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'The Smiling Preacher' Builds on Large Following

The church service and the meet-and-greet are the only opportunities his followers have to get close to Osteen. Unlike his father, Osteen does not perform weddings or funerals. He avoids sickbeds and doesn't do personal counseling. For those needs, the church employs another 60 ministers. Members said that is fine.

"I'm not here to meet the pastor; I'm here to meet God," said Pam Hall, 47, who has been coming to Lakewood for 15 years but who acknowledged that Osteen does not know her name. "He is a great inspiration to me."


Joel Osteen is pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston. (Pat Sullivan -- AP)

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Osteen and his wife say there are just so many hours in the day and his time has to be reserved for his calling: the sermons. "The truth is, if someone says I want to be counseled by Joel Osteen, my first thing is to say get the tapes, read his book," said Victoria Osteen, who is a major part of each service. "It's not like he's got a secret he's not telling us."

Lakewood Church was founded in 1959 in an abandoned feed store in Houston, after John Osteen was booted out of the Baptist Church for speaking in tongues and advocating God's healing powers. His church was popular, and grew steadily, until it had a congregation of about 6,000, televised services and a $10 million budget when he died in 1999.

Joel Osteen, the fourth of five children, was considered by his family the least likely to follow his father to the pulpit, as he happily worked for 17 years behind the scenes on the television ministry. He said his father asked him to preach on the Sunday before he passed away. Osteen said it was clear to him shortly thereafter he had been "called" to succeed his father.

Since taking over the ministry in 1999, Osteen has created a little city at Lakewood, increasing the budget to $50 million, adding three major services, and creating a burgeoning community of youth groups, singles socials, and home groups organized by Zip code, so members can meet. There is also a Spanish-speaking service.

Osteen's self-effacing, shy demeanor belies a keen eye for the theatrical value of a church service and an absolute belief in what he is doing. Seven professional cameras pan the cavernous church, recording every tear of joy, every note of music, every religious utterance. Through aggressive marketing and purchasing, Osteen's sermon is broadcast on network affiliates in the top 30 U.S. markets, including Washington, and on major nonreligious cable networks nationally and internationally, such as BET, PAX and the Discovery Channel.

The church is run by the Osteen family and a cadre of 4,000 volunteers, 1,200 of whom are needed for each service. It is a tightly organized Sunday operation at which ushers looking like Secret Service agents wear earpieces and microphones and manage to get 6,000 to 8,000 people to their seats quickly. Parents are able to check their infants and toddlers at the door with volunteer caregivers. They are given a numbered token, and if there is a problem with their child, the token number flashes on the big screen during the service.

Indicating his priorities, Osteen's first hire was the music director, Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff. She and songwriter Israel Houghton create all the original music for the service. "I just think we're in a society these days that we're so distracted or busy. . . . It's harder to hold people's attention," Osteen said. "We try to package the whole service -- I hate to use the word production or show."

He knows that some people just come for the music. And that is a good thing, he said. Whatever gets them in the door.

Research editor Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.


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