Life is full of irony.
For example, one of my favorite worship musicians that I respect tremendously, happens to serve the congregation of a church led by a pastor that I have very little respect for. Because they are both very prominent personalities, and because their ministries are often recontextualized for purposes that extend far beyond Lakewood Church itself, it’s easy to forget that Joel Osteen and Israel Houghton are, in a very basic sense, ministry coworkers.
This fact only dawned on me recently after I’d seen this viral clip making the rounds in social media:
This clip was floating around my subconscious yesterday when I got together with my friend Chad to watch his DVD recording of the live worship concert Jesus At the Center by Israel & New Breed. I’d heard all the music when the album initially dropped two years ago, but I had never actually seen it, so it was fun to go back and watch Israel Houghton, Aaron Lindsey and the rest of the crew (shout out to Portland native Jerry Harris!) get down on such a massive scale. If you’ve never seen or heard it, Jesus At the Center is an incredible worship album, full of a cross-cultural blend of worship music that can appeal to people from various ethnic backgrounds. Elements of piano pop, arena rock, traditional gospel, go-go R&B, even some hip-hop-tinged reggaeton, it’s all a part of the blend.
Obviously, I am a huge fan of Israel Houghton, and have been since his first nationally-distributed album New Season, back in 2001. That’s right, I had the original white-and-blue CD with the stock nature photos on the cover.
You can tell this was before he was famous, because it didn’t even have his picture on the cover. The reissue is a much more typical musician-action-shot type photo.)
Point is, I’ve been listening to his music and covering his songs for years. But despite my fandom — or maybe because of it? — I’d forgotten about the whole Lakewood thing. Which is why, while watching the DVD, I found it to be a little disquieting (I was gonna say disconcerting, but that feels odd to say about a concert) to remember that Jesus At the Center was planned, executed and recorded at Lakewood.
Yes, that Lakewood.
It was at that moment that I realized the extent to which my mind had created separate, opposing ideas of what “Lakewood” meant. In my mind, the Lakewood where Israel & New Breed’s Jesus At the Center took place, the church with (I’m not exaggerating here) the most prominent worship musician in the stream of multicultural worship music for evangelicals … that was a totally different place than the Lakewood that was ground zero in the epidemic of commercialized Christianity, the place where Joel Osteen preached “sermons” that amounted to little more than positive self-help platitudes empty of much spiritual significance.
Gazing at those DVD liner notes, I realized, for the first time in awhile, that those two Lakewoods were the same place. Consequently, I was feeling pretty torn about how much I should respect the ministry of Israel Houghton.
As I said, this realization was not exactly news to me. I’d known about Houghton’s connection to Lakewood ten years prior, when they released Cover The Earth: Lakewood Live, a similar blend of stylized uptempo gospel/CCM that featured Houghton alongside Cindy Cruse-Ratcliff, then music director.
But I think even then, on a subconscious level, I was trying to keep them separate. Maybe it’s because I assumed Houghton was just an occasional guest musician. It’s like I was thinking Israel was in Lakewood, but not of Lakewood. Eventually, I began to draw a connection between the two, which was when I wrote this satirical article about a pretend endorsement deal with a local grocery chain. It’s the kind of thing that only people who were both avid gospel listeners and native Portlanders would really appreciate (so, like, five people thought it was hilarious and everyone else was clueless).
Over dinner last night, I mulled over my thoughts and observations with my wife Holly, after showing her the infamous Victoria Osteen clip. Her response made me reconsider.
“You don’t know the context of what she was saying, and if you take a reactionary approach, you might end up in Mark Driscoll territory.”
Few things will make me immediately step back and check myself like being compared to Mark Driscoll, so it was obvious she had a point.
Now, I’d recently seen that clip compared to the leaked recording that brought down Donald Sterling, and in a way, I could see the connection. In both cases, it was about the broader context of the prior track record. Donald Sterling had a track record of decades worth of racial discrimination, not only in words but in deeds. Similarly, the Osteens have created a track record of avoiding controversial topics like sin and judgment, focusing instead on consistently delivering a simple message of hope centered on God’s love for people.
And what has caused a lot of evangelicals — myself included — to lose respect for Osteen is the perception that Lakewood’s incredible growth is simply a consequence of telling people what they want to hear. In his efforts to make the gospel of Jesus Christ more palatable, it looks from the outside that he’s distorted it beyond recognition.
This issue gains more personal relevance for me because I consider worship music to be a form of proclamation, just as critically important as preaching. Some preachers, as a matter of fact, think that worship music is even more important, since people are more likely to remember the songs they sing rather than the sermons they hear.
But the truth is, there’s a lot about Joel Osteen and Lakewood that’s impossible to know from the outside. I would have to sit under his teaching for a sustained period of time in order to accurately assess the holes in his theology and how harmful they are to his congregants. I’ve heard a few of his talks, and they strike me as being a little too nice and safe, and yes, I do think he probably leans too far into the zone where “being accessible” bleeds into “selling a consumable religious product.”
