Race, Class, and America's Pastor: An Interview with Phillip Sinitiere

Karen Johnson

I recently read Phil Sinitiere's new book Salvation witha Smile: Joel Osteen, Lakewood Church & American Christianity.  (Arlene Sanchez and Phil did an interview about the book on this blog here, which you can check out if you want to read more.)  Phil suggests that to comprehend recent American evangelicalism, we need to understand Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church.  I had an opportunity to talk with Phil further about how Lakewood and the Osteen family illuminate themes of race, working for structural change, and gender in American Christianity.  Phil is well-poised to speak about these subjects based not only on this current book, but also his earlier Holy Mavericks:Evangelical Innovators and the Spiritual Marketplace, and Christians and the Color Line: Religion and Race after Divided by Faith, which he co-edited with Rusty Hawkins, and which you can read more about here. I'm happy to post some of the results of our conversation today, and look forward to sharing more with you in June.

KJ: American Christianity is marked by the history of race in America.  When racial change and (mostly white) suburbanization happened in American cities in the postwar era, most white Protestants moved out of the city and their old neighborhoods.  Their church may have remained in the old neighborhood longer, but, particularly if the church did not have a strong denominational polity, the congregants moved the church building to the new neighborhood.  Lakewood Church, however, stayed in its neighborhood for years past when the neighborhood changed, before it moved into the Compaq Center (former Houston Rockets arena) in 2005.  Could you speak more to those dynamics?

PS: Karen, Let me first say thanks for the interview about my research on Lakewood Church and American Christianity. The working-class and racially diverse area of northeast Houston in which Lakewood was once situated experienced demographic shifts over the four decades it was there. John Osteen, Lakewood’s founder, commented in sermons that wealthy Houstonians criticized him for not re-locating Lakewood to another part of town (interested readers might also refer to the Woodrow Seals story in chapter 2 for another example of class-based criticism)—presumably more white, and bourgeois. My research suggested that John’s working-class origins oriented him to consider the plight of the poor in Houston even though the prosperity gospel he preached netted millions of dollars that propelled him into a new tax bracket. 

I should also note that while John exhibited a preferential option for the poor in and around Lakewood Church, starting in the 1970s he moved his family out to suburban Houston. At the same time, congregants seemed to find John’s decision not to move Lakewood Church meaningful. Many commented on his charitable spirit and monetary redistribution, while thousands continued to show up such that by the time of John’s death in 1999, Lakewood had tens of thousands of members. 

KJ: Today, Lakewood has a multiracial congregation, which puts it in a small category in American Christianity.  Most churches are homogeneous, despite a recent effort among evangelicals and other Christians to diversify their churches.  How did Lakewood come to be so diverse?

PS: Lakewood became demographically diverse, as best as I can tell (I never got access to internal church records but had to rely on oral history interviews and existing scholarship on Houston), at some point in the 1970s as Houston experienced further integration and an expansion of immigrant populations. John was a beneficiary of Houston’s integration that took place in the 1960s, even though he spent most of the decade traveling as an international itinerant evangelist. In other words, John was not in town during Houston’s historic, modern civil rights struggles, and therefore did not speak publicly for or against integration. Thus, by the time he returned to Houston in the late 1960s to resume pastoring at Lakewood its increasing interracial composition proved advantageous for the congregation’s public profile.

Furthermore, I think that the interracial moments that have been part of Pentecostalism’s (and neopentecostalism’s) history add a contextual point to understanding Lakewood’s diversity. At the same time, while Lakewood is often touted as the nation’s most racially and ethnically diverse megachurch, at present the leadership remains largely white. John Gray, an African American pastor, is on staff at Lakewood, but my research suggested that most often people of color in leadership positions form part of the professionally trained music ministry (a broader subject that books such as Gerardo Marti's Worship Across the Racial Divide address), and thus perform and broadcast racial diversity even though structurally Lakewood remains predominately Anglo. So while the congregation is undeniably, compositionally diverse, the story of Lakewood’s multiracial identity is far more complex.

KJ: My next two questions are pretty big.  First, how does race function at Lakewood?  As you know, the sociological literature on how multi-racial churches function falls into two broad categories.  The first category is marked by a racial transcendence model, in which congregants emphasize that their identity transcends their racial identity and is rooted in Christ.  Here I'm thinking of work like Gerardo Marti's A Mosaic of Believers: Diversity and Innovation in a Multiethnic Church, in which the church's leadership downplays ethnic diversity among the congregants.  The other category is the assimilationist model, in which minority members of a congregation are forced to cede their cultural preferences to those of the white members in order to keep the white members at the church.  Korie Edwards's The Elusive Dream: The Power of Racein Interracial Churches speaks to this theme.  

Second, what effect does Lakewood's racial diversity have on its congregants? White evangelicals (like many other white people, but likely more so because of their theological perspectives) have a hard time seeing race.  Researchers have suggested that if a white person submerges himself or herself in a minority context, they will begin to see race more easily.  For example, instead of citing a minority group's  personal habits as the reason that African Americans tend to be in a lower socioeconomic status, the white person embedded in a multiracial congregation would more likely cite racial discrimination (in all its historical and sociological facets) as leading to socioeconomic difference.  A recent survey of multiracial congregations showed that, contrary to the case described above, which marked earlier multiracial churches, there's a new trend.  African Americans in multiracial mega churches, unlike typical African Americans not in multiracial churches, are actually adopting whites' attitudes. 

PS: This is a good question, Karen, and a subject very ripe for future research. I did not conduct a survey of Lakewood congregants so I cannot answer this question in a definitive way. In one sense, my anecdotal observations and thinking suggest that race functions at Lakewood both according to Marti’s model of racial transcendence and Edward’s assimilationist analysis. In some ways, I’d say it depends on who is preaching, and in what capacity a member or attendee connects socially to the congregation (i.e., through a small group, benevolence ministry, singles groups, home groups, etc.), among other factors. 

At the same time, I’d refer readers interested in this dimension of Lakewood to the work of two students who have pursued research that helps to partly answer your questions. Sociologist Matt Henderson, who completed an MA is sociology at the University of Houston in 2012, and is currently a doctoral student in sociology at Baylor, studied Osteen’s rhetoric and discourse of empowerment to detail what he terms Lakewood’s “ethos of inclusivity.” Jillian Owens wrote an undergraduate honors thesis in 2012 at the University of Texas under the direction of Tom Tweed in which she examined the interpersonal and congregational dynamics of how Lakewood mobilizes members to extend the church’s message of hope locally in Houston and elsewhere through religious media. Ultimately, how race has functioned and does function at Lakewood needs and deserves further investigative, analytical work.

KJ: Thanks, Phil, for your careful research and thoughtful arguments.  I look forward to posting the second part of our conversation about gender and social action at Lakewood in my next post.


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