Phillip Luke Sinitiere, author of Salvation with a Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church, and American Christianity, will be a featured guest blogger on From the Square leading up to his book’s publication in October! The posts will unveil certain aspects of the project and provide selected snapshots of the making of the book, including his research and the writing process. To kick off the series, below is the opening vignette from the book’s introduction. (Check out his other post on the book’s cover over at Baldblogger!)
I am in the upscale business complex of Greenway Plaza, near downtown Houston. After parking my car, I follow the signs directing me to Lakewood Church. Emerging from the dimly lit confines of a parking garage, I join hundreds of people surging to the church’s entrance. In an energetic multiethnic mix, I walk alongside individuals, some of whom are black, others white, still others Latino/a or Asian. Some are talking with one another, while others are silent. Some walk with heads down as if in prayer. I see men wearing their Sunday best, along with women adorned in stunning white and pink hats; others come in jeans, T-shirts, and shorts. I hear the sharp strike of high heels and the flop of sandals. Some carry Bibles as they purposefully walk toward the church. I see Bibles that appear worn and creased, the result of a sustained engagement. I also observe congregants clutching Hope for Today Bible, a resource designed with notes and commentary by Lakewood’s pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen.
Shortly, at Joel’s invitation in the worship service to “lift up your Bibles and say it like you mean it,” congregants will thrust their Bibles into the air and make Lakewood’s famous “This is my Bible” confession. A mantra started by Joel’s father and Lakewood’s founder, John Osteen, in the 1980s, the statement highlights the church’s evangelical fidelity to the Bible and firm conviction about its spiritual power. I also observe a large group of people rolling into the church, some wheeling themselves while others proceed in electric wheelchairs. The leader of this group also ushers in other disabled persons, some with visual impairments, others with Down’s syndrome. Lakewood’s doors open for a diverse array of people.
As I enter the building with the throngs of men, women, and children who pour in for the service, a volunteer with a nametag greets me with a warm smile and “Welcome, God bless you.” I take the bulletin she hands me. I start ascending the stairs into Lakewood Church. Knowing that Lakewood is America’s largest megachurch, welcoming over 40,000 members and other attendees each week, I feel as if I am in an important place. It pulsates with energy. I also notice symbols of the church’s history on display. I pause halfway up the steps as I encounter a life-size bronze display of Lakewood’s founding couple, John and Dodie Osteen, honoring Lakewood’s fiftieth anniversary. The couple meets visitors with smiles and a Bible held in the air. The base of the bronze statue is in the shape of a heart, symbolic of Lakewood’s old motto, “Oasis of Love.” While John never preached at the Compaq Center, a converted sports arena that became Lakewood’s home in 2005, six years after his death, his likeness, along with that of Dodie, greets visitors as they enter the church he founded. At Lakewood, the past intermingles with the present, while the future is a source of perpetual anticipation.
As I continue to walk up the stairs, to my left people enter and exit the well-stocked bookstore. On the television screen that sits in the middle of a display that contains Joel and Victoria’s teachings I look over to see and hear Joel encouraging a positive mindset in the midst of difficult circumstances. In the bookstore, I browse the most recent books by contemporary Christian teachers such as Joyce Meyer, John MacArthur, Joseph Prince, and John Piper, and a substantial variety of study Bibles and study aids such as theological encyclopedias and Greek dictionaries. The bookstore contains a children’s section and several rows with a variety of Spanish-language resources. I also notice that it sells framed paintings of the Christian artist Thomas Kinkade as well as spiritually themed items like T-shirts, key chains, or bookmarks that can also be found at Christian chain retail stores such as Family Christian, Lifeway, and Mardel. Just outside of the bookstore, families head quickly to register kids for Lakewood’s expansive children’s programs. Other people mill about like tourists, many of them visiting Lakewood for the first time, clearly pausing to take it all in. Things are buzzing at Lakewood Church, but also proceed in an orderly fashion. I notice people with official Lakewood nametags, energetic volunteers with clipboards and walkie-talkies who help the massive operation to run smoothly. Not shy, one volunteer inquires if I am interested in trying out for Lakewood’s choir. Responding to her facial expression and her excitement to recruit volunteers, I return the smile—and politely decline. “God bless you,” the recruiter replies as I continue walking.
I proceed to the worship center, and with many others, I anticipate my entrance into the 16,000-seat sanctuary. There is a palpable sense of expectation, a feeling already cultivated by Joel’s popular television message of self-improvement and salvation on television and published in a handful of New York Times bestsellers. Looking up, I see the ceiling arranged with large square white sheeting to produce a cloud effect, simultaneously reflecting blues, reds, greens, and purples from multicolored spotlights. I begin to get an inkling of the church’s massive size, an architectural expression of Lakewood’s signature place in American Christianity.
I find a seat, and settle into place on the second level on the far left side of the auditorium. Lights bathe the stage in a glittery display as members of Lakewood’s choir, wearing blue robes, find their place in the two choir lofts. The band, arranged on a retractable stage, warms up in front of a massive, bronze globe, an iconic symbol of Lakewood’s historic commitment to missionary endeavors. Announcements for religious education classes and church events along with advertisements for resources available in Lakewood’s bookstore flash across the three large screens that hang above the stage. I notice individuals in front of the stage and they appear to have security escorts: the Osteen family and other church leaders proceed to their seats. It is nearly time for the service to begin.
The interracial duo of singers Cindy Cruse Ratcliff and Israel Houghton begin the service by leading nearly 16,000 people in musical expressions of adoration toward God and the spiritual meaning of life in Christ. People clap in rhythm with the drums, and sing along as lyrics flash across the large screens. I also notice worshiping bodies sway with the music. The emotional temper of the music produces what appear to be moments of tender introspection; I see people with arms raised and eyes closed, and some with tears streaming. Later, prayer partners meet and pray with those in need. People cry and hug, finding individual spiritual solace among the thousands present in America’s largest congregation.
The service proceeds with an encouraging testimony from Victoria, a period of prayer and tithing, and a twenty-five-minute message from Joel. An altar call with a simple recitation, asking Jesus to reign as Lord of one’s life, starts to draw the morning service to a close. In a final moment of affirmation, Joel asks people to clap if they are better now than when they came in.
Employing positive confession, a historic neopentecostal practice of making verbal affirmations of spiritual significance—and much like his father John did at Lakewood—Joel makes several declarations. Each declaration becomes more intense as Osteen’s voice rises and he bounces tiptoed as if to push his positive proclamations into every square inch of the auditorium:
“I declare . . . God is breathing on your life, he’s breathing on your dreams, he’s breathing on your finances. . . . God will multiply your talent, multiply your resources, multiply your strength. . . . If you’ll be confident in what God has given you, then I believe and declare you will overcome every obstacle, defeat every enemy, and you will become everything God’s created you to be . . . if you believe it, give the Lord a shout of praise!”
Joel ends the service in prayer, sending intense petitions upward with his face lifted, eyes tightly closed, hands raised, and his body moving as he speaks. He asks God to make the day’s message real in everyday life.
“Lord, draw them by your Spirit, let them feel your love as they’ve never felt it before,” he prays . “A new beginning . . . a fresh new start . . . the road to victory . . . comes from a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Now that we’ve entered Lakewood Church, you can find the rest of the story here.
Phillip Luke Sinitiere is Professor of History at the College of Biblical Studies, a multiethnic school located in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi District. A scholar of American religious history and African American Studies, he is the author or editor of several books including Holy Mavericks: Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace.