Sundays on the road provide for interesting opportunities for worship. I’ve always been fascinated by the multitude of the different religious denominations in a particular city and the diversity within their various congregations. I’m especially drawn to mega-churches and am often intrigued by what attracts thousands of distinctive people and their families to a common place of worship each particular Sunday. Often times the draw of these churches is the pastor himself.
Joel Osteen is the mega-pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas; the home of the largest independent Protestant congregation in the US with an average weekly attendance of over 43,000. A dynamic speaker, Osteen has frequently been criticized for preaching the “prosperity gospel”; a doctrine proclaiming that God offers financial blessing in return for large tithing, good works, and sure faith.
I’m here in Houston for the NCAA men’s basketball Final Four. It’s the Sunday between the semi-finals and the championship game and I’m looking for something interesting to do. Lakewood’s website states that Osteen is in town and is scheduled to preach this morning. Hooray prosperity gospel, here I come!
In the interest of full disclosure, I must confess that I’ve heard Osteen preach in person once before. I’ve watched him on TV many times and have read a couple of his books. I’ve always admired his presence on stage and his ability to connect with his audience. His messages have usually come across as encouraging and uplifting to me. Many of my Christian friends would disagree and view Osteen with much suspicion and disdain. They speak derisively of his excessive personal wealth, his diva wife, and his slick personality. One Christmas, I remember I gave away some of Osteen’s books and my buddies looked at me as if I had just handed them the forbidden fruit. So I’m headed to Lakewood with mixed emotions but surely in search of the truth.
Lakewood is located toward the western edge of downtown Houston, not so coincidentally far from my hotel. The building itself used to be known as the Compaq Center, former home to the NBA Houston Rockets. It’s early Sunday morning so traffic isn’t bad at all. I follow signs to these huge municipal parking garages located a couple of blocks away from the church and take the shuttle bus which drops me off at the main entrance. As I enter the building, the interior isn’t as gaudy as I would have imagined. It looks like a basketball arena with its winding concourses softened up with colorful signage and muted carpet. The atmosphere seems welcoming, the greeters friendly but not overbearing or intrusive. The congregation is a predominantly 50/50 mixture of African-Americans and Caucasians with a heavy dose of Hispanics mixed in. I spot a few lone Asians as I furtively glance around me. It seems I’m the only guy in sight with a ponytail. It’s the 8:30 service so the arena is less than half full, much short of the 16000 capacity expected at the later 11:00 extravaganza.
I weasel my way down front as close as I can get to the stage. The first five rows are roped off, apparently reserved for VIPs and visiting dignitaries. The ushers look like secret service agents, ready to throw their bodies in front of lunatic religious zealots looking to take Joel out. I end up in row 6, just close enough to feel the glare of the TV cameras. The couple to my left are quiet and pensive, eyeing me suspiciously as either a heathen infiltrator or perhaps a less-than-repentant drug dealer. The Latino woman with her elderly mother on my right, however, is extremely gregarious–telling me all about her current real estate exploits and her arthritic back problems. Oh yeah, she’s also a brand new Uber driver and is looking forward to the influx of customers when the Super Bowl comes to town next February. Her mom tells me she likes my ponytail.
The stage is now set for Joel and Victoria Osteen to appear before the masses, like rock stars before their adoring fans. The loud music, the flashing lights, the 15 member praise band and 70 member choral group rival anything you would see at Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. The congregation is charismatic with arms raised constantly to the Lord in praise. The young gentleman behind me appears spiritually stricken at times, repeatedly shouting “Hallelujah Jesus” while inadvertently spraying spittle down the back of my neck and shoulders. Others have their pen and notepads out, eager to drink from the prosperity waters.
Joel and Victoria both preach messages this morning regarding the importance of maintaining our faith through our trials and tribulations. God is using your circumstances to mold you into the person he wants you to be. Whether you are facing financial difficulties, or health problems, or having relationship issues, God is working in you to shape your destiny. Joel, with his smooth southern drawl and fluttering eyes, gives a standout performance–delivering his sermon in a well prepared, articulate, and compassionate manner. He laces his message with numerous personal anecdotes, scripture verses, and just the appropriate amount of humor to keep the audience fully engaged and responsive. Amens and applause do little to derail his momentum. “It’s all good”, he says. Everything that’s happening in our lives right now is “all good” if we keep our focus on God.
After the 90 minute service, Osteen appeared for a meet-and-greet session just outside the church bookstore. I was really hoping to speak with him briefly about his specific thoughts on the effectiveness of prayer, or perhaps just to take a quick Instagram selfie with him. Unfortunately for me, a large crowd had already gathered and a big burly attendant with an earpiece and lapel microphone kindly informed me that the pastor had another sermon to preach shortly. He told me that I could, if I wanted, to wait here in line for his next appearance in 2 hours. Hey, do you know who I am? I don’t wait two hours for nobody! Plus, Bingo is waiting for me back at the hotel.
So what’s the verdict on Osteen? Is he the second coming of Jesus? Definitely not. Is he some sort of false prophet? I don’t think so. CS Lewis, the Christian writer and theologian said that “all religions, even the queerest ones, contain some hint of truth.” In his messages, Osteen hints mainly at the truth of holding on to God’s hope. His role is that of an encourager. He’s trying to inspire us, to reassure us, and to embolden our faith in our Creator. Sure, his message can be easily misconstrued by those looking for a quick winning lottery ticket. Because despite what we read in God’s Word, our human nature still wants to believe in fairness, in tit-for-tat, and that God will somehow reward our good works. We fool ourselves into thinking that if we want to be blessed financially, then all we have to do is give more money to the poor and volunteer more of our free time. We often mistakenly believe that if our prayers are not being answered, then maybe we just don’t have enough faith in the first place. The reality is that even the most pious Christian lives are not immune to earthly catastrophe and disaster. All the great saints listed in the book of Hebrews did not see their hopes and dreams fulfilled while living on this earth. The truth is that sometimes, it just rains–on both the righteous and unrighteous. Bad things sometimes happen in this world. Life occasionally sucks, but if we listen closely to Osteen’s message, we hear him say time and time again that if we just keep our eyes focused on Jesus and live by our faith, then all of God’s promises will come to fruition. Maybe not through immediate earthly riches, but certainly through eternal heavenly gains. That’s my take. I’m giving my Lakewood experience four stars. I’m glad I went. Praise God! It’s all good. Now pass the offering plate.
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