I watch a lot of television. Before we embarked on our great odyssey this summer, you could generally expect to find me sitting on my couch, underneath my laptop, with some kind of noise playing on the TV in the background. After all, I did emphasize in broadcasting during college, so sometimes I like to get a quick taste of plenty of different programs, if only to see the state of the industry today.
And we've all been there, when it's late at night, you can't sleep, and nothing is on television besides for infomercials and televangelists. Every now and then I've paused to examine both. The infomercials are all pretty much the same - just with different products - but the televangelists are all fairly different. Whatever they're saying, whether the viewers find themselves inspired or mortified, it's pretty hard to forget these folks after you've watched them.
One night, many moons ago, I took the time to read into one of the more prominent of these folks, a guy named Joel Osteen, whose services are taped here in Houston and broadcast regularly on numerous television networks. His church, Lakewood, is what's referred to as a "megachurch," a non-denominational Christian organization that's grown so large, they hold their services inside a former NBA basketball arena.
Since we arrived in Texas, we'd seen a rodeo and a gun show. This was clearly the third part of the Texas trifecta, and we just had to satisfy our curiosity.
We woke up bright and early around 6:45 and put on our Sunday best, and had a short drive to the church from our hotel, winding our way through an office complex to find parking. Once we did, it was fairly easy to find our way in - follow the signs, and the scores of people all walking in the same direction.
Once we were in the lobby, I spotted a woman wearing a Lakewood Church nametag, and began to ask for directions through the massive building. As soon as I said the words, "This is our first time here," her eyes lit up and she cheerily told us to follow her as she quickly began to scurry through the crowds of churchgoers in the halls.
She brought us right up front, maybe eight rows from the stage - which I call a stage and not an altar, for its obvious lack of any traditional Christian idols, without even a cross on stage. She asked us to save a seat for her, and hurried back to work.
So far the whole experience was completely different from my general concept of going to church. Then the service began.
The first half hour or so was like nothing I've ever seen. A large group of performers, most of them singers but with plenty of musicians among them, broke into a light-filled, surround sound contemporary Christian song. People in the crowd ate it up, singing along, jumping up and down, waving their hands in the air.
As the song ended, Pastor Joel Osteen and his wife, Victoria, came to the stage from the back. They both gave a short welcome to the crowd, the music continuing to play all the while in the background. But as soon as they were finished, the band took over again - for about four more songs in a row. There were no breaks in the music, just seamless transitions from one song into another. It was like a short contemporary Christian concert, packaged into the church service, and quite a performance at that. This was the part you don't see on TV.
When the music finally ended, Victoria Osteen took the stage and gave the audience some words. The three of us, as I noticed, were just about the only people in the crowd who hadn't brought their bible from home... I suppose we could have brought the Gideon's bible from the hotel.
A few other people came out to speak briefly, including Joel's mother and some other guy whose name I didn't catch. Soon Joel came to the stage, thanked the audience for coming and for their support, and soon the cameras were on, recording the sermon for the world to see.
Now, this Joel fellow takes an interesting approach to his sermons. He stays pretty much as far away from the fire-and-brimstone tack as he can, and instead tries to focus on embracing good and nurturing hope in times of desperation. To illustrate, he told a story about a tree in his yard that he thought about cutting down. But he balked, upon hearing the advice from a friend that the tree simply "wasn't in season." This, he said, applies to many parts of life - a relationship that may have gone sour for the time being isn't something you should give up on completely. It's just not in season. Give it time, and give it love, and just like Joel's tree, it'll be in full bloom again one day.
In the meanwhile, throughout the entire service, there were maybe two or three readings from the bible, none of which lasted more than ten or fifteen seconds - which, I suppose, is part of what makes this a non-denominational church. At the same time, this was the most optimistic, uplifting montage of sermons that I'd ever heard, and it was clear why people would keep coming back to this place. Everyone here, whether young or old, black or white, seemed to be a part of a community by coming here. People were comforted, happy, and at home in this church.
I reflected upon the experience as we filed out of the building. I have some pretty negative opinions toward most religious doctrines, because most of them claim to hold the answer to important questions, only to require a leap of faith and abandonment of reason in order to truly believe that what they say is true.
These doctrines were formulated to spread the acceptance of common-sense ideas - love your neighbor, help the needy, don't cause undue harm to others. But those basic lessons are too often overshadowed by outdated, irrational directives that lead to discrimination, hate, even war against people who believe otherwise - all the while hiding behind the notion that their set of beliefs is correct, and everyone else's is wrong.
I believe otherwise. I believe in those basic fundamentals of Christianity, which pretty much everyone can agree on. That's where I draw the line, and rely on my power of reason and common sense to make my way through the rest of my life. Doing so keeps me from becoming a part of a community like Lakewood Church - which I'm okay with. I'm an independent person, and I'm not afraid of going against the grain at the cost of keeping my own ideas intact.
I can see how people would want to be a part of a community like this. Embracing love and life is what living is all about, and that was the message at Lakewood Church. If I could bring myself to submit to belief in God and Jesus and the Bible, this would be a wonderful place, and I'd bring all my friends. But my greatest faith is in myself, and my own ability to reason my way through life by asking questions and learning real answers. The world is too awesome to have all the answers in just one little book.