2008-04-14 • Volume 2 • Issue 6
Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen provoke strong reactions from Rice students. A good friend of mine thinks Joel Osteen is a genius and is currently arranging to have a conversation with him. Another one of my friends is confident that he is a quack and endearingly calls Lakewood “Six Flags Over Jesus.” When questioned on the topic, the majority of Rice students fall somewhere in between these two extremes. Their curiosity is piqued by Joel’s celebrity status and Lakewood’s size, but they have trouble placing Joel and Lakewood within their framework of understanding Christianity.
Joel, as his congregation refers to him, is a wildly popular preacher who did not attend seminary. Lakewood is a nondenominational church that holds services in the former Compaq Center where the Houston Rockets played until 2003. The tools we commonly use to make inferences about the theology and practice of a church (denomination, architecture, where the pastor attended seminary) are not available to us when viewing Lakewood. This article aims to introduce you to Lakewood through a different tool: namely the effort of churches to stay relevant in a religious climate where church has become optional. Churches who have adopted a user-friendly model to appeal to the unchurched average Joe are known as seeker-sensitive churches. Lakewood is the ultimate seeker-sensitive church. Once you contextualize Lakewood within the contemporary American religious scene using the seeker-sensitive model, you are able to better understand the motivations behind Lakewood’s approach to “doing church” and are equipped to develop your own informed opinion of “the smiling preacher.”
As Rice students, we live only three miles away from the largest church in America. It is that massive building you see on your right soon after Buffalo Speedway every time you cruise down 59 towards the Galleria. Lakewood averages 47,000 people a weekend.1 To put this in context, the second largest church in America, Willow Creek Community Church of Illinois, averages 23,500 people a weekend.2 Lakewood’s senior pastor, Joel Osteen, is America’s most watched inspirational figure, a best-selling author, and a favorite among the primetime interview circuit.3 Larry King Live, 20/20, 60 Minutes—Joel has done them all.
Seventy to eighty percent of U.S. churches today are either stagnant or in decline. It is clear Joel is doing something different at Lakewood to have amassed 41,000 new faces since he became senior pastor in 1999. Lakewood’s rapid growth during this period of shrinking congregations in U.S. Christianity has sparked the admiration of many and disdain of many others. Both fans and critics want to know, “What exactly are they doing in there?”
To answer this question, one first needs to know something about the state of religion in America. To put it succinctly, religious monopolies in this country are a thing of the past. Churches can no longer expect people to just show up. The plurality of religious forms now inhabiting America has given the power back to the people to choose how they want to worship—if at all. As spiritual seekers peruse their options, churches must now market themselves attractively to gain attendees. David Wells designates the aforementioned seeker-sensitive churches as “consumer” churches in contrast to traditional churches which he calls “producer” churches. Both in the church and society, Wells argues that the power has shifted from the producer to the consumer.4 Churches such as Lakewood which have adapted their worship services, dress, and architecture to cater to consumer preferences have experienced rapid growth while the pews of “producer” churches have increasingly become dominated by senior citizens.
Donald McGavran, one of the leaders of the Church Growth Movement, believed that the primary barrier to conversion is not theological but sociological.5 His belief in the great influence of sociology in religious conversion lies beneath the church marketing and seeker-sensitivity so prominent today. Lakewood’s exponential growth can be partially attributed to its deliberate removal of all sociological and psychological barriers to church attendance and the Christian faith.
Lakewood has removed virtually all religious symbols and visual cues that would remind a visitor that they are in a church. The main entryway more closely resembles an entrance to an office building or mall than a church. Stained glass windows, organ pipes, and crown molding are absent from the sanctuary. Comfy stadium seats replace traditional pews. A massive world globe bathed in gold light rotates where the cross would traditionally stand. There is no baptistry in the sanctuary. You will not find the choir directly behind the pastor. In its place, a band of attractive young men in tailored suits jam out for the Lord. To the front right, a tall man who appears to be in his early thirties plays a bright red electric guitar, his long blonde hair giving him the look of a rock star. When Joel makes his way on stage to deliver the sermon, the entire band stand sinks down into the stage. Musicians exit the stage unseen and instruments are out of sight as Joel begins to address his TV audience. The choir flanks the band on each side, next to flowing waterfalls cascading over rocks and plants. Choir robes are absent. Women in the choir wear attractive purple, blue, or black flowing blouses with black pants. Men wear suits. There are no hymnals and no single music director leads the singing. Three large screens display song lyrics and project close-up shots of the worship leaders’ and choir’s enthusiastic delivery. Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff, a Dove Award winner and acclaimed songwriter, works the stage in dark eye shadow. Her long blonde hair, chunky jewelry, and fashionable apparel look great on camera. Da’dra Greathouse and Steve Crawford, a sibling duo signed with Sony/Columbia, add even more energy to the stage. Israel Houghton, a 2008 Grammy Award winner, completes the worship leaders. These four artists are powerhouses in their own right. Combined with an ensemble, choir, and band, Lakewood breaks out into a top-quality concert for God. The stage is bathed in yellow light, then green, then blue, as the songs transition in mood from vibrant celebration to contemplative worship. The ceiling likewise changes colors as the music pulsates throughout the former Compaq Center.
