Where Church Is Big ... Very Big

Lakewood leased the center from the city of Houston in 2004 for 60 years, paying $13 million in cash for the first 30 years rent. Then they threw $95 million more in on top of that to try to make the 650,000 square foot building feel like an intimate church. There is wall-to-wall carpet beneath the 14,000 seats. The largest of three jumbotron screens is 32 feet by 18 feet. Twin waterfalls book-end a stage that rises and falls before a circling gold globe and a pulpit, where Osteen, often lambasted by critics for being light on theology, preaches about staying positive. He says he doesn't want to be "too religious" in hopes to reach the "everyday person."

"Don't drive up and down the freeway and just see the traffic, potholes and the construction. Look out at the beauty of God's creation. Look out at the trees, look up into the sky. Breathe in the goodness of God," he told his following on a recent Sunday. "When that critical spirit comes, you have to deal with it one thought at a time."

Out in the sea of believers and donators, amid scores of television cameras, was James Lyster, 38, a tattooed steelworker dressed in a suit. Others came in jeans and T-shirts. "The spirit of the Lord is here," he says. So is the rumble of a dramatic drum solo and the blare from a band belting the lyrics of "Come in From the Outside Just as You Are."

After the service, some 400 people lined up to visit with the Osteens. An usher had to cut it off. "I've already turned away 100 people," he said. Nearby was a man who said he visited from Idaho with his son who was about to be treated locally for leukemia. Another, A. D. Achilefu, 28, whose father is from Nigeria and has attended Lakewood for eight years, says the congregation is a good glimpse of what heaven will be like: "a big melting pot."

"Osteen is responding to the psychological needs of our culture in a theologically accessible way," says Nathan Carlin, a doctoral student in religion studies at Rice University, who co-authored the recent article in Pastoral Psychology "Joel Osteen as Cultural Selfobject."

"Many preachers tell us that God loves us, but Osteen makes us believe that God loves us. And this is why he is so successful," he says.

It's unclear how much more successful he can be or how much bigger megachurches can get, even in Texas. One sign of success: Despite the economic downturn, Lakewood says they are on par with last year's collections.

"When I was growing up, a church of 1,000 was a big deal," Osteen says. "But you know what, it's just a different day today. I don't know where we will be in 30 years. Will there be churches of 100,000 or will we be meeting in big stadiums? I can't fathom that now, but I don't know." It could come sooner than that. In April 45,000 people filled New York's new Yankee Stadium to hear him speak.

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