Osteen made headlines when local Houstonians reported that they were denied refuge at Lakewood Church from Hurricane Harvey. Although it was true that Lakewood had closed off access to its buildings and parking lots, city officials confirm that Osteen’s megachurch did ask them if they should open their facility. And according to Lakewood’s public relations people, it was decided that the former sports arena wouldn’t be an ideal shelter because area roads would probably be flooded, making the facility inaccessible anyway. Likewise, the Lakewood facility was dry, but only because flood walls had kept out the water, but it was quickly rising. After several days of bad press, Lakewood did open their facility, and it appears from photographs of the crowd that they had no trouble traveling the streets to get there. The press has repeatedly reported Osteen’s denials that Lakewood ever “closed its doors” to Hurricane Harvey victims.
With the dust settled, the following truths can be ascertained.
- Lakewood has helped hurricane victims in the past.
- It’s been confirmed that some kind of call was made between Lakewood and the City of Houston, asking how it may help.
- Lakewood did help another shelter, miles away, although on a much smaller scale.
- Lakewood was not “flooded,” as was originally reported by Osteen. Some of the streets around the Lakewood campus were flooded, however, and Osteen apologists claim that this is what he meant.
- Lakewood did open itself as a shelter within 36 hours of intense social media criticism, although Osteen argues it was because only then the conditions were safe to do so.
Regardless of whether or not Osteen and Lakewood Church are to be believed about the facts surrounding the closing or opening of the church facility as a shelter, one thing is abundantly clear; the masses have no patience for prosperity preachers during times of tragedy and calamity.
Osteen, who is regularly heralded as a tolerable personality by those who find the rest of Christianity intolerable, faced the unique situation this week of being despised by a world that ordinarily loves him. Preaching a message of prosperity, wealth and health with a beaming smile has made Osteen a popular figure nation-wide. When asked if he preaches a “prosperity gospel” by journalists, Osteen commonly shrugs with a big, Texas grin and says, “Well, I sure don’t preach a poverty gospel.” And in times of plenty, that positive message – without any sign of a blood-soaked savior or call to repentance – is enough to make him the most popular (and financially successful) preacher in America.
The real story of the Lakewood hurricane response – beyond the naked facts of did-they, didn’t-they – is a valuable lesson in just how fast a prosperity gospel loses its favor among the populace in times of tragedy. The prosperity gospel works fine in the affluent suburbs during times of fair weather, but in times of tragedy, people recognize it for what it is; powerless positive thinking, cloaked in pseudo-religous language, wholly indifferent to a suffering world and incapable of making sense of calamity.
Osteen took time out of Sunday’s service to explain his reasoning for the delay in helping the residents of Houston, to the mass applause of his congregation. Replete with several Biblical examples comparing himself to the patriarchs of the Old Testament, Osteen crafted a helpful apologetic to explain the church’s actions (and to be fair, it sounded quite plausible).
However, what many noticed – and some have written about – is the inability of Osteen to change from his usual prosperity message to preach something helpful to the displaced victims of Hurricane Harvey. One would think Osteen would use the disaster as an opportunity to speak about a theology of suffering and the purpose of pain in the plan of God. One would think Osteen might find it an opportune time to preach a realistic gospel, one that promises spiritual healing but not financial prosperity.
But, nope. Osteen apparently is a one-trick prosperity pony. He has one message – God wants you to be happy, healthy, rich and successful. And in the midst of tragedy, people who ordinarily clamor to hear such a message, find it distasteful.
Osteen told the crowd, “We’re not going to understand everything that happens, but having a poor old me mentality or look what I lost or why did this happen, you know, that’s just going to pull you down…So let’s don’t have a victim mentality, let’s have a restoration mentality. Lord, we thank you, that you’re going to pay back what belongs to us.”
Osteen made clear that he has no answers for why bad things happen when his theology claims God exists to make good things happen. What the audience is beginning to realize is that Osteen can provide no account for why his theology seems at such odds with reality. And so instead of providing any substantive theological answers (like pastors are supposed to do), he tells the crowd (some of whom lost everything of tangible material value in the hurricane) not to feel sorry for themselves, while his own mega mansion remained relatively unharmed and he still has 50 million dollars in the bank.
Then, Osteen made a promise to the crowd that God is “going to pay back what belongs to us.”
Of course, this promise cannot be found in Scripture (unless one chooses to read themselves into Messianic psalms). Neither is divine “payback” necessarily a good thing.
One thing is for sure; the prosperity gospel is useless to tickle the ears of those standing shoulder-deep in flood water.
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