What are some of the criticisms of Joel Osteen

Jesus Christ, America's superstar: Thousands come to worship in the "Megachurches" every week

Religion plays an important role in American society. But instead of organ and altar, «megachurches» have huge LED screens. A visit to the largest church in America.

One would think that instead of a church service there would be a pop concert in downtown Houston. Already in the parking garage, the visitors can hear music from loudspeakers. Children, old and heavy boys pour from side streets in the direction of the event hall. "Welcome to Lakewood Church," greet volunteers on the sidewalk and shake hands. "I'm so happy to see you!" It is a typical Saturday evening in one of the largest parishes in America. Around 50,000 worshipers attend one of Lakewood Church's five services each week, four of which take place this weekend alone. Where tens of thousands of basketball fans cheered the Houston Rockets' home games in the past, believers now fill the stands. Cheerful employees show guests the way to the arena, and parents can leave their children in play areas for all age groups.

The show has already started, a twelve-person band - accompanied by fog and light machines - rocks to «Jesus loves me». Instead of a cross, there is a globe in the middle of the stage. The visitors throw their arms in the air, sing along and dance. Cameras on remote-controlled cranes record everything and broadcast the show on LED screens - and on screens across the country: Every week, millions follow the Lakewood church services on local TV, the Internet and via smartphone app.

Church in high tech

Organ and altar were yesterday. In addition to Lakewood, there are around 1,750 such "megachurches" in the United States today - Protestant parishes that attract at least 2,000 visitors each week with pop music and video clips. "They are the churches' answer to an increasingly technological and individualized society," says Scott Thumma, a scientist at the Hartford Institute for Religion, in an interview.

Most of the “megachurches” are in America's major cities and their catchment areas; There are around 40 in the Houston agglomeration alone. But it would be wrong to label the giant churches as a phenomenon of the “Bible Belt”, that is, that strictly religious region in Southeast America. Megachurches are a nationwide phenomenon. Even in otherwise secular California, tattooed pastors preach to hip-hop music in front of thousands in converted cinemas.

“Megachurches” are booming across America

Evangelical churches with at least 2000 visitors per week, by member state

Understanding the phenomenon must understand the role religion plays in American society. The parish is the center of social life for many Americans, and Sunday church attendance is firmly anchored in a weekly rhythm. Politicians and athletes alike naturally quote verses from the Bible. According to the Pew Research Center, around 50 percent of Americans ask their president to share their faith. "Religion touches every aspect of our lives," said North Park University religious scholar Michael Emerson on the phone.

The separation of church and state is enshrined in the first amendment to the constitution, it was a pillar for the foundation of America. But that is exactly why Christianity dominates today, believes Emerson. "The Christians here had no state support and had to compete with other religions." That is why there are many more manifestations of Protestantism in the USA - every niche is served.

Mark Chaves, a religious scholar at Duke University, sees other explanations for why religion is so important to Americans. There is no state social network like in European countries, he says, the churches compensate for this for their members. In addition, for a long time, places of worship for African Americans were the only place where they could come together undisturbed - and this importance is still felt today. “There isn't a straight answer as to why, but what is certain is that America is more religious than the rest of the western world,” he says.

The church owes this to the “megachurches” to this day. In the face of the social upheaval of the 1968s, America's church congregations were faced with declining attendance. A smart pastor named Bill Hybel roamed the suburbs of Chicago in the 1970s and asked local residents why they weren't coming to his church. After that, he radically adapted his service to their answers. He got rid of the cross on the altar and added canvases, pop music, and contemporary sermons - laying the foundations for his Willow Creek Church to soon become one of America's first megachurches. The focus on the “customers” inspired other communities.

In the meantime, megachurches are the only type of church in the country that continues to grow - across all age groups. The largest of the giant churches like Lakewood operate branches, their own radio and television stations and organize conferences in order to achieve economies of scale. The enterprising men of God proudly call themselves “pastor preneurs”.

The pastor as a rock star

What all mega-churches have in common is a focus on the pastor - or a pastor couple in the case of Lakewood Church. Joel and Victoria Osteen are the rock stars of the parish, their names are denounced like an advertising sign on the outside wall of the arena. After a 45-minute pop concert, the two presented themselves to the crowd for the first time, a lifting platform raised them from the floor. The two look like they came from a photo shoot. Slim, blonde, beautiful, the American embodiment of the happiness of marriage. “Hello Lakewood, thank you for coming,” Joel Osteen calls out and holds out his hand with his wife as if in victory. The hall trembles.

