I’m genuinely unsure whether Joel Osteen deserved the enormous flak he took this week over his reluctance to open his mega-church to flood victims in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. As of the writing of this article, reports say that Lakewood church is now open and offering shelter to flood victims. As of Monday, though, the massive church still had locked doors, along with signs directing people to Red Cross-operated flood shelters. Osteen intensified the criticism by tweeting messages advising people to trust Jesus in times of trouble.
There’s no doubt that the firestorm was partly just a manifestation of the media’s never-ending desire to find a soft target. Natural disasters ought to bring the nation together in an outpouring of solidarity and support, but the anger mill never stays quiet for long. Journalists are always on the lookout for a figure who can work their readers into a fit of moral indignation, keeping the presses running for another day.
This is surely akin in some respects to the ludicrous “don’t pray” campaigns that have been directed at the religious in the wake of recent mass shootings. After a tragic event, Christians take to social media offering their prayers, and liberals come back bristling with moral indignation. Ostensibly their argument is that prayer undercuts our willingness to take “productive action.” (In the case of mass shootings, that’s mostly code for “supporting gun control laws.”) It’s about as ridiculous as it sounds. There’s no evidence at all that prayer diminishes people’s zeal in working for the good; those of us who read about the lives of the saints see powerful evidence to the contrary. Just in general, the idea that prayer is a big part of what’s wrong with America is frankly preposterous. Nevertheless, angry and grieving people have a tendency to lash out, and for some, phony-seeming religious people are a favorite target.
Osteen, by that reckoning, is an especially excellent target. A prolific author, he has made millions peddling books adorned with his beaming face. Not since Jimmy Carter has any American so forcefully imprinted his teeth onto the public’s imagination. Beneath the creepy covers, these books blend pop psychology with soft spirituality, weaving them together into a feel-good argument that God wants you to be happy now, in a thoroughly temporal way. Osteen leads people to expect that God’s love should manifest itself in the form of comfortable homes, pleasant family vacations, good health and regular promotions. In this vision, the American dream and the Christian life combine very cozily, and this is surely part of the appeal that brings tens of thousands of people to Lakewood Church for feel-good, pop-oriented worship services. The stadium-like church has 16,800 seats.
This much at least can be said for Osteen: He practices what he preaches. He wants his followers to be prosperous, and they in turn have made him very prosperous indeed. Estimated to be worth 40 million, Osteen lives in a 10 million dollar mansion home in the Houston area. Osteen’s success certainly says something about the (temporal) value of telling people what they like to hear. Whether he’s leading those people back to God is a far more complicated question.
Should Lakewood have opened its doors sooner? That’s largely a pragmatic question, which I am not fully equipped to answer. Some claim that the church was in a non-ideal location, which made it difficult for flood victims to access. Thus, it made more sense to send people to the nearby shelters for as long as they still had space. Lakewood has sheltered disaster refugees in the church before (after a tropical storm in 2001), so it’s not as though they just have a history of hard-heartedness. It also seems a little unreasonable to expect a church to be immediately prepared to welcome thousands of flood victims when this obviously is not the primary purpose of the facility. If Osteen had locked the doors on thousands of people as they stood shivering in the rain, he would have deserved to be raked over the coals. It really wasn’t like that, however.
It does seem appropriate to read this as a cautionary tale about the drawbacks of feel-good religion. Osteen claims he isn’t a prosperity preacher, but no one doubts that he is a prosperous preacher, and while that’s not a sin, it does naturally open him to criticism when misfortune befalls his city. Why do bad things happen to good people? Osteen may need to spend a little more time wrestling with this question.
Pragmatically, he could have managed the situation better by springing to make a large personal donation to some relevant cause, while also stressing immediately the church’s willingness to serve as a backup shelter when needed. Perhaps it’s not fair to demand that, and normally Christians don’t encourage showy public giving, but such are the liabilities of getting rich by urging people to find happiness through worldly success. He should have seen this coming and planned accordingly.
Having said that, it also seems that the rest of us would do well to be circumspect in our griping. I personally have never been to one of Osteen’s services, but I did once spend Easter Morning at an 8am Traditional Latin Mass, which was celebrated in a church sitting directly in the shadow of the towering Lakewood stadium. The priest opened his homily with a stern warning that we must leave the premises immediately following the Mass, to open up parking spaces for the Lakewooders. He was obviously unhappy with these time constraints, but he appeared to have an agreement of some sort with Osteen’s people. It remains one of my more amusing Easter memories, and I myself decided not to resent Lakewood for the awkwardness of our celebratory pray-and-dash. If we had them to thank for the free and convenient downtown parking, I supposed I was grateful.
Here too, it seems wrong to get swept up in resentment of megachurch shallowness. This form of religion is shallow, and yet, even the shallowly religious can sometimes be a real force for good. As of now, needy people are finding a refuge within the walls of Osteen’s showy church, and I’m sure they appreciate the service. Instead of hating Osteen for his defects, Catholics should do what we can to supply what he lacks. We should help people to understand, on Easter Sunday or in the wake of a tragic disaster, that true joy is only found at the end of the Way of the Cross.