By avoiding churchy architecture and by putting young, attractive, highly stylish people on stage, Lakewood has effectively minimized the cognitive dissonance between everyday life and church. The theatrical lighting, upbeat music, and trendy men jumping with electric guitars bring the church experience closer to the daily experience of teens addicted to MTV and families who love Disney World. Lakewood is not only church, Lakewood is also top-quality entertainment. The ceiling is preprogrammed to change colors. The sheer spectacle of it all, from Da’dra jumping on stage in stilettos to the close-up shot of a crying woman having an ecstatic experience, is incredibly stimulating. Whether or not Lakewood is familiar with McGavran’s work, they function under his central premise that you must first remove sociological barriers to achieve church growth.
Lakewood’s technological prowess, performance-type worship leaders, and lack of overt religious symbolism are often perceived by outsiders as indicators of secularization and shallow religious commitment. Lakewood has undoubtedly borrowed a technique or two from secular playbooks, but does this necessarily translate into cotton candy religion? The fact is that churches must take consumer preferences into account or else dwindle in numbers and die. Consumers live in a secular society, so naturally “they [consumers] will prefer religious products that can be made consonant with secularized consciousness over those that cannot.”6 Even among church goers, there is no longer brand loyalty as people sample different churches from Sunday to Sunday. Churches who wish to grow must find ways to incorporate enough secular culture to break down sociological barriers, while still providing an experience of the supernatural. Lakewood does this by creating an entertaining environment amiable to secular consciousness while presenting a Christian message in non-theological terms. They epitomize the seeker-sensitive church.
I bring up Lakewood’s commitment to overcoming sociological barriers precisely because this tends to be the hot button that sparks creative nicknames like “Six Flags Over Jesus.” The concert-type feel of a Lakewood service may be distracting to some people, but for many others, it is precisely this energized atmosphere that stirs up faith and allows attendees to worship God with joy. Entertainment value does not necessarily exclude other types of value. We cannot automatically assume that there are major theological problems just because so many people are smiling and dancing at Lakewood. If you listen to the lyrics of the songs, you will find theology. It is not all “the power of positive thinking devoid of genuine Christianity” that critics often claim. To illustrate, the lyrics of one song read, “At the cross I bow my knee / Where your blood was shed for me / There’s no greater love than this / You have overcome the grave / Your glory fills the highest place / What can separate me now.” Another popular Lakewood song affirms the basic Christian belief in redemption by grace. Traditional Christian songs, such as “It Is Well” and “There’s Just Something About That Name,” are incorporated in Lakewood’s worship alongside music written and produced in-house.
I would like to make it clear that I write not to defend Lakewood against all criticism, nor to join those who scoff at Lakewood’s attempts to make church appealing to the unchurched. I write merely to elucidate the nebulous religious climate from which Lakewood has emerged. If you find yourself wondering about Lakewood’s theology or have questions, I encourage you to visit the church and find out for yourself. That is precisely what I have been doing for the past eight months. As a Religious Studies major, I could not help but go and witness the Lakewood phenomenon for myself. Now with a thesis nearing completion, I have come to the conclusion that what Lakewood is doing is far more complex and fascinating than I had anticipated. Show up one Sunday at 11:00 AM, join the masses streaming in from seven parking garages, herd yourself into a section, and get ready for a religious and cultural experience!
Christine Miller is a senior Religious Studies major at Brown College. This essay is adapted from her forthcoming undergraduate honors thesis on the megachurch phenomenom. Jennifer Wu assisted in the editing of this essay.
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