Joel Osteen, pastor of Lakewood Church, was midway through his Sunday morning sermon when seven men seated near the front of the stadium stood and began shouting.
“Shame on you, Joel, shame on you,” one cried, while others opened Bibles and began to loudly read scripture.
The men were quickly escorted out of the church by impromptu ushers, mostly armed off-duty cops. Six of the men were charged with criminal trespass. This was June 28, 2015. After nearly a year of legal stalling, they were to face trial on April 19, which has, yet again, been postponed.
This trespassing was no isolated incident. The men—Jacob Gardner, a church elder, and other members of the controversial east Texas Church of Wells—have a history of public disruption. In March two members were arrested in Saranac Lake, New York, for their impromptu sermons at a Baptist church and a park; in December, they were arrested for telling a pregnant employee of an auto parts store that she would burn in hell.
But, in some ways, this disturbance was unique. The interruption and its subsequent trial bring together two conflicting faiths, with differing views on everything from the Bible to sin to money. The Church of Wells sees the trespass charges as a threat to their religious freedom and beliefs, which require them to save Christians who have been led astray. Lakewood Church, on the other hand, sees the outburst not as a challenge to its views, but as a matter of threatened safety and order. What’s curious is that the stranger point of view is the one that may be worth listening to.
Lakewood Church is often considered to be the largest congregation in America, though it took third on a 2015 list. Around 38,000 people attend Joel Osteen’s four English and two Spanish weekly services, which are held in the former Compaq Center basketball arena, five minutes away from downtown Houston. Osteen has his own Sirius XM channel (number 128, should you wish to tune in) and seven New York Times bestsellers. His service is broadcasted Sunday mornings on over 60 local TV stations, as well as on USA, Lifetime, and the Discovery Channel. About 20 million Americans watch each month.
His message is not so much about particular Biblical views as it is about a general outlook. The church is non-denominational, falling somewhere between Southern Baptism, Pentecostalism, and the Charismatic movement, resulting in a vague and optimistic Christianity that speaks more of salvation and the healing power of the Lord than it does of fire and brimstone. The church shies away from most contemporary social issues; you won’t find Osteen preaching about gay marriage or Black Lives Matter, neither for nor against. Its most contentious belief is its most positive: the prosperity gospel.
The prosperity gospel is the idea that God rewards the faithful—not ambiguously or spiritually, but literally and financially. “God wants you to do well” is one of Osteen’s most common themes, often followed by, “God blesses you so you can be a blessing to others.” To be fair, Osteen avoids directly mentioning money; it’s all about a generic “prosperity,” which he says refers to health, personal relationships, and peace of mind. But it’s difficult to decouple that from televangelism’s longstanding relationship with prosperity theology, which preaches that wealth is a gift from God that can be obtained through faith, positive thinking, and generous donations to the church.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with the prosperity gospel. Its focus can be optimistic and empowering despite lacking theological rigor. The message is rarely “pray for wealth to fall from the sky”—Osteen talks about taking control of your life and working hard. And financial relationships between churches and their congregations are nothing new. Tithing has long been a feature of Judaism and Christianity, and, though it may not have the same quid pro quo attached, we don’t consider the average message to donate to church coffers to be abusive.
However, it’s worth thinking about who this message appeals to, as well as who it benefits. The primarily Pentecostal churches that preach the prosperity gospel skew toward the working and middle classes, and have significant numbers of immigrants, especially first-generation Latinos. Nearly 40% of Lakewood Church’s members are Hispanic, and Osteen’s bestselling Your Best Life Now had more readers without a college degree than with. This is a world of paycheck-to-paycheck living, and the congregation’s prayers for wealth emerge from real conditions of poverty and alienation.
Meanwhile, successful televangelists can make millions, if not through donations then through broadcasting fees and book sales. Pastor Joel Osteen is estimated to have a net worth of $40 million.
The Church of Wells is a revivalist church of a different breed. The group believes in a strictly fundamentalist view of the Bible and an imminent Judgment Day. It also considers itself the only legitimate form of Christianity. The 70-member group used to be known as the Church of Arlington, Texas, but the name changes with the city to signify its status as the one true church of wherever it happens to be.
Two Baylor University graduates, Sean Morris and Ryan Ringnald, along with a friend, Jacob Gardner, formed the church in 2010 after a two-year preaching tour of the country. They felt that the secular world was diverging dangerously from God’s word on issues from the role of women to consumerism, and other congregations were either powerless to correct it or riddled with corruption themselves. Modern Christmas and its idolatrous worship of Santa Claus was a common culprit. Despite finding that “most people did not want to hear their message,” they amassed a following large enough to merit running a congregation out of Morris’ brother’s home in Arlington. In need of more space for their growing followers and a lower cost of living, they settled in Wells, a sleepy town in east Texas, a year later.
The group quickly made a name for itself by inciting controversies. In 2012, a couple in the church called a prayer meeting over their suffocating child instead of calling 911; the child died despite their prayers. In 2014, Catherine Grove, a young nurse, alarmed her parents when, after leaving Arkansas to join the church, she began giving away her possessions and refused to return their calls. When her parents visited her, they found her a changed person: submissive, depressed, quoting scripture, and not making eye contact. Church elders told them that she no longer needed them.
In early 2015, Grove walked away from the church on foot and called 911. After being picked up from the local police station by her parents, she spent two days trying to convince them to return her to Wells and to convert themselves, then four days involuntarily committed in a psychiatric ward. Members of the church picked her up at her release, and she’s been back ever since, claiming to be there of her own free will.
