Recently while visiting a friend in Houston, we did what all the cool kids do: we visited Lakewood; aka Joel Osteen’s church.
Now what follows is a review of the experience for those who have not been. We did not go desiring to join or to see if what we had heard from others was true. We went to see what was the attraction, what was the experience like, what is actually going on. Why do people flock in such large numbers to this place.
We’ll start with the numbers. As many of you may know, the church is a former basketball arena. What once held 18-20,000 for Houston Rockets games, now holds about that many for worship. The attendance was a little sparse, though it was Saturday night; the entire ‘upper deck’ was closed off and empty; as was about half of the lower bowl. So everyone was sitting in 1 half of 1 side of the arena, lower bowl and floor seating only. We will say less than 10,000 in attendance.
The service began at 7PM, with a welcome from co-pastors Joel & Vitoria Osteen, followed by 30 minutes of music, led by a praise team. To be fair, the music, while WAY to loud, was not horrible. One could have been considered Easter, another was a spin-off of the popular ‘Our God is an Awesome God’. They repeated the chorus far more than needed, but the music was no worse than what one might hear in a contemporary LCMS service.
After 30 minutes, Joel Osteen came out, said a prayer of sorts, followed by another song, and then Victoria Osteen spoke for about 10 minutes about worship resulting in blessings being poured down upon people. Hard to say if this was a sermon or just a pep talk, or a scolding for those not singing loud enough, but it was followed immediately by a preview for an upcoming movie.
The movie is sponsored in part by Lakewood, and deals with a former MLB pitcher who is now an alcoholic, who befriends a man with Down Syndrome, who works produce at the grocery store. The pitcher and the man become friends, talk about God, and there is a love story in there as well. The point of the movie is that people with developmental disabilities are no different than the rest of us and should be treasured.
Coincidently, the two main actors were present to promote the movie, and give a plug for Lakewood and God. An announcement was made how Lakewood would be make a conscious effort in the coming months to incorporate people with developmental disabilities into the worship life of Lakewood, including serving as greeters.
A commendable idea to be sure, though dangerous in this context as we will see in a moment.
Following another song and the offering, Joel Osteen took the stage for his sermon.
Osteen’s sermon was classic textbook Joel Osteen. This sermon was his basic message that has made him millions upon millions of dollars; has turned him into a superstar; has helped build the biggest church in the United States.
The message was built around 3 Biblical stories: Joseph, Job and Jesus, and numerous modern illustrations added in.
The basic premise of the sermon was that we were to look at our own lives, and how sometimes we have rough patches, we have difficult times: divorce, bad health, loss of work. Just like Joseph and Job: Joseph was sold into slavery in Egypt, and Job was afflicted for quite some time with loss of property, family, goods and health.
The promise was then just like Joseph and Job, these rough spots in your life are temporary, because God is going to bless us later; the proof text being Genesis 50:15, where Joseph tells his brothers that what they meant for evil, God meant for good.
At this point the third Biblical reference was made of Jesus. Jesus also endured a rough patch, He was arrested, beaten and crucified. But now, He has a better life in glory.
But there is the problem. The Jesus example does not fit with the rest of the sermon. The Jesus example is about eternal life in heaven; the Job and Joseph examples are about life on earth.
Which would you rather have?
Osteen’s recurring phrase of choice was that you already know the ending. You know the rough patch is going to lead to something better for you. But all he ever talked about was receiving blessings on earth. Your ending is that you may be poor now, but one day you will be rich. You are getting divorced now, but one day you will get married again. You are sick as a dog today, but one day you will be well.
Which is the great American way. The religion of America is that you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps; you can do it yourself; everyone can grow up to be President, or own a business. It is the classic rags to riches story we all dream of.
Which does in fact make Joel Osteen America’s Pastor, as he is teaching the American religion.
Which is a very dangerous thing.
Most of the people in attendance appeared to be some version of middle class. The parking lot was full of cars, none to extravagant or gaudy that one would think this was the car of a millionaire. The middle class loves the idea of the American dream, because that is their ticket out of poverty; and what better than to go to a church where you are told that one day you will get out of bed and the rotten job and overbearing marriage and the nagging pain will all be gone, and you will be blessed beyond measure here on earth?
Which is an even more dangerous thing for one who is developmentally disabled. You have spent your whole life being mocked and ridiculed and trapped in low end jobs, but one day, you are going to get up and be just like everyone else, and you are going to make it big.
But what happens when it does not happen? Even deeper despair? Rejection of God? Loss of any and all value and worth?
Ironically, this was a very easy sermon to save; if there was only 1 small change.
You do know the end of your story. Your story does not end here on earth; you may be blessed beyond measure with earthly blessings or you may die in poverty; but you know the end of your story. Your story ends with Jesus. By virtue of your baptism into the death and resurrection of Christ, you have been redeemed from sin, death and the power of the devil and given the promise of eternal life with Christ.
That message of hope and life in Christ was entirely missing at Lakewood.
The service ended almost immediately after the sermon. Osteen informed everyone that if you attend three times, he considers you a member. I would be curious how many were there for the spectacle and how many actually considered this their church home. Hard to tell for me, perhaps impossible for Osteen, let alone those gathered in the stands. Upon taking our seats we joked that we hoped we were not in someone’s pew; but in reality, how would you or they ever know?
On Sunday, we heard the Gospel of the Good Shepherd, whose desire it is to protect us from those who seek to destroy the Church by preaching a false Gospel. May those who call Lakewood their church home, and Joel & Victoria Osteen their pastors, be led to hear that Gospel as well.