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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, August 5, 2006

Upbeat messages draw thousands

By Frank E. Lockwood
McClatchy-Tribune News Service

HOUSTON At the nation's largest megachurch, tens of thousands of worshippers listen to their congregation's theme song, "Discover the Champion in You." Later, they stand, hold their Bibles heavenward and recite a latter-day Texas creed.

"I am about to receive the incorruptible, indestructible ever-living word of God," they say. "I'll never be the same never, never, never."

Finally, the Rev. Joel Osteen welcomes the Lakewood Church crowds, which erupt with "amens" and applause.

"It's a joy to have you here. We love you. We know God has great things in store for you," he says.

As he speaks, a gold globe the size of a space capsule spins on the platform. Waterfalls gurgle near the stage. Jumbotron-style screens glow overhead and fog machines spew steam.

Regina McKissack, a native of Louisville, Ky., said the choir's singing and Osteen's preaching are wonderful and that every service is special.

"It's fabulous," she said. "It's the best church in the world."

In a nation where many churches remain segregated, this church has succeeded in bringing people together.

"This ministry reaches all diversities and cultures," McKissack said. "We're all colors and we have all different talents and gifts, and that's what I really love about Lakewood."

Osteen's goal in life wasn't to be a TV evangelist. He was content to work for his father, a Houston megapastor with a TV ministry that aired in 100 countries.

But when John Osteen died unexpectedly in 1999, Lakewood Church officials urged his son an Oral Roberts University dropout who had preached only one sermon to continue the work his father had started.

Skeptics wondered whether Osteen was capable of preaching to a crowd of 6,000 people every week, but they didn't wonder long. Soon, the church was bursting at the seams.

"Joel went from 10,000 to 20,000 to 30,000 to 40,000, all within five years," said Church Growth Today founder John N. Vaughan, who releases an annual list of the nation's largest congregations. "He could go to 50,000 real easily."

Lakewood already is the largest church in America. The congregation meets in the old Compaq Center known to basketball fans as the former home of the Houston Rockets.

Osteen, who used to produce his father's TV ministry, is now perhaps the most famous televangelist in America. His book, "Your Best Life Now: 7 Steps to Living at Your Full Potential," has sold 5 million copies. Soft-spoken and always smiling, he has a message that stresses the positive heaven instead of hell, hope instead of fear.

Osteen, 43, ends his services with altar calls, inviting people to come forward and make a public decision for Christ. But his relentlessly upbeat messages rub some people the wrong way.

"He's giving out cotton-candy theology," said Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation, a group that tracks TV evangelists and exposes fake faith healers and religious con artists. "The good thing is there's no indication of fraud in anything he's doing."

In fact, Osteen no longer receives a salary from the church.

Supporters say Osteen has a gift for communicating Scriptural truths in ways that everyone can understand. He also makes prayer a priority, setting aside time to pray with church-goers who are in crisis.

Rosa Tejera said she feels love at Lakewood. "I feel closer to God when I'm here. It's something in my spirit. ... It's just a happiness, a peace," she says.

Although he's a celebrity, Osteen follows his father's example, greeting worshippers as they leave on Sundays. But it's not a quick or easy process anymore. People line up by the hundreds to shake his hand, to snap a picture, to ask him for a prayer or an autograph.

Sunday at Lakewood Church, it took an hour for Osteen to greet each person. By the time it was over, he had held a baby, hugged a sick child and received a greeting card from a stranger.

Bodyguards and an aide, clutching Osteen's bottle of Ozarka spring water, waited nearby.

Scott Thumma, a sociologist of religion at Hartford Seminary, said the growth has been so extraordinary that "it really defies explanation in some ways."

Osteen doesn't have traditional seminary training, but his followers believe he has God's blessing. Many people also like his personality, Thumma said.

"He comes across as a good guy, as one of us, as someone who's caring and sincerely interested in everybody."