What is the wealth of Joel Osteen

With rock to God

Friday, May 21, 2021

World time / archive | Article from December 22, 2009

Megachurches in the USA

From Sabine Müller

In America, worship is becoming an event in many places. (AP)

In the USA everything is a little bigger, including the worship of God. Especially in the American South, so-called megachurches are booming, attracting thousands of people every week. The congregations are led by eloquent preachers who are revered like stars.

Scott Thumma is one of the most recognized megachurch experts in the USA, he has written one of the standard works on the subject. Thumma dates the beginning of the megachurch phenomenon to the 1960s and 1970s, when everything in the US got bigger and bigger: the cars, the houses, the shopping malls, and the churches too. The American mega-church of today has many faces: Baptists, Methodists, Quakers, Presbyterians, non-denominational - all of this can be found especially in the deeply religious south of the USA, where the majority of these churches are located. According to the official definition, a mega-church draws at least 2,000 people a week - and it's a Protestant congregation, says Scott Thumma.

The success story of the Ebenezer mega-church began after its low point in the early 1980s, recalls Melvin Clay, who has been a member of the parish for 75 years. In 1982 Ebenezer was a dying parish. In the posh Washington district of Georgetown there were hardly any Afro-American residents, seldom more than 20 worshipers came to the Sunday service and there was no money to renovate the dilapidated church building. It was decided to move the parish to a suburb of the capital, where the buildings were cheaper and the population was mostly black. With 17 parishioners, Ebenezer moved in 1983, and everything happened very quickly after that, says Melvin Clay:

"Shortly after the move, we already offered three church services every weekend, many believers had to take a seat in the adjoining rooms and the parking lot was always overcrowded. The pastor of a small Baptist church very close by came to mass one Sunday and was delighted with his unusual full parking lot. But when he got into the church, no one was there. He called and asked that the Ebenezer believers would please make room for his parishioners. "

Over the next few years, the Ebenezer congregation grew from 17 solitary members to nearly 10,000. How did you do that? Melvin Clay says this is mainly thanks to Pastor Grainger Browning, who has been leading Ebenezer since the move:

“I could kiss this man - and I promise there's nothing wrong with me. I could kiss him for his integrity. He and his wife are known and respected across the country. I can get off a plane in Hawaii and someone comes up to me and asks, How is Pastor Browning? No matter where I am, you know her. "

The charismatic male leader is typical of the American megachurches. Critics say that in many places this borders on personality cult.

At the Ebenezer Church Sunday service, Pastor Grainger Browning is in the process of preaching warmly. The tall, sinewy mid-sixties with the closely set eyes in the narrow face and the neatly trimmed round beard stands loosely against the lectern. Instead of a gown, he now wears a simple black suit. Browning talks about Joshua and the walls of Jericho, which after a long wait collapsed from the loud cry of the faithful. The "breakthrough", the breakthrough, it should really come this time for the parishioners, promises Browning:

"This time the scholarship works, this time the healing comes, this time your children manage to break away from drugs and gangs, this time you are promoted, this time the house and the new car are yours."

"Amen", "Hallelujah" calls out the congregation - it cannot be overlooked that this man has the gift of sweeping people away. Because he preaches with passion and because, with God's help, he promises much good - extremely much. Pastor Browning calls to the front of the altar all of the believers suffering from cancer. Regardless of whether it is prostate, colon or breast cancer, the pastor promises: Today the cancer wall will collapse.

Cancer or gang membership, Pastor Browning, his wife, and the many paid and unpaid church workers listen to every concern of believers and take care of all areas of life. The American megachurches generally attach great importance to social work in the congregation. There are special men's evenings, a women's department, the pastors offer marriage counseling, youth work is very important, the church supports projects for the poor and the elderly. This holistic care and the extraordinary services sometimes attract people from far away, says Pastor Browning:

"At first it was mostly people from the local area, but now there are church members who come from Florida or North Carolina every other week. Most of the believers live within a radius of about 35 kilometers, but there are also some who regularly come 80 or 90 kilometers drive.""

In return they get a pastor who spent himself to the point of exhaustion in every service. Because Pastor Browning's motto is: Always preach as if it were your last sermon. Because at some point it will be the last. Whether in front of 17 or 17,000 believers - it makes no difference.

With up to 10,000 visitors a week, Pastor Browning's Church is rightly called Megachurch, but it can be much, much bigger. In Houston, Texas, Pastor Joel Osteen welcomes his congregation - and millions of TV and Internet viewers - as the service will be televised nationwide and streamed live on the Internet. Lakewood Church is by far the largest mega-church in the USA, and the 46-year-old Pastor Joel Osteen is probably the most famous television preacher. The non-denominational congregation attracts more than 40,000 people every week with its five church services, and up to 16,000 can fit into the large hall at the same time. Or rather, the large arena, because that is exactly what the church building used to be: a sports arena. You notice that immediately when you arrive at the entrance doors and first stand in front of three escalators and a ten-meter-wide flight of stairs that lead to the main level of the building and into the large hall.

Rows of chairs run tightly through the interior, crawling up the side tiers to the upper tier. The ceiling of the huge hall is covered with fabric that resembles a cloudy sky and is illuminated by dozens of spotlights. The stage is framed by two artificial stone landscapes with small waterfalls, a four-meter-high, golden globe rotates in the center of the stage, while the light installation on the stage background changes color regularly.

