While speaking at a small church in Houston last weekend, I took the opportunity to skate down the street to the Sunday morning service at Lakewood Church. The church might not sound familiar but the pastor, Joel Osteen, probably does. By the way, I say “small church” only because compared to Lakewood, a church of 2,400 is tiny.
This outing might seem surprising due to my history with Pastor Osteen. I’ve made no attempt to hide my distaste for his ministry and message. Joel isn’t a typical preacher. His books are mainstays on the New York Times Bestseller List. He speaks to millions around the world on TV. His church of 47,000 meets in an arena. But like him or not, he’s one of the most influential religious figures in the world.
Osteen is polarizing but he’s not one of those fire and brimstone-types. He’s guilty of preaching on the opposite end of the spectrum. To be harsh, Joel’s messages are filled with “feel good” antidotes wrapped up in “me-centered theology”. He never addresses sin, and has stated publically that he’d much rather talk about happy things. Joel believes that when good things happen to you, it means you are in the “Lord’s favor”. That’s a slippery slope and the karma-like Christianity rubs some the wrong way.
However, I decided to put presuppositions aside and sit in on a service with an open mind. Let’s see what this guy has to say, I told myself. No matter what, I’ll report the facts and only the facts. Below is a play-by-play record of my morning at Lakewood.
7:59am – I am still a few blocks out when I began noticing the large, mobile signs displaying “Lakewood Parking” pointing worshippers into parking garages. Parking is free on Sunday morning no matter where you park but I decide to try my luck with finding a closer spot. My bet backfires. I circle around and park in a garage a few blocks away. (I am not in the Lord’s favor.)
8:05am – I walk out of the parking garage and hop on an idling shuttle bus. As I search for a seat, the small speakers play worship music. The song is unfamiliar to me but joyfully proclaims, “I am loved, I am blessed, Jesus you are mine.”
8:08am – The bus chugs along the perimeter of the large arena known formerly as the Compaq Center. The Houston Rockets won two NBA Championships in the mid-90’s in this building. Yet the teeming crowd on this beautiful January morning suggests that Joel Osteen might be more popular than Hakeem Olajuwon ever was. As I slide off the bus, the shuttle driver shouts, “Have a blessed day.” Dumbfounded, I simply respond “Okay.”
8:10am – Walking up to the door, I ask a lady, who looks like a regular, what her favorite thing about Lakewood is. She replies, “It just feels like home. Everyone here is so friendly.” Moments later, as we enter the bustling atrium, her theory is proven correct. Greeters, wearing nametags and Secret Service-looking earpieces, stand under a large sign displaying Jeremiah 29:11. This is an organized fleet. Osteen will later claim that 4,000 volunteers make Lakewood run every Sunday. Stationed every ten feet throughout the concourse, the greeters are extremely nice. Maybe the nicest church greeters I’ve ever encountered.
8:12am – Blacks. Whites. Hispanics. Asians. People who are obviously rich and others who are desperately poor. Teenagers in skinny jeans and old black ladies in big hats. They all mingle together. I’ll make a bold statement. Lakewood is the most diverse church I’ve ever been in.
8:21am – An usher escorts me to my seat on the fourth row. So close that I can smell Joel Osteen’s hair product. I say a quick prayer of thanksgiving. (Big time Lord’s favor points.)
8:24am – I flip through the bulletin while waiting for the service to start. It contains the normal activities any church bulletin would. Super Bowl party. Couples date night. An upcoming book signing. Okay… almost any church.
8:29am – Several people around me pull out cameras. One guy down the row will record the entire service on his phone. These people aren’t just churchgoers. They are pilgrims on the road to Osteen Mecca. I begin to grow a little uneasy.
8:30am – The lights go dim. Gungor’s Beautiful Things – a fantastic song, by the way – pulses over the line array speakers, producing bass that rattles my ribcage. The 200-person choir stands to its feet. The band rises to stage level on a hydraulic lift as a five-person worship team sprints out to center stage. Remember the song that played before Bulls games in the 90’s? That is the only thing missing.
8:32am – One of the worship leaders, who looks a lot like Jane Krakowski, jumps around the stage in 6 inch heels during “Free to Run”. I’ve never worn stilettos but I’m still impressed.
8:33am – Okay, let me rephrase that. I’ve never worn stilettos outside of Reno.
8:56am –Joel Osteen emerges and welcomes everyone. His wife, Victoria, flanks him. I’m taken aback by just how warm and personable he is. Look, I consider myself a positive guy but Joel Osteen makes me look like Mark Driscoll with hemorrhoids. Joel says, “I know you have the faith. I can tell.” This seems like a presumptuous statement to me. I’m starting to think he’s full of it. Based on the reactions around me, no one shares this sentiment.
9:01am – Joel begins praying. Lots of "bless us" rhetoric. It’s pretty self-centered.
9:09am – Joel is still praying. It’s still pretty self-centered.
9:12am – The band kicks back in as one of the worship leaders, a gorgeous African-American woman, steps out and belts out “There’s Something About that Name.” It is beautiful, absolutely powerful. Hands down the tightest, most talented, church worship band I’ve ever seen.
9:17 – Bugle solo - yes, bugle solo - brings the crowd to its feet.
