On “Closing” a Megachurch: Why Were We Surprised?

Natural disasters and acts of God tend to appear alongside each other on legal papers and insurance policies. It seems they’re touched on in Joel Osteen’s megachurch operations manual, too. You might think a former NBA basketball arena with capacity for 17,000 would make a good shelter in such a situation. Joel disagrees.

Despite being situated fairly ideally to assist the community during the worst hurricane to hit Texas in over fifty years, Osteen’s only first move was to encourage church members to donate to the church while insisting that flood waters made the facility inaccessible.

Don’t Hate the Pastor, Hate the Megachurch

In the days following the storm’s relent, Osteen has taken steps to oppose the claims he closed the church to those seeking shelter. On August 29th, he announced via Twitter “Victoria and I care deeply about our fellow Houstonians. Lakewood’s doors are open, and we are receiving anyone who needs shelter.” Victoria is Osteen’s wife and another Lakewood megachurch pastor.

It’s still not entirely clear whether or not the rumors about Joel shutting down the church are completely true or not. It’s sort of a gray area and looks like it could have been a misunderstanding — cue “fake news” declarations. The general consensus is that he was indifferent to the situation since his church was never asked to help, but then backpedaled on his apathetic approach after facing media criticism.

But was there ever really an expectation that this man would come running to Houston’s aid? The entire concept of the megachurch flips organized religion on its head by choosing not to focus on community and creating a homogenous worship group too big for real relationships with pastors to form. The only thing it’s good for is generating revenue, which Osteen has done very well at.

You don’t have to be Christian to see the way these organizations run. There are very few places besides a megachurch where you will see thousands of people in regular attendance. No other worship community uses the business-like organizational structure that churches like Lakewood do. There are over 1000 of these institutions in America today, and that number is increasing.

The Wrong Way to do the Right Thing

Megachurches have been associated with a recent diaspora of young people from the Christian church. Nearly half of all millennials that were born into a religious community have dropped out, citing the church’s move away from God and towards pop culture as a prime motivator.

Osteen’s congregation is an excellent example of this. The TV star and best-selling author of Your Best Life Now might talk a good game in front of a congregation, but many of those who’ve spent time as members of Osteen’s following call the man a hypocrite.

Monologs about reaching out to the less fortunate and spreading the teachings of Jesus Christ might sound good, but instead of acknowledging these things, Osteen preaches a rhetoric about amassing material things and focusing on the positive. As one who’s never been to the places many disenfranchised people have, his humility is not convincing.

A Bad Representative for the Church

The Christian church is right up there with the GOP right now on the list of groups that need to monitor their public persona closely. The last thing it needs is a long-haired Littlefinger look-alike making a mockery of the faith and denying shelter to the needy.

For opponents of organized religion, this is the perfect example of what’s not to like. When you analyze the way that religion has been used going back thousands of years, it is typically to the self-serving end. The only thing worse is when political figures get involved, which can lead to actual religious wars — remember the crusades?

Faith might be a personal choice, but when you offer a watered-down, pop-culture version of something as ancient as the Christian church, you open yourself up to critique not just from your peers, but from all of society.

Kate Harveston is a political activist and writer. She enjoys writing about anything related to politics and culture, and how those elements intersect. If you like her writing, you can follow her on Twitter for updates or subscribe to her blog, Only Slightly Biased.


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