The sound system would do justice to any top-class rock concert, the choir is 100 men and women, the band is first class. If you are used to the "normal" church, you may find it difficult to get into the atmosphere of worship in this huge, noisy environment. Bill Lawrence, who has been coming to Lakewood every weekend for the past five years, knows these concerns:

"" When I first came in here, my first thought was: It used to be a sports hall! But the feeling went away quickly, thanks to the whole atmosphere. You actually feel like you're in a church here. "

But it is undeniable: Lakewood Pastor Joel Osteen is not only far away from the upper tier when he steps to the edge of the stage to sermon in a perfectly tailored black suit. Only on the three huge canvases at the head end of the room can one recognize his face with the permanent smile and the dark curls, the paisley pattern of the purple tie.

Can you still get the feeling of a real church fellowship at such a huge event, in a hall with thousands of people, where the pastor has no chance to know all of his parishioners? Sherri Collins-Hetherington, who has been an avid Lakewood lover for more than ten years, says that's no problem for her. Every weekend she sits with her mother in a certain corner of the hall, always surrounded by the same people - it's almost like in a small parish, she explains. And: It is amazing how many believers know Joel Osteen and his wife Victoria personally:

"I once owned a small bookstore in a tiny shopping mall. Joel and Victoria happened to drop by and we talked. A year later they came back to see if I was okay, if they should pray for me. It's amazing that someone with such a large church remembers a single person. "

That is certainly one point that makes the Joel Osteen phenomenon so fascinating: He preaches in front of thousands of people and the believers still have the feeling that he speaks to them personally. You can see it on the faces of the worshipers hanging on his lips. It is a motley troupe that comes every weekend: men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, old people, young people. For all of them, Pastor Joel Osteen is the master of the good news. Nobody goes home with a bad feeling, his sermons are always positive:

"Too many people think badly of themselves. When they make mistakes, they don't accept God's forgiveness, but listen to the accusing voice within. That says how bad they are, that they screwed up their diet or lost their temper. You carry feelings of guilt and contempt with them. Feeling guilty is like standing on a treadmill: you fight and plow, but get nowhere. "

This is a typical Joel Osteen sermon: The topics are close to life, not too biblical, he describes himself more as an optimistic life coaching coach than a preacher. This is exactly what his followers like Sherri Collins-Hetherington and Bill Lawrence like:

"He's very positive. And people need hope. What we're doing wrong, we know ourselves. We need hope that we can improve and that God wants us to improve."

"He's just real. When his feelings overwhelm him, he sometimes cries. Some call him the feel-good preacher and that's true. He gives us hope and without hope there is no faith."

An American religious expert once said: Many preachers say that God loves us, but when Joel Osteen says it, we believe it.

Not only is Lakewood the largest mega-church in the United States, Lakewood is a perfectly marketed family business. This becomes clear to you at the latest when Joel Osteen advertises his new book in the middle of the service and when you then enter the huge bookstore and gift shop in the church building.

Row after row of bookshelves with titles by Joel Osteen, life-support guides and children's books by his wife Victoria, and his mother Dodie is also a busy writer. There are also videos of the services, CDs by the Lakewood band and everything else the believers might need. Small leather bags for your personal Bible, wall candle holders with a cross motif, religious kitsch painting in candy colors.

The emergence of the megachurches has profoundly changed the religious landscape of the United States in the past few decades, but what did the rise of the megachurches actually mean for the small, traditional churches?

In St. Andrews, a small Presbyterian church less than a mile from Lakewood, Pastor Jeff Smith opens the Sunday service. The man in his mid-forties, casually dressed in light-colored trousers, a checked shirt and a knitted vest, beams when he greets his community. It's unbelievable how many are here at nine in the morning, he says and looks at the 100 or so people sitting on the narrow pews made of light wood. In total, St. Andrews services attract around 300 to 350 worshipers each week. That's tiny compared to Lakewood's 40,000, and Pastor Smith says when the neighborhood mega-church moved in, there were fears that believers might migrate:

"But we've found that Lakewood is a completely different church than we are. If you like St. Andrews, you probably won't like Lakewood, and vice versa."

Religious expert Scott Thumma is not surprised that Pastor Smith has not lost any parishioners to the mega-church. It is a prejudice that megachurches always have a negative impact on their environment. St. Andrew’s Pastor Smith says: His message and that of Pastor Joel Osteen in Lakewood could hardly be more different.

"Joel preaches: Whoever has God's grace gets wealth, health, a promotion - all that we want. I read the Bible differently: God wants us to make sacrifices and like Jesus and the apostles to dedicate our lives to others. It it's not about getting everything because you have God's grace. "

As for Lakewood, mega-church expert Scott Thumma agrees with Pastor Smith: This is actually very much about the show. But he says that mega-churches generally only offer "faith light", not true:

"Many practice the faith very seriously and have high demands on their members. They should not only bring money, but also get involved in church life and the community. We often have a distorted picture of the best-known megachurches that we see on television."

The American megachurches undoubtedly have social influence, but what about politically? Lakewood Pastor Joel Osteen is often referred to as "the most influential Christian in America", but he is mostly silent about his political views. Pastor Grainger Browning of the Ebenezer Church in Fort Washington, on the other hand, says: The "black" church has always been political:

"The church should be at the center of the community and address all of their needs, including political ones. I preach to political leaders to let them know what our parishioners need. We use our power not for our own gain, but for that Giving people a voice. My wife and I can say things that others can't say because they might run into problems at work. We speak without fear of consequences. "

In general, religion expert Scott Thumma sees the political influence of the megachurches more at the local level:

"They can put enormous pressure on local politics. I have seen that a new church building does not fully comply with fire protection regulations and the pastor said: I have 5,000 votes to cast here - do I get my license? And he got it. But what a big one Questions such as the abortion debate: The mega-churches probably have more symbolic power than real political power. "

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