Amid the din of Lakewood's 16,000-seat sanctuary, congregants weep, shout in exultation or sit in quiet anonymity. The audience is black, white, Latino and Asian in roughly equal proportions. All have come to hear assurance that God has something better in store for them, that life's many obstacles are surmountable and that investing in themselves and their church will unlock the shackles of debt, addictions, bad luck or bad attitudes.
He invites congregants in need to come forward to pray with prayer partners lined up in front of the stage. The rich tones of a grand piano sound a gentle hymn as he takes his place within the line.
In some Christian traditions, repentance is a process heavy on reflection and confession.
In Osteen's church, it's condensed to a single moment. At the end of each service, he asks those willing to accept Jesus Christ as their savior to "take a step of faith." Hundreds stand to recite a simple prayer.
"The moment you stood up, God washed away all of your sins, your mistakes, your failures," he tells them. "You are starting with a fresh, clean slate."
The scene encapsulates a key aspect of Osteen's appeal. He asks little in the way of tradition and formality, and there's no threat of judgment.
He challenges his followers to consider not a Godly vision for humanity, but rather how to make the most of their individual circumstances. His sermons are for problem solving, not contemplation.
Phil Cooke, a theologian and media consultant who worked with Lakewood for years, said he didn't fully understand Osteen's appeal until the day the pastor took live calls on Sirius XM for the first time. It was 2014. Osteen had asked Cooke to call in and ask the first question, a softball to ease his nerves.
Cooke lingered to hear the second question. It was from a woman who had lost her job, her relationship and her savings. She didn't know how she would take care of her children. She asked Osteen what to do.
"You just have to keep getting up in the morning," he replied.
Cooke was irked at Osteen's seemingly vapid response. Then he heard the woman begin to cry. She thanked Osteen for the best advice she'd ever received.
"Then it hit me," Cooke said. "A theologian would have never reached that woman in that moment, but Joel was able to."
On stage, Osteen is commanding. In unscripted settings, he is shy and cautious, seemingly wary of straying off-message.
He is thoughtful and matter-of-fact in talking about the church's finances and operations. But he will not take firm positions on fraught topics such as same-sex marriage. Nor does he readily share reflections on the persistence of suffering or other enigmas of the faith. Asked his perspective on such matters, he can seem at a loss for words. His sentences trail off. He glances at the ceiling. Often, he says simply, "I don't know."
Though raised in a preacher's household, Osteen did not seem destined for the pulpit. He did not pursue religious studies. His interest was broadcasting and developing his father's TV ministry.
Pressed into service when the elder Osteen fell ill in January 1999, he showed an unexpected flair for preaching. His father died that month, and Osteen became head pastor within a year.
John Osteen had been an ordained Southern Baptist minister who parted ways with the denomination to preach a blend of charismatic Pentacostalism, born-again Christianity and the prosperity gospel — the notion that those who donate generously to their churches will reap rich rewards.
The son reshaped that creed for a new century, emphasizing self-help and positive thinking. Attendance more than doubled in his first year, and kept growing.
Running what has become a multimedia empire requires about 400 staff members (the church had fewer than 30 when Osteen took over) and a bevy of outside consultants. Still, Lakewood remains very much a family affair.
Osteen's mother, Dodie, 84, is the matriarch, occasionally preaching and holding prayer services for the sick and disabled. His wife, Victoria, serves as his co-pastor.
Her brother, Don Iloff, a former Republican campaign strategist who served in the White House under President George H.W. Bush, is an adviser and spokesman for the church.
Osteen's older brother Paul, a surgeon, oversees the church's many pastoral ministries and leads medical missions to Africa and the Middle East. Paul and his sister, associate pastor Lisa Osteen Comes, often teach Monday night Bible study. Her husband, Kevin Comes, is Lakewood's chief financial officer.
Family members and church staff handle traditional pastoral duties for Joel — weddings, funerals, counseling — so he can preach, write and travel.
They run the church with a focus on shielding his reputation from even a hint of impropriety.
Appeals for donations are edited out of Lakewood's TV broadcasts, and the church takes pains to minimize any appearance of overlap between its finances and Osteen's personal wealth.
Under an arrangement devised by Lakewood's attorneys, the church keeps royalties from Osteen's books if they're sold through its in-house bookstore or Joel Osteen Ministries. Osteen keeps royalties from sales through outside retailers such as Amazon.
