press their fingers to their ears and march up the aisles, giving the impression that they are Secret Service, and perhaps the president of the United States is about to walk in. In fact, these gentlemen are the church's ushers.

Then, like a punch in the gut, someone cues the music.

"The only thing that matters starts today! The life that you've been looking for is not so far away!"

Up on the Jumbotrons, the familiar Lakewood Church television commercial is playing, complete with its catchy jingle and a shot of the boyishly handsome 39-year-old Pastor Joel Osteen announcing, "God takes pleasure in seeing you prosper in every area of your life!"

The music director, a sweet-faced blond named Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff, runs out from the side of the stage to take her place in front of the choir. She begins to lead the crowd in song, pumping her fist in the air and jumping up and down. The lyrics, in case someone should need them, appear on the Jumbotrons. All that's missing is the bouncing ball.

"Shout with a voice of praise! Shout with a voice of praise!" she sings.

The congregation -- equal parts black, white and Hispanic -- jumps to its feet. They are loving it, adoring it, dancing and throwing their arms up in the air. One woman has her own tambourine, wrapped in colored scarves, and she whips it over her head as she plays. The mood is intoxicating, and infectious. And not just here in this room, but in Zimbabwe and Louisiana, in Estonia and South Dakota. In any of the countless places around the globe where Lakewood's services are televised each week.

Finally, just when it seems the audience can't take any more excitement, Pastor Joel Osteen runs up on stage with his photogenic wife of 15 years, Victoria. Osteen has led this congregation for only three years, since he reluctantly took over the church when his father, John Osteen, the legendary founder of Lakewood, died suddenly. To look at Joel Osteen today -- dressed in a sharp dark suit -- is to see no evidence of a former behind-the-scenes man who used to get so nervous before preaching that he'd wear his father's shoes on stage for courage. No, to look at Joel Osteen today is to see one of the most dynamic preachers in the United States.

"You gotta start saying, 'I can do all things with Christ!' " he cries in his warm, thick Texas twang. "Don't settle for mediocrity! God wants to take us all to a higher level of victory!"

The crowd hollers back in agreement, shouts "Amen!" and "Hallelujah!" and then there is more music, more dancing, more singing, more upbeat messages.

It goes on like this for two hours.

The service is a glorious spectacle of marketing genius, a happy marriage of television know-how, motivational speaking and Jesus. And at a time when mainline Protestant churches are hemorrhaging members and are desperate to understand why, this self-described charismatic, nondenominational congregation has grown so rapidly since Joel Osteen took over that church leaders have ambitious plans to move the whole operation into Compaq Center in 2003. Some business and city government leaders aren't too happy about turning the public arena into a church, so Lakewood has come under a certain level of scrutiny that it is unaccustomed to, given that it has gone out of its way to avoid political involvement.

But that controversy is not up for discussion today. Instead, Joel Osteen continues to address the congregation in a lively, spirited voice.

"Father, we are the victors, not the victims!" he cries. "Start seeing yourselves as the overcomers you need to be!"

The people cheer with excitement.

Welcome to Lakewood Church. Welcome to the new religion.

Before there was a 7,800-seat sanctuary or television hot lights above the stage, before there was the need for Traffic Ministry volunteers to help direct the roughly 30,000 members into 20 acres of parking several times a week -- before all of that, there was simply a high school dropout from Fort Worth named John Osteen, an abandoned feed store and a basic message: God loves you, Jesus saves you, and the Bible is the truth.

Like all good success stories, the legend of Lakewood has that fairy-tale quality to its beginning. Late one night in 1939, as he was leaving a nightclub, John Osteen -- the son of cotton farmers -- felt God was calling him to something greater. After a friend urged him to attend a tent revival in Fort Worth, John accepted Christ and six weeks later found himself preaching in Paris, Texas, moving from schools to missions and nursing homes. The story goes that after he preached to one elderly woman, she paid him a quarter. Eventually, he was ordained a Southern Baptist minister and became known for his folksy, revivalist style.

"Daddy was a fireball," says Paul Osteen, one of the six children of John and his wife, Dodie, who still leads prayers at Lakewood. "But he wanted the people nobody else wanted. He didn't want to preach a gospel of condemnation."

