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Megachurch Leader Joel Osteen Under Fire


People forced from their homes in Houston are taking refuge in the convention center there, in schools and often in places of worship. A dozen or so mosques across the city opened their doors to people needing shelter. So did churches around the region, with one notable exception. Lakewood Church is one of the most famous megachurches in the country. It's led by tele-evangelist Joel Osteen. After a whole lot of pressure on social media, the church finally started accepting evacuees from the storm. NPR's Tom Gjelten has the story.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Joel Osteen's Lakewood megachurch used to be a basketball arena. The Houston Rockets played there. It can accommodate about 16,000 people, and the church is filled to capacity on Sunday mornings when the service is broadcast around the world.


JOEL OSTEEN: God bless you. It's a joy to come into your homes.

GJELTEN: When the storm hit Houston, Osteen said he and his wife were praying for the flood victims, and he urged others to do the same. But he was silent on whether they could seek shelter in his church. It may be related in part to how Osteen views his ministry. One of the most popular and wealthiest televangelists in the world, Osteen preaches a self-help philosophy summarized in the prayer he and his followers repeat at the beginning of every service.


OSTEEN: This is my Bible. I am what it says I am. I have what it says I have. I can do what it says I can do.

GJELTEN: This is the so-called prosperity gospel - God bestows wealth on those who believe in themselves. Duke Divinity Professor Kate Bowler, who has written a book on prosperity preachers, says Joel Osteen's ministry offers a message of individualism without a deep social vision.

KATE BOWLER: You have one of the most resource-heavy, wealthiest churches with a pastor who is a symbol of personal wealth. And so he's in an awkward position in which his theology says largely I did it so you can do it too.


OSTEEN: How are you going to pay your bills? What if the medical report's not good? Don't allow that in. Just say, no, thanks. I know God's in control. He'll get me to where I'm supposed to be.

GJELTEN: Duke's Bowler says Osteen's church does have a long history of volunteerism and offers counseling to people around addiction issues and personal finance problems, but it's not known for soup kitchens or sheltering the homeless. A message in the church Twitter feed said the church was inaccessible over the weekend due to flooding. Some Houstonians disputed that. A spokesman later said the church all the time was making preparations to accommodate flood victims, and by early yesterday afternoon, people were being admitted to the church for shelter. Tom Gjelten, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tom Gjelten reports on religion, faith, and belief for NPR News, a beat that encompasses such areas as the changing religious landscape in America, the formation of personal identity, the role of religion in politics, and conflict arising from religious differences. His reporting draws on his many years covering national and international news from posts in Washington and around the world.

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