Lakewood Church as family empire: Houston Chronicle business reporter gets it right

Every so often, the Houston Chronicle covers some aspect of the Osteen empire at Lakewood Church, the nation’s largest Christian congregation. In the late 1980s when I worked at "the Chron,"  I followed the Rev. John Osteen, the patriarch who founded Lakewood in the 1960s and built it into a famous congregation with a TV ministry and an international outreach.

At the time, Lakewood was in northeast Houston and its billboards advertised the place as the “Oasis of Love.” I wrote a 1988 story about their move into a new building that John Osteen boasted only cost $5 million (while other megachurches were spending five times that on their capital projects) so that extra money could go to missions. Then in 2005, Lakewood moved across town to the 16,000-seat Compaq Center (former home of the NBA Rockets) on a major freeway smack in the middle of town.

Starting May 31, the Chronicle came out with “The Preacher’s Son,” a three-part series about its pastor, Joel Osteen, the son who took over when his dad died in 1999. The main writer was not a religion reporter but a business writer, as there was much emphasis on Lakewood Church as a $90 million/year business complete with financial statements and property records. The result was a wealth of information on the church I don’t think has ever been released.

The first part of the series kicks off with a segment from one of Osteen’s sermons, then:

This is how Osteen has become the nation's most ubiquitous pastor and one of its wealthiest. He has earned the allegiance of the hopeless, the doubtful and the downtrodden with a credo of beguiling simplicity: Don't dwell on the past. Think positive. Be a victor, not a victim.
A self-described "encourager," he rarely addresses or even acknowledges the fundamental mysteries of Christianity, let alone such contentious issues as same-sex marriage or abortion. Instead, he exhorts listeners to take charge of their destinies and confront whatever "enemies" they face -- debt collectors, clueless bosses, grim medical diagnoses, loneliness.
In an era of bitter cultural and political divisions, he has redefined what it means to be evangelical by dispensing with the bad news and focusing solely on the good. His vanilla creed has proven irresistible, especially to those down on their luck.

Then the focus shifts to the numbers:

Broadcasts of its thunderous, music-filled services reach an estimated 10 million U.S. viewers each week on television -- and more via websites and podcasts. Many of them go on to buy Osteen's books, devotionals, CDs, DVDs and other merchandise.
A 24-hour Sirius XM station, launched in 2014, expanded his domain to include people commuting to work or running errands.
He has taken Lakewood on the road with monthly Night of Hope events, lavishly produced spectacles of prayer and song that fill stadiums across the country at $15 a ticket. Attendees post branded photos from the events on Facebook and Twitter, where Osteen has amassed a combined 28 million followers.
His 10 books, self-help manuals filled with homespun wisdom about the power of positive thinking, have sold more than 8.5 million printed copies in the U.S. alone, according to NPD BookScan.
It's religion as big business, run by a close-knit family that excels at promoting Osteen as an earnest, folksy everyman. 

That does nail it, you must admit.

I was fascinated at some of the info reporter Katherine Blunt dug up, including some quotes from the Dallas-based Trinity Foundation, an investigative Christian group that keeps an eye on Osteen. They’re not in love with the guy, but he hasn’t broken the law, they said.

Osteen doesn't flaunt a life of luxury, but he does enjoy one. He and his family live in a $12 million River Oaks mansion with 13 rooms, a pool, an elevator and five fireplaces, public records show.
He and his wife Victoria, also a best-selling author, stopped taking salaries from the church in 2005. They live instead on book royalties. Unlike some other televangelists, they have not declared their home a parsonage, which would make it tax-exempt. They paid nearly $250,000 in Harris County property taxes last year, records show.

Lakewood took in $89 million during the most recent fiscal year, spent 70 percent of its budget on TV broadcasts, church services and programs and Night of Hope events, yet only $1.2 million on outreach to the poor. That's a far cry from John Osteen's efforts to cut frills at the church so as to give more away. 

