The country and world has watched as Hurricane Harvey has caused tremendous damage in Houston Texas. There is still massive flooding that has left many people stranded and in need of rescue. First responders have been working around the clock to rescue those who have been trapped by the flooding. Many are doing the best they can to help the people in need, but there is so much that needs to be done and reports are coming in of just how overwhelming the task at hand is.
In the wake of the devastation, there has now been some controversy as it relates to a prominent church and their even more prominent pastor. I am, of course, referring to the Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas and Joel Osteen, who has a huge national and international following.
The controversy began when it was reported that Osteen would not be opening the doors of Lakewood to serve as a shelter for Houston residents that were displaced. There was, however, some discrepancy in the reporting of this. Some reports divulge claims from church officials claiming that there was flooding in the 16,800 seat facility. Other reports seemed to refute this claim, as many on social media posted photos that showed no flooding on the grounds around the facility and none inside of it. Nevertheless, it is important to note that as a result of this controversy and the public pressure, particularly on social media, Lakewood was opened to provide shelter for those in need. The whole thing was confusing for many, but it seemed to be confusing for Osteen as well.
On NBC's "Today" Show, Osteen said, "We were just being precautious, but the main thing is the city didn't ask us to become a shelter then." What?! So which one was it? Was it for safety concerns or were you waiting for the government to ask you to help provide temporary shelter to the hundreds and thousands who are displaced?
I am no fan of Joel Osteen based on what I consider to be a bastardization of the Gospel and Christianity to a "health and wealth" ("prosperity gospel") and "positive thinking" theological perversion that is useless for actually supporting and helping people to grow in their daily lives, but I am also someone who is extremely fair (almost to a fault). I can and do genuinely understand the first excuse that was given for not initially opening the doors to Lakewood to shelter displaced Houston residents. If there was a legitimate safety issue that if you were to open the doors to provide shelter for people and something went wrong, further adding to the tragedy that has already taken place, then, by all means, do not take that risk! People are already suffering and to potentially increase their suffering based on a negligent assessment of your facility would be devastating.
His second excuse, "the city didn't ask us," is completely unacceptable! Now I have spent the better part of the week discussing this with others on and offline. As a member of the clergy myself, this takes on an extra level of sensitivity to me. Many who disagree with where I stand concerning Lakewood not opening its doors are also members of the clergy or just simply those deeply invested in their faith and the church. Issues of staffing and differing opinions on responsibility have dominated these disagreements. The debates I have engaged in seem to be based on how one interprets what the Church is and what it ideally should be.
The Church is more than a building. The Church is literally all of us who are followers of Christ, or Christians. In scripture, the Church is described as the body of Christ (mainly articulated by the Apostle Paul in several of his letters in the New Testament).
"All of you together are Christ's body, and each of you is a part of it."
I Corinthians 12:27 (NLT)
I detail this because those of us who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior comprise the Church. We are to follow the example and teachings of Jesus if we are to be true disciples. This means following Jesus, who began his public ministry reading from the book of Isaiah,
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon Me, Because He has anointed Me To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, To proclaim liberty to the captives And recovery of sight to the blind, To set at liberty those who are oppressed; To proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD.” Luke 4:18-19 (NKJV)
More directly pertinent to this situation, this is the same Jesus who proclaimed,
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
Matthew 25:31-46 (NIV)
The Church is about, or we should be about - the ministry of Jesus! This is about salvation from the forces of sin for an eternity with GOD, but it is also about the salvific work of healing and uplift in everyday life. We cannot abdicate our role in this.
This is about more than Joel Osteen and Lakewood (even though we're calling them out specifically), because episodes like this leave a bad taste in people's mouths. This is a part of the reason (among many things) for the decline of people's identification with organized religion in the United States, specifically Christianity. People then begin to question the relevancy of the Church.
It must be stated, however, that many churches and mosques did open their doors to shelter displaced persons in Houston without being asked and without much "fanfare." In the end, this instance has caused so much of a stir because of the higher profile that Osteen and Lakewood enjoy. With a nationwide and international ministry following, along with a massive base of operations, it was almost inconceivable that they would even hesitate to help (barring the legitimate concerns mentioned earlier). They forgot what Luke 12:48b tells us,
"When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.”