Osteen flap symbolizes disdain for megachurches in America

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JOEL OSTEEN’S LAKEWOOD megachurch in Houston, Texas, pictured above, seats over 17,000 people. Osteen and other megachurch pastors have come under fire for not immediately offering their churches as shelters for flood victims of Hurricane Harvey.

By Vernon A. Williams, Gary Crusader

All I know about Joel Osteen is what I’ve read, heard and seen on television and, frankly, I haven’t watched much of him. But I don’t need a personal relationship or inside source to conclude that he bungled his response to the recent Houston tragedy.

Though we have never had a conversation, I did read each of his tweets – from the time Hurricane Harvey was merely an ominous warning until days after it fulfilled the threat of becoming the most devastating rainfall accumulation in U.S. history.

In transparency, this is less about the hurricane, tornadoes and flooding that ravaged Texans and more about growing national disdain for the megachurch – offered from the perspective of an ordinary layperson who, like many other Americans, only knows what they see and hear.

The first thing is that there are just too many. There are 1,643 mega-churches in the United States – mostly located in the south. To qualify, you have to average 2,000 or more in the pews every Sunday. Most eclipse that comparatively low bar comfortably.

At 206 megachurches, there are more located in Texas than any state of the union with the one exception of California with 219 of the huge houses of worship. Between Texas and California, you will find more than 25 percent of all the total number of megachurches in the country.

Joel Osteen

Joel Osteen and his glamorous wife, like so many of those at the leadership of these gigantic congregations, reside in a $10 million sprawling compound in Houston.

I don’t even want to get into the lavish living, private jets, jewelry befitting royalty, designer wardrobes, fleet of luxury cars, and myriad ridiculously extravagant indulgences enjoyed by too many megachurch clergy as they preach patience, hope, perseverance and sacrifice to their hordes of impoverished faithful. Let’s keep our focus on Harvey.

Despite his considerable sanctuary, in the beginning it appeared that Osteen was willing to offer nothing more than prayer for the victims. It was only after severe jostling by hostile social media and scrutiny by local and national press that Osteen appeared to relent and offer his huge confines to those trying to escape the ravages of Harvey.

Well I haven’t taken a poll for consensus, in my opinion here is what should have happened. The moment the looming inevitability of Harvey was confirmed, Osteen – and the other megachurch leadership in Houston and beyond – should have stepped forward unsolicited to insist on a prominent role in sheltering the homeless, clothing the naked, feeding the hungry. I feel comfortable speaking about that with authority as it concisely echoes the priories taught by Christ.

Osteen should have been joined by Second Baptist Church Pastor Ed Young who has a congregation of 23,659; his son, Ed Young Jr., whose Fellowship Church – Grape-vine has 19,913 members; New Light Church Bishop Ira Hilliard who has 13,500 congregants, and Houston’s Windsor Village Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell who shepherds the largest United Methodist flock in the nation with 6,500 Houstonians.

Along with Osteen, all of these doors should have been flung open the moment the need arose. Instead, Osteen initially offered his humongous edifice only as a donation collection center and back-up facility if officials ran out of space to house the displaced.

To be fair, they did have to clear some water out of the sanctuary. But that’s not the point. Where was the leadership from the church – his and others?  There was clearly no open invitation for hurricane victims to seek refuge at his church.

And some argue that the church should have been more proactive than to settle for tweeting, “we are prepared to shelter people once the cities and county shelters reach capacity.” Why not provide unconditional availability start to finish. Of course, all the shelters overflowed. And yes, Lakewood, did eventually fulfill its promise.

The questions remains – why did it take all that? Moreover, the whole mess still raises the serious question of what role the church is playing in the community from which it drains so much of its resources. Where is the reciprocity – not just during a crisis, but on a regular basis.

Whatever these congregations can list as their “give back” to parishioners and the greater community, it clearly could be much more – judging from the extravagant life-style, material possessions and exorbitant bank accounts of too many megachurch pastors.

No wonder so many self-proclaimed “evangelicals” are in lockstep with the arrogance, insensitivity, immorality, greed and excess of the current national leadership. Some of them are evenly “yoked.”

CIRCLE CITY CONNECTION  by Vernon A. Williams is a series of essays on myriad topics that include social issues, human interest, entertainment and profiles of difference-makers who are forging change   in a constantly evolving society. Williams is a 40-year veteran journalist based in Indianapolis, IN – commonly referred to as The Circle City. Send comments or questions to: vernonawilliams@yahoo.com.

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