Thursday, January 22, 2015

First Contact – Part 13 – Non-Denominational

There are many churches that consider themselves to be non-denominational. Even churches considered to be part of a denomination, such as the Church of Christ, think of themselves as non-denominational. That is because some people believe that a church that gets its doctrine strictly from the Bible is non-denominational, whereas a church that adds to what the Bible says is denominational. Well, I will leave that debate to others. I have associated with several churches that claim no denomination, but in this particular post I will be concentrating on just one church in this category: Lakewood Church.

Many of you may know that Lakewood Church is located in Houston, Texas, and its pastor is the controversial Joel Osteen. Many Bible believers consider Joel Osteen to be a preacher of the so-called prosperity gospel. The church was started in a feed store by Joel’s father John Osteen back in 1959, but now occupies the former Compaq Center sports arena that seats almost 17,000 people. Estimated attendance each week exceeds 40,000 people. Wow, talk about your mega-church.

For many years Lakewood Church has had a TV ministry. This is where I first encountered Joel Osteen. I found him to be a dynamic and interesting speaker, so listened to him frequently. Over time, however, I found his messages to be repetitive, so listened to him less and less.

Back in April 2009 I was asked by my manager at work to visit an Air Force base in San Antonio, Texas, to discuss some possible work I might be able to do for them. I was there for a week talking to various people as they had time. The visit went quite well. I also had time to visit some of the sites around town such as the Riverwalk and The Alamo. Yes, I remember The Alamo. At the end of the week I drove up to Austin to visit the state capitol. After that I went to visit my friends Richard and Denise, who I talked about in my previous post on Catholicism, in nearby Round Rock.

On Saturday I arrived at the airport to head home, but the weather had other ideas. A large storm had just passed through the area and was causing the airlines to cancel eastbound flights. Finally, late in the afternoon, my flight to Houston was cleared for takeoff. Once I arrived, I discovered the storm was still between there and Huntsville, Alabama, where I was headed. So, after standing in line for two hours to reschedule my flight for the next morning, I went to a hotel to spend the night.

When I arrived at the airport the next morning, I checked the departure board and found that my flight was a go. However, by the time I cleared security it had been cancelled, apparently due to additional storms blocking our path. I was told that because so many people had been delayed it might be 2-3 days before I could get a flight. They tentatively scheduled me on a flight two days hence, but told me that if I arrived that evening, I might be able to get on as a standby passenger.

So, what to do with all that time?

I knew that my first cousin, Pat, was in Houston getting cancer treatments at MD Anderson. I called her and asked if she felt like meeting somewhere. She asked what I would like to do. I said I would like to go to Lakewood Church and then to lunch. She talked to her husband, Eugene, and they decided they would come to the airport to get me and then go to Lakewood. They had been to this church before, so knew how to get there.

Everything went like clockwork. They picked me up and we made it to the church with time to spare before services began. Upon entering the building, Pat found a greeter/security person near the entrance and asked if she could take us to seats near the stage. She asked Pat if she had ever been to the church before. She said, “Yes.” The greeter informed her that they normally reserved those seats for new visitors. Pat pointed to me and told her that I had never been there before. So, we were escorted all the way across the arena and seated on the second row from the stage. If you knew Pat, you’d know that she was a firm believer in the Biblical passage that says, “Ask and you shall receive.”

The scale of the crowd was amazing. I hadn’t ever been in a church with that many people in attendance. Also, I was enthralled with all that was happening in the way of recording the activities on the stage. There were camerapersons at various locations moving about. Over our heads was a very long boom with a video camera on the end. Sometimes it would suddenly pass right over our heads from our backsides. This was a bit disconcerting. I was hoping that the operator was keeping a close eye on the nearby audience to make sure no one stood up just before the boom topped their heads. Talk about your headaches.

The service was executed in a very professional way. There was excellent music and excellent singing. Joel’s wife Victoria spoke for a while. All these activities were topped off with Joel speaking. I quite enjoyed it all. Once the service was over, we began our long trek back to our car in one of the large parking garages that surrounded the arena. It took a while to get away because of all the traffic. If you have never experienced a mega-church, you need to. I believe Lakewood is actually the largest in the US.

After clearing the traffic, we went to Pappasito’s Cantina and enjoyed some Mexican food for lunch. After that we went back to the temporary apartment Eugene and Pat were living in whenever they were in Houston for Pat to get treatments. After some good conversation, they took me to the airport where I was unbelievably able to catch a flight home as a standby passenger.

Looking back I realized how serendipitous my work trip was. I was able to see places I had never been before. I was able to visit a church I had wanted to visit for some time. I saw friends I hadn't seen in years. But mostly I was able to visit with my cousin Pat. You see, just five months later she lost her battle with cancer. So, my unexpected visit to Houston turned out to be the last time I saw her alive.

Thanks bad weather! I wonder if Joel Osteen had anything to do with that.

    Eugene and Pat outside Lakewood Church

    Joel Osteen preaching

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