The reporter makes a fascinating point that while church members underwrite the younger Osteen’s TV and radio ministry (which contribute to brisk sales of his books), the congregation doesn’t really benefit from all the media output.

Then there’s BrandStar, the Deerfield Beach, Fla.-based media company that manages Osteen’s image. I guess when you helm the nation’s largest church, you require entire social media department. Those folks got to work overtime after Lakewood got criticized for its reactions during the Hurricane Harvey washout last August. My GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross talked about that here.

Anyway, as the article points out, John Osteen filled churches. His son fills sports arenas.

The second part talks about John Osteen’s history; something I know quite a bit about. Oddly, it left out how he got divorced early in his ministry; an event the pastor asked me in 1988 not to print. We had quite a discussion about it in my newsroom and we decided that the divorce had happened many years back and didn't relate to the opening of the new church, so we honored his request.

The second part goes on to explain how Joel Osteen rose in the ranks and, after his father’s death, began crafting ways to market the Gospel. HIs goal: to outdo Billy Graham.

[Branding specialist Duncan] Dodds served as executive director of the church and helped guide its growth. He preached the importance of building Lakewood's name the way corporations promote their products.
"We wanted to be on the leading edge," he said. "What better thing to market than the Gospel?"
Dodds saw no ceiling on Osteen's popularity. With the right marketing support, he thought, Osteen could match the name recognition achieved by no less a figure than Billy Graham, the 20th century's preeminent evangelist.
"I became a believer during the Billy Graham crusades," Dodds recalled. "I saw that there was that potential." …
Dodds emphasized that all of the church's "brand touchpoints," from sermons to letterheads, had to work in unison to reinforce Lakewood as the ultimate religious brand and Osteen as its embodiment.

This is amazing stuff. I’m not sure how Katherine Blunt got Lakewood to work with her (they really didn’t need the PR), give her their most recent audited financial statement and another one from 14 years back and loan the Chronicle a ton of old photos. Photographer Elizabeth Conley did the photos for the entire package.

The third part goes after Osteen’s Night of Hope road extravaganzas.

At his home pulpit in Houston's Lakewood Church, Osteen keeps solicitations and marketing at a minimum. Appeals for donations and book promos are subdued. There is no admission fee, and merchandise sales are generally confined to a bookstore on a different floor.

Well, of course there’s no admission fee in a church.

When he hits the road, however, many of the restraints come off. Ads for merchandise and requests for donations are pervasive. The monthly events are saturated with messages promoting Osteen's Sirius XM channel, his mobile app, his social media platforms.

The reporter got religious luminaries and scholars to trash Osteen’s excess, including the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Again the reporter points out that Osteen’s road show actually loses money, but it gains a ton of followers and readers of his books.

There are also anecdotes from followers who say Osteen’s message saved their lives -- and bank accounts.

There aren’t a ton of quotes from Osteen himself in the article, which doesn’t surprise me. I interviewed him myself a few times after he’d come out with one of his best-selling books and whenever I tried to ask him something profound, the answers were flat. The man is not a deep thinker.

Sidebars included the church’s FY 2017 budget in an easily read PDF (which would require a business reporter to dissect); a timeline of Osteen’s life and a sidebar of the “queen mother” Dodie Osteen. I would have liked to have heard more about Victoria, the wife, and her feelings about being accessory to this fortune and fame but one can’t have everything.

The bottom line: I have to congratulate my former employer for not waiting until the Wall Street Journal did the definitive business wrap-up of Lakewood, but letting a business writer –- who knew what to look for –- pursue this man. Many times, as I was going through the 990 tax returns of various religious non-profits, I wished I had a business reporter alongside to translate it all. Maybe more religious figures should be pursued by business writers, or religion reporters might get trained to think more in terms of assets, profits and losses. Maybe a two-reporter effort?

I hope this isn’t the last time I see business and religion combined in a story. When it comes to televangelists, it’s a combo that really worked this time.

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