Joel Osteen and the rise of megachurches

Local churches grow members through televangelist's network


ORLANDO, Fla. – Lines of traffic filed into the parking garage and people rushed into the Amway Center in excitement as if they were going to a rock concert.

But inside, they were watching a preacher.

Joel Osteen, the televangelist and pastor for Houston's Lakewood Church, inspired thousands during his Night of Hope Event in December.

Many in attendance were there to not only see Osteen, but their own pastors take the stage as well.

In a time when less people claim to be religious, megachurch attendance is on the rise, and the faithful give Osteen and his counterparts credit.

According to the American Religious Identification Survey, which is available through the US Census Bureau, the percentage of people who consider themselves to have no religious affiliation grew from 8 percent in 1990 to 15 percent in 2008.

"I think some of it is, sometimes the churches haven't changed with the times," said Joel Osteen, in an interview with Local 6's Lauren Rowe last year.

Osteen's church has not felt the effects of this trend.  In the past 10 years, his congregation grew from 11,000 to more than 44,000.  It is now the largest church in the United States.

Pastor Jeff Smith was one of a handful of affiliated churches who sponsored Osteen's event. 

Smith's family started City of Life Church in Kissimmee in 1986 with just 15 members.

They've now grown to 4,000 members, and many of those new congregants have come on board just in the last few years.

It's a big accomplishment for a guy who said he never really thought he would be a pastor.

"I wanted to write movies, I wanted to write films, I wanted to have a creative culture around me and I never saw a pastor that did all those things," said Smith, who certainly doesn't dress like a typical pastor.

He dons converse sneakers and casual clothes instead of a suit or a robe.

And it's working; he said about half of his members come from Catholic churches.

"Part of the problem with some established churches is they want you to fit in their exact little box, to dress like them, to behave like them, before they accept you," said Smith, who professes an all our welcome message at City of Life.

He said they use moves and contemporary music to bring people together in a hopes of accomplishes a small church feel at a large congregation.

Megachurch members are consistently more active in their congregations and fellowship activities, according to a Baylor University Survey.

The same survey also found that megachurch members are more absolute in their beliefs about heaven and hell than those who attend small congregations.

"I think there is something about coming together, getting with other believers, I think that's contagious , I think that's healthy and that's my goal is to get people in church," said Osteen.