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Joel OsteenKarl Taro Greenfeld of examines the money-making machine that is Houston’s Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church 

Last year, Lakewood generated $76 million in revenue, which amounts to just over $1,600 for every member of its congregation. Its take includes $44 million donated directly by congregants, who are asked to give 10 percent of their gross income; $10 million in product sales and sermon tapes; and $13 million brought in through direct-mail solicitations, up from about $6 million two years ago. The church’s greatest expense is the TV airtime it buys: $22 million last year to broadcast the show in more than 100 markets, a 10 percent annual increase in spending that is easy to justify. “Cutting back on airtime would be like saying we won’t be sending any trucks to deliver our product,” [Osteen brother-in-law Kevin] Comes says [Comes is Lakewood’s chief operating officer]. An additional $13 million goes to administrative costs and salaries, and $9 million a year is spent on facilities and maintenance. [.  .  .]

Being backstage at a Joel Osteen worship event is remarkably similar to being at an N.B.A. game or a rock concert. Beefy security guards tell you where you can and can’t go. Crew members chow down on a buffet laid out by a local caterer and bark into walkie-talkies between bites. At some point, black Town Cars head down the long, curving driveway into the belly of the arena and drop off the pastors and performers, who retreat into private suites.

The night is a celebration of music, state-of-the-art visual effects, and, of course, Christ. Lakewood spends a great deal of money attracting top gospel and Christian talent, and music minister Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff leads a team of Grammy Award winners, including gospel singer Israel Houghton. It’s a thumping occasion, with people dancing in the aisles and even the security guards singing along to “Come Just as You Are” and “We Have Overcome.” Osteen’s entire family is in the act. His mother, wife, and children often play parts in the service.

But it’s Osteen himself we have come to see. He wins the crowd over with wholesome jokes and inspires with his sweet-voiced message. The sermon today is based on the notion of “hitting the DELETE button when you have those negative thoughts.” He urges us to banish that voice telling us, “I’ll never get that great job. I’ll never meet that special someone. I’ll never get married.” Hit the delete button, he urges, and reprogram your mind. “Just one inferior thought can keep you off balance and away from your God-given destiny.”

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July 2008
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