John Osteen shunned the fire-and-brimstone sermons popular at that time and instead preached a simple message of love and eternal happiness by salvation through Jesus Christ. He craved preaching to those who felt lost and hopeless, say family members. But in the late 1950s, he took an even more unconventional turn by embracing the Pentecostal charismatic movement. The preacher encouraged speaking in tongues and loud, noisy worship services -- gifts of the Spirit made concrete. But soon his activities cost him the support of his denomination. The Southern Baptists considered such activity unbiblical and, truth be told, a bit strange.

"He was an extremely courageous person in the '50s, because he was kind of left isolated," says University of Houston religious studies professor Lynn Mitchell. "The Baptists were very much against it, but he appealed to so many people because it gave them the sense of the presence of God."

After being pushed out of the Southern Baptists (in a 1997 Houston Chronicle profile, John Osteen said he was treated as if he had the plague), he ventured briefly into the business world, but finally felt he had to open his own church. On Mother's Day in 1959, Lakewood Church welcomed about 90 members into a converted feed store in the same spot where the church stands today, on the northeast side of Houston just outside the 610 Loop. Apocryphal legend has it that the wooden floor slats of the building had such holes in them, people sometimes lost their money to the ground below during the offertory. John Osteen eventually came up with the nickname that would one day be plastered on thousands of bright blue bumper stickers all over Houston. Lakewood Church would be an "oasis of love" in a troubled world.

Right off the bat, Lakewood was unusual. And not just because members felt free to cry out during services, fall down on the ground and shake with excitement, or claim that the Holy Spirit had healed their physical illnesses. It was more than that. Because in 1959, in Texas, a white man had opened a church in what was -- and still is -- a primarily black neighborhood. And more than that, he invited area blacks and anyone else who wanted to show up to come on in. And they did. Perhaps at first out of curiosity. But John Osteen made them want to stay. Today, more than 40 years later, Lakewood Church is part of a tiny percentage of U.S. congregations considered racially integrated, meaning no one group makes up more than 80 percent of the membership (as one church attendee put it, "Lakewood's what heaven's gonna look like").

"It's one of the ironies of American denominational history," says professor Mitchell. "A lot of liberal churches, like the Episcopalians and the Methodists and so forth, often berate conservative Christians for being racist. But the fact of the matter is the Pentecostal movement has been integrated long before any of the major churches. And they are the best at it now."

The church's spirited services attracted more and more members, and by the late 1970s the church had outgrown the feed store and built a bigger space. As the church multiplied several times over, members got to know each other by involving themselves in all sorts of ministries -- everything from Helping Hands and Hospital Ministries to the Street Evangelism Ministry, which still heads downtown each week to try to win souls for Jesus. John and Dodie lived in what is now Kingwood and sent their six children to public schools. John focused on overseas missions and traveled quite often, preaching all over the world. But still, Lakewood Church did not have the same global reputation it enjoys today.

Then one day in 1983, John's youngest son, Joel, called him from Tulsa, where he was a freshman at Oral Roberts University. Joel told his daddy he had an idea: He was going to drop out of college and put Lakewood on TV.

Given his weekly performances on stage, it would be easy to expect Joel Osteen to be loud, maybe even a little too in-your-face, when he's off-stage. But strangely enough, he comes off a bit shy, a description his wife, Victoria, agrees with. One-on-one, Osteen is soft-spoken, and there is no attempt to fill every minute with conversation. Waiting for his meal at a restaurant, he fiddles a bit with the forks set out on the table. And when speaking about his brother Paul, a former surgeon who now works at the church, he says almost wistfully, "Paul is so good with people." As if somehow Osteen thinks he isn't. In fact, when Osteen first started preaching at Lakewood, the guys he'd played basketball with forever told him they heard him say more in one day's sermon than in ten years of shooting hoops at the gym.

But perhaps it is not so surprising that Joel Osteen is no fan of small talk. That's because the last thing he ever wanted to do, he says, was be a preacher at Lakewood Church. The idea of getting up on stage in front of thousands made him physically ill. Even when his father regularly suggested he go for it -- after all, many of the Osteen children had preached at Lakewood -- Joel rebuffed the offers and chose to stay in the background. And it was in that background that he first helped Lakewood explode.

As a student at Oral Roberts, Osteen says, he found himself thinking of ways the church could reach more people. He'd always had an affinity for marketing ("If marketing's what you call it for a church," he says). How to get more people coming to Lakewood? The answer was easy: television.

"I think the possibility of going into someone's living room, in their own environment, it's such a great tool," he says. "When Coca-Cola wants to reach a generation, man, they go to TV and the people are watching."

John Osteen liked the idea, as long as the church never used the cameras to ask for money. The young son agreed and came home, immersing himself in the task of getting Lakewood's message to millions. It was the perfect role for a behind-the-scenes kind of guy. By the mid-'80s, Lakewood was broadcasting on Channel 11 and the Family Channel, and Osteen was busy picking out which of his father's suits would make his dad look the best on camera. The broadcasts were a success, and the church now regularly reaches more than 100 countries.

"We don't have much drive-by visibility where we are," says Osteen. "So TV was a big impact. That's when the church really began to grow."

In fact, it may have been the nationwide TV exposure that led to a bizarre incident in January 1990, when Lisa Comes, Joel's older sister, opened a pipe bomb that had been mailed to the church in a shoe box. The box was sent from a tiny town in North Carolina, and when Lisa opened it, the bomb exploded out the sides of the box and shot nails into the walls.

"If she'd opened it the other way...," remembers Osteen, shaking his head. His sister underwent surgery on her leg and abdomen, and spent about a week in the hospital. Not long after the incident, a similar bomb sent from the same town arrived at Pat Robertson's offices, where the employee who opened it was injured. Neither case was ever solved.

While the church followed police suggestions to get a mail scanner, which it still uses, the Osteen family closed ranks and didn't comment publicly on the scare. Even now Joel Osteen refers to it as "a weird thing," stressing that nothing like that has ever happened again.

"It was weird, because my dad was uncontroversial," he says. "I don't know."

While perhaps a bit more open than his father, Joel Osteen also avoids controversy during his sermons. Instead, he comes off as an infinitely likable motivational speaker. He can be self-deprecating, and lacks that holier-than-thou shine, making him more accessible and much less annoying than, say, Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson. And unlike Falwell and Robertson, he avoids preaching about divisive political topics such as abortion and homosexuality (although he admits he is politically and socially conservative on those issues).

His warm, lilting Texas accent would be fun to listen to even if you didn't understand English. And his sermons, with such titles as "Winning the Battle of the Mind" and "Enlarge Your Vision," are nothing but positive, easy-to-swallow messages about getting up when the world keeps beating you down. Osteen -- and other charismatic, evangelical pastors like him -- shun the notion that Christianity means living a sandals-and-loincloth existence. Instead, they focus on "blessings" -- good faith is rewarded with material and spiritual happiness here in this world and eternal salvation in the next. It's like a strange combination of Tony Robbins meets Jesus.

"That's just my personality," says Osteen, a father of two. "My dad wasn't like that as much. I don't know. My personality has always been one of an encourager. Even playing basketball, I'm like, 'Come on, man, step it up' and stuff."

But how did a man who avoided following in his father's preaching footsteps end up walking across the same stage today? In a fitting way, the story of how Joel Osteen came to be Lakewood's preacher has the sentimental, almost unbelievable quality of a TV movie of the week. While John Osteen was still head preacher, every so often he would ask his son to take the stage, but his son would always refuse, blaming a gripping fear of public speaking. Then, on a Monday night in January 1999, John Osteen called his youngest boy at home to ask if he would preach that coming Sunday. John had been suffering from kidney trouble because of his lifelong high blood pressure and was on dialysis. But he had still managed to maintain a work schedule, and no one in the family thought he was near death. But the younger Osteen told his father no. The father said, "Joel, you're my first choice." But the son still said he couldn't do it, hung up the phone and sat down to eat his dinner.

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.

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.

"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.

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.

