Lakewood Church is nothing short of a nondenominational Christian phenomenon, boasting the largest congregation of any church in the country. Each week, roughly 43,000 souls visit the former Compaq Center, or more than visit Antarctica in a year. There’s a Lonely Planet Antarctica, so why not...
Is it blasphemous to suggest that a church might be a tourist destination? Not if it’s a church with three jumbo LED screens, two stage-side indoor waterfalls, state-of-the-art lighting design, a small army of gifted Christian pop crooners, and an orchestra that rises and falls on a mechanical lift. Still, despite Lakewood’s proximity, not to mention Joel Osteen’s remarkably unobjectionable sermons (usually), most Houstonians are locked in a perpetual state of keep meaning to go. The hometown’s loss is your gain, however. You won’t find a better free Sunday-morning entertainment option in town.
Lakewood may have been started by his father, but its meteoric rise in the evangelical ranks has everything to do with the church’s toothy, 50-year-old leader, Joel Osteen. Some might be troubled by the showbiz theatrics of this impresario and/or his nuanced interpretations of scripture. Whatever. The man’s a star, and like all stars Osteen’s bigger than any single role, preacher included. One minute he’s exhorting the faithful to live their best lives, the next he’s emceeing musical performances with a variety to rival any Grammy telecast. (“Your Presence Is Heaven” just won Lakewood worship leader Israel Houghton his fifth Grammy, beating out “When Mercy Found Me” and “Jesus, Friend of Sinners,” among others.) Even the spiritual sourpuss will come away with a greater understanding of the mysterious metropolis that produced Osteen, Houston. From his Humble High School accent (p. 23) and near-ferocious smiling hospitality, to his accentuate-the-positive creed and the remarkably diverse congregation it attracts (p. 17), you can’t imagine Joel hailing from anywhere else.
Wake up bright and early at home (p.71) and put on whatever passes for your Sunday best (p. 107). Don’t overthink this. Most Lakewood congregants appear happiest in non-constricting Banana Republic casual (remember, this is a church for clappin’, singin’, testifyin’, etceterin’), although wearing your oversized Texans jersey doesn’t mean you’ll get nasty looks (especially if they’re winning). Joel himself favors well-tailored suits and power ties, but then, he can. Exit the Southwest Freeway at
Edloe and look for the huge line of cars. Keep in mind that while Lakewood has almost 8,000 free parking spaces, most of them are underground and the good spots get taken quickly. In fact, throngs of exhausted latecomers can be seen each Sunday trekking for miles through the bowels of Greenway Plaza on the way to church, a scene reminiscent of Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt, with the notable difference that Moses’ trip only took 40 years. (Buses and handicap shuttles available.) Once inside the Rockets’ old stomping grounds, glide up to the sanctuary on the Jeremiah Escalators, so-called because of a verse from the prophet printed in large letters above them (extoling God’s “plans to prosper you”). Drop the little ones off at the fanciful Kidslife, a $1 million, 85,000-square-foot “children’s ministry” created out of the Rockets’ old locker room by Wacky World Studios, the Florida-based firm that designed the Rainforest Café. Lakewood’s sanctuary is vast and typically packed to the rafters, as befits a former basketball arena, but for that reason there’s not a bad seat in the house. Then as now, the floor seats are highly prized. Come early and snag these—you’ll feel more like a player than a fan.
When to Go
Lakewood offers seven services throughout the week, but it’s the one on Sundays at 11 that’s the hottest ticket. The church is usually bursting at its 16,000-capacity seams, but that only makes the swaying mass of worshippers a greater sight to behold.
Don’t Leave Home Without…
Your Bible. Just before his sermon, in one of Lakewood’s most moving moments, Osteen asks the entire congregation to lift up their Bibles and pray with him. Forgetting yours means either enduring the withering stare of an usher or plopping down a fistful of shekels in the church gift shop. (They also accept dollars and major credit cards. See Gift Shop.)
An open mind. It’s easy to sneer at Joel and Victoria (his wife and co-pastor), whose theology is part Prosperity Gospel, part curious reworking of the Old Testament (“God wants you to go further than your parents”). Still, they only want what’s best for you (“Somebody needs what you have to give”), and their platitudes are never less than inventively drawn (“If God had a refrigerator, your picture would be on it”).
A meal. Once inside, the only food you’ll find is of a spiritual nature, unless you count the gift shop’s Tums-like Scripture Mints and what appear to be nonsectarian pecan chews (See Gift Shop). Alas, prosperity’s nearest dining room, Tony’s, is closed on Sundays. If the gleaming Universal Studios–size globe that spins at stage center gives you a taste for global fusion, there’s always the nearby Rustika Café and Bakery. Then again, Joel’s aw-shucks winsomeness may leave you with a hankerin’ for the malt shop. If so, head down to Prince’s Hamburgers. And if you’re more the Gospel according to Jimmy John’s type, you’re in luck. There’s a parish within walking distance.
Gay and Lesbian Travelers
Please see Lonely Planet Antarctica.