Lakewood Church

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

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.

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Lessons (long ago) from Hurricane Harvey news: Yes, even Brits fussed about Joel Osteen

Lessons (long ago) from Hurricane Harvey news: Yes, even Brits fussed about Joel Osteen

“A week is a long time in politics,” is a saying attributed to the late Harold Wilson, Prime Minister of Britain from 1964 to 1970 and from 1974 to 1976. What is of vital importance today, for politicians and the press, may be of no concern a week later.

A week? What about a month?

This phrase, like that attributed to Harold MacMillan, “events, dear boy, events,” has worked its way into the fingers of journalists around the Anglosphere. It is a handy cliche to be trotted out by the hack who wishes to appear world weary and sophisticated, and who is also pressed for time and cannot think of something original to say.

Biographers of Wilson and MacMillan claim not to be able to verify if or when these phrases were ever uttered by their subjects. Yet, provenance is no longer important when they appear in an article -- they serve to set a tone.

If one looks back in time, that furor over Joel Osteen’s alleged callousness towards those seeking shelter from Hurricane Harvey in Houston is a fine case study of reporting via tone. In American the press, social media and the television networks had extensive coverage of the report the telegenic pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston had failed to open his 16,000-seat church to those fleeing the rising flood waters in Houston.

The story seemed to be everywhere -- then 10 days later it was nowhere to be found (except in commentary pieces, of course).

The reason? “Events, dear boy, events.” Hurricane Irma, etc., displaced Hurricane Harvey in the press cycle and the lidless eye of Mordor media turned its gaze from Texas to Florida and back out into the Atlantic Ocean.

But back to that Houston case study.

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Flood him with criticism: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at Joel Osteen and his church

Flood him with criticism: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at Joel Osteen and his church

The internet does not need solid facts to crucify you.

A steady rising flood of Twitter posts — sketchy as the actual details might be — will do the trick.

Which brings us to Joel Osteen, the smiling televangelist known for his prosperity gospel sermons and oatmeal-mushy theology.

In other words, Osteen deserves whatever criticism that that the Twitter nazi want to throw at him.

Or, as that giant of evangelical social media commentary — Ed Stetzer — put it: "Man, some people hate Joel Osteen more than they love the truth ..."

You think?

At this point, I should confess my own sin and admit how hard I laughed when I saw this tweet about Osteen and the Lakewood Church in Houston supposedly displaying their cold, hypocritical hearts by refusing to open their building to Hurricane Harvey victims:

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Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Time for another journalism look at the rise of U.S. Protestant megachurches?

Religion writers are well aware that notably large Protestant “megachurches” have mushroomed across the United States this past generation. But they’re still expanding and it might be time for yet another look at the phenomenon.

 If so, the megachurch database maintained by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is an essential resource.  The listing is searchable so, for instance, reporters can easily locate such citadels in their regions through the “sort by state” feature.

Hartford defines a megachurch as having consistent weekly attendance of at least 2,000.

There’s a big caveat here: The statistics on attendance, necessarily, are what’s reported by the churches themselves. Such congregations numbered 350 as recently as 1990 but Hartford has by now located 1,667 and there are doubtless others, so untold millions of people are involved.

Overwhelmingly, these big congregations are Bible-believing, evangelical, charismatic or Pentecostal -- with only half of one percent labeling themselves “liberal” in doctrine.  

Hartford’s data will be a mere launching pad to get experts’ analysis of these newfangled Protestant emporiums and how they are changing the style and substance of American churchgoing. A starting point for that would be this 2015 overview (click for .pdf) from Hartford’s Scott Thuma and Warren Bird of the Leadership network.

They report, for instance, that “the megachurch phenomenon hasn’t waned” and “newer and younger churches are regularly growing to megachurch size.” More and more of them are spreading to multiple sites. An increasing population of adherents participates with church online rather than in person.

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