The Church of Wells Invades Lakewood, Or Historicizing a Heckling Incident
Charity R. Carney
In a sense (wait for it...) Wells is right. Osteen does motivate his followers and does not deliver the “traditional” evangelical messages. Lakewood and many megachurches like it do steer clear of the hell-fire-and-brimstone messages and focus instead of uplifting their audiences and giving them hope instead of pointing out spiritual shortcomings. Based on its fundamentalist doctrine, I could see where Wells would view Osteen as deleterious to their definition of religiosity. Although especially unnerving because it followed the tragedy in Charlestown, the confrontation at Lakewood does help to reveal a conflict at the heart of the development of megachurches in the South. As these large congregations have started to dominate the religious landscape, smaller congregations have been marginalized in many places and their traditional worship styles subsumed by contemporary praise-and-worship rock bands. Country churches with their white steeples are still around but in smaller numbers and, instead, many southerners are flocking to arenas and large church facilities with youth complexes and coffee shops. Wells is an extremely fundamentalist sect but their attitudes do highlight the ways in which megachurches have challenged evangelical traditions and, in the process, threatened smaller, more conservative congregations.
That being said, it’s not surprising that Wells invaded a megachurch service. The six hecklers from Wells (a congregation of about 70 members in deep East Texas) have held a longstanding suspicion of megachurches and have written about their views on the church website. In one testimonial about another megachurch in Houston (Sagemont), a Wells member claimed that “[m]ost members there would work hard at their vocations, raise their children to adulthood, and then upgrade to bigger and better homes in more expensive neighborhoods. Most would not treat the grace of God as a reason to deny ungodly lusts and worldliness, but just the opposite, thinking it the way of Christ to gain more instead of die to self more.” The call against megachurches in this instance is ultimately a rejection of the prosperity gospel and the kind of worship experience that it promotes.
The leadership of Wells represents the lingering fundamentalism in southern evangelicalism and they claim an impressive (if problematic) theological lineage. On their website, the congregation makes reference to Wesley, Edwards, and Whitefield (among others) as the fathers of the fundamentalist doctrine to which they ascribe. The connections are blurry and contradictory (maybe they will offer more explanation on their relationship to these figures once the website is finished) but their message certainly emphasizes sinfulness and repentance and their rhetoric is reminiscent of 18th and 19th century jeremiads. I’ve personally encountered Wells street-preaching on the Stephen F. Austin State University campus and at small-town events like the Nacogdoches Blueberry Festival. (Yes, there is a Blueberry Festival. Yes, I ate something fried and drank too much blueberry lemonade. And, yes, the Church of Wells showed up in full force to preach against homosexuality in the middle of a large crowd of over-heated Texans.) When they show up, Wells preachers, male and female, stand on soapboxes painted with the word “Repent!” in large lettering and exhort passersby to give up their sinful ways and join the holy cause. They are a small group but they are determined. It would be easy to dismiss them as an anomaly—they are not part of a movement like Lakewood is, with millions of followers all over the world—but they are adopting certain stylistic characteristics that demonstrate a knowledge of evangelical tactics that have been effective in the past. The Methodist minsters that I studied took it upon themselves (or so they and their hagiographers claimed) to interrupt duels and debate other minsters openly, to visit taverns and stand on tables preaching against the sin of drink, and to enter homes and implore residents to give up their vices. Wells is certainly not Methodist despite their claims to Wesley, but they are borrowing from similar revivalist and preaching traditions. Their antics at Lakewood offers an interesting contrast of the old and the new in southern religion.
Although Wells and other fundamentalist churches make claims to authenticity and historical tradition, megachurches like Lakewood also have traditions or have engaged in retraditioning to reach a 21st century audience. Megachurches have their own lineage in American religious history and since last month’s heckling hijinks, I’ve been thinking about how both groups can claim authenticity and evangelical heritage even though they are so divergent in their doctrines and practices. Putting personal politics and beliefs aside, I see these moments as opportunities to investigate the foundations that lead to religious conflict within a faith group. When I studied and wrote about 19th century Methodism, I encountered schisms, debates, and outright personal attacks that are not that dissimilar from the June 28 event. As a historical moment, perhaps the Wells/Lakewood confrontation can tell us a bit more about the divergent doctrines in southern religion and provide a little bit of insight into the tensions between small/big religion in the region.
Lakewood borrows from the past but, unlike Wells, is actively engaged with current trends and often influences those trends. Osteen preaches against sin but adopts the neo-Pentecostal approach. He encourages believers to walk the narrow path but to also pray for prosperity in this life (whether it be prosperity in the form of wealth, health, relationships, personal fulfillment, etc.). While Wells is adopting the rhetoric of impending damnation and employs jeremiads to convict potential converts, Lakewood builds believers up and encourages them to see the best in themselves—to look forward to their “Best Life Now” and to seek God’s blessings. In fact, after the Wells interruption, Osteen recovered by not engaging the insults, thanking the congregation for their patience and reminding them that they will "continue to receive what God has for us. It's a good day to be alive." Wells claims an authentic heritage and lays claim to some important spiritual predecessors but Lakewood does not advertise how those who came before influenced the church’s doctrine. Joel Osteen does discuss the impact of his father, John, on the ministry, of course, but he rarely mentions past preachers or movements. Lakewood’s theology is not without historical foundation, however, as it borrows from the charismatic and Pentecostal traditions that have been so expertly described by scholars like Kate Bowler and Scott Billingsley. Osteen’s church and ministry are clear indicators of the extensive growth of neo-Pentecostalism in the late-twentieth century. The popularity or prosperity-based megachurches in 2015 (Lakewood has about 47,000 in attendance every weekend) signifies that the shift towards neo-Pentecostalism or at least large, seeker-sensitive congregations is happening, especially in the South. (Justin Wilford—via Hartford Institute—found that 50% of megas are in southern states as of 2012). These numbers and the radical move away from traditional forms and fundamentalist faith are significant—and that’s why Wells is so anxious.