The only other proposal came from Crescent Real Estate Equities, the largest commercial landholder in Houston and owner of nearby Greenway Plaza. It wanted to purchase the property. In addition to asking for the right to tear down the center, Crescent proposed that the city give it the property in exchange for a piece of Crescent-owned land in front of the George R. Brown Convention Center. The company believed the land swap would clear up the $1.2 million debt Crescent still has with the city for failing to build a hotel near the convention center in 1997.

What followed was a months-long tussle with City Council, Crescent and Lakewood as the major players. And even though a 60-year, $35 million Lakewood lease was finally approved by council in December of last year, Crescent has taken the matter to court, claiming that a church in Compaq Center violates deed restrictions.

Those councilmembers who voted against the lease -- Chris Bell, Mark Ellis, Bert Keller and Bruce Tatro -- argue that the deal was rushed and that the city jumped on Lakewood's offer without recruiting other viable options.

"The way the whole measure was handled, I felt like it was preordained that Lakewood would get the Compaq Center," says Bell, who claims his staff was swamped by a "phenomenal" number of e-mails and phone calls from Lakewood Church members urging him to vote for the lease. "Why I say this is because of some of the information that was brought forth in public statements by Mr. Tollett, even before requests for proposals were brought forth, saying it would be the perfect site for Lakewood. And that was before we had even asked for proposals."

At City Council's request, the center was appraised several times (with a final value set at around $12 million, according to Tollett), and Lakewood eventually agreed to a rent increase of $12.1 million for the first 30 years and $22.6 for the final 30. Those in favor of the lease cite that the church plans numerous renovations at the center, and that the church has agreed to temporarily give up the space if Houston wins the 2012 Summer Olympics. But above all, supporters of the lease say it's a wise move for the city's future.

"Had we sold the Sam Houston Coliseum when the Compaq Center opened in 1974, in the year 2002 we would not have the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts going on that land," says Tollett. When the lease is up, "the city will still have that land, and the city gets all the improvements."

Councilmember Mark Goldberg, who was against the lease until a few days before the vote, says a large part of his decision to support the lease came when he realized the new Rockets arena had a noncompete clause in effect for 30 years with Compaq Center.

"It had been my understanding when I voted on the new arena that the noncompete clause was in effect for only ten years," says Goldberg. "But it's in effect for 30 years, and that means you couldn't use it for what it was built for. It's worthless now for the purpose and goal it was built for."

But Bell worries that the landslide of pro-Lakewood mail (he says a few letters suggested eternal damnation for failing to support the lease) did influence other councilmembers.

"I listen to both sides to make my decision, and certainly an overabundance of calls and e-mails is not going to sway my opinion, and shouldn't," says Bell. "Although I did start feeling as if it was having an impact" on other colleagues.

Walden, the church's lobbyist, laughs off that comment, suggesting that Bell's personal ties are what convinced him to vote against the lease. In fact, Crescent's lobbyist, Vinson & Elkins attorney Joe B. Allen, served as chairman of Bell's failed mayoral campaign (Allen would not return calls for this story).

"I didn't waste my time meeting with Chris," says Walden. "Joe B. Allen's his best friend, and there wasn't a chance in hell that I was going to get his vote. Not a chance in hell."

Walden also shrugs off the idea that his longtime friendship with Jordy Tollett had anything to do with Lakewood's eventual success.

"Truthfully, I don't like dealing with the little bastard [Tollett], because since I'm his friend I get nailed harder," says Walden. "Lakewood was looking at the Compaq Center long before they met me, and my contact with the church was through their attorneys, not Jordy. I think if you forget all that and see who has the best deal for the city, the numbers just speak for themselves."

Now the fight lies in whether the Compaq Center lease violates deed restrictions. While Crescent would not comment extensively on the matter, citing pending litigation, the company says it has nothing personal against the church.

"We feel it is a fundamental property rights issue that is very critical to a city that does not have zoning," says Jim Wilson, a regional vice president of property management for Crescent. "We certainly feel it's a very important issue, not only to Crescent but to the community and anyone who owns real estate, residential or commercial. I think it sends a terrible precedent if it were to change."

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.

"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.

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.

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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