A Church That Packs Them In, 16,000 at a Time

HOUSTON, July 17 – Where the Beers of the World kiosk once dispensed suds to rowdy N.B.A. fans, volunteers were handing out church literature on Sunday. And where Patricia Davis, 38, once saw ZZ Top in concert, she now plans to worship.

“I was saved from that,” Ms. Davis said last week, sitting near the old three-point line at the 16,000-seat arena here that is now her church’s new home. “With the waterfalls,” she said, “this really feels like a sanctuary.”

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The nondenominational Lakewood Church, the nation’s largest congregation, moved into the Compaq Center, once the home of the Houston Rockets, over the weekend. After $95 million in renovations, including two waterfalls and enough carpeting to cover nine football fields, the arena now belongs to a charismatic church with a congregation of 30,000, revenues of $55 million last year and a television audience in the millions.

Like many new evangelical churches, the building has no cross, no stained glass, no other religious iconography. Instead, it has a cafe with wireless Internet access, 32 video game kiosks and a vault to store the offering.

On Saturday evening, at the first service in the arena, Joel Osteen, the pastor, exhorted a packed house of black, white and Latino worshipers, some of whom arrived three hours early. “What a sight this is. You guys look like victors, not victims,” he said, to a round of applause. “We’re just going to have a great time and celebrate the goodness of God tonight.”

Mr. Osteen, 43, a personable Texan with soap-opera features and wavy, gelled hair, did not go to seminary and dropped out of college after a year. But since he inherited the church from his father in 1999, he has been on a roll, spreading a simple self-help message that congregants say is both uplifting and accessible. God, Mr. Osteen preaches, does not want to see people suffering and poor; he wants them to be healthy, wealthy and wise.

This message, along with Mr. Osteen’s boyish appeal and media savvy, has produced the popular television ministry, a best-selling book, national arena appearances by Mr. Osteen (including two sold-out nights at Madison Square Garden last year and another date scheduled for October) and a congregation that has quadrupled in six years. The choir alone has 500 members.

To his flock, Mr. Osteen is to varying degrees spiritual leader, motivational speaker and celebrity. Congregants line up for his autograph after services. His publisher, Warner Faith, provided a private jet for his tour to promote the book, “Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential,” which has 2.8 million copies in print. With the book’s success, Mr. Osteen said he has forgone his $200,000 salary from the church this year.

Even with the 16,000-seat facility, the church has scheduled four services each weekend, including one in Spanish. “It’s very possible that within this year, he could be running 40 to 50 thousand people,” said John N. Vaughan, who runs Church Growth Today, a consulting and research center.

Mr. Osteen’s rise is an indicator of the growth and upward mobility of the charismatic branch of evangelical Christianity, and a rebound for television ministry after the sexual and financial scandals of the 1980’s, said Alan Wolfe, director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. Mr. Osteen avoids contentious issues like abortion and homosexuality, and he does not ask for money on his broadcasts.

“Osteen is the first to heal the scars in televangelism,” Dr. Wolfe said. “He’s very telegenic. He’s in the tradition of Jim Bakker, but focused less on financial prosperity than psychological well-being.”

Mr. Osteen’s rationale for spending $95 million on a church rather than on ministering to the poor was typically upbeat. “My philosophy,” he said, “is that that $95 million will be nothing compared to what we’ll do when we have 100,000 people.”

In interviews at the church last week, congregants praised Mr. Osteen for his practical messages and praised the new building as a monument to God. “He’s added a different dimension to our spiritual life,” said Kumar Felix, 45, an immunologist who described himself as a “hard-core” Catholic but said he was drawn to Mr. Osteen because of his motivational messages. “We’re always quoting Joel’s talks in our daily life.”

Church members said they had experienced small miracles as a result of attending Lakewood, and especially as a result of tithing, which Mr. Osteen tells them will bring even greater rewards.

Jeffrey D. Holliman Sr., 38, who said Mr. Osteen makes the Bible “intelligible,” added that God had recently steered money his way after the electric company threatened to cut his service. Walter Gonzalez, 28, said that since he started tithing, he had more money left after paying his bills.

Pamela Newman, 62, came to Lakewood five years ago after watching Mr. Osteen on television. That night, she said, she was cured of epilepsy. “I was slain by the Holy Spirit,” she said. “I laid on the church floor for 45 minutes. I thought, ‘I’m a Baptist, I can’t lie on the floor.’ But I couldn’t move.” (Like other charismatic churches, Lakewood believes in speaking in tongues and other manifestations of the Holy Spirit.)

When Ms. Newman went back to her Baptist church to tell people what had happened, she said, “everyone walked in the other direction.”

If not for the religious references, Mr. Osteen’s sermons, on topics like procrastination, submitting to authority and staying positive, could be secular motivational speeches. This is by design. “The principles in the Bible will work for anybody,” he said. “If you give, you will be blessed. I talk about things for everyday life. I don’t get deep and theological.”

Mr. Osteen’s father, John, a former Southern Baptist minister, started Lakewood in 1959 in an abandoned feed store in a downtrodden part of Houston. From the start, the church drew a diverse congregation, said Phyllis Parrott, a sales representative for Colgate Oral Pharmaceuticals who has attended Lakewood since 1984. “John would say, ‘How many of you used to be in prison?’ and half the staff would stand up,” she said.

In 1983, Joel Osteen dropped out of Oral Roberts University in Tulsa to start a television ministry for his father. Those years as a producer, he said, helped shape his services, which move swiftly through video clips, songs and family cameos.

Mr. Osteen begins each sermon with a joke and follows with anecdotes from his own life, about how through faith he received a house, a parking space, a happy marriage. There is no time to ruminate on theological puzzles, like why God allows people to suffer.

“The answer is I don’t know,” Mr. Osteen said. “We deal every week with someone whose child got killed, or they lost their job. I don’t understand it. All you can do is let God comfort you and move on. Part of faith is not understanding.”

This relentless focus on the positive has led critics to call him lightweight.

“The idea of suffering as a Christian virtue is not part of his worldview,” said Lynn Mitchell, director of religious studies at the University of Houston. “Some call it Christianity Lite – you get all the benefits, but don’t pay attention to the fact that Jesus called for suffering. He doesn’t tackle many of the problems of the world.”

But many among his congregants said he tackled their problems. Mario Cervantes, 38, said that the church had taught him to name the things he wanted, and that he would receive them. “The Bible says, speak those things that aren’t as if they are,” Mr. Cervantes said.

“Now I’m speaking my marriage to Isabelle,” he said, gesturing to his girlfriend. “And having a relationship with my children. The Bible tells me that as long as I serve him, I shall have what I want. The reason I didn’t name material things is that I know I’m here on borrowed time from God.”

After the opening night service at the arena on Saturday, Julio Roman, 18, a seminary student who flew in from Chicago, walked out ecstatic. “Did it feel like church?” he said. “Yes, in a bigger, more extravagant way. No more little storefronts – this is the new face of church.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
New York Times, USA
July 18, 2005
John Leland

Religion News Blog posted this on Monday July 18, 2005.
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