9:18am – Joel’s wife, Victoria, begins the communion meditation. She rambles, talks a lot about how God wants us to live the best life. It seems that the “best life” has more to do with happiness and good jobs than submitting to Jesus. She never says the word sin. Not once. Sadly, it’s about what I expected. But then she says, “Jesus came to reverse the curse caused by the enemy’s disobedience in the garden.” That phrase rolls around in my mind during the communion prayer. The enemy’s disobedience?!? So mankind isn’t responsible for sin? Who sent Jesus to the cross? I am as confused as I am offended.
9:19am – The communion bread tastes like notebook paper. (Back out of the Lord’s favor.)
9:20am – A camera crane swings by me, almost hitting me in the head. This is a communion first. (Still out of the Lord’s favor.)
9:21am – As Joel steps up to preach, I look back to gauge how full the arena is. The first two levels are packed all the way around. He welcomes everyone, greets those watching at home, makes a few housekeeping announcements like any preacher would, and begins his sermon. He comes across as being very pastoral. I can see why people are drawn to him.
9:22am – Joel asks everyone to take out their Bibles and hold them high. He has the audience repeat a declaration about how important the scriptures are. Joel puts his Bible down. He won’t pick it up again.
9:24am – There isn’t a sermon text, just a “story from the life of David… a true champion.” The title of his message is “Under Your Feet”, which is based on a misinterpretation of 1 Corinthians 15. The scripture states that God has put everything under his (Jesus) feet. Joel changes “everything” to “obstacles” and “his” to “our” and dives in. I’ll give him this. Joel is such a gifted communicator that few notice he’s preaching an entire sermon on a verse taken out of context.
9:39am – Joel continues to preach, not about what Jesus can do, but about what we can do if we believe. I really did enter this experience wanting to give him a shot. But the more I listen, the more I can’t help but question his message. He tells us that God will cure our cancer, give us a raise, fix our marriages, and bless us if we just have faith. Meanwhile, thousands of Christians put their lives on the line by worshipping in secret across the Middle East.
9:41am – I realize two things. Number one: Joel Osteen is really genuine. Number two: genuine people can be heretics. Don’t get me wrong. I believe that God wants to bless us. But pursuing him only for the blessings isn’t worship. It is idolatry. That’s what this service feels like to me.
9:43am – More music. A prayer time down front. Shots on the big screen show that Joel and his wife are praying with people. Some preachers might disappear backstage as soon as they finish preaching. But there he is, patiently praying with a crying woman. He gets props for that.
9:59am – As soon as the service ends, I bolt from my seat to try to make the “Meet and Greet” near the expansive bookstore on the second level. An estimated 30 people huddle inside a roped off area. I slide past one of the greeters as he zips the stanchion closed behind me. The rest of the crowd is forced to wait on the other side of the rope and snap pictures from a distance. I’ll admit, I feel a little giddy that I got in. (Knee-deep in the Lord’s Favor.)
10:04am – While waiting for Joel to arrive, I initiate a conversation with a Hispanic lady next to me. I ask her if Lakewood is her church. It is. When I ask if she lives in Houston she informs me that she lives in San Antonio. “So do you drive down every weekend?” I ask. “No” she replies, “this is my first time here. I watch on the television.” At this point, I am intrigued and ask if she goes to a church in San Antonio. “No, I don’t like preachers who yell and scream.” She admits, “Joel is so gentle.”
10:05am – I realize two more things. Number one: Joel Osteen is really gentle. Number two: Gentle people can be heretics. 2nd Timothy 4:3 comes to mind.
10:10am – Joel emerges from the elevator. Three handlers escort him down the row. I watch him interact with people. He is extremely warm and caring. I can’t help but wonder if he misses interacting with people on a personal level. The barriers built by super-mega-church ministry are probably exhausting for such an apparent people-person. Joel stops to pray with a family. He gets down on a knee to talk to a woman in a wheelchair. He signs a few books. Next thing I know, he’s shaking my hand.
10:15am – “Good morning, pastor” I say. His big smile causes his eyes to disappear in his eyelids. We make small talk about the service. I tell him that everyone has been extremely nice. He speaks with a disarming Texas accent, “Yes, the people make Lakewood special.” I briefly consider asking a trap question about the persecuted church or questioning how he sleeps at night, but don’t. Maybe I should have. But something told me that this wasn’t the time. Instead, I ask him what advice he’d give a young person in ministry. He puts his hand on my shoulder and says, “Be a person of integrity.” Dumbfounded, I simply respond, “Okay.”
10:21am – Joel disappears back into the elevator and the crowd dissipates. Using the same tricks I employed during an American Idol concert – another story for another day – I successfully sneak backstage. I talk to a few worship leaders and run into Joel again. He recognizes me and is again extremely polite. The “greeters” begin talking into their cufflinks. I assume that I should be leaving. (Soaking in glorious, glorious Lord’s favor.)
10:23am – A wrong turn leaves me momentarily trapped outside on a loading dock. The freeway hums above me as I pull and bang on every locked door. Moments later, I am rescued by a greeter. (Out of the Lord’s favor and then back in again.)
10:30am – I leave the building through an appropriate exit and start walking the few blocks back to my car. I gave it my best shot. But after seeing Joel Osteen in the flesh, I remain a skeptic. It’s not for a lack of trying to like him. I wish I could. However, I just can’t believe him. There is no doubt that he has a good heart but that doesn’t excuse his message. I need something more to believe in than myself. I need a God that meets me halfway when I don’t have the faith. I need Jesus to invite me in to what he is doing, not the other way around. And when push comes to shove, I need a savior that has everything under “his” feet.