A church converted from a sports stadium presents a powerful spectacle of devotion.
A triptych of giant video screens broadcasts three identical images of Pastor Joel Osteen’s lean, square-jawed face, on which his congregation’s 12,000 pairs of eyes are fixed. (It’s relatively quiet this morning: 4,000 seats are empty.) "When you see yourselves, give our TV audience a great big Lakewood welcome," he exhorts. A second later, the crowd takes the leader’s place on-screen, and exultantly, they cheer. Then the pastor reappears in close-up, welcoming the world into a church sanctuary unlike any other on the planet—a place that’s been painstakingly designed to satisfy one of the most common spiritual cravings of our virtual age.
Lakewood, with a combined attendance of more than 40,000 at its six weekly services, is this country’s largest church, according to Church Growth Today, a publication that tracks the megachurch phenomenon. Lakewood’s sanctuary was formerly a sports stadium (the Compaq Center, where the NBA champion Houston Rockets played) whose redesign and renovation were completed in 2005 by a formidable team of theatrical talents: Rene Lagler, the Academy Awards’ production designer; Bill Klages, a lighting designer whose credits include the Grammys, the Tonys, and three Republican National Conventions; and Pete Ed Garrett, the principal architect of Houston’s Grand Opera house.
Since the revivals of the Great Awakening, many American preachers have evangelized in giant meeting places such as tents, theaters, and arenas. Some, like Billy Graham, have spread the gospel on stadium tours. Last year, however, Joel Osteen—the 40-year-old author of New York Times best-seller Your Best Life Now, whose weekly worship program is ranked by Nielsen as the nation’s top inspirational TV show—took the tradition of bulk proselytizing to a new level. He spearheaded the transformation of this stadium into a church—the first architectural conversion of its kind.
That gave Lakewood’s designers a problem that no church architect has faced before: How do you lend a stadium the intimacy and holiness of worship—both for the tens of thousands who attend services there, and for the 7 million watching on TV?
First, the designers had to decide where to put the pulpit. In a church like Lakewood, where the minister is the central draw, Garrett says the key to intimacy is making sure everyone can see both the preacher and a projected image of his face in one view. "People connect to the event and to each other by connecting with Joel," he explains. A proscenium stage at the west end of the stadium, facing a sloped bank of seats, offered the best sightlines for the most worshippers—which, in turn, also improved sound impressions. "If they can see, they can hear," Garrett says. "It’s all about psychology."
Lakewood’s media director, Jon Swearingen, who produces Osteen’s weekly TV program for network and cable stations, says this configuration also allows for more dramatic camera angles that show off the sanctuary’s magnitude. It’s important "to make this place look as big as it is," he says, because "it adds credibility to Joel. If you’re flipping channels you’ll think, ‘Look at all these people that have come to see this guy.’"
Garrett borrowed another psychological trick from theater design when he rebuilt the original flat-floor main seating area on a gently rising slope, to make worshippers "feel more connected than they really are" because "as things rise up it feels like you push forward." He installed traditional cherrywood pews in this area and decreased the vertical angle of their seat backs from the customary 14 to 16 degrees to a steeper 12 degrees. "The smaller the angle, the tighter you are in your seat, the safer you feel," he explains.
The sense of safety is reinforced from above. Lakewood’s towering dark ceiling is hung with netting illuminated by LED lights whose colors change throughout the service: yellow for scorching praise songs, deep purple for slower anthems, and royal blue during Osteen’s sermon because, as Swearingen says, "Blue’s a safe color. It’s gentle." (The shade also happens to match Osteen’s eyes.)
Standard theatrical stage height—42 inches for opera and ballet—was lowered to 30 inches to improve Osteen’s connection with the first few rows of worshippers. This area, where he preaches and featured singers perform, is variously referred to by its designers as the pulpit, stage, and "performance space." (Immediately upstage is a 10-piece orchestra on a mechanized lift that allows the musicians to be hidden during the sermon.) The space is flanked on the right and left by permanently elevated choir seating—"so that you’re not distracted by other people in the background on-screen while Joel’s preaching," says Jared Wood, Garrett’s project manager for Lakewood. (Both architects began the renovation while employed by Morris, a Houston firm; they subsequently left, taking Lakewood with them, and formed a new shop called Studio Red.)
Shaped like a pair of slightly melted parentheses—"From above, they look kind of like bird wings," Osteen says—the choir lofts help draw sightlines to the stage. When Lakewood’s media department decided that long shots on television would be most photogenic with a substantial boundary between choir and crowd, set designer Rene Lagler suggested a pair of sculpted concrete waterfalls. "I thought for sure it would mess with sound recording for Joel’s voice," says Swearingen, but Lagler assuaged all worry with an adjustable flow control that silences the falls during the sermon.
