Lakewood was a megachurch even before it moved into the Houston Compaq Center in July 2005. With an estimated weekly attendance of 25,000 and an 8,000-seat sanctuary, it was considered the nation's largest congregation. Then it leased the 16,000-seat Compaq Center and built a five-story addition.
“There is something special that happens when a large group of God's people get together and worship at one time,” said Duncan Dodds, executive director of Lakewood Church and Joel Osteen Ministries.
But don't be dazzled by numbers, he says. “If you follow God, it does not matter if you are a church of 100 or 100,000.”
The story of Lakewood's beginnings has been often told-how John Osteen began a nondenominational, mixed-race church in a feed store in 1959 and brought it to megachurch status in eastern Houston, carried on after his death in 1999 by son Joel.
Big as it was, the east-Houston church building couldn't handle the crowds that were coming in, and Osteen cast about for bigger quarters. Lakewood finally leased the Compaq Center-former home of the Houston Rockets-in 2001.
Under Joel's ministry, Lakewood's average weekend attendance grew from around 7,000 to 32,500 prior to the move into the Compaq Center.
“This is phenomenal. I can't even think of a corporation that's had that kind of growth,” says John Vaughan of Church Growth Today Megachurch Research Center in Bolivar, Missouri.
Lakewood is the biggest of the nation's approximately 1,200 Protestant megachurches, or churches with an average weekend attendance of 2,000, he says.
“One of the reporters asked me, 'Will he be the new Billy Graham?'” Vaughan recalls. “He already has that impact in the U.S.”
Dodds said there's no secret to Lakewood's explosive growth.
“People come to Lakewood for several reasons,” he said in an interview with Ministries Today. “There is an atmosphere here of unconditional love. You are welcome and accepted regardless of your background or position in life.
“Second, Joel has a way of communicating the deepest biblical truths in a simple way, a way that everyone can understand.”
In order to transform the Compaq Center into a church, Lakewood hired The Irvine Team as project manager, Morris Architects with design architect Pete Ed Garrett, Tellepsen Company contracting firm (all of Houston), plus a host of consultants from around the nation.
Studies quickly revealed that, for all its size, the Compaq Center didn't have enough Sunday school space, says Lorrie Foreman, vice president of operations for Irvine. “The Compaq Center would only handle children under the age of 4, and we needed a place for the children 5 years and up,” she says. After considerable study, “We added an independent five-story building at the end of the Compaq Center.”
Lakewood hired Wacky World Studios of Tampa, Florida, to design children's classroom areas, where the walls are splashed with bright colors and crazy cartoon characters, and rooms are lined with video games and other fun stuff.
“Without question we spent the greatest amount of our resources on our youth and children,” Dodds says. “You can do a lot of things right in ministry, but if you don't park people and then take care of their kids, then they probably won't come back.”
Speaking of parking, consider the challenges faced by a church located in the center of America's fourth largest city. To solve this problem, Lakewood leases adjacent parking garages that are used on weekdays by employees in surrounding office buildings.
Then there's the main arena-or rather, sanctuary. How do you turn a giant basketball court into a place of worship?
After examining various scenarios, planners decided to place the stage at one end with cascading waterfalls on each side and giant video screens overhead. They sloped the floor down toward the stage and refurbished the existing seating, which was fairly new. And they installed an extensive catwalk system in the ceiling. Some 50 companies were involved in the project.
Foreman won't forget the day the Compaq Center became a church. “The day that facility turned from an arena into a sanctuary, the carpet was in place and all that cherryboard was in place but it was covered up,” she recalls. “The day we uncovered that was the day it became a sanctuary. After that it began to have that intimacy, that warmth.”
It's surprising to find a cozy setting in such a vast room. Even from a seat high up, the singers and speakers seem close at hand.
“Actually, some of the best seats are near the back of the worship center,” Dodds says. “With the state-of-the-art sound and image magnification, you are fully engaged in the worship experience regardless of where you are. And from the back, it is really spectacular to look across the sea of people worshiping the Lord together.”
The fifth-floor media center, which broadcasts the services for television, has more than 11,000 square feet of production space with state-of-the-art equipment. And a sound system that was good enough for ball games and concerts had to be upgraded to convey the complexity of a solitary human voice delivering God's Word, as well as singers and musicians praising Him.
“Elvis Presley and U2, you name it, performed in the Compaq Center,” says Austin B. Crossley, account supervisor for Stevens FKM, a public relations firm representing Irvine Team. “ZZ Top was the last one. They [Lakewood] actually tore out all of the audio-visual components and started over. It was good enough for ZZ Top but not for Lakewood.”
At ball games and concerts, spectators arrive, enjoy the show and go home. End of story. Church isn't supposed to be that way-and according to Dodds, it's not at Lakewood.
The church has more than 35 volunteer ministries, hundreds of home groups, plus Compass groups, or Bible study for groups of 60 to 600.
“We have missions programs, food programs, back-to-school ministries, prison ministries, recovery classes, counseling ministry, medical missions,” Dodds says. “I could go on and on. We are committed to the whole individual and the entire family. ...
“The opportunities to both minister and be ministered to are endless.”
Dodds also attributes this sense of community to the unity and cooperation shared among the church's 200 employees.
“We have the best group of volunteers and members I have ever seen,” he notes. “What we do as a church is merely a reflection of the hearts of our people.”
It remains to be seen if Lakewood's move will influence other churches, mega or otherwise, around the nation to make homes in municipal facilities.
“We sure are getting a lot of calls,” Foreman says. “So, I think there are some people that would consider doing the same thing in another city.
“I think it also breaks the limits in how big a church can be and still be intimate. It changes the way people think-but we'll have to wait a couple years to see if anybody actually takes the challenge.”
Dodds considers Lakewood's situation unique and says it may not apply to other churches-“other than encourage pastors everywhere to dream big dreams and look to our big God to see them come to pass,” he says. “We hope that our ministry will be an encouragement to them to never give up and just continue to believe God for the impossible. But every pastor should listen to the Lord and the prompting of the Holy Spirit.”
The Holy Spirit gave Joel Osteen some strange signals when he decided to move out of the east-Houston church. Lakewood signed a letter of intent on a piece of property and spent money on soil samples and environmental studies. But when church leaders went to sign sale papers, they learned the property had been sold the night before. Six months later, they found out the Compaq Center was available.
“God had supernaturally closed those doors so He could do something greater than we could ever imagine,” Osteen said in a recent church service. “We feel like God has given us this place,” says his wife Victoria. “It's our promised land.”
By the numbers
Staggering stats behind Lakewood's transformation of the Compaq Center.
$90 million dollars were spent on the 18-month renovation-construction project.
500,000 square feet of carpet were installed.
183,800 vehicles pass daily by the new location in Greenway Plaza at Interstate 59.
57,000 attended opening services on July 16 and 17, 2005. (Police turned away 10,000 more.)
80 million homes in the United States are reached by Lakewood's weekly broadcast.
4,000+ children attend Lakewood on average each week, plus 40,000 adults each week at worship-a total attendance ranging from 42,000 to 45,000.
5 Olympic-sized swimming pools could have held the paint used in renovating the Compaq Center.
Ernest Herndon is religion editor at the McComb, Mississippi, Enterprise-Journal newspaper and author of many books, including Nature Trails and Gospel Tales (InterVarsity Press).