Earlier today, Joel Osteen and his team at Lakewood Church in Houston held the first regular services since last week’s hurricane — though there was a worship service on Wednesday; more on that in a moment – and in many ways, it was back to business as usual.
I gave him the benefit of the doubt when the hurricane hit, saying there may have been good reasons their doors weren’t open to people trying to find safe shelter in the middle of a storm — maybe it wasn’t as safe as pictures would have you believe, maybe the church didn’t have personnel in place to manage the people who would have come there, etc.
What we’ve learned since then is that, whatever Osteen could’ve done differently in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, he’s still making some giant mistakes now. Some of them are a matter of optics. But others go to the heart of why he’s being hammered by critics.
1) His excuse for not opening his church doors to evacuees? No one asked.
Osteen said on media outlets this week that Lakewood was helping people who came to their doors even if they weren’t an official (or unofficial) shelter. They also wanted to be cautious in the middle of the natural disaster. But the biggest reason he gave for why Lakewood didn’t immediately become a shelter? “The city didn’t ask us.”
— TODAY (@TODAYshow) August 30, 2017
The church was just waiting for permission from the government before helping people. Just as Jesus demanded.
I guess Muslims didn’t get that memo since many mosques in the area opened their doors to people regardless of beliefs. Did they get a magical okay from the government or did they just turn their buildings into shelters because it was an obvious way they could help their community?
2) Lakewood passed around the collection plates to an audience full of evacuees.
On Wednesday, Lisa Osteen preached to a smaller crowd about the “financial needs” of victims. She even pointed out that there were survivors of the hurricane in the audience that night, asking them to stand up and receive prayers from the crowd. That’s typical church fare right there, but after she was finished, you can see ushers handing out collection plates to each row.
I know churches, especially one of that size, rely on those donations to function. I know giving is always optional (peer pressure aside). But after a weekend of horrible PR, this was another self-inflicted wound.
Imagine how much more goodwill they could’ve received if they announced that all the money collected at that service would be donated to relief efforts.
3) They received (and didn’t reject) a $250,000 donation from Tyler Perry.The actor/producer/mogul said in a video that he knows the Osteens personally and they didn’t deserve the criticism they were getting, so he was going to donate $250,000 to their church in order to help them help others.
Why bother with the middleman here?
Perry could have sent the money to an actual relief organization, but he didn’t. He rewarded the Osteens for having to deal with what he felt was unfair criticism. Sure, there was the assumption it would be used “to make sure [Lakewood] can get all of the supplies that people need.” But is anyone keeping tabs on that money?
More importantly, why didn’t Joel Osteen say publicly that they appreciated the gesture, but they would ask Perry to donate the cash to some other organization that was directly helping victims? Accepting the money just adds fuel to the fire for all those arguments that Osteen is just another wealthy pastor getting rich off of his congregation.
4) During Sunday’s service, Osteen claimed God wouldn’t give people more than they could handle.
This is a standard part of Osteen’s theology. If you’re going through rough times, God is testing you. Anyone with strong faith will be able to overcome the obstacles. After defending his hurricane-time decisions to the audience, Osteen reportedly went on to say things like, “God knew that Houston could handle the hurricane.”
That sounds inspirational… until you realize what it implies.
After addressing the controversy, Osteen went on to say Harvey was part of a divine plan, with things like … “God knew that Houston could handle the hurricane,” and “Quit being upset by something you can handle,” He added, “God is in control of the universe and what he has spoken over your life will come to pass.”
The death toll for Hurricane Harvey is at 50 people and counting. Is Osteen saying those people weren’t faithful enough? That they couldn’t handle what God gave them?
And why is Osteen letting God off the hook for sending a hurricane to Houston in the first place? That wasn’t mandatory. If God truly controls the weather, as many Christians believe, then that means He killed 50 people and left countless more without a home. They will be suffering for a long time to come. Yet, Osteen is saying people of faith will be able to get over it. As if everyone has a $10.5 million mansion to go back home to.
It’s a messed up theology that sends the message, “God will punch you… but only if your face can take it.”
I’d rather be an atheist with a home than a believer that God bullies on a whim.
On a side note, The Daily Mail publicized this sermon that was posted on Osteen’s YouTube channel earlier today. It’s an old sermon. Don’t mistake it for the one he gave today.
(Top screenshot via YouTube)