Moments before stepping out to the stage, pastor Joel Osteen pauses. He has studied hard for the message he is about to share. And he has already covered the Sunday morning services in prayer. But there is one more thing he must do before he is ready to preach.
Silently, the 37-year-old minister slips off his shoes. Setting them aside, he reaches to a nearby shelf and carefully takes down an attractive pair of black, Italian leather dress shoes. They were his father's. He holds them for a moment, then quietly slides them on and walks onto the platform.
The crowd gathered at Lakewood Church in east Houston cheers in anticipation as their young pastor approaches the podium. Those who regularly attend the famous 15,000-member charismatic church founded by Joel's dad, the late John Osteen, know exactly what is about to happen.
"Everyone hold up your Bibles and repeat after me," Osteen instructs. In unison, the congregation echoes the same words Joel's father used to have them recite before every service:
"This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do. Today I will be taught the Word of God. My mind is alert. My heart is receptive. I will never be the same, in Jesus' name."
Osteen's sermon is simultaneously loving and exhortative. The young pastor is upbeat, energetic and, according to many, a lot like his father. He projects a strong faith that encourages those present to believe they can trust God for anything.
"God has not become weak!" he shouts. "Like Daddy used to say, 'God hasn't lost the recipe for manna.' He can get your child off drugs. He can save the people you love. All that matters is what God says about your situation."
Again, the crowd cheers. And at the end of the service, they flood the front of the sanctuary in droves. Many are weeping. Some fall to their knees. Others lift their hands in worship.
In the first four months of this year alone at Lakewood, 3,600 people received Christ, 1,300 rededicated their lives to the Lord, and 939 received the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Joel Osteen officially was installed as pastor of Lakewood Church on Oct. 3, 1999, after the death of his father in January 1999. Joel's mother, Dodie, still serves on staff in her original role as co-pastor with late husband John Osteen.
"Joel just stepped into his daddy's place, out of the clear blue," Dodie says. "He never preached a sermon in his life until one week before John died." She pauses, holding back a tear. "He preaches a lot like his father. He's a lot like John. He says often that his dad was his hero."
Less than a year into his new role as pastor of the church his parents founded in 1958, Joel is the first to admit that the task can seem daunting at times.
"The devil tells me over and over, 'You're not capable of pastoring.' But if your mind is filled with the promises of God, there is no room for Satan, and you will see yourself the way God sees you."
The energetic husband and father of two says he is up for the challenge. He and his wife, Victoria, speak with passion of the great things they believe God will do in Houston. They speak candidly about the church in today's world. And they speak reverently of the sacrifice Joel's father made to lay the strong foundation on which they are now building.
Charisma met with the Osteens on the sprawling 55-acre campus of Lakewood Church to talk about what's ahead as they assume their pastoral role in one of the country's largest churches.
The Cost of Revival
The explosive growth and freedom in the Spirit that have characterized Lakewood Church from its beginning did not come without a price. Joel's father had been a successful Southern Baptist pastor throughout the 1950s--until he was baptized in the Holy Spirit in 1958 while pastoring Hibbard Memorial Baptist Church in Houston. Southern Baptist officials subsequently put him on trial for heresy.
Rather than battling it out and furthering division, Osteen chose to leave the denomination and start his own church. The new congregation of 100 people hungry for renewal met in a dilapidated feed barn just blocks away from Hibbard. But in these dingy surroundings--and despite tremendous opposition from traditionalists in the area--Lakewood church became a center of revival that would eventually impact not only Houston, but the world.
A lot has changed in the last 40 years.
Joel Osteen believes the walls of division between churches in Houston have virtually disappeared. And he is doing his part to see that continue.
Recently he started a local ministerial fellowship, inviting pastors of churches from all denominations within a 5-mile radius of the church to come together to develop relationships and to brainstorm on how they might work together for the sake of the gospel.
"I think churches [in Houston] are unified," Osteen says. "Even some of the big denominational churches are dropping their denominational names. People are getting past this denominational thing.
"It's not near like [it was years ago]. Our church has a good relationship with the Baptists. [Baptist] pastors have called and encouraged me. They had a lot of respect for my dad. They regretted all the stuff that happened with him."
