Among the cosmic mysteries I ponder is: Why do so many people hate megachurch pastor Joel Osteen?
Osteen recently drew fire again, this time for his Lakewood Church’s delayed reaction to the plight of fellow Houstonians after Hurricane Harvey flooded their city.
Eventually Osteen announced that Lakewood would be open to those who needed food and lodging, but his response didn’t come quickly enough for his critics.
In all the news I read about Harvey, I don’t recall seeing any other Houston church called to account for its charitable response or lack thereof.
Of course, there were many possible reasons Osteen and his staff didn’t immediately turn their campus into a homeless shelter.
Not all those possible reasons would be nefarious. Perhaps many staff and parishioners were themselves stranded or displaced and weren’t available to organize a massive charitable undertaking.
Osteen, however, doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.
Even a pastor way up here in Lexington wrote an op-ed criticizing Osteen’s handling of Harvey relief. He also deemed it ridiculous that Lakewood worships in a refurbished sports arena and criticized Osteen for allegedly preaching the prosperity gospel.
Well, if you have as many parishioners as Lakewood has, where else could you seat them? In a converted 7-11?
Also, Osteen doesn’t preach the classic prosperity gospel. More on that in a minute.
But Hurricane Harvey provided merely the latest excuse for people to take pot shots at the Houston preacher. There’s something about the guy that just makes some folks livid.
I don’t get it.
True, my exposure to Osteen is limited. I’ve watched his TV show a half-dozen times. He has a channel on satellite radio that I’ve listened to more often.
I can’t describe myself as a major fan. I disagree with him sometimes. But heck, I sometimes disagree with myself. I’ve said plenty of darned fool things. Who hasn’t?
What I like about Osteen is that he’s so optimistic — not to mention self-effacing and funny. He pokes fun at himself, not at his critics. He’s never political or mean.
When I’m having a bad day, when I’m nursing a grudge against the world, I occasionally switch the radio over to his channel.
I swear, 15 minutes later I’m better. He tells me to forgive my enemies and go do something nice for somebody instead of stewing in my bile. He reminds me that God loves me and has gracious plans for me.
The man is relentlessly upbeat. I suspect that’s what his followers admire.
I suspect that’s also what a lot of people loathe about him. He’s too kind and too positive for them. Which probably says more about them than about him.
As I said, I take issue with the common characterization of Osteen as a preacher of the controversial prosperity gospel (also known as the “word of faith” message, “name it and claim it” or — to wags —“blab it and grab it”).
Friends, I’m a Pentecostal. Our people invented the prosperity gospel. Even though I don’t buy the message anymore, I probably recognize it better than you do.
I don’t consider him a true prosperity preacher. I’ve never heard Osteen claim that God expects every believer to drive a Mercedes and wear a Rolex and enjoy perfect health.
His typical sermon goes something like this: Yes, you’ll suffer setbacks in life, but if you’ll put your faith in God, keep a good attitude, be kind to those you meet along your journey and wait for the Lord’s timing, you’ll eventually emerge in better shape than if you’d bawled and squalled and cursed your fate.
I’m not a mind reader, but I also suspect that some of the ire aimed at Osteen, especially from other ministers, stems from jealousy.
The guy’s incredibly successful. He leads a congregation of umpteen thousand parishioners. He has written multiple bestselling books. He and his wife are not only popular but photogenic. Supposedly, they’re rich.
If Osteen were a “real” minister, so this thinking goes, he’d be homely and have only about 80 people in his church. All his books would wind up in the remainder bin, and he’d be scrambling to pay for his health insurance.
In other words — he’d be me!
I have a different view of how God works, though.
God uses all kinds, I think. Sometimes God even uses the same person in different ways at different points in his or her life.
According to Jesus, God sent John the Baptist to preach hellfire (to play the dirge, in Jesus’ words) and God sent Jesus to preach love (to play the flute, as it were).
Which of them was doing God’s bidding? They both were.
And critics found reasons to hate them both.
Speaking of Jesus, at different points in his brief ministry, he was followed by crowds numbering in the thousands, and later by just a handful.
At what point was he speaking the truth? Both points.
So Osteen has his thousands of followers and somebody like me has 80. He worships in a refurbished NBA arena and I worship in a small sanctuary built on the cheap.
Possibly we’re both fulfilling God’s plan. God’s pretty impressive that way.
Serving God isn’t a zero-sum game. Osteen’s worshiping in an arena doesn’t harm me a whit. His selling a bazillion books isn’t what made my books not sell. His being slim and handsome has no impact, good or ill, on my waistline or dorkiness.
I’m grateful the Lord has decided to bless him. I’m grateful the Lord has blessed me.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.