On television, the waterfalls do their self-effacing job: They register only as a bulky blank space separating choir from congregation. But many worshippers in Houston mentioned the waterfalls immediately when I asked which features of the church made it feel like a sacred space. Pressed to say what’s holy about a waterfall, Joe Nicholas, a 45-year-old scrap-metal dealer, looked almost annoyed, as if the question were too obvious to deserve an answer. Then, shifting on his feet, alluding to both Genesis and the Gospel of John, he said, "God created water. And, you know, the Word is living water."
Lakewood contains no crucifix or other traditional religious iconography. In addition to the waterfalls, and a theatrical backdrop of puffy white clouds floating against a blue sky, the only decorations are an American flag hanging on the stadium wall opposite Osteen’s pulpit, and an 11-foot steel-and-plaster globe that slowly revolves in the background while Osteen preaches. Osteen’s optimistic readings of the gospel as a motivational resource for self-reliant strivers are profoundly American. "Don’t just sit back and learn to live with things that are less than God’s best," he recently urged. "You need to do something out of the ordinary. That’s what gets God’s attention." But he does not preach about politics. His patriotism is implicit. Perhaps accordingly, no one I met at Lakewood seemed to think the flag a noteworthy ornament; some worshippers said they never even noticed it.
The globe, though, was a different story. Paul Durisseau, a 26-year-old data systems engineer, said, "I love just seeing it turn and thinking about how many people we’re touching, not just here but on TV." For Osteen, too, the globe is the church’s most resonant object. He says, "Jesus said to go to all the world. That’s what we’re trying to do here."
Lakewood is, as Osteen explains, efficient: "It’s a place where you come with certain needs, and we help show you where to go." Ushers posted in the lobby and sanctuary direct worshippers to their seats. The service feels comfortable because it’s a familiar experience, much like a rock concert or a political rally. Its one liturgical element is a confession of faith that precedes the sermon: "This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do.…I will never be the same. Never, never, never. I will never be the same, in Jesus’s name." The Bible, as Osteen interprets its message, tells us how to live "an overcoming life of victory." Follow the directions, and happiness is yours.
Pete Ed Garrett, who is Catholic, voiced some unease about the way his church design may promote passive worship: "Lakewood is . . . sit down and watch TV. Sit down and tell me something. And I’m very concerned about this, that as a society we are all spending so much time sitting in front of little screens that we are beginning to expect the whole world to be structured the same way. People want to be told how to feel rather than learn to figure it out for themselves. They want to be told how to feel present."
Traditions of ecclesiastical architecture and design have developed to provide holy spaces where worshippers explore their relationship with God and one another. The 12 stations of the cross in a Catholic church, Orthodox iconography, and the baptisteries and mausoleums of houses of worship for all denominations teach congregants the conventions of faith and also challenge them to negotiate their own way through religious practice. Anyone who values the freedom implicit in these challenges will recognize the validity of Garrett’s concern. Still, Lakewood’s design—even if it is, in the end, a glorified TV set—provides for unexpected and unusual moments of grace. During one service, I sat with Swearingen in his control booth as he produced the program. While leading the congregation in prayer, Osteen’s wife, Victoria—a porcelain Texas beauty with wavy blond hair, wide eyes, and crimson lips—lost her train of thought, gamely soldiered on, and then flubbed her lines again. The congregation’s response suggested that perhaps Lakewood’s status as a media spectacle, as much as any physical feature of the sanctuary, lends these proceedings an air of significance and possibly even of sacredness.
The crowd chuckled warmly at Victoria Osteen’s gaffes, reserving their heartiest outpouring of affection for the moment when she seemed most frustrated—and most endearingly authentic. She broke character, sighed, and said, "I thank God I have good editors. Thank you, Jon!"
The stadium roared. In the control booth, nodding kindly at Victoria’s image on the bank of video monitors, Swearingen grinned and said, "No problem."
At Lakewood, it’s exciting, and even dignifying, to witness a moment that will be cut from the TV show. Worshippers go there because they want to be part of a spectacle, but an added—and maybe unexpected—benefit of participation is seeing behind the curtain and having an experience of actual human fellowship with the star. Moreover, the Osteens’ bloopers elicit from their congregation a response that one might not expect in this church of champions. When the leaders show weakness, the people, reminded of a broken reality that trumps the perfection of public image, respond in a manner that would almost certainly please Jesus: with laughter that sounds disarmingly like love.
Michael Joseph Gross is a regular contributor to The New York Times Arts & Leisure section. His book Starstruck, about the gravitational pull of celebrity in American society, is due out in paperback in April from Bloomsbury USA.