Despite the controversy, Lakewood Church boomed and is still going strong. The church is currently developing new ministries to meet the practical needs of residents living in the neighborhoods surrounding the church--one of Houston's poorest communities.
The ministry team is putting together a medical outreach to conduct routine exams for people who can't afford a doctor's appointment. They regularly hold job fairs to help the unemployed find work. They work closely with local food pantries to feed the poor and are involved with outreaches to inmates in Harris County Jail and their families.
Through its comprehensive missions program, Lakewood has always been instrumental in reaching foreign nations. John Osteen spent years developing relationships with key leaders around the world. The church funnels money through these various leaders, who use the funds to support indigenous pastors, plant churches and purchase supplies. In the last five years alone, Lakewood Church has given $25 million to the mission field.
The church is also famous for its worldwide television ministry, which Joel founded and oversaw for 18 years when his dad was the pastor. Church services are broadcast nationally by Fox Family Channel and Trinity Broadcasting Network and air in foreign countries such as South Africa and parts of the Middle East. The programming is distributed in video format into more than 100 nations every month via a network of missionary leaders and pastors in each country.
But perhaps most striking is how the church has demolished barriers that historically have kept people separated, even within the church. Lakewood comprises an unusually even mix of people from different ethnic and financial backgrounds. The congregation is almost exactly one-third white, one-third black and one-third Hispanic.
So how did a small group of outcasts that started a church in an old feed barn become a congregation that would impact the planet?
"The Lord spoke to my dad to quit preaching great sermons; just start preaching the Bible," Joel told Charisma. "The church just really started to grow.
"We've had reporters by the dozens come here through the years, from everywhere, and they would ask my dad [referring to the racial integration], 'How did you do this?' We never had a good answer. All we ever said is that this is a place where God could move.
"My dad just never had a vision to put money into buildings. The ministry was built on helping people. My dad said, 'Go out and find the people who are down and out, broken and bruised.'"
It's that passion for reaching out that keeps the Osteens and their ministry team focused as they look to the future with vision.
Reaching a New Generation
Lakewood is currently planning the construction of a new 70,000-square-foot complex that will serve as a family athletic center and gymnasium with a 2,000-seat auditorium for youth ministry events, dramas and concerts. The facility will feature one of the largest indoor children's activity centers in Houston.
But as Joel and Victoria, who have been married 13 years, speak of the future, it is evident that the focus is never buildings--it's people.
The Osteens believe the church at large must strive to be relevant, practical and innovative in its attempts to reach the lost.
"The old traditions of the past may not work," Joel says. "We have to get past some of these religious rules and traditions. Things that count are living a holy life and going out there and touching people in the streets. God didn't call us just to have a good time in church. Maybe it's time to change."
Victoria, who left her family's successful jewelry business to devote herself to full-time ministry, echoes her husband's sentiments.
"We just have to be able to accept people. They're not going to look the same--especially a lot of these young people. We've got to be open, to know it's a matter of the heart.
"We need to get them in, love them, and God will work on the other stuff. It's pretty serious out there, and it's gonna take love. That's the only thing [that will work]. It's the power of God."
Joel believes that if the church is to influence society, it must throw away haughty religious attitudes and be hungry for a move of God.
"A lot of churches are lacking the supernatural power of God," he shares candidly. "People are tired of religion as usual. They don't want to go to a church where they don't get helped, you can't feel the presence of God, or you're not changed."
With lessons learned from his famous father, Osteen is charging ahead to reach this generation for Christ. "[Shortly before] Daddy went to be with the Lord, he said; 'Joel, don't walk--run with the vision. Think big.'"
Osteen pauses, and it's clear that his dad's dress shoes aren't the only thing of his father's that he wears--he also carries the mantle of his father's ministry.
"Daddy used to say that one day, denominational names would grow dimmer and the name of Jesus would grow brighter.
"I think we're seeing that now. And that's what's going to usher in this whole new wave of God." *
Bill Shepson is associate editor of Charisma and managing editor of
Ministries Today magazine.
Bill Shepson is associate editor of Charisma and managing editor of
Ministries Today magazine.