This Tuesday, Houston’s Lakewood Church — one of America’s largest and most prominent megachurches — announced plans to open its doors to evacuees of the Harvey flooding, following several days of criticism over its pastor, Joel Osteen’s, response to the crisis.
Osteen is a prominent televangelist whose teachings have reaped him rich rewards: he has a personal net worth of almost $60 million, gained largely through book sales, and Lakewood Church itself can seat 16,800 people. (The site was the former home of the Houston Rockets.)
But despite his prominence and the enormous physical capacity of Lakewood Church, Osteen initially responded to Harvey with plenty of prayers, but few concrete plans for action.
Victoria & I are praying for everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey. Please join us as we pray for the safety of our Texas friends & family.— Joel Osteen (@JoelOsteen) August 26, 2017
Because of Osteen’s enormous media reach, his inaction is more notable than it would be if he were a less prominent figure. Osteen’s Christian self-help books, including Your Best Life Now, have been a mainstay of bestseller lists since 2004, and Osteen has been broadcasting services from the Houston church since 1999. The show currently airs on Trinity Broadcasting Network.
Complicating matters further is Osteen’s association with the prosperity gospel movement, and the related “Word of Faith” movement popular in some evangelical circles, which teaches that believing Christians can harness the power of prayerful speech: to reap material and financial rewards in this life as well as the next. Osteen’s personal wealth, and his advocacy for a theology that glorifies material possessions as a sign of God’s favor, have long made him a controversial figure in church circles. Osteen’s handling of Lakewood during Harvey has, however unwittingly, only played into wider public stereotypes about the hypocrisy of those who subscribe to the prosperity gospel movement
The social media crisis that led to Lakewood’s opening
After Harvey hit this past weekend, the church announced that it would be closed for its regular Sunday services and classes as a result of the storm. The church directed those seeking aid to other available sites and shelters (although, Qasim Rashid, a Washington, DC-based author and attorney noted on Twitter, it left several mosques offering help off the list).
The church remained closed, with representatives saying in a Facebook post "Lakewood Church is inaccessible due to severe flooding! We want to help make sure you are safe."
The backlash on social media was swift, focusing on the contrast between Osteen’s wealth and his relative inaction.
Joel Osteen won't open his church that holds 16,000 to hurricane victims because it only provides shelter from taxes. #HoustonStrong— Alan Spencer (@MrAlanSpencer) August 28, 2017
Many Twitter users shared photographs of the outside of the building suggesting that Lakewood was hardly suffering the kind of catastrophic damage that would necessitate a full shutdown. Others pointed out that, local furniture chain Gallery Furniture had turned its warehouses — including one in the same neighborhood as the church — into shelters.
After two days of backlash, Lakewood responded to the swelling criticism. In a statement made Monday on its website, Lakewood said:
Over the last couple of days, as the enormity of this storm was being realized, we have been working to organize relief efforts for the Houston area with our friend Franklin Graham and the disaster relief organization that he oversees, Samaritan's Purse. Samaritan's Purse has been, since it's inception, organized to respond to situations just like Hurricane Harvey, and we are grateful to be able to partner with them to provide assistance to the Houston area.
Tuesday morning, Lakewood representatives continued to update their comments. "We have never closed our doors. We will continue to be a distribution center for those in need," said Donald Iloff, church spokesperson, in a separate statement. "We are prepared to shelter people once the cities and county shelters reach capacity. Lakewood will be a value to the community in the aftermath of this storm in helping our fellow citizens rebuild their lives."
It provided photographs it said revealed the veracity of flood damage to the church, as well as photographs of air mattresses it had purchased for evacuees, and announced that it would be opening to the public soon.
Twitter journalists have continued to debate the severity of Lakewood’s damage and the role it played in Osteen and Lakewood’s response to the hurricane, with supporters and opponents of the church alike posting area photographs to defend their stances.
But the furor over Lakewood’s physical condition is something of a red herring.
At its core, the controversy over Osteen reflects a wider cultural tension about how many see religious figures — particularly wealthy religious figures associated with get-rich-through-Jesus movements like the “prosperity gospel,” and our sensitivity to any perceived hypocrisy. Whether or not Lakewood was closed for legitimate reasons, Osteen’s response — which was long on prayer and short on action — seemed insufficient, particularly when so many other individuals and organizations took significantly more concrete steps.
Meanwhile, a number of high-profile individuals and organizations are participating in the wider relief effort. Amazon announced it would match donations up to $1 million. Airbnb waived its service fees for evacuees and organized a program for hosts to list their rooms for free. When Airbnb and Amazon become the self-proclaimed voices of public morality — a trend we’re seeing in America more broadly — the pressure on megachurches to act with no less magnanimity is even stronger.
Even if Lakewood was indeed flooded this past weekend, Osteen’s reluctance to open Lakewood’s doors, or at least to be vocal in organizing aid, was at best a catastrophic failure of optics: operating at analog speed in a digital age.
Either way, the severe Twitter backlash to Lakewood’s closure suggests that, when it comes to our religious leaders, thoughts and prayers are no longer enough.