The “Error of Balaam” leading the Blind Straight into a Ditch!
Most preachers throw open the church doors and hope for a decent-size crowd. Joel Osteen, in his traveling worship services, charges admission and still draws a throng.
The majority of the nearly 15,000 expected for Mr. Osteen’s Sunday night event at American Airlines Center will have paid $15 for a reserved seat.
Others will have spent three or four times that for choice seats through online ticket brokers.
Mr. Osteen says he has qualms about charging people to get into a worship service.
“I’m a preacher’s kid,” the 45-year-old pastor said by phone from Houston. “That was the last thing in the world I’d ever think about, having a ticket to come to a meeting. We got forced into it.”
That there’s great demand to see Mr. Osteen – and to hear his simple, upbeat messages that some fellow preachers see as compromising the Gospel – nobody can deny.
He succeeded his father as pastor of Houston’s Lakewood Church just nine years ago. The church was large, but under Mr. Osteen has become the nation’s largest, drawing 40,000 to weekly services at the former Compaq Center.
Millions more – across the United States and in 100 countries – watch his broadcasts from Lakewood Church. His books Your Best Life Now and Become a Better You have been mega-best-sellers.
“He’s a religious phenomenon of international proportions and one of the most recognizable faces of American Christianity,” said Michael Lindsay, a sociologist of religion at Rice University in Houston.
In 2004, Mr. Osteen began to hit the road, renting arenas for services that feature contemporary Christian music as well as messages by him and his wife, Victoria, co-pastor of Lakewood Church.
There was open admission for the first event, in Atlanta. He recalled thousands being turned away for lack of space, including some who had come long distances.
“It was a pain for a lot of people,” he said.
Mr. Osteen said he thought about using a free-ticket system, but after talking with arena managers and others, concluded that a modest charge for reserved seats would lead to more orderly events.
Still, Mr. Osteen acknowledges that ticket sales are important to recouping the roughly $250,000 it costs him to put on an event, including renting an arena. He also takes an offering and sells his books and tapes, and he generally breaks even, he said.
Mr. Osteen said he and his staff have done all they can to discourage reselling of tickets above the $15 face value. He said his ministry doesn’t receive any additional funds from such sales.
Robin Lovin is a professor at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology, specializing in ethics. He doesn’t see a problem with charging admission so that costs are shared among those attending a worship service.
“No one who thinks about it can maintain the illusion that worship is free,” he said. “The lights have to be turned on, the space has to be heated or cooled, and at least some of the people who are providing leadership have to be paid for their services. That’s true in a small congregation or in an American Airlines Center event.”
But Dr. Lovin said he doesn’t necessarily buy into the idea that big events can’t be handled smoothly without charging for tickets. He noted that free tickets were distributed for Pope Benedict XVI’s stadium events in Washington, D.C., and New York this past April.
Some pastors are less exercised about Mr. Osteen’s charging of admission than about his preaching.
“Mr. Osteen doesn’t preach the Bible and its meaning,” said Mark Overstreet, a professor at Dallas’ Criswell College, a Bible school. “He talks to people about bolstering their self-esteem, thinking more positively, expecting prosperity through self-help therapy. … His sermons are not diet Christianity but they are poisoned Christianity.”
Of course, Mr. Osteen’s fans see him differently.
“He’s motivational, and a really good, Bible-based church preacher,” said Tim Pace of Rowlett. “We watch him [on TV] every chance we get. He’s like a supplement to our weekly service at church.”
Mr. Pace and his wife, Amy, will be at American Airlines Center on Sunday with a group of family and friends. Not only does Mr. Pace not feel exploited, he feels Mr. Osteen’s event is a bargain.
“It’s a pretty high-class, high-dollar venue,” he said. “And that’s a small ticket price.”