Grove’s story, covered in fantastic detail by Texas Monthly’s Sonia Smith, paints the Church of Wells as a textbook example of a cult. Its members live as if the Revelation could come any day, desperately trying to convert sinners even as they attract scrutiny for their isolationist tendencies and aggressive behavior. Today, despite zealously preaching the word of God to all who will listen, Church of Wells has closed its services to outsiders.
There’s something quite wholesome about the Church of Wells despite its cultishness. Its members all sleep in the same building, though not in a communal bed; they read scripture together; they cook meals together. For a short while, members worked shifts at their gas station and country goods store, where they now merely preach after Wells residents boycotted the business. Sometimes, they take road trips together to preach the good word to Lakewood Church.
I grew up under a mile away from Lakewood Church, though it didn’t used to be called that. Until I was about ten, it was the Compaq Center, where I would go see the circus or Disney On Ice. Lakewood leased the stadium in 2003 and dumped $95 million into renovations. It quickly became a reason for my parents to avoid driving on Sundays between 11 AM and 1 PM.
I’ve long held a strange fascination with Lakewood, though it wasn’t until last August that I finally ventured inside. I’m not a religious person, but the idea of watching a service as a tourist had always seemed wrong. What swayed me was the idea of Gardner and his companions yelling from the floor. I couldn’t picture it. How could six men disrupt a rousing sermon with multimillion-dollar production values in an arena of thousands of shouting believers?
The ushers were so businesslike that I was surprised I wasn’t asked for a ticket. From my vantage point in the nosebleed seats, I watched a Christian rock song performed with the aplomb of a stadium concert, complete with light show and cheering fans. And then I watched another one. And another. By the time Osteen reached the stage, the band had been playing for well over an hour.
His sermon was just what I anticipated—plenty about being grateful to God and thinking positively. His wife delivered a quick speech about not listening to the haters, ending with a callout about those who claimed that “Lakewood just wants your money.” Moments later, they began passing around the donation boxes.
What surprised me was not Osteen, but the crowd. The elderly Indian couple sitting in front of me was as glued to their phones as I was. Throughout the nearly two-hour ceremony, people continued to stream in and out of the seats below. They sometimes joined Osteen for an “Amen,” but there was a dull conversational roar that had little to do with what was happening on stage. He seemed not to be preaching to them but to his televised and radio-broadcasted audience, looking directly into the strategically positioned cameras rather than at the mass of people.
It occurred to me that the representatives from the Church of Wells who crashed the sermon last June had no real hope of changing the crowd or making himself heard; Osteen couldn’t even do that. All they could do was to try to make some noise.
The court cases that typically attract coverage have both interesting parties or strange details, and also potentially powerful results. This isn’t the case with Lakewood Church v. Church of Wells. The charges are criminal trespassing, which is only a misdemeanor, and the proceedings are happening at local courts, not Supreme. Church of Wells members have been convicted of trespassing before for their unwelcome sermons, most notably at a Nacogdoches, Texas McDonald’s. The decision is unlikely to do much more than hand out some fines and probations.
Though it’s not a freedom of religion or freedom of speech case—since it’s one group pressing criminal charges against another—the Church of Wells would certainly like to make it one. One of their central beliefs is that they have the duty to save as many souls as possible, so kicking them out allegedly restricts their rights as Christians and citizens. Another is that modern churches, especially materially focused ones like Osteen’s, are misleading their flocks. The members’ defense attorney, Jon Stephenson, told the Houston Chronicle, “What one person might call a disruption, the other person might call [what] God is telling them to do.” He’s also stated that he’d like to call Osteen to the stand at trial.
What’s strange about the Church of Wells’ statements about Lakewood Church is not merely that they think Lakewood is wrong, but that they think Lakewood is a cult. And if you squint, it is: thousands of followers, urged by a charismatic leader, donate their money in the name of a cause that clearly departs from traditional theology. More people would agree, though, that Church of Wells, with its isolation of members, radical beliefs, and attacks on other creeds, better fits the bill.
But for a group that focuses on interpretation of the Bible and seeking ultimate truth, Osteen makes an ideal target. The Church of Wells claims that he makes unrealistic promises and promotes an overly materialistic viewpoint. In the Bible, Jesus condemns the Pharisees, Jewish religious leaders, for their hypocrisy and materialism, a fact to which the Church of Wells has been quick to point. The statement they released after their arrest sounds more like what atheist skeptics, not faithful Christians, might say of televangelists: “Joel Osteen has glorified himself and not God. He has heaped to himself riches, while he promises the poorest of the poor a life of health, wealth, and prosperity. Joel’s religion is a worship of SELF, and not of CHRIST.”
The results in the upcoming trial, if it ever stops being postponed, will probably be as inconsequential as they are predictable. The Church of Wells has been cast by the media as the villain, even if its message in this case may ring more true. At the end of the day, many of its members are regarded as fringe weirdos who watch babies die and spout hatred. Lakewood is clearly the more reasonable side despite its potentially exploitative actions. It’s rational that a church would want to kick out shouting guests, especially those calling their pastor a charlatan (even if he is one).
Who comes off as right has less to do with beliefs than with appearances. That this is a foregone conclusion raises questions about what makes religion legitimate and respectable and what separates a cult from a megachurch. The legally correct answer to this case may have little to do with the moral and spiritual argument that the Church of Wells is trying to incite through their trespassing and subsequent sermons in the Houston courthouse, which they’ve traveled to every few months as the pre-trial drags on. The trial won’t decide anything beyond a trivial and routine legal matter even as it illuminates broader questions about faith, money, and public reputation.
When asked for a comment by Houston’s CBS station back in June, the Church of Wells responded with Proverbs 23:23: “Buy the truth, and sell it not.” Lakewood Church declined to comment.
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