Upbeat Texas mega church readies for move

'The Smiling preacher' is building the church with a dynamic show.
HOUSTON -- The pastor once startled his own mother by exhorting the women in his congregation to shop at Victoria's Secret to improve their marriages. Last weekend, his glamorous musical director led four services in a hot pink coat and black spiky boots, stomping around the stage and singing the praises of Jesus in rousing, original rock sounds.
No one needed to know the words. The lyrics scrolled high above, across three gigantic screens, as a dynamic 10-piece orchestra and 100-person choir shook the church. The captivated flock of 8,000 stood singing for 30 minutes.
And then, not unlike in a Las Vegas production, the stars of this show bounded up to the pulpit of Lakewood Church. The Rev. Joel Osteen and his wife, Victoria, were greeted like royalty.
Record-setting growth
The Rev. Mr. Osteen is called "the Smiling Preacher," and he is perhaps the hottest commodity in the world of multimedia religion these days. His is the new face of Christianity, upbeat and contemporary, media-smart with a heightened sense of entertainment and general appeal.
The charismatic, nondenominational church he inherited from his late father six years ago has quadrupled in size, and today is the largest and fastest-growing in the country, welcoming upward of 30,000 visitors a week, according to Church Growth Today, a research center that follows church trends. Mr. Osteen's television broadcast is shown in every U.S. market, reaching 95 percent of the nation's households, and in 150 countries.
This summer, he will move his church into Houston's 16,000-seat Compaq Center, former home of pro basketball's Houston Rockets. The $92 million renovation is, Mr. Osteen says, "a leap of faith" that if he builds it, they will come.
All this from a man who dropped out of Oral Roberts University after one year and never received formal theological training -- although he does note that religion is the family business and he benefited greatly from on-the-job training. (He was ordained through his father's church in 1983.)
Neutral gospel
Mr. Osteen, 41, does not sweat or yell, or cry for sinners to repent. He preaches an energetic, gospel of hope and self-help -- simple Scripture-based motivational messages, notably devoid of politics and hot-button policy issues.
"You'll never be what you ought to be if you play it safe," he told his audience last weekend. "I want to challenge you today to get out of your comfort zone."
He was impeccably dressed in a navy pinstripe suit, crisp white shirt and gleaming black dress shoes. He aims to present himself as neutral as possible, he says, to not offend or generate controversy. If he thinks he looks too emotional as he edits a tape of his service for television broadcast, he cuts the segment out. "I don't want to give anyone a reason to flip it off," he said.
The crowds he attracts in Houston come away seemingly inspired. "He pushes us to a level God wants us to be at," said Juli Hain, who attends regularly. "He kicks us in the rear to take steps that will take us to a higher [personal] level."
Mr. Osteen's approach to religion and his goals are not new. For at least a decade, shrewd preachers have been attracting tens of thousands of people to nondenominational mega-churches, where the faithful are unknown to their pastor, as are the people in the next pew. They come to listen to messages of self-empowerment -- not just salvation.
"Joel is doing it better than most," said William Martin, a sociology professor and religion expert at Rice University. "He is purposely seeking to lower the barriers that keep people from going to church. They don't know the hymns; they don't have to learn the creed. It's all there for them."
Detractors criticize the style as "Christian-lite" -- all show and platitudes and no theological depth. Mr. Osteen's older brother Paul, a surgeon who left his practice to help the church, differs. "There is a disconnect between religion and what people need," he said, calling some sermons in traditional churches impenetrable, "almost goofy."
"What people want is an unchurch," Paul Osteen said. "They don't want pressure. Joel makes faith practical and relevant."
Crowds turned away
Mr. Osteen has been likened to Billy Graham in terms of appeal, if not message. At any given service, his church is filled with people of diverse races and economic backgrounds. His book, "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," has sold 1.5 million copies. (Because of the royalties, Osteen will not take his $200,000 church salary this year, he said.)
During his few forays outside of Houston last year, he filled New York's Madison Square Garden twice, and had to turn 4,000 people away in Atlanta. This year, he will visit 15 cities. An upcoming appearance in Dallas is sold out. (The $10 tickets cover costs and are not a moneymaker, Mr. Osteen said.) Tapes of his sermons are for sale.
"For a long time, churches beat people down," he said during an interview in his home office. "People are looking for inspiration and encouragement. So many negative voices are pulling us down during the week. People respond when you tell them there is a great future in front of you, you can leave your past behind."
His goal, he said, he is to "get beyond the church walls ... I want to reach the guys in the high-rise, the people in the neighborhoods ... the people who are not quite comfortable with their faith."
The pitch for money is quick and low-key, usually made by Victoria Osteen in a less than two-minute appeal before the buckets are passed. Mr. Osteen does not solicit offerings on television. "We're not on television to beg people for money," he said. "Television is an outreach."
He is unapologetic that he lives well in a $1 million house in an upscale neighborhood and that he is pouring the church's offerings into the Compaq Center these days, not into charities.
"I feel like God wants us to prosper," he said. "My dad grew up in the Depression. ... It is not God's will for anybody to live where you can't support your family. ... [Houston Astros pitcher] Roger Clemens just signed for $18 million -- man, don't tell me I can't have a nice house and send my kids to college."
Mr. Osteen said if the church "had that vow-of-poverty mentality, I don't know if we could raise $80 million" for the Compaq Center.
Mr. Osteen acknowledged that the church has cut back on its charitable giving because of the Compaq project. He said that this is the "season" for establishing the church and building his base.
1,200 volunteers per service
The services are surprisingly intimate considering the size of the congregation. People who need a special prayer are invited up front to counsel with a "prayer partner" -- which could be a member of the Osteen family or a volunteer trained for the job. Behind them stand more volunteers holding boxes of Kleenex.
At last week's service, one man asked Mr. Osteen to bless his marriage, another came up with his children, who wept as the father told of losing his job. Others talked of illness and death. Later, Mr. Osteen stood in the lobby and greeted congregates who wanted to shake his hand or get an autograph -- or just a hug. At least half a dozen people said they saw him on television and he changed their lives.
Laurie Beppler, whose first visit to the church was last weekend, said she watches Mr. Osteen on television regularly because "he tells us that with God, we can be empowered. He doesn't get bogged down."
Jodee Schallehn said she was up late, unable to sleep on the eve of her wedding last year, when she caught Mr. Osteen preaching while channel surfing. "I had been married before, and he was talking about not letting the past [impede] the future," she said. "I believe God gave me a sign ... I was very inspired."
The church is run by the Osteen family and a cadre of 4,000 volunteers, 1,200 of whom are needed for each service. It is a tightly organized Sunday operation at which ushers looking like Secret Service agents wear earpieces and microphones and manage to get 6,000 to 8,000 people to their seats quickly.
Indicating his priorities, Mr. Osteen's first hire was the music director, Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff. She and songwriter Israel Houghton create all the original music for the service. "I just think we're in a society these days that we're so distracted or busy. ... It's harder to hold people's attention," Mr. Osteen said. "We try to package the whole service -- I hate to use the word production or show."
He knows that some people just come for the music. And that is a good thing, he said. Whatever gets them in the door.