The first thing I notice about Lakewood Church is the traffic. It loops around the block and reaches back to the highway. Security guards wave lighted airplane wands to direct drivers into specific lots. As I approach, one guard says, “Oversized parking is down the street, hang a left at the sign and they’ll take care of you.”
I have come to Lakewood simply because it is the largest mega-church in the country, with an average weekly attendance of more than 43,500. Somewhere between South Dakota and Washington State, I decided to challenge my stereotypes of religion and religious people in this country. Secretly, I hope to find “hell and damnation” preachers, which I have witnessed on TV and in the movies. Because Lakewood is a non-denominational, positivist church, however, I am not expecting fear mongering here. The challenge, I suspect, will be stepping outside my own beliefs to experience this church and its congregants.
John Osteen and his wife, Dodie, started Lakewood in 1959. Their son, Joel, and his wife, Victoria, now minister the church. Under them, it has grown to occupy the former Compaq Center in downtown Houston, a 17,000 seat indoor arena. On Sunday mornings this Christian, evangelical church hosts four services: two in English and two in Spanish. On Wednesday evenings, they celebrate with an additional two services. I choose to attend the 11 AM Sunday service in English, which is, unfortunately, the only language in which I am fluent.
Finding the oversized lot, I park and find myself in what appears to be a corporate concourse. Spying a woman with bible in hand, I ask “How do I get to the service?” “Wait here,” she replies. “There is a free shuttle to the church that runs every 10 minutes.” Mary, I learn her name later, becomes my new best friend in the congregation. I secretly wonder why I befriend “Marys” at churches across the country.
On the shuttle, I sit a few rows behind Mary and other people holding thick bibles. The van juts forward and exits the parking lot. It appears to be heading the opposite way from which we came. “Don’t worry, this really is going to the church,” Mary looks back from the front of the shuttle. So do the other people in the van. I wonder if something else awaits us? Lunch perhaps? Or maybe an abduction? “I trust you,” I yell back across the other church members.
Several more turns and we arrive at the stadium entrance, which is, surprisingly, still a short walk via an underground concourse. Crowds of people stream in. Black, Latin, Asian, white, young and old. This event is starting to feel like a rock concert. Ushers in their Sunday best greet visitors and congregants.
Mary leads me to the main hall; It looks like a sports stadium. A large stage occupies one end of the building. Two rows of seats, full of smiling people – presumably the choir – reach up to the second tier behind the staging area. Large media screens display church announcements, and television cameras stand ready to broadcast.
There is anticipation in the faces of the people who continue to fill the building. I have never seen so many at a single church service. And, the diversity of their makeup surprises me, especially in the South. I learn later that Lakewood was founded as an integrated church and continues that tradition today.
The main event begins with a music video. An upbeat tune plays against the backdrop of a man singing, “You make beautiful things out of the dust . . . . “ Images flash on the screen, the motion slows, then resumes. A man digging his hand into the sand. A husband embracing his pregnant wife. A woman being baptized. Parents holding babies and children. An elderly couple touching. The 30-second spot is emotional and energizing. “. . . You make beautiful things, out of us.” People jump to their feet and sing along.
The atmosphere becomes electric. A rock band enters and live music begins. The congregation continues to sing along, with words – karaoke style — displayed above. Emotion runs up and down my spine and tingles my neck. Hands go up in the audience in praise of Him. I put mine up just to feel what it’s like: a little uncomfortable, out of place. Mary leans over and yells in my ear, “We have amazing music here!”
After a song or two, Joel and Victoria Osteen enter stage left. He looks like a Hollywood actor, young, handsome, well dressed, sparkling white teeth, million-dollar smile. Victoria is a blonde bombshell. These are not the sweaty old men who preach fire-and-brimstone Sunday morning on the 700 Club.
“Are there any visitors here today?” Osteen asks. Hands go up all over the audience, including mine. “Welcome!” he says. “We are so glad you are here today.” People around me clamor to shake my hand as if I am a local celebrity recently returned to the flock.
“God loves you“ is a message repeated over and over. “It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are from, or how much you have. He loves you and will provide . . . if you worship Him.” The “if” in that statement is also continually repeated and I wonder, for a moment, if God’s love is quid pro quo? More music. Then, a guest preacher from Atlanta, another son of a minister. His message is nice, but I am disappointed not to hear Osteen.
After nearly an hour and half, I barely had to step outside my own beliefs. In fact, I struggle to find anything controversial about what was said or done in the service. To be clear, I don’t think this is a bad thing – the emotion of the church and vibe of the community is overwhelmingly positive. But, for a church that pushed the envelope back when it was founded (for example by being nondenominational and integrated in the South), I wish it would continue to push. Perhaps in the eye of success, the church fears controversy?
The service ends and I follow Mary back to the parking lot via the shuttle. I feel jazzed on the ride back, similar to how I feel after seeing a Broadway show that rocks. Once back where we met, Mary says, “Wait a minute, I want to give you something.” She walks over to her car, then returns with a CD recording of the church band. “Listen to this on your trip; it will lift you up.”
Arriving back at Uncle Ken’s house, Carola asks ,“How was the service?” “It was nice,” I reply. “Kind of felt like a rock concert, but I enjoyed the message.” She nods, “See, I need my service to have a little more God in it,” repeating herself from the previous night.