Lakewood's marketing messages reflect that distinction. Ads for Osteen products do not refer customers to traditional retailers. They include only a phone number and website for Joel Osteen Ministries.
Yet Lakewood can't fully separate its financial interests from Osteen's. By broadcasting his sermons and funding his Night of Hope extravaganzas, the church inevitably promotes his brand and his books, wherever consumers choose to buy them.
The careful curation of Osteen's image extends to social media. In that free-wheeling arena, detractors are ready at all hours to deride his message as corporatized Christianity, condemn his wealth as sacrilegious or post satellite images of the mansion, guesthouse and pool on his 1.8-acre property.
BrandStar, a marketing firm in Deerfield Beach, Fla., manages Osteen's social media feeds and crunches data to determine which messages resonate.
The company tracks fluctuations in his millions of followers and responds to some of the thousands of comments that flood his accounts. Each month, its analysts send Lakewood a detailed report examining audience engagement and the tenor of the online conversation.
"There is always someone talking about Joel, for good or for bad," said Forrest Haag, BrandStar's executive vice president of digital marketing. His smartphone buzzes anytime someone mentions Osteen in a post.
Haag and his team were especially busy late last August, when Osteen's reputation took a rare hit.
As Hurricane Harvey barreled across the Gulf, Lakewood's staff did not make preparations to open the huge building as a shelter. Afterward, they said they had been concerned that high winds and driving rain could have shattered the church's tall glass windows or flooded its lower level.
The storm stalled over the Houston region on Saturday night, Aug. 26, inundating wide swaths of the city. On Sunday morning, Lakewood posted on social media that severe flooding had made the church inaccessible and listed places that were accepting evacuees.
It was not a popular message in a city under water. The blowback was harsh and aimed squarely at Osteen.
"Joel Osteen won't open his church that holds 16,000 to hurricane victims because it only provides shelter from taxes," one Twitter user wrote in a post that generated 113,000 likes and 45,000 retweets.
BrandStar's social media experts lived in their operations room for days, monitoring a wall of TV screens showing CNN, Fox News, Google trends and other metrics of social sentiment. They stayed in constant contact with the church's communications staff, detailing the extent of the outrage and crafting a response.
On Monday, the church hurriedly bought cots and supplies and opened as a shelter the following morning, housing as many as 450 people for several days.
"Victoria and I care deeply about our fellow Houstonians," said a message that BrandStar posted to Osteen's Twitter account. "Lakewood's doors are open and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter."
The company also posted videos of scenes from the shelter — Victoria hugging a young girl on her birthday, Paul and Dodie sorting donations — while Osteen took to national television to try to repair the damage.
When the floodwaters receded, Lakewood collected more than $1 million in donations for Harvey victims and organized more than 7,200 volunteers to gut 800 homes. The church has since rebuilt 20 of them with help from Samaritan's Purse, a Christian relief organization.
For Osteen, the social-media furor still stings, even months later. He can handle criticism for being wealthy, he said. But not for being heartless.
"It bothers me for people to think we weren't there to take care of the city," he said.
In his books and sermons, Osteen offers general advice for overcoming life's many challenges: Improve your habits. Change your thinking. Have faith that God will open doors.
Yet to his followers, it's a deeply personal message. Like Vickie McGinty, 56, many feel as though he has the answers to the very problems that keep them up at night.
For months last year, McGinty drove from Wichita to Houston every few weeks to hear him preach. She prayed for her husband to change his mind about the divorce and come back home. He didn't. So she decided to move to Houston.
She found an apartment down the street from Lakewood and put her divorce settlement toward the rent.
One day while settling in, she paused a sermon playing on a CD. She grabbed a Post-it and jotted down a phrase she wanted to remember:
"Complain, and you'll remain; praise, and you'll be raised."
She stuck it to the bathroom mirror.
The Post-its have multiplied. They line the kitchen cabinets, the refrigerator and the doorways.
She attends five services a week, walking from her apartment to the church's wall of glass doors.
"Now I'm one of those people, hands up, singing loudly," she said. "I think this is the best church in America."
At the end of March, when her six-month lease expired, she faced a choice: Move back to an empty house in Wichita or stay in Houston, close to Lakewood. She renewed for six more months.