October 2, 2004, Saturday, BC cycle
From TV sermons to book, pastor’s influence grows with flock
BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer
SECTION: State and Regional
LENGTH: 944 words
On their first date, Joel Osteen and his future bride, Victoria, went out to watch a Houston Rockets basketball game at the team’s home, then called The Summit.
Two decades later, the fast-growing megachurch that Osteen pastors is spending $78 million to turn the Rockets’ former arena – later renamed the Compaq Center – into its new spiritual home, with 16,000 seats, two waterfalls and plenty of television cameras for Lakewood Church’s nationally broadcast services.
The 41-year-old minister chuckles at the coincidence as he stands in the arena where true love was born and where he predicts as many as 100,000 people will someday worship every weekend.
“God’s got a sense of humor,” Osteen said, talking over the buzz of heavy machinery transforming locker rooms into children’s classrooms. “I never dreamed as a kid that this would be our place.”
In fact, Osteen never dreamed he would be a preacher – much less one leading the Protestant church ranked as the nation’s largest in a study by Church Growth Today, based in Bolivar, Mo.
That study, published in the May/June issue of Outreach magazine, used self-reported data from churches for the first quarter of 2004 and put Lakewood’s weekly attendance at 25,060.
Osteen took over as Lakewood’s senior pastor five years ago – on Oct. 3, 1999 – after his father, John Osteen, died at age 77. The elder Osteen founded the charismatic Christian church in an abandoned feed store in 1959.
Over the next 40 years, Lakewood grew to average Sunday attendance of about 6,000 in its 7,800-seat sanctuary. The new facility, expected to open next summer, will more than double the seating capacity.
“His father had a very large church, but when Joel took over, it mushroomed,” said Scott Thumma, a researcher of megachurch trends at Hartford Institute for Religion Research in Connecticut.
These days, the man nicknamed “The Smiling Preacher” is everywhere, it seems.
Flip through the cable channels on Sunday and he’s hard to miss, with ABC Family, Black Entertainment Television, Discovery Channel, Turner Broadcasting and PAX among the national networks that air his program.
His first book, “Your Best Life Now,” published by Warner Faith, hits stores this month and sold 130,000 copies in advance.
And he’s taking his sermons and Lakewood’s choir on a national road tour. Already, he has preached to packed arenas in Atlanta and Anaheim, Calif., and he will be at New York’s Madison Square Garden on Oct. 21-22.
Surprisingly, Osteen had never preached – and never had the desire, he says – until the Sunday before his dad died in January 1999.
“I liked to be behind the scenes,” said Osteen, who left his studies at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Okla., in 1982 and joined his father’s staff as a television producer. “My heart was the production and the editing and things like that.”
But when his father was hospitalized, he reluctantly stepped to the pulpit. His dad listened to the sermon by telephone from his hospital bed.
“The nurses said they’d never seen him so happy, so proud,” Osteen recalled. John Osteen died five days later, and his son “just knew it down on the inside” that God wanted him to preach.
Since then, Lakewood has expanded to four English services each weekend and added a Spanish service – preached by a different pastor.
The English services draw an almost equal mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics – diversity not seen in most churches across the nation.
“People feel comfortable,” said Cristina Garcia, a mother of two young children who wore casual pants to a recent service, while her husband, Moses, sported a blue “Carolina” jersey and jeans.
“It’s not just the diversity of people,” she added. “It’s also the different social classes.”
The Garcias and other church members credit Osteen’s simple, encouraging style – not to mention his marketing acumen – for the tremendous growth.
Laid-back and far from fiery, he starts each message by asking congregants to hold up their Bibles and commit themselves to the “ever-living seed of the Word of God.”
Asked to explain the growth, Osteen said, “I think the message of hope and encouragement resonates with people. … I don’t know if there’s one thing. I know it’s just God’s blessings.”
But for critics, the cheerful pastor makes an easy target.
The Door, a religious satire magazine published by the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, panned Osteen in its July/August issue with a mock interview headlined, “If You’re Happy and You Know It…” A caricature of Osteen flashing gigantic teeth accompanied the article.
“To me, it’s cotton-candy theology,” said Ole Anthony, president of Trinity, a Dallas-based religious watchdog group. “There’s no meat. They just make everybody feel good.”
In a similarly biting criticism, a Publishers Weekly review characterized Osteen’s book as an “overblown and redundant self-help debut” marked by “shallow name-it-and-claim-it theology.”
But Osteen’s admirers – and there are many, from actor Chuck Norris to NFL quarterback David Carr – say he’s just what a hurting world needs.
“People need to be loved. They need to feel important,” said Daniel Jackson, 55, a black police officer and Lakewood member.
And, as Osteen sees it, they need to be fed.
“It’s sort of like to me it’s a good restaurant – if you’ve got good food, people will come,” he said. “So we know we’ve got to make our services good. They’ve got to uplift people. They’ve got to walk away saying, ‘You know what, I feel better today.”‘
On the Net:
Joel Osteen: http://www.joelosteen.com
Trinity Foundation: http://www.trinityfi.org