Tagged: judge not

Let’s Give Joel A Break

Just before Easter this year, someone posted to Facebook a picture purported to be the Houston area mansion of Joel Osteen. Superimposed on the picture were the words “Jesus died so that Pastor Joel Osteen could purchase a $10.5 million home in Houston Texas.”

Needless to say, this post evoked a flurry of comments, among them,

Joel Osteen is nothing but a crook

You think that home is helping the homeless?

He’s not guiding them to salvation, he’s bleeding their bank accounts dry to line his own pockets. When will people wakeup to the biggest scam that has ever been perpetrated on mankind, by mankind…

A chart showing the six- and seven-figure salaries earned by Osteen and various other televangelists followed that post a few weeks later. I always find it interesting when this topic comes up. I also must admit to a degree of ambivalence when faced with the popularity of the many televangelists and their attempts to feed the insatiable appetite of the media for content. Further, many of the disparaging comments resonate with my own reactions to the high-profile ministries of the more well-know televangelists. However, I think it is time we give Joel a break. After all, behind the aforementioned comments are some assumptions that are interesting to unpack.

Joel Osteen is nothing but a crook

Is Joel a crook? Well, he was not one of the six televangelists targeted by Senator Grassley’s Senate Finance Committee investigation in 2007 – 2011. He does seem to be scrupulous in his handling the complexities of his finances and in navigating the subtleties of IRS regulations regarding the tax status of 501(c)(3) organizations. Further, it is not clear how profiting from the sale of his feel-good books constitutes “stealing form the poor.” In fact, the profit from the sale of his books is the source of his income, as he does not take a salary from the Lakewood Church. There remains a question of whether he inappropriately promotes his books on his telecasts; but that gets into some murky subtleties in tax law. So, a crook, I think not.

You think that home is helping the homeless?

This is perhaps the easiest of the allegations to dismiss. I dare say that few if any of us routinely share our homes with the homeless in our midst, so why might we expect Joel and Victoria to open their doors to the homeless of Houston?

He’s a thief stealing from the poor by using God

His telecasts stand apart from those of the televangelists that drew the attention of the Grassley investigation in that he never asks his television audience for money. In fact, he might be better thought of as a successful author and motivational speaker than as a Christian evangelist. In that light, I have never heard such criticism leveled at the likes of a Zig Ziglar or a Wayne Dyer. No one seems to care about the number of bathrooms in Zig’s house, nor of the amount of his net worth. No one accuses Dyer of stealing from the poor or of failing to help the homeless.

Who is Joel Osteen?

Joel studied radio and television production in college but dropped out before graduating. He got his start at Lakewood Church producing the television broadcasts of his father’s Sunday services. His father encouraged him to begin preaching at Lakewood shortly before his father’s untimely death from a heart attack.   At his mother’s insistence, Joel took the reigns at Lakewood Church. If anything, Osteen is a dutiful son who took over the family business when his father died.

Joel hasn’t attended seminary and there was no mention in the articles I read of his ever being ordained. Parenthetically, historically among Baptists, neither college nor seminary attendance are prerequisites for ordination. Likewise, ordination is not a prerequisite for public preaching. So, if education and training are to be considered, Joel clearly has what it takes to oversee the production of a television broadcast, conduct an appealing Sunday experience, and run a profitable enterprise. He also has a talent for tuning into the zeitgeist and offering a message that soothes anxiety and inspires hope in his followers.

Lacking formal training or the ambition to be a minister, it is little wonder his sermons are often criticized for their lack of depth or theological content. He is usually lumped in with the preachers of the prosperity gospel (topic for a future post). In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel, “Osteen agrees, offering his own definition of the prosperity gospel: ‘I never preach a message on money,’ he said. ‘I do believe that God wants us to be blessed, to have good marriages, to have peace in our minds, to have health, to have money to pay our bills. I think God wants us to excel. But everyone isn’t going to be rich — if we’re talking about money.’” (Nov 29, 2007)

Osteen does not preach the traditional “Jesus died for our sins” evangelical message. This fact makes the accusation that Jesus died so Joel could purchase a mansion ludicrous on the face of it. As a matter of fact and content, Joel has more in common with a motivational speaker than with a Christian evangelist. So what are we to make of Joel Osteen? I think it is clearly unfair to lump him in with the thousands of women and men who are out in the world doing God’s work in the churches, temples, synagogues, mosques, and places of worship of the myriad religious traditions in this country and then criticize him for having an expensive house and a large net worth. In many significant ways, he has more in common with a best-selling self-help guru, a successful motivational speaker, or an Oscar/Emmy/Tony/Grammy award-winning entertainer. Judged by the standards of those icons in our culture, Joel looks rather modest and responsible in all aspects of his life.

While his sermons may not be intellectually rigorous, or particularly Biblical, I’d rather his be the public face of Christianity than a hate monger such as the late Fred Phelps or a fear monger like Pat Robertson. And although his lifestyle may have  more in common with oligarchs, celebrities, and the 1% of capitalists than with the majority of his followers; he does seem to stand for marital fidelity, hope, optimism, and positive aspiration.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather go skinny dipping in a lake of burning sulfur than to attend one of Joel’s feel good rallies he calls a worship service. That said, I am keenly aware of the Biblical admonition not to judge and condemn others. For, who of us can say with certainty who is and who is not doing God’s work in the world (see Matthew 25)? After all, in a time of declining church membership and attendance, he has managed to put church on the weekly agendas of 16,000 Houstonians, and that can’t be all bad. Further, what tends to happen in mega-churches is that they experience rapid growth then settle onto a plateau. New members continue to arrive, while others leave in search of a deeper and more fulfilling experience. So if Joel is nothing more than a gateway into the Christian conversation, he is indeed doing God’s work. So, lest that burning lake of sulfur become my eternal destiny, I say, “Let’s give Joel a break.”