- The Washington Times - Monday, June 20, 2005

Elvis Presley played there. So did the Rolling Stones, U2, Disney on Ice and the Houston Rockets.

Now it all belongs to Jesus.

What was once a major sports and entertainment complex will soon become the nation’s largest house of worship, trading raucous crowds for prayerful multitudes: Come July 16, Houston’s 18,000-seat Compaq Center becomes the new home for Lakewood Church.

Pastor Joel Osteen is quite at ease with such magnitude, and no wonder. His weekend services typically draw 16,000. The congregation of his nondenominational, Christian-based evangelical church numbers more than 25,000.

“We’re thrilled the process is nearing completion,” said Mr. Osteen, 41, who will bring his sizable flock to the extensively renovated site for its first holy moment: an old-fashioned Saturday night service.

But nothing is old-fashioned about the delivery.

The congregation will be treated to a “spectacular, state-of-the-art worship service,” according to Dennis Irvine of the Irvine Team, a Texas-based design firm, which brought in 50 assorted construction teams to help wrest spirit from sport.

He refers to the massive project as “owner-centric,” and promises his specialists will “help Lakewood Church realize their vision.”

Those specialists include Wacky World Studios — a Florida entertainment group — which has designed, among other things, the “E.T. ride” at Universal Studios and the quirky nationwide chain of Rainforest Cafes. Their contribution to the church is an area devoted to children’s ministries.

Hot dog stands, locker rooms and ticket booths are long gone — as are basketball courts and skating ice. Instead, an enormous stage has taken their place, flanked by twin running waterfalls and double video screens. A 250-member choir will rise up behind Mr. Osteen on a moving loft — a la Radio City Music Hall — their voices soaring to the apex of an 81-foot ceiling.

The stage and lighting was designed by a pair of TV producers who have 11 Emmy awards between them. This is not surprising, because the Lakewood weekly services are broadcast in more than 140 countries, primarily on cable networks.

The church itself has humble beginnings. Founded by Mr. Osteen’s father, John, in a converted Texas feed store in 1959, Lakewood has since grown into America’s largest “megachurch” — now considered any non-Catholic church with a congregation of more than 2,000, according to Forbes magazine.

At last count, there were some 740 in the U.S., according to Church Growth Today, a consulting company that tracks the phenomenon. It is growing trend: Megachurches numbered about 250 in 1990.

Having outgrown its previous 7,800-seat home, Lakewood signed a 30-year lease on the Compaq Center in 2001 after the Houston Rockets adopted the Toyota Center as their new home.

A Disney ice show was the last public performance at the former arena in 2003. Renovations began shortly thereafter. Some $70 million later, the site will now be known as the Lakewood Church “Central Campus.”

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