But every pastor has holes in his or her theology. More to the point, so does every worship leader. Over the years, Israel Houghton has operated with several themes and ideas that he continues to return to. Grace is one of them. Earlier in his career, it felt to me like every other song was about either grace, “breakthrough” or “blessing.”
Later on, though, in A Deeper Level and The Power of One, I saw a shift toward more others-focused, justice-oriented music. There was still plenty of encouragement, but it seemed to me that through his travels around the world, Israel was picking up a more global sense of God’s heart, which includes not just emotional well being and physical health and wealth, but also mercy and justice for the least, the overlooked, and the marginalized.
The truth is this:
As a worshiper, my musical diet will be lopsided and malnourished if all I do is listen to music from one person, even someone as massively gifted as Israel Houghton.
As the Omartians sang way back in the day, one song is not enough. I need to sing hymns, and I need to sing pop songs. I need loud hip-hop anthems, and I need delicate existential ballads. This is not just an expression of my personal tastes, but a fundamental truth about reality. Music marks the soundtrack to life, and most of us don’t spend every day in church. As people, we need all kinds of songs from all kinds of sources about all kinds of things, which, by the way, is one of the reasons why people are so often dissatisfied with Christian music in general.
And if this is true as a worshiper, it’s doubly true as a worship leader. “Friend of God” is a wonderful song for expressing a particular idea about God and our relationship with Him, but it falls short in communicating the entirety of the gospel — because it wasn’t designed to do so. So it’s entirely possible to sing that song, or any other in Houghton’s expansive catalog, as part of a balanced diet of musical truth — provided we rely on God’s leading for how and when we pick our worship selections.
As for Osteen and Lakewood, one thing that I’ve observed is that often his critics take aim not only on the substance of his message, but the scope of his operation. In a sense, they use Lakewood as a stand-in for their criticisms of megachurches in general. And I understand the idea. It can be a little galling to see a service where the operating budget on one particular weekend might be more than your church might make in a year. And the “contemporvant” style of most evangelical megachurches can be just as rote and mindless as any other form of liturgy.
I’ve seen it up close, actually. In the early 00’s, I had a chance to participate in a series of worship gatherings at Willow Creek Community Church, which is sort of like the Lakewood of the American midwest (located in the Chicago suburb of South Barrington, IL). For a few years, I was a regular guest vocalist who came in for special occasions, and I even proposed to Holly during one of their services, which is its own crazy story (ask me sometime).
But those folks — both the paid staff and the small army of volunteers — were just as dedicated and worshipful in the execution of their duties as any other kind of worship ministry at a church. Not only that, but I saw up front how the scale of their operation made it possible to do really interesting, adventurous things in the pursuit of expressing God’s glory through music.
So as someone who has since spent his career trying to do multicultural worship music in smaller churches, schools and conferences, I can understand the appeal of working at a place like Lakewood, for Israel Houghton or anyone else. It’s hard assembling people who can worship in a variety of worship styles and make it possible for them to worship together. You need people from various backgrounds, who speak a variety of musical languages, and pulling that off well requires resources.
I mean, take a look at this image from Jesus At the Center, and try to count the people involved. Between the band, the vocalists, guest musicians, and the choir, there were probably 300 people onstage. And that’s just onstage. There are probably another 300 people helping to make that event go.
I may have a problem with the content of some of Joel Osteen’s sermons, but I’ll give him credit here — he knows how to give creative people the latitude to do excellent work.
Plus, the comparison game goes both ways. You might be intimidated and a little jealous by the ways that Lakewood can pull off some of their musical productions, but there’s probably a pastor in an underdeveloped nation who’s jealous of the extravagances your church has — like pews, windows, or a roof. The overhead projector that’s gathering dust in the some church closet was once state-of-the-art, and someone, at some point, probably could have sold that and used the money to feed the hungry in your area.
My point is, as church leaders or as individuals, we all make choices about how we use our resources, and God will hold us all accountable for those choices. It’s not necessarily our job to be watch dogs for everyone else. That doesn’t mean I necessarily recommend Joel Osteen’s teaching, but I’m not on some crusade to prove how false it is or isn’t.
Truth is, the average pastor oughta be thankful for Joel Osteen, not because he reaches a lot of people who wouldn’t respond to a typical gospel message (I’m not sure how true that is, to be honest) but for a more selfish reason — he takes some of the heat off of their issues and mistakes. I mean, seriously… I thank God I don’t all have as many people scrutinizing my every move as do the Osteens. If all of us had to live under that attention, we would probably see things differently.
Even so, there will always be a few who convince themselves that if they had all that money and power, they would do things differently, they wouldn’t ever say anything that blasphemous or stage musical productions that grand or excessive. They act like the problem is not the sinfulness of human nature, but the specific hubris of one high-profile power couple, and they swear up and down that they would never make any of those same mistakes.
To which sentiment, I offer the immortal, oft-quoted words of Bill Cosby: