PASTOR Marcos Witt
ADDRESS 3700 Southwest Freeway
PHONE 713-635-4154
SERVICIO EN ESPAÑOL Sundays at 1:30 P.M.

By now, most people who pay attention to such things know that Houston’s Lakewood Church, led by Joel Osteen, draws more than 42,000 souls to four worship services every weekend at the former Compaq Center. But they may not know that nearly 8,000 of those come not to hear “Pastor Joel” but “Pastor Marcos,” the multitalented singer-songwriter-author-preacher Marcos Witt, who leads the Servicio en Español and serves as spiritual shepherd to one of the largest Hispanic congregations in the nation.

Though Witt was relatively unknown among Anglo audiences when Osteen invited him to lead Lakewood’s Hispanic ministry in 2002, he was a major celebrity in Hispanic Christian circles throughout the U.S. and Latin America. Texan by birth (he was born in San Antonio, in 1962) but Mexican by upbringing (his parents were missionaries in Durango), Witt has recorded 31 albums of Christian music, selling more than seven million copies and winning four Latin Grammys (the most recent for 2006’s Alegría). He has also written eleven books, including the popular Adoremos, and has toured Latin America for years, packing large arenas wherever he goes.

The Spanish service officially begins at one-thirty p.m., but when I arrived fifteen minutes early, at least two thousand people were already in place and singing along with a small group of praise singers and a choir of more than a hundred members, who were split into two rising sections that flanked an up-tempo band and a large rotating globe. By starting time, the 16,000-seat sanctuary appeared to be nearly half-full, and the musicians kicked into higher gear. The congregation followed, hands upraised and bodies bouncing as they joyfully affirmed that “bueno es Dios.

Witt occasionally sings a number or two early in the service, but a cold had affected his voice, so on this Sunday he limited himself to a few welcoming remarks. Despite not being in top form vocally, he was in good spirits and interacted easily with the crowd. After the offering, he returned to the platform with his wife, Miriam, who addressed the congregation briefly, as Victoria Osteen typically does in the English-language services. Witt’s sermon for the day was “Escoge la vida,” a call to “choose life,” especially in the face of depression and contemplation of suicide. Satan, he warned, seeks to destroy our creativity, our spirit of struggle, our pleasure, our faith, our family, our friends, and our very lives. Jesus, in contrast, offers an enriching and full life, overflowing with blessing. Witt gave practical steps for battling depression and for helping those suffering from its ravages. He ended with the exhortation, “¡Escoge la vida!

The content of the message was quite similar to that of Osteen’s sermons, but the delivery was more animated and less closely scripted—more like, well, a really good Pentecostal preacher’s, but without any excesses that might discomfit a Baptist. Witt communicates beautifully with an audience Osteen knew would be harder for him to reach, despite the fact that Lakewood has long attracted a substantial Hispanic contingent. It has been a fruitful division of labor at a particularly propitious time.

Betting on growth in the Hispanic population of Texas is, of course, a no-brainer. Given the fact that most Hispanic newcomers are Catholic, one might also imagine that by 2040 our state will have a Catholic majority (up from about 21 percent today). This could happen, but, surprising to some, many who immigrate actually convert to Protestantism after living here awhile. Major surveys indicate that more than 20 percent of Hispanics in the U.S. are Protestant—a trend that shadows the evangelical expansion throughout much of Latin America—and an increasing number of those belong to Pentecostal and charismatic churches similar in outlook and ethos to Lakewood.

Hispanics who convert overwhelmingly cite their desire for a direct, personal experience with God, in everyday life and in emotionally expressive “Spirit-filled” worship, as a primary reason for switching. Another key factor is a preference for ethnic-oriented worship led by other Hispanics, who are seriously underrepresented in the Catholic priesthood. In most evangelical and Pentecostal churches, both men and women can rather easily become ministers or hold other leadership positions, multiplying the opportunities to experience Hispanic-oriented worship led by other Hispanics.

Though Anglo by bloodline, Witt is culturally Latino, and—thanks to his frequent travels in Latin America and efforts to record an album in a different country each year—he is not seen as a primarily Mexican leader. This gives him an additional advantage in a multicultural mélange such as Houston. When I spoke with him in December, he observed that at most Hispanic churches, the national origins of clergy and congregation match closely: A Salvadoran pastor will have a predominantly Salvadoran flock, an Argentine pastor an Argentine flock, and so on. Not so at Lakewood. Witt estimates that most people who attend the Spanish service are first- and second-generation immigrants, with the greatest number coming from Mexico, followed by El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, in that order. Approximately equal numbers from Colombia, Ecuador, and Argentina make up the next tier, just above a grouping from Chile, Bolivia, and Peru. Most of the rest come from Costa Rica, Puerto Rico, and Panama.

Unlike Osteen, who assiduously avoids being drawn into discussion of controversial issues, Witt does not hesitate to say where he stands on immigration. He notes that with baby boomers about to start retiring, the U.S. will soon face a serious labor shortfall, creating a need for large numbers of immigrant workers. Calling the punitive policies favored by most congressional Republicans unjust, he argues for a guest-worker program and provisions for those already here illegally to pay a fine, then earn citizenship and assimilate into U.S. society. He urges his followers and fans “to register to vote and to help remove the elements of our system who’ve been blocking the way.” Because of legal restrictions and Lakewood’s avoidance of controversy, Witt is limited in what he can say from the pulpit, but when we spoke, he freely volunteered that he connects immigrants in his flock to organizations “that help them in various ways, including their legal status, in jail without documents, et cetera” and that he personally contributes to HispanA, the agency he most counts on for such services.

Despite current opposition, substantial immigration from Latin America will continue for the foreseeable future, and it seems certain that Pentecostal religion will provide a warm welcome and a supportive community for many of those arrivals—as well as for Hispanics who’ve been here for generations. Given that he is just 45 and perhaps not even at the peak of his powers, Lakewood’s Hispanic pastor appears poised to not only oversee but also significantly shape the next decade. Anyone wanting to track the state’s evolution, in fact, might consider this advice: Escoge Marcos Witt.