For as long as I can remember, I have been fascinated by people who can capture the attention of a crowd. And these days, one of the best at this game is none other than Lakewood Church pastor Joel Osteen.
The new rock star of religion, Osteen is impressive on a number of levels. He is likable, smart, articulate, a strong orator, and on the surface, a man driven by the many graces of God. In fact until recently, the only thing I could find objectionable about him is his choice of neckwear – Osteen has an uncanny ability to choose the most hideous ties in, well, creation.
The Osteen media juggernaut has been in full force lately and landed a coveted prize with a profile on 60 Minutes last night. Watching his interview however, I began to think Mr. Osteen might be driven as much by the bottom line as he is by lines of scripture.
And I sort of feel bad for questioning his intentions. After all, the guy inspires and provides hope to millions of people. His message is positive, uplifting, and full of optimism at a time of negativity and division. So what’s my problem? For me, there’s just something sort of smarmy and off-putting about using God as a means to make a buck.
Doing so makes Osteen more Jim Baker than Billy Graham. To be fair, I don’t think he is a Jim Baker or a Jimmy Swaggart or even remotely like those awful thieves who exploit and steal from their devoted followers. But at the end of the day, Osteen had made a living selling God to people. And because he has done so sounding more like Tony Robbins than Tony Bevilacqua, I remain conflicted.
Under his reign, Osteen has amassed an unbelievable empire all without, as he told CBS’ Byron Pitts and the New York Times, “ask[ing] for money on television.” True, I guess technically. But as the cameras showed last night (interestingly and purposely, the footage never makes it into Osteen’s broadcast), when you have donation buckets – which provide much more room I suppose than the shallow wicker trays I knew from church growing up – being passed among the congregation yielding $1 million every week, another $20+ million coming in via mail, and God knows (pun unintended) how much more via the Internet, do you really need to?
That’s $70+ million coming in every year to the church. And while there might not be an outward verbal solicitation for money communicated on his program, there is certainly no shortage of advertisements running on the screen urging viewers to purchase Joel’s book, or to attend his speaking engagements (many of which have admission fees?!?).
Osteen’s website is constantly touted as well on his show, which has a link to his bookstore, where you can find a vast array of Joel products. Everything from Joel Osteen books to Joel Osteen t-shirts to personalized Joel Osteen Bible covers (yes they come in pink and blue!). Thank God (pun intended) the store does not offer his ties.
Proceeds from bookstore sales are estimated around $3.5 million annually. I can’t help but note that it’s more than a little ironic that you can purchase Joel’s “Free to Worship” DVD and book for about $10.
So where does all that money go? Well according to Osteen’s brother, the money pays a staff of 300, pays off the $95 million in renovations which were required to transform the old home of the Houston Rockets into Lakewood Church, and pays for television time. Oh yeah, some of that money does go to actually helping people through ministries in places like India and “elsewhere.” Hmmm, “elsewhere” sounds kind of vague. Osteen isn’t greedy though, he often likes to point out how he stopped taking his $200,000 annual salary from the church after he sold his first book. That’s very generous considering early estimates for his take on sales of his new book come in around $25 million.
And I don’t begrudge him that. There is nothing wrong with Osteen making money, nothing at all. But when you create that kind of ridiculous wealth, you should be judged on how you spend it. Osteen could have taken $90 million and seen the seemingly endless potential of meals, scholarships, homes, shelters, and educational programs for those in need. Instead, he chose to spend those tens of millions on creating a venue for his rock and roll religion show.
Again, nothing truly wrong with that, but it just strikes me as wrongly focused on looking good, not doing good. And that feels contrary to the key tenets of religion – namely charity, selflessness, and humility.
All that and basic human decency towards all, something that Osteen’s wife failed to exhibit a few years back on an airplane. Back in 2005, Mrs. Osteen found herself none-too-pleased about an unknown liquid (probably Perrier or Evian) that was on her first-class seat. When the flight attendant on board did not remove said liquid as quickly as she wanted, words were exchanged. Reports suggested that Osteen’s wife then pushed the flight attendant out of the way and tried to enter the plane’s cockpit. Yikes. I wonder if her husband’s sermons are shown at Gitmo?
Like the amassing of wealth, that behavior strikes me as a tad contradictory, and certainly not in keeping with the religious Golden-Rule personas she and her husband Joel exude in public. It’s sort of like when Jerry Falwell called Ellen Degeneres, “Ellen Degenerate.” Her response was something to the effect of, “Name calling, now that’s Christian.”
Rest in peace Jerry, but I couldn’t agree with Ellen more.
It should come as no surprise that the Osteens were subsequently removed from the flight nor should it shock you the plane was headed to the impoverished, struggling community of Vail, Colorado. I guess that qualifies as “elsewhere.”
It’s fine to make money and it’s fine to be religious. But men and women who claim to be agents of God’s word should be that first, and rock stars second, if at all. With Osteen, things seem to be reversed. His oration, his flashy television production, his bookstore, his perfect white smile, and yes his ugly ties all take center stage, quite literally. I feel like he could be just as successful doing sports motivation or self-help speeches. But he’s not, he’s using the word of God, and that brings certain responsibilities and a level of appropriateness to his actions.
Osteen recently questioned whether he should be autographing Bibles of adoring followers. I don’t claim to be a religious expert, but I feel pretty confident that the answer to that question is ‘no.’
With all this said, I believe that Joel Osteen is a good man with good intentions and a good heart. But I also believe he is doing what he is doing partly because he is making good money.
And for me, that apparent motivation lessens his credibility and dilutes his message. I’m not sure what he can do to change that sentiment, but until he does, I will remain skeptical. Why? Well as U2 frontman Bono once said, “The God I believe in isn’t short of cash.”
Amen to that.
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