The public is finally asking Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston, some tough questions, but there is a more important question to be asked.
Lakewood isn’t your normal church, unless normal to you is church in an NBA arena. Lakewood purchased the Houston Rockets’ old arena and spent $100 million converting it into a worship space.
That may seem ridiculous, but we can all agree it’s helpful to have a local church the size of a basketball arena when disaster hits your city. That is, if the church is willing to do what churches do and open doors to the destitute. That’s where things got controversial.
Initially it appeared as though Lakewood was unwilling to receive displaced victims of Harvey, which was met by a flood of public criticism and social-media outrage. Even one of Kentucky’s most popular radio shows, Kentucky Sports Radio, spent significant time discussing whether Lakewood had a moral obligation to open their doors to disaster relief.
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The answer to that question is unequivocally yes.
Christian ethics does not only consider whether we have done what is wrong, but also whether we fail to do what is right. Injustice is forbidden and justice is commanded. So when considering the moral obligation of Christians individually or a church collectively, it isn’t just that hatred of neighbor is prohibited; love of neighbor is commanded.
Therefore, when our neighbors are in desperate need, it is morally wrong not to meet those needs.
To be fair, Osteen claims that Lakewood’s doors have always been open, and they were only waiting for the other shelters to fill up and the city to ask for help (problematic in itself). But regardless of how they got there, Lakewood is now housing hundreds of people and providing much-needed supplies.
But Harvey’s devastation confronts Osteen with a far more important critique: What does a flood say to the prosperity gospel he espouses?
Osteen is the most famous advocate of a theology that teaches material and physical prosperity is God’s will for your life and the outcome of true faith. In its worst forms, it promises health and wealth if you just have enough faith, and not surprisingly faith tends to be demonstrated by a financial donation to said ministry.
But in its milder form, this theology turns Christianity into a self-help, positive-thinking pathway to prosperity, essentially a Christianized way into the American dream.
And that is why it works so well in America. Until the floods come. When life is good, prosperity preachers can sell their message. But when life demands lament, prosperity preaching is silenced. And so it is in Houston. Osteen has continually proclaimed to that community God’s will for their prosperity, but now that community’s prosperity is buried in the flood.
In the greatest of ironies, thousands of copies of Osteen’s best-selling book, “Your Best Life Now,” are submerged and molding in his hometown.
But the Christian gospel in its truest form is able to withstand any storm, because its hope is future promise not today’s prosperity. More than that, it redefines prosperity into something no flood can touch, God alone. The Bible claims that if I have God and nothing else, I am eternally wealthy. But if I have everything and not God, I am eternally destitute. And the gospel is the good news that through Christ we have been reconciled to God in an eternally inseparable way.
This is the gospel that has sustained the church through centuries of persecution; this is the gospel audaciously proclaimed in Negro spirituals that filled the cotton fields of slavery; this is the gospel that today comforts underground churches in China, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan and throughout the Middle East. And this is the gospel for Houston.
I am thankful Lakewood has opened its doors for relief efforts. When the doors open again for worship, and thousands of people who have lost everything gather to hear Osteen preach, I pray they will hear what they are not used to hearing from him — not the false gospel that brings prosperity, but the true gospel that withstands the loss of prosperity.
The Rev. Robert Cunningham is senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Lexington. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.