Large Church Gets Larger, Defying Trend When it moved into a 16,000-seat building, Houston's Lakewood Church became the largest in the United States. The megachurch, which includes waterfalls in one enormous building, reflects a different direction from other churches, which are investing in satellite facilities. Lakewood's leader, Rev. Joel Osteen, says people will feel comfortable coming to a church service in a venue they've already attended for a game or concert. Capella Tucker of Houston Public Radio reports.

Large Church Gets Larger, Defying Trend

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It started in 1959 in a feed store outside of Houston. Over the years, the ministry founded by John Osteen grew and grew. Lakewood Church is now led by his son, Joel Osteen, and this past weekend, it moved into its new home. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker paid a visit to the Compaq Center, former home of the Houston Rockets.


Crews scramble to finish converting the sports arena into a church. At one end of the arena, a stage with a rotating golden globe. Waterfalls cascade from the mezzanine level toward the stage. Three giant TV screens like those found at a rock concert hover over the stage.

Reverend JOEL OSTEEN (Lakewood Church): God's bringing us into the promised land in the fact that we loved where we were; it's just that the location is not designed for that many people. So being more centrally located, we feel like we can impact the city in such a greater way.

(Soundbite of construction work)

TUCKER: In the last six years, Lakewood reports its weekly attendance has gone from 11,000 to nearly 30,000. Lakewood was looking to expand when the Compaq Center became available. Houston's City Council agreed to lease the facility to Lakewood for 30 years with an option to renew for another 30. Lakewood has spent $95 million renovating the 16,000-seat facility and adding a five-story building to the complex. The new facility doubles Lakewood's seating capacity. Despite having the label of largest megachurch, Osteen intends to keep growing Lakewood, and believes being in a sports venue will help.

Rev. OSTEEN: It takes a lot of the people's defenses down, because they've been in the Compaq Center before. And that was another great plus for us in that, you know, it's one thing for somebody to come to your church, but to come to the Compaq Center, `Hey, I've been there before,' that helps us, as well.

TUCKER: Osteen is going against the trend in megachurches. First, Osteen was able to keep the church going after his father passed away suddenly six years ago. Second, Hartford Institute for Religion Research sociologist Scott Thumma says Osteen is also going against the trend by investing in one huge structure.

Mr. SCOTT THUMMA (Hartford Institute for Religion Research): Many of the very large megachurches are beginning to spin off satellite or branch campuses around the city or around an area as a way to reach their diverse populations that come from a whole region, but also so that they don't have to continue to invest in larger and larger buildings.

TUCKER: Lakewood's services are broadcast on eight national and three international television networks, not to mention local churches across the country.

(Soundbite of Lakewood service)

Rev. OSTEEN: You know you are blessed today. Amen.

Group of People: (In unison) Amen.

TUCKER: Osteen's sermon focused on new beginnings.

(Soundbite of Lakewood service)

Rev. OSTEEN: My prayer is that ministers and pastors all over the world will get a bigger vision. Let's believe that in every major city, there will be churches just like this, with 15, 20,000 people in each service; not focused on a denomination, not focused on rules and regulations, but rather focused on lifting up the name of Jesus. Amen.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

TUCKER: Even though the old Compaq Center is twice the size of Lakewood's previous facility, nearly all of the opening weekend services were full, and Osteen commented that a basketball arena already seems too small. For NPR News, I'm Capella Tucker in Houston.

(Soundbite of Lakewood service)

Unidentified Choir: (Singing in unison) ...(Unintelligible) us, O Lord.

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