I Was Wrong. OK…I have to admit it, I have misjudged the gigantic conglomerate of a church, Lakewood in Houston. As the former senior pastor of a medium-sized mainline congregation, I would consciously try to hide the “roll my eyes in dismay” when someone would mention that they really liked a message they heard from Joel Osteen via the tv screen or that they went to his church and loved it. Really???!!!!
We Protestant and mainline church clergy types are a bit perplexed by this tidal wave of a church that seems to draw away our already dwindling memberships, particularly those in the Houston area who are able to attend this mega church in person. Even if our church members can’t attend Lakewood in person, all over this planet anyone can tune into this worship experience by staying home and watching this phenomena on television or on their iPad in their pj’s and drink coffee or another preferred drink depending on the time of day. These stay at home and worship in the Lazy Boy with the pets say that they like Lakewood’s music (but discongruently disdain praise music in the local church) and they find hope in his messages that we consider to be prosperity gospel talks. So, to say that Lakewood makes many pastors and lay leaders grrrrr is to put it lightly. Nothing can set a pastor’s teeth on edge and send them into confession and repentance than to hear a congregant tell us how much they love to hear Joel Osteen’s messages.
Journeying to Visit Congregations: On April 28 of this year, I concluded my 11 year ministry at a very wonderful and awesome church that I adored. Since then, I have preached often in other churches and had the great joy of worshipping with various congregations. It has been an adventure. Yesterday, I told my husband, you will NEVER guess in a million years where I would like to go to church tomorrow….and since you will NEVER guess, I will tell you…Lakewood. He just about fell off his chair he was in such shock! Yep, he said, you are SO right, I would have NEVER guessed Lakewood. But, he is a good sport and agreed to go with me.
Whew, We Arrived. We left the house about 8:30 am on Sunday and discovered very little traffic on I-10 West. A miracle in itself. For small-town folks like us, we were delighted to exit onto Hwy 59 and find that it was trafficless also, an even bigger miracle. We were greeted by good signage pointing us where to park. The parking building was immaculate. The concrete floors were shiny like they had just been buffed. We parked amidst thousands of cars and walked a LONG way including up a couple of rather steep ramps to get to the church/coliseum/sanctuary facilities. Yet, I was immediately taken aback by this sense of The Spirit…almost like a glimpse of heaven. People of every nation leaving the early service and those of us heading in mass to the 11:00 service. Sort of like the veil pulled back and a little peak at the communion of saints. Tears spilled forth from my jaded eyes.
Arriving Early and Perusing the Facilities: As the sanctuary/coliseum had not opened yet, we milled through a huge nicely arranged gift and bookstore with lots of people buying Bibles along with children and grandparents waiting patiently in line to pay as they snuggled adorable stuffed animals to remind them of God’s creation. Down the humongous hallway, we noticed a line of parents with their children registering to enter the children’s area and there were resource and information booths all over the place. After a long ride from Beaumont, of course, we stopped in the restrooms, that were immaculate and had seat covers (I notice those things). And by the way, my husband and I were in the minority at Lakewood, most we saw were at the minimum of 20-30 years younger than us.
We saw a long line of people snaking through the 2nd floor, only to spy THE Joel Osteen meeting his members as they waited patiently to greet this man who was their father in the faith. In another part of the great foyer area there was a “Welcome to Lakewood Church” sign in which people of all nationalities with huge smiles were having their photos taken to send back to China, Japan, India, and Africa.
The signage in this place was excellent, except there was not one to instruct you where to enter this huge coliseum/church, so I finally asked at a 2nd floor Resource booth what time we could enter the church and she said, you can right now. I responded, no you can’t, there is strapping blocking the doors. She said, oh, you have to go downstairs, we fill that up first. So, we went down some stairs and entered into the former coliseum, now church and received a shiny 3 fold bulletin that was just advertising their ministries, heard soft music streaming, and saw jumbo screens placed strategically throughout the church displaying information on their ministries. It is interesting, they do not have hundreds of ministries/events. They seem to focus on just a few and concentrate on those.
Wow, Now This is A Really Big Church: Since as first timers, we were fairly early into the worship center. As soon as we entered this really huge and almost overwhelming place, we were greeted and seated by a group of dark-suited men who carefully chose where they wanted us to sit. It was über organized…a machine. We ended up being about 10 rows back from the stage and pulpit area. Then a stunningly attired woman in her African long dress and turban and her young daughter were brought into our row and seated beside us. She immediately folded her hands and bowed her beautiful turbaned head in prayer. Her long dress and turban were of gorgeous aqua blue raw silk with flowers embroidered all over it. She did not speak any English, but I tried to make some conversation with her by a sort of sign language. I asked her which country she was from in Africa and she said, “no, Hong Kong.” Wow! Yes, communion of saints from all over the world! As the downstairs began to fill up, one of Joel’s relatives, maybe his sister, was out greeting the people seated in a section in front of us with a sort of guard with a restrained smile beside her in a dress suit.
The sanctuary has super comfy theater type seats and gee, I have no idea how many thousands this place holds. But the decorations in this place of worship are very symbolic….there is a gigantic revolving golden globe in the center of the chancel/stage area that you have likely seen on tv and on either side of the chancel area are matching gigantic stacked stone empty tombs. I did not see any crosses in the sanctuary, but these globe and empty tomb symbols tell us that they are ministering worldwide and that their message is based on resurrection, new life, and fresh new starts.
