His earliest sermons had an edge. He spoke of Satan's deceit, the evils of temptation and the degeneration of a secularized society. He sounded like his father. A few weeks after the Columbine massacre — the shooting that killed 13 people at a Colorado high school — he pointed to the tragedy as evidence of Satan's power. He soon developed a style of his own, relying less on the Bible and more on stories about people who had triumphed over great hardship. I'm more of an encourager. He began assembling a stable of metaphors to draw on. One Sunday, he told the congregation that psychologists had identified two main memory files in the mind, one to store successes, the other failures.
He became more life coach than theologian, extolling the power of positive thinking in revealing God's plan. Interpretations of the Scriptures, with their wrenching dramas and divine mysteries, became simpler and fewer. He began to craft sermons with the same meticulousness he had shown as a TV producer, retreating on Wednesday and emerging on Saturday with seven single-spaced pages that he had committed to memory.
He rehearsed them until the delivery seemed effortless. After Sunday's service, he edited the recording for broadcast, frame by frame. For years, Joel Osteen worked behind the scenes, editing his father's sermons for broadcast. No one expected that he would one day stand in the pulpit. Osteen knew that the church's growth depended on exposure. His father's sermons had aired on one national cable channel and several local stations.
John le Carré
Now, Lakewood bought airtime in each of the 25 largest TV markets. As his fame grew, the church had to add another service, then another, to accommodate all who wanted to hear him. Almost all of it was in the form of donations from people moved by his message. Lakewood's attorneys trademarked his name and the church's. Early the following year, Rolf Zettersten, senior vice president of Hachette Nashville, a publisher of Christian books, heard that Osteen had an idea for one and flew to Houston to discuss it. Osteen appeared at an annual convention for Christian booksellers to talk about the project.
Company representatives formed lines around the hall to hear him. The book, a seven-step guide to making the most of the moment with a little help from God, was an instant bestseller. At one of Osteen's first book signings, the store sold out of copies. The book became a board game. Players start on the "Today" space at the base of a mountain and ascend to the "Choose to Be Happy" space at the summit by answering questions about their goals and successes.
A production crew monitored audio and visuals as Joel Osteen delivered a sermon during a Night of Hope show in Los Angeles. Sophisticated marketing helped power the church's rise. Soon after taking over, Osteen hired Duncan Dodds, an ordained Southern Baptist minister who was also a branding specialist. Dodds served as executive director of the church and helped guide its growth. He preached the importance of building Lakewood's name the way corporations promote their products.
Dodds saw no ceiling on Osteen's popularity. With the right marketing support, he thought, Osteen could match the name recognition achieved by no less a figure than Billy Graham, the 20th century's preeminent evangelist. He developed a strategy designed to deliver on that ambition. It had four elements: "Jerusalem," an effort to become a dominant congregation in Houston; "Judea," a regional strategy to draw visitors from Dallas, Austin and San Antonio; "Samaria," national outreach through television, radio and traveling shows; and "Uttermost," a worldwide effort to attract followers through television, crusades and missions.
Dodds emphasized that all of the church's "brand touchpoints," from sermons to letterheads, had to work in unison to reinforce Lakewood as the ultimate religious brand and Osteen as its embodiment.
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No detail was too small: When Osteen preached in Houston, the pulpit was adorned with an "L" for Lakewood; on the road, it bore an "O" for Joel Osteen Ministries, a better-known name outside the city. Dodds often cited "Mickey's Ten Commandments," the famous set of principles written by then-Disney executive Marty Sklar. They included knowing your audience, communicating with "visual literacy" and creating interactive settings for guests to "exercise all of their senses.
The focus on branding and guest experience would shape one of Osteen's boldest undertakings, an audacious project he had conceived shortly after succeeding his father. The church was outgrowing its 8,seat sanctuary, and a bigger building, one of the biggest in Houston, would soon become available. City officials were looking for a new tenant for Compaq Center. Dave Walden, a political insider who was Mayor Bob Lanier's chief of staff in the s, led the effort. A separate fleet of consultants helped Lakewood craft a plan to transform the arena, adding indoor waterfalls, an orchestra lift for musicians, and 5, holders for offering envelopes.
The goal was to keep congregants transfixed from the moment they chose a plush stadium seat. Osteen asked his congregation to help shoulder the cost of the overhaul through a three-year fundraising campaign. The appeal depicted donations as obligations to God, investments in a spiritual legacy.
Cash, property, jewelry and stocks were all accepted. By then, weekly attendance had grown to more than 30, Osteen would never again enjoy anonymity. The family had vacationed at Disneyland for years, but when they returned in , they found themselves under siege.
In , Lakewood hosted a ministries conference that offered the religious community the chance to learn, for a small registration fee, how the church had more than quadrupled its audience under Osteen's leadership. Dodds held a session on branding. Phillip Sinitiere, a professor at Houston's College of Biblical Studies and author of a book about Lakewood called "Salvation with a Smile," was in the audience. He described the presentation in a recent interview and shared handouts he had saved.
He recalled his wonder at the boldness of Lakewood's marketing strategy, one that few churches at the time could rival. Dodds asked the assembled church leaders to identify luxury car brands. BMW and Lexus came to mind. When he asked about coffee, most people thought of Starbucks. On the road, marketing and merchandise move center-stage. About this series In researching Lakewood Church's beginnings and its spectacular growth, Chronicle staff writer Katherine Blunt conducted two extended interviews with pastor Joel Osteen and numerous interviews with his immediate and extended family members.
She also spoke to current and former Lakewood staffers and consultants and Lakewood followers in Houston and elsewhere, as well as church watchdogs, religious scholars and publishing industry experts. She obtained and reviewed the church's audited financial statements for the fiscal year and, for comparison purposes, the fiscal year, among other records. In addition, she attended a Night of Hope event in Los Angeles and numerous local services, read most of Osteen's books and watched or read transcripts of his sermons dating to Katherine Blunt came to the Chronicle in August as a business reporter covering the retail industry.
She has since joined the energy team, writing about refining and petrochemicals during a surge in Texas oil and gas production. She previously covered transportation at the San Antonio Express-News, where she investigated the bankruptcy of the state's first public-private toll road in a story that won first place in business reporting from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors in and an EPPY Award for best business reporting in Follow her on Twitter at katherineblunt.
Contact her at katherine. Elizabeth Conley is an award-winning photojournalist who moved to Houston from Michigan in September Having been a professional photojournalist for over 20 years, she still feels she has the best job in the world every time people let her share their story.
When the camera is not in her hands, Conley's usually reliving her Level 5 gymnastics training which still isn't as good as her three-pointer.
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Follow her on Twitter and Instagram , or reach out to her by email at elizabeth. Interactives, design and audience engagement by Rachael Gleason. Subscribe The Houston Chronicle is dedicated to serving the public interest with fact-based journalism. That mission has never been more important. Show your support for our journalism at HoustonChronicle. This story was published Monday, June 4, , at 5 a. He stumbled through sentences. He shuffled his notes. He shifted nervously in an oversized suit.
Joel Osteen had never delivered a sermon before. Now Playing:. Lakewood Church's head pastor Joel Osteen delivered his first sermon in Media: Courtesy of Lakewood Church. The exterior of Lakewood Church in Houston. Elizabeth Conley Houston Chronicle. A family photo of young Joel Osteen. Look out for them online on Sunday. Deadline: Please note that submissions close at noon on Thursday, June 15 and we will publish as many photographs as we can on the day.
We received so many photographs that we had to bring the deadline forward! To put a message for your dad in the Chronicle please visit chroniclelive.
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