Dear Joel Osteen,
Over the past few days you’ve faced an unrelenting wave of Internet shaming, and you’ve experienced the wrath of millions of people who watched the week unfold and determined they were witnessing in you and your megachurch’s response to the hurricane—everything they believe is wrong about organized Christianity; its self-serving greed, its callousness, its tone-deafness in the face of a hurting multitude, its lack of something that looks like Jesus.
They questioned your initial silence and your closed doors.
They watched with disdain as local Mosques and furniture stores and Jewish temples and Chabad houses rushed to receive newly homeless victims while you seemingly waited.
They shook their heads at the conflicting stories of a flooded church and impassable roads.
They lamented you tweeting out that “God was still on his Throne,” while thousands of your neighbors were literally under water.
They saw your social media expressions of “thoughts and prayers” as hollow and disingenuous, knowing the stockpile of other resources at your disposal.
They witnessed with disgust what they deemed as your late and underwhelming act of kindness performed under duress.
They raged at your excuse that Houston didn’t ask you to receive victims—because (whether Christian or not) they realized that Jesus’ life was marked by an overflow of generosity and compassion and sacrifice that rarely required official invitation.
As a result of the pushback and condemnation you received, I imagine you feel like this has been a rough week. It hasn’t. You’ve had the week you probably should have had, all this considered. You’ve had the week that was coming long before rain ever started falling in Houston.
For quite a while, Pastor, many people have concluded that the kind of opulence you sit nestled in no way resembles the homeless, itinerant street preacher Jesus who relied on the goodness of ordinary people to provide his daily needs. They rightly recognized that mansions are not places that servant leaders emulating this humble, foot-washing Jesus occupy. They correctly saw the massive chasm between the ever-grinning, your ship is coming in, name it and claim it prosperity promise that is your bread and butter—and the difficult, painful, sacrificial “you will have trouble” life that Jesus and those who followed him lived in the Gospels. They expected the most open-handed giving would come from such great overflow.
They also see the great disparity between your coddled, cozy, stock photo existence—and the sleep-deprived, paycheck to paycheck, perpetually behind struggle that is their daily life.
And yet despite their difficulties and their deficits and their lack (the kind you have been well insulated from for a long, long time), these same folks understand that when people around you are in peril—you respond. You don’t wait for an invitation, you don’t wait to be shamed by strangers, and you don’t make excuses.
That’s why many of these ordinary, exhausted, pressed to the edge people, lined up as human chains in filthy, rushing, waist-high water to pull people out of submerged vehicles. It’s why they came from hundreds of miles with boats and at their own expense and using vacation days, to pluck strangers from rooftops. It’s why they gave money and clothing and food and blood (and some of them like Officer Steve Perez)—their very lives acting in the way Jesus said was the tangible fruit of their faith.
Many of the people whose very dollars helped build the massive, tricked out arena you call home every week, showed you how decent people respond to need. I hope you were paying attention. I hope you’re different today than you were a week ago. I really hope something penetrated that seemingly disconnected exterior and found a home in your heart.
Because someday, Pastor, the waters in Houston will recede and homes will be rebuilt and normalcy will eventually return there. And to a large degree the attention and the pressure you’ve received this week will find other places to reside, and you will return to the work and the life you’ve had before, relatively unaffected.
It’s then that I hope you’ll remember this week. It’s then I hope you’ll recall the parable Jesus tells of the Good Samaritan, who though a despised pariah in the place he found myself, responded to a stranger’s need with immediacy and vigor while the religious people walked right by. This Samaritan showed mercy, not because he was guilted into it or because he was asked—but simply because he knew that we are one another’s keepers; that we each have resources we are entrusted with, and the way we share or hoard those resources reflect our hearts.
I hope you’ll remember Jesus on the hillside feeding the multitude, not because they petitioned him and not because it was in his job description—but because they were hungry and he wasn’t okay with that.
I don’t know you and I don’t believe you’re a bad person. You’re quite likely a good, loving, and decent man—but good, loving, and decent people lose the plot, they get distracted, they get it wrong, they need to recover their why. If none of that has happened, then I apologize for misreading things, but that’s what it looks like. I’m trying to help you understand how many people feel so you can understand their anger this week.
Scripture says we can’t judge another person’s heart, and I won’t at all suggest I know yours. Jesus says that we should not make moral judgments from a distance and I won’t make ones about you. He does say, however, that we can look at the tangible things we see and evaluate them—the visible fruit of one’s faith. Many people have questioned that fruit in the past few days and that’s especially necessary when someone has the platform and influence you have.
You had a difficult week, but you are safe and dry, and despite the criticism and pushback, blessed with more abundance than most people will ever know. That’s good news for you. I don’t hold any of that against you. I don’t wish you any kind of ill will.
The even better news than that, Pastor Osteen, is that you are alive. You are still here and you have a chance now to show people that Christianity is far more than their greatest fears about it, much better than the worst they’ve seen of Christians, and more beautiful than the ugliness they’ve experienced in the Church.
You have the chance to leverage your incredible resources and your platform and your influence to show a watching world something that truly resembles Jesus.
Don’t wait for an invitation.
Jesus already gave us one.