The Service was Rockin’!: The service got started with super professional, loud praise music which I had never heard before. (Note to self: No wonder the young people in our churches don’t jive with us, our 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s praise music that is destroying our churches fighting over organ vs. outdated praise music is just plain passé).
The massive stage was filled with guitars, drummer, trumpet, trombone, violin, electric organ, piano, and about 5 praise team members of various ethnicities plus two rockin’ choirs. It was an hour and ten minute long concert in which we stood the entire time with people raising hands and dancing by their seats. It was heart-pounding, just like at regular concert, just toned down a notch or two. In between every couple of songs, Victoria Osteen gave a mini-sermon on being a good parent and Joel gave a short welcome. Throughout all this praise time and later during the message, there were video cameras draped over the stage and men dressed in black with black video cameras on black rolling chairs filming worshippers throughout the first floor. It was all very innocuous and in good taste.
Then there was a 15 minute or so invitation to prayer in which people who wanted/needed prayer were invited to come down the aisles. When I saw the masses of people coming forward, I thought, oh, no, we will be here until time for supper. But, just as everything else, it was well-organized with men and women who were prayer ministers praying with these who came forward.
The Surprising Prosperity Talk that Became a Message/Sermon: Then Joel, stood to bring his talk/message…I had always considered what Joel does, as a sort of “health and wealth,” “God wants you rich” talk or message, not a sermon. But, I was wrong once again. He had everyone hold up their Bibles and then in unison the congregation read some sort of covenant about what they believe about the Bible. Then the very slim Joel Osteen with his beautiful head full of curly dark hair and his sparkling white teeth and his even bigger smile stood in front of his pulpit and began to preach. He does seem to be very good at knowing where to turn towards the camera…of course, in a worldwide tv/internet ministry, you would have to be more aware of this. And his talk/message became a sermon to me as he used multitudes of scripture passages to teach that God works in ways beyond our dreams or imaginations. It was a really good sermon that spoke to me and actually brought tears to this pastor who has gotten a bit thick-skinned over the years. He spoke of how God can make things happen without us having to knock down doors and I remembered how The Spirit had brought me to the church I pastored in a very miraculous way. His sermon was longer than I expected, but kept my attention the whole time.
Offerings and Prayers of Salvation: Then Victoria called for a time of tithes and offerings and very rapidly,
ugly utilitarian gray plastic buckets were passed down each aisle. I would estimate that the offering was taken in about 5 minutes flat. Then Joel brought forth a shortened plan of salvation and prayed asking Jesus to come into relationship with them. He then asked who prayed that prayer of salvation with him and some stood throughout the gigantic sanctuary that now seemed a bit smaller and a little more intimate. A young couple seated in front of us stood with their arms wrapped around each other and they sobbed into each other’s shoulders. In the same row, a young father with his two sons stood. Booklets were quickly passed out informing these new followers of Christ how to live this new life. Joel encouraged these new believers to get involved with the “New Beginnings” classes that are offered, to commit to come to church for a year, and to visit with him after the worship service at the “meet and greet.” Then he thanked all the visitors for coming and invited us to come sit in the same seat next week and call this place their home.
Blessing a Baby: As the masses of Lakewood members and guests were trying to leave at the same time, a beautiful African American lady with her baby dressed like an angel was behind me in this crush of people. I turned around and that sweet baby with old-soul eyes looked at me and as a pastor I instinctively placed my hands on her precious white satin-bowed curly head and blessed her. She smiled the biggest smile and I teared up big-time.
Returning Home: After this worship high, then there is that inevitable return home to the real world. This return to reality begins with the really long walk back to the parking garage with the throngs of saints of every color, cultural, and financial background. What joy it was that there were many more people of color than anglos in attendance at Lakewood! Not only was the walk long to the garage, I also dreaded the extended wait to get our car out of the parking garage, but once again, I was wrong. It went fairly quickly. This is a well-oiled machine and I appreciate all the work/time/organization/contemplation it takes to get this many people to church and back home with a smile still on their face and a sweet song still in their spirit.
I see why people attend Lakewood. Your soul is filled with good words of hope and faith in God’s unconditional love and care. The music and message make your spirit swell and helps you make it through another tough week at work, at school, at home until you can come back and get renewed and refreshed again. Lakewood is not for everyone for sure, but there are obviously thousands and millions who do need this type of church. Who am I to say that God is not in this? The Spirit was evident. The people’s hearts were touched. Lives were transformed. I only wish there had been communion also.
Lakewood and All Churches are Needed: Yes, Lord, I was wrong to judge this Lakewood Church that is ministering in ways that mainline and Protestant churches cannot. Forgive me. Continue to bless them. They are needed. ALL of our churches are needed on this planet. For some reason, The Spirit has chosen and anointed Joel and Victoria Osteen to lead this super professionally run organization of a church that reaches millions throughout planet earth. May the Lord continue to bless the work of this colossal congregation and also the work of the tiny flocks throughout the world led by faithful shepherds/shepherdesses.
Let us not be envious of each other’s place of service, but hold each other in prayer, respect, and good hope that one day, all the world will not only love and worship God, but will also love each other and be at peace. I often ponder and wonder what The Spirit is doing with The Church right now. Something is happening before our very eyes in our generation. It will be interesting to see how The Church is renewed and resurrected under the transformative power of The Spirit of our living God. Will all churches be gathered into mega churches like Lakewood? Gee, I have no idea. But I do trust that the God whom I love, worship, and serve who created The Church, will breathe new life and resurrection. Will the future Church still look the same as it does today? I doubt it. Jesus looked a little different and sounded alittle different after resurrection. It’s likely The Church will also. Amen.