It’s time to put this false narrative about Joel Osteen to rest.
If you’re reading this, you have already heard the story. According to the press and hysterical critics on social media, Joel Osteen – the pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston – apparently closed the church’s doors to people needing relief during Hurricane Harvey. Needless to say, this looks bad for Osteen. The problem?
It’s not true.
It started when Osteen posted a tweet stating that the church’s Saturday and Sunday’s worship services had been canceled. He followed up by sending a series of tweets designed to provide a message of hope for those who were affected by the storm. That’s when the flurry of criticisms commenced.
Dozens of Twitter users blasted the pastor for his seeming hypocrisy and insensitivity. They launched numerous invectives excoriating Osteen for his refusal to open the church to refugees despite the fact that he lives a wealthy lifestyle. Despite the fact that Lakewood Church tweeted pictures of their bottom floor – which was becoming flooded – the critics persisted in their attacks. Shortly after, the media decided to jump into the fray.
Criticism From Multiple Fronts
CNN published a piece entitled “Joel Osteen’s Harvey excuses are bogus.” In the article, the author discusses the effects of the prosperity gospel that Osteen preaches:
It’s also that prosperity gospel mega-churches feed into income inequality with their specious claims that affluence is a reflection of God’s approval (and on the flip side that poverty must come from some absence of faith).
The article argues that the type of theology taught by preachers like Osteen have a pernicious impact on society. They write, “The promise of material wealth for the faithful means that too many self-identified Christians are happy to leave the poor and marginalized out in the cold.” But that wasn’t all. Osteen also received condemnation from others in the Christian community.
Speaker and Pastor John Pavlovitz penned a blog post entitled “Dear Joel Osteen,” which served as an open letter calling out Osteen for not doing enough to help the survivors of the hurricane. He writes,
As a result of the pushback and condemnation you received, I imagine you feel like this has been a rough week. It hasn’t. You’ve had the week you probably should have had, all this considered. You’ve had the week that was coming long before rain ever started falling in Houston.
It would be easy to assume that Osteen deserves this denigration – after all, if a pastor who is living in wealth refuses to help the needy, he is not following the teachings of the Bible, right? However, a closer look at the facts shows that the narrative Osteen’s critics are propagating isn’t what it seems to be.
The Media’s False Narrative
According to CBN News, Lakewood Church did not close its doors until they spoke with city officials to determine what role they should play in the relief efforts. Lakewood Church’s spokesman, Don Iloff, stated that building was “prone to flooding,” which meant that it could put refugees in danger. As a matter of fact, water had already started gathering in the basement. In the end, the church did not experience flooding, but there was no reasonable way the church staff could have known what was going to happen.
Furthermore, the church consulted with Houston city officials to plan out their response before the hurricane made landfall. It was decided that Lakewood church would be designated as a backup shelter in the event that the convention center reached its full capacity – the city never intended for the bulk of the refugees to be housed at the church. The plan was for the church’s leadership to wait for word from the city before taking people in.
The reason why Lakewood directed people to the convention center is obvious – the shelter was better-equipped to handle the flow of survivors. The building contained showers, medical triage units, and cots while the church did not. It made more sense for the victims of the hurricane to seek refuge at the convention center while Lakewood focused their energy on distributing food and supplies.
The idea that Joel Osteen deliberately decided to reject refugees doesn’t add up when you consider how the church has responded in the past. In 2001, Lakewood took in refugees that were displaced due to Tropical Storm Allison. They did the same for victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When the city was flooded in 2015, the church housed survivors. Beyond that, they have created multiple outreach programs that benefit their community.
Criticisms of Osteen’s opulence are nothing new – he has repeatedly been lambasted by Christians and non-Christians alike for living a lavish lifestyle while preaching a theology that depicts God as a genie-like entity who rains down financial blessings on individuals who have enough faith. However, we must remember one important fact: while people can speak against Osteen’s teachings, it is unfair to smear him with false accusations based on angry social media posts. When a disaster like Hurricane Harvey occurs, we should focus not on contrived scandals, but on the people who most need our efforts and prayers.