This is one of the more unexpected pieces I’ve come across in a while. A woman journalist who writes for Salon and other leading publications, secular-minded and skeptically oriented, found herself in Houston and started attending Lakewood Church. For those who don’t know, this is health-and-wealth preacher Joel Osteen’s congregation. These are two constituent elements–secular journalist and fluffy Protestantism–that normally do not mix.
Here’s what Alexis Grant (a Colby College grad, bitter rival of my alma mater!) said of her initial enthusiasm for Osteen’s church:
I could hear the music even before entering the stadium, just like during my first visit with my girlfriends. But this time I was the one alone – and on the verge of tears. Even more than being mad at my ex, I was mad at myself for wallowing over a man when life had something exciting in store for me: I was about to leave my job to go backpacking through Africa, a trip I’d dreamed about for years. Three more months and I’d be on the plane, out in the world, free. Why couldn’t I focus on that?
But at Lakewood, emotion pulsed through the crowd. People sang loudly, with both hands outstretched, palms toward their God as if to receive whatever he offered. I put my hands out too, feeling sheepish, glancing around to see if anyone could tell I was a newbie. Soon the whole place was jumping up and down and belting the lyrics, “I’m Still Standing.” (Think worship lyrics; not the Elton John song.) As they waved their arms in the air, I hoped their strength would rub off on me.
She found more “motivation” and less religion at Lakewood:
Yet Lakewood felt more motivational than religious – or maybe that was simply what I wanted it to be. Ironically, the secular spirit that drew me there was exactly why some religious folk criticized Osteen: They complained he wasn’t religious enough.
When Osteen did invoke religious images or drift into Jesus talk, I’d tweak his words so they worked for me. He said things were in God’s hands; I heard it as fate’s hands. He said God would send luck my way; I told myself to make my own luck. By performing this sort of calculus, I managed to convince myself that I wasn’t becoming one of those religious nuts.
Definitely read the whole thing. It’s nicely-written and quite interesting.
It’s obvious throughout the piece that Grant hears little in the way of traditional evangelical doctrine from Osteen. The focus, as we would expect, is on finding purpose, being happy, and getting motivated to become one’s best self (driven by God-given “luck”!). That is obviously a problem of catastrophic proportions, for though this sort of talk sounds fine and even Christian, if divorced from the gospel and not handled with great exegetical care it is spiritually disastrous, mere men-pleasing talk.
It is also heartbreaking to read of Grant’s own search for something greater than herself. We’re reminded through her story that there are people just like us all around us who act happy and may even think they’re happy but have little means of finding happiness. You can be well-educated, literarily gifted, young and fresh, thinking the world is your oyster, and have nothing at all. There are many around us who have had no engagement with a church, have heard no news from another world, and are lost and adrift.
Speaking of “motivation,” that should be all we need to strategize ways to introduce people like Alexis Grant, talented journalist, to a God who does something so much greater than “send luck our way,” but who in Christ becomes sin for us in order that we might pass through this earthly fire and join God himself in the life to come, world without end, amen.