Joel Osteen is one of America's most famous pastors. The 56-year-old has no theological training, but studied television studies. His father, John, was a former Southern Baptist minister who started Lakewood as a free current. After his sudden death, Osteen took over the leadership of the church in 1999 - and helped Lakewood achieve a breakthrough: The weekly number of visitors exploded from 6,000 to 30,000 in 2005 and has now reached more than 50,000 people.

Detachment from Church Doctrine

Today, Lakewood Church is a successful company with revenues of $ 89 million in 2017 alone. The Osteens also benefit privately from the church's success: They live with their two children in a 13-room $ 12 million mansion on the outskirts of Houston and 5 fire pits, as the "Houston Chronicle" writes. For the Osteens this is not a contradiction to Christianity, because they preach the «Prosperity Gospel». This partly controversial direction within Protestantism says that those who donate a lot to God - i.e. the Church - have personal and material success. To put it bluntly, one could say that one can manipulate God to achieve material prosperity. About a quarter of the "megachurches" preach this doctrine. It is also noteworthy that meanwhile around a third of the megachurches are no longer affiliated with a denomination, says the religious scholar Thumma from the Hartford Institute. In order to attract as many believers as possible, many megachurches did not commit themselves to one doctrine. “Traditional churches are like boutiques,” he says. The customer knows exactly what he wants. "Mega churches, on the other hand, are like shopping malls, where everyone can find something they like somewhere."

It is the same at Lakewood Church. Hard questions, such as abortions or homosexuality, do not arise in the almost two-hour service. Osteen's sermon is more reminiscent of motivational training in positive thinking. "There are no victims here, there are winners," he calls out to the crowd and gesticulates too clearly to convince the audience in front of the screens. «You can achieve anything you want. Your beliefs create what happens next. " In the arena that evening there are no “failures”, only “learners”. Some visitors take notes in books they have brought with them.

Catholics also get their money's worth in Lakewood. Thirty minutes before each service, they can celebrate the Eucharist - or whatever is meant by it here. About a hundred believers crowd in an adjoining room of the arena; instead of a host and wine, each person is given a container that looks like a small cup of coffee cream. A sip of grape juice sloshes in it, and a mini wafer is glued into the lid. "This is my body that I gave for you," it says in serif script. Fast food communion is over after ten minutes.

«God loves donors!»

Church management is very careful to protect Osteen's reputation from criticism. Since 2005 he has not received any salary from the church, but lives solely from the tantièmen of his ten bestsellers. As a result, it is not he, but his wife Victoria who comes on stage towards the end of the service and asks the faithful for donations. "In the Bible it says give a tenth of your income," she says, holding up the Book of God. "God loves a happy donor!" As if out of nowhere, employees appear at the end of each row of seats, handing around plastic buckets.

Visitors to megachurches do not necessarily donate any more, as studies by the religious scholar Thumma have shown, but the masses ultimately generate enormous income. Thumma criticizes the fact that many mega-churches still care little about the wider society. Even during the devastation caused by Hurricane “Harvey” in 2017, the Lakewood Church initially did not open its doors. "The church itself devours an enormous amount of money for the entertainment program," says Thumma. The affiliated gift shop generates additional income: a T-shirt with the Lakewood logo costs 15 dollars, as does a bag with the imprint "Amen".

Critics see the “Megachurches” as a “Disneyization” of the church, a dumbing down of religion, in which faith becomes an experience and Jesus becomes a product. The religious scholar Thumma sees it differently. Megachurches managed to attract people who would not otherwise come to church, surveys showed. In addition, megachurches are much more mixed than traditional places of worship. "This diversity within a single community is fascinating." There are “megachurches” in other countries too, especially in Asia; but they all looked to America's giant churches to find inspiration and new approaches.

The service in the Houston arena ends after a good 90 minutes. The show is not over yet - as an encore there is a christening every Saturday evening. The bathrobes and the pre-printed certificates are already ready on the third floor.

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lma. · Deeply religious Christians form a core electoral group of Donald Trump - and it is the job of Paula White that they see him as a believer. The 53-year-old was until recently pastor of a mega-church in Orlando and has known Trump for almost 20 years. She is now the President's personal pastor and “spiritual advisor”; she is at his side in decisions such as the transfer of the embassy to Jerusalem or on abortion laws. White forms the link between the White House and America's influential evangelicals. Whenever doubts about Trump's beliefs arise, she defends him publicly; she leads the prayer when campaigning. White, who, like Trump, has a third marriage, preaches “prosperity gospel” and is now a millionaire.