Big Churches & Big Bucks

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Not many people can say that they’ve visited the biggest church in America and the biggest church in the world.  I went to both of these, not as a welcomed speaker or acclaimed, best-selling author, but as a traveler needing a place to sleep.

I came upon America’s biggest church quite by accident.  I had just arrived in Houston, Texas at the turn of the New Year, 2016.  A winter storm with strong gusts and torrents that blinded my driving pushed my car off the downtown freeway to Lakewood Church one night.  I thought it was odd that the name “Joel Osteen” was lit up in lights next to the church’s name.  The building was a former convention/sports stadium that had been turned into a mega-church.  It boasted several levels, below-ground parking, and an arena that could seat hundreds of thousands.

I parked in the lower-level parking area and found my way inside the church which was hosting many events for children and adults on a Friday night.  I walked past the cafe and bookstore and took an elevator to Level 4 where people gathered for a Celebrate Recovery meeting.  While my husband, still shy about America, waited in the car, I listened to a woman give her testimony of being free from an abusive relationship.  She also played the guitar and sang.  I stayed for the free soup after and asked a woman with a badge if anyone could help me and my husband, new in town and with little money, to find a motel for the night.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

“Oh, you have to come back on Monday when the office is open,” the badged woman informed me.  I thanked her for the soup and mentioned, as I walked away, “I need gas and food, and that’s 3 days away.  I’ve tried all the public welfare agencies.”

A black man handed me $20.  “I don’t know if you are telling the truth or not, but Jesus loves you,” he assured me.

He walked quickly away, before I could thank him.  I found my way back down to the parked car.  We drove to an old auto repair shop not far away to spend the night in our Mazda 5 minivan.  Since we blended in with other parked cars, no police or neighbors bothered us.

SAMSUNG CAMERA PICTURES

Monday morning I returned.  The church looked more ominous in the daylight.  I walked up its steep entrance ramp, through one of many glass doorways, past a uniformed guard, to the long security desk. Continue reading

Advertisements

Pentecostals and Proud Prosperity

pentecostal-conference-entrance

Most Americans know about TV preachers and that they get money from their viewers.  Many of these TV preachers are  Pentecostals, an often-emotional and loud group of “Christians” whose movement to promote Spiritual gifts, miracles, healing, and especially “speaking in tongues,” was started in Los Angeles, California at the beginning of the 20th Century.

There are many types of Pentecostals.  I have encountered several of these groups, churches, and conferences–and have mixed feelings about them.  Some Pentecostals are humble, kind, and helpful to their fellow human beings.  They believe that God is God and can do whatever miracles He desires through His Spirit.  Others are proud, entitled, promoting the “Prosperity Gospel” view that a real Christian, blessed by God, will have lots and lots of money (and probably not share it with homeless people).  They believe a good Christian gives “tithes” and “gifts” to support “the ministry.”  In conferences, they often take more than one noisy “offering” from the less affluent people there.

The problem with Prosperity Gospel adherents is that their leaders are very, very rich–and proud of it.  Many are found on T.V. shows, running entire TV broadcast businesses and publishing houses.  Some call themselves Dollar, fly in private jets (and sometimes die in them), live in huge mansions on large estates, brag about their yearly income, wear expensive clothes and hair designs, vacation in exotic places, and continue to extract money from their followers with the promise that they, too, will be rich.

Pentecostals draw more on some Old Testament examples of wealthy Jewish leaders than the New Testament teaching of Jesus and his followers, who often marked money as an evil snare and rich people as oppressors of the poor.  Wealth also led to the fall of Old Testament heroes–and the tragic end of their families and personal empires.  Job was the oldest Old Testament rich man who suffered much because of his riches.   Gideon was a hero, mentioned in the book of Judges, who saved Israel from a huge enemy army.  However, he asked for all the gold earrings (and other gold ornaments) from that army, built a giant gold statue near his hometown, got lots of wives and children, and turned Israel back to Idol worshipping.  He also lost all but one of his 70 sons, and his inheritance plunged into nothingness.

pentecostal-conference-room

Now for my story.  As you know from my previous issues, I taught English overseas for more than 5 years.  I went alone, with no credit card, backup plan, or help from home (I had no American family to help me).  I lived in the economies where I taught (Russia, Turkey, China).  Sometimes I was paid well; sometimes I wasn’t paid at all.  When I came back to America after this hard duty, I felt like a soldier who had suited up every day to battle language barriers, cultural differences, and dangerous surroundings.  I was attacked by men in all 3 countries (thankfully, I took Self-Defense classes, so I was not raped or killed).  I returned worn out, tired of trying to get around in Taxis driven by people who didn’t understand me, toxic air, acidic water, and nauseating food.  My Armenian/Turkish husband helped for part of my overseas journey, but he could not get a work permit, and his family was poor (better than my entire lack of family). Continue reading