Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, seems to have gotten caught on the wrong side of Hurricane Harvey.
For those of you who aren’t in tune with the goings on of Pastor Joel, let me give you the quick catch-up.
Joel Osteen is the son of John Osteen, a Texas televangelist and founder of Lakewood Church. When John died, his son Joel took over as the church’s leader. In the eighteen years since John’s death, Lakewood Church has grown tremendously in scope, bringing Joel fame and fortune along the way.
In 2005, when the Houston Rockets moved to their new downtown arena, Lakewood signed a long-term lease on the old Compaq Center (formerly the Summit, for you old school NBA fans). Yes, you read that right. Joel Osteen’s church seats 16,800 basketball fans congregants. They estimate that between the multiple services in English and Spanish, the church hosts around 55,000 people per week.
They’ve since bought the arena from the City of Houston for $7.5 million, and dropped around $100 million in renovations into the facility. That’s not too much money when you consider you’re building a high-caliber club around James Harden and now Chris Paul, not to mention all of the championships Lakewood will bring to the city.
Oh wait; it’s not a professional sports club. I got Lakewood temporarily confused with the Houston Rockets. This is a freaking church. I forgot once I started typing those huge numbers.
Joel has done pretty well for himself, especially considering his weak perimeter game and terrible free throw percentage. He lives in a $10.5 million house in the exclusive River Oaks neighborhood in Houston. His net worth is somewhere north of $50 million. Not too bad for a down-home, soft-spoken Texas huckster preacher!
To be fair, Joel says he collects no salary from Lakewood Church, and all of his income is from his book sales.
That, of course, is hella1 misleading. Under Joel’s direction, Lakewood Church spends millions of dollars to be produced, backlit, polished, and packaged for television. His church services are shown in 100 countries, with approximately 7 million viewers per week. As a church, Joel is able to direct the income and expenditures of Lakewood completely free from taxation. And in doing so, he has made himself famous around the world. With that platform and fame, Joel has been able to sell millions of copies of his books and, ever so altruistically, refuse a salary from the tax shelter church he runs.
Joel preaches what’s commonly called the “prosperity gospel.” In a nutshell, the premise is that God wants his followers to live a life of prosperity, and the more you focus on fulfilling God’s desires and “claiming” His rewards for you, the more worldly prosperity you’ll attain. I guess it makes sense that the leader of the church—the example for the churchgoers—lives like he’s equally yoked with other important Houstonians, such as Beyoncé. God must really favor that guy.
Of course, the unstated yet implied inverse of that pervassertion2 is that rich people are rich because they are favored by God, and poor folks deserve their poverty because of their lack of faith or good works.
So, you’ve got a tax-sheltered TV preacher who used his church-funded fame to sell a lot of books. He believes that he’s become rich because of his faith, and he preaches a subtle message that if you’re poor, it’s your own damn fault.
And then, it rained for days and days and days without respite.
Houston was underwater. People lost their homes. Children, seniors, moms, dads, and pets were displaced. The fourth largest city in America had 30% of its land suddenly underwater.
On August 27, Lakewood announced that the church was inaccessible due to severe flooding. That, plus a lifetime of hawking the prosperity gospel, prompted intrepid Houstonians to brave the “severe flooding” and photograph some of the spot flooding and otherwise completely safe and dry sanctuary. The photos, of course, went viral.
After a deluge of negative press, Joel opened the church and went on TV. He insisted that the only reason he hadn’t thrown open the doors was that “the city hadn’t asked” him, and there were other shelters better suited for post-flood recovery efforts nearby. It was starting to add up, though, that the monsoon of negative social media backlash had pressured a quick switcheroo.
The optics couldn’t get much worse for Joel. That is, of course, until you compare how another famous Houstonian reacted to the storm.
Houston furniture magnate and television commercial personality Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale publicly announced that all of his furniture stores would serve as additional refuges from the storm. Literally, a for-profit entrepreneur invited a bunch of soaking wet people to come and sleep on (and likely ruin) his inventory. All while the 16,800 seat “Christian” church in town was locked.
“…what we can’t afford is to cause these people to lose hope, we got to give them hope. This is what my parents would have done.” – Jim McIngvale
Joel Osteen has found himself in a predicament of his own making. Years of selling his brand of “God wants you to be rich, too” to the desperate and poor, via the tax-sheltered growth of Christianity, has left people rightfully confused. And angry.
It’s completely possible that Joel is being 100% honest and transparent. The city likely didn’t ask him to make his church a hurricane shelter. The church administrators could have been fearful of flooding starting in the sanctuary. It could have been a major hassle to switch road and home games on short notice. Damn, there I go again, confusing Lakewood with the Rockets. Sorry guys.
The problem is, the city definitely didn’t ask Jim McIngvale to make his for-profit enterprise into a hurricane shelter, either. He just did it—at significant cost to his business—because he’s a good man, the city that made him rich needed his help, and it was the right thing to do.
Mack said it’s what his parents would have done. I’m guessing it’s what Joel Osteen’s boss Jesus would have done, too.
I can save all of the seekers at Lakewood a lot of tithes and purchases of special Bible studies and hot dogs and $12 beer (I’m assuming they sell that at their concession stands, I’m not really much of a “megachurch” guy). Or as Mattress Mack would say, “I really will SAVE! YOU! MONEY!” *jumps in the air and waves a stack of cash.
Want to be a godly man or woman? There’s no special prayer or magic book to read. Just do what’s right without hesitation. Without being asked. Sacrifice your own riches to help people who’ll never be able to pay you back.
In other words, ignore the airbrushed TV book salesman preacher, and just model yourself after Mattress Mack.
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Want to read more of my thoughts on the super-active hurricane season we had in 2017? Check out It’s Raining Rain (Not Men). Or, read Hey Bubba, If The Icecaps Melt, There’ll Be Less Animals For You To Shoot. You’ll be glad you did!
1 I used to live in Northern California, and feel that I’m entitled to drop a “hella” every once in a while. I ain’t got time for playin’, I’m just sayin’ man we out here tryna function.
2 That’s perverse + assertion. Other pervassertions include Ann Coulter’s “Maybe the hurricane hit Houston because they had a lesbian mayor,” or Alex Jones’s “Liberals eat babies,” or The Houston Astros 50+ years of “It feels like this is gonna be our year!”