Before Joel Osteen became a household name as the impassioned preacher at Lakewood Church in Texas, his father John had a long history of being a fiery preacher and a prolific writer. John Osteen was born August 21, 1921 in a small town in Texas called Paris, and gained worldwide recognition serving his congregation in Houston, and by that time he was gaining a reputation as a charitable giver, impassioned evangelist, and loving father and husband. During his time as a preacher, he authored a staggering fifty books, edited two popular magazines, and looked over the Lakewood Church for six decades. To know John Osteen, you have to go all the way back to the beginning to see how his influence changed the entire world.
Following the Path of God
Back in 1939, John Osteen was only 17 years old and was working as a theater employee. Around this time Hitler was invading Poland, Billie Holiday was singing about brutality in African-American society, The Wizard of Oz was released in theaters and John Steinbeck published the Grapes of Wrath. As you can imagine, John found his heart was certainly wandering in confusion at this time. His anchor came in the way of a boyhood friend named Sam Martin, who gently prodded Osteen to surrender to the Lord Jesus Christ and pass from death to life. John claimed back in 1939 that he was living for the world, but carefully considered the possibilities of an eternal future and gave his heart to Jesus. This awakening took John Osteen around the world to churches where he would preach and encourage others to find their own faith in Jesus.
Becoming a Dedicated Preacher
Now that John Osteen had made the decision to commit the rest of his life to the Lord, his newfound faith began to reap many rewards for him that may not have ever found the young theater worker otherwise. He was able to complete his bachelor’s degree at the John Brown University, and went on in 1944 to complete his Master’s thesis at Northern Baptist Theological Seminary, which explored the formality of the Baptist Sunday morning services. He went on to apply the insights from his schooling to become an assistant pastor at the 1st Baptist Church in California and then the 1st Baptist Church in Hamlin, Texas. While in Hamlin, John was able to increase the small membership at that church by over 400 new followers in which 150 of those went on to become baptized. His peers went on to say about John in those early days that he was sound in doctrine, always willing to be led by the Lord, and was amazingly humble in his approach. John left Hamlin and went on to become a traveling preacher in 1948, wanting to reach a global audience in the ways of Jesus Christ.
Central Baptist Church Turning Point
One of the turning points in John’s life was a year after he left to tour the world, settling down in Baytown Texas as the pastor of Central Baptist Church. It was clear that success was going to mark his tenure, as he began to expand the classroom space and educational program soon after arriving. He developed a building program that resulted in the construction of an 800 seat sanctuary for the local parishioners. John played a leading role as administrator while serving on several missionary committees including one in Mexico. John left the Central Baptist Church in 1956 but continued as a traveling preacher throughout the rest of the 1950’s. He was instrumental in adding a new building at the Hibbard Memorial Baptist Church and soaring their membership to 1,000 people. This was just the beginning of a new journey in John’s life that would have a far-reaching effect on the world.
The Founding of Lakewood Church
The founding of the Lakewood Church was not a progression in the normal sense for this preacher. In fact, things came about in a very unconventional manner. It was during his time at Central Baptist Church in the mid 1950’s that he began experiencing marital issues with his first wife, Emma Jean Shaffer, and would eventually get a divorce. He met and subsequently married Dolores “Dodie” Pilgrim in 1955, then resigned his pastorate. It was in 1958 that the couple had their first child, Lisa, but she was born with many severe health issues. John wrestled with these circumstances and his belief in the Lord, and his theological beliefs suddenly started to shift, based on his baptism by the Holy Ghost. During this awakening, him and Dodie started Lakewood “Baptist” Church in Houston at a feed store that was dirty and abandoned. Soon after opening, John dropped the Baptist from the name of the church as it became nondenominational and independent. Many residents in the Houston area were already familiar with John Osteen, so he had little trouble starting and growing his membership at the new church, once it was renovated.
The Healing of Lisa and Newfound Faith
The doctors had told Dodie and John that Lisa was going to suffer her entire life with insurmountable health issues, never having mobility in her limbs or full mental capabilities. John was told that Lisa had a broken neck, and it was during this time he began to focus on physical healing from the New Testament and imagined his little girl was healed. When Lisa went on to shock the medical community and recovered to lead a normal life, John attributed this to a divine influence and what lead to his emerging charismatic Christianity, that shaped his sermons and became the subject of many of his books. John used this message to grow the following at Lakewood Church, and also traveled the world again to teach about spiritual power. What set John apart from other preachers was he was now operating outside the traditional denominational framework. He would step aside temporarily from Lakewood Church to tour the world with the likes of healing evangelists Oral Roberts and T.L. Osborn. He learned quite a bit from his peers, and was able to inject his own personal experiences with healing and faith into his sermons.
Expanding His New Beliefs One Patron at a Time
While touring the world with other evangelists, John Osteen decided that it was time to follow in their footsteps and develop his own evangelistic agency. He would distribute his written material, solicit donations, and began organizing preaching revivals. During the years 1961-1964, John penned five new books on divine healing and the work of the Holy Spirit. During this time, you could begin to see the shift from a rational minded Baptist to a passionate and charismatic evangelist. He created the John H. Osteen Evangelistic Association, which would distribute bimonthly periodicals on how Pentecost isn’t a denomination, but a God-like experience for everyone. This is around the time that John was able to sculpt his sermons (and publishing venues into his well-known impassioned and mature preaching) that would shape the Lakewood Church. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, John would publish another dozen books and expanded the size of the Lakewood Church twice, due to a growing following. In 1972 the Lakewood Church was expanded to hold 500 patrons, then again in 1979 to accommodate over 5,000 people. This explosive growth was only a glimpse of what was to come for John Osteen.
The Growth of the Lakewood Church
John and Dodie went on to have six children, but his family was not the only thing expanding in Texas. The growth of the Lakewood Church was only mirrored by the explosive growth of the Houston oil boom. During the 1980’s, John became a televangelist, reaching a whole new audience that was buzzing with excitement about what they had already heard about their local preacher. During the 1980’s, the Lakewood Church became known as “Oasis of Love”, fast becoming one of the leaders in the World of Faith Movement. It was at this time that John asked his son Joel to come join the operations at Lakewood Church. Joel was enrolled at Oral Roberts University, but left in 1982 to help his father to produce the television ministry. John would go on to use the help of his friend Oral Roberts to establish the foundation for a local, then national, to an international television market. John Osteen during the 1980’s had simply become a fixture for religious television, but the focus of Joel to incorporate a unique marketing campaign, expansive mailing list, and utilizing distribution networks, proved key in his father gaining worldwide notoriety.
From Humble Beginnings to Global Reach
The patronage at the Lakewood Church continued to explode in the 1980’s, resulting in the construction of a new building that could facilitate 8,000 members. The induction of the new building featured Mayor Kathy Whitmire, then Congressman Jack Fields, evangelists Oral Roberts, and T. L. Osborn. John wrote another two dozen books during the 1980’s, as Lakewood Church became Houston’s premier church and became a model church throughout the world. The growth of the church allowed John to create LBI (Lakewood Bible Institute), an unaccredited school that was a completely devoted bible training from a new perspective. Although the school did not survive to the 1990’s, it was yet another manifestation of John’s dedication towards Christian education. During this decade one of John’s children went through a divorce and his wife Dodie was diagnosed with cancer. John believed that prayer and faith played a huge role in turning around the life of his child and healing his wife of cancer. When Dodie was diagnosed cancer free, it only instilled the belief in John that he had in fact found his true calling and he needed to share this message with the world.
The Changing of the Guard
During the 1990’s, John Osteen had asked his son Joel to preach several times, yet Joel dismissed his father and claimed he was more suited for working behind the scenes and helping to grow the church that way. Joel loved the production side of working with Lakewood Church, working with editing and camera angles, to cast his father in the best possible light. John Osteen developed a severe illness in the late 1990’s, and again asked Joel to fill in for him for one sermon on Sunday, but Joel was uncomfortable with the idea of speaking in front of an audience and declined his father again. But this time, something was about to change. Joel kept hearing his father’s words in his mind and realized that a higher calling must be behind that sudden overwhelming desire he had to preach for his sick father. He studied the sermon his father prepared for him for a full week, and then the following Sunday spoke for the first time at Lakewood Church. Joel’s siblings recalled it was on that day they all realized Joel had found his true calling. His family, the patrons, and the world, welcomed the younger Osteen with open arms. On January 23, 1999, John Osteen died of a heart attack, and Joel was left to build on his father’s incredible legacy.
John Osteen founded the Lakewood Church that today continues to grow and reach a global audience. Although Joel Osteen has succeeded his father as pastor, none of this would be possible without the insight, commitment, dedication, and compassion John brought to the world.
The Lakewood Church is now almost 60 years old, and is still growing based on the philosophies of John. He hosted his television program for the better part of 16 years, and today Joel and his wife Victoria continue the tradition by bringing the cable show to the world. John not only left behind 50 books he had written and a church that is a sanctuary to those in the Houston area, but he also developed active ministries around the world, provided missionary support to numerous associations globally, and was instrumental in food distribution to people in less fortunate areas of the world.
Thanks to the humble beginnings and dedication of John Osteen, the Lakewood Church today has become the largest congregation in all of the US, averaging over 43,500 in attendance every week. The Lakewood Church would not be today what it is, had it not been for the early developments that were instrumental when John Osteen was the pastor. John had a unique energy that allowed him to reach a new audience through his gentle teachings, sermons, and writing.