Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past several days, you’re aware of the devastating flooding that is going on in Houston.  I’m sure you’re also aware of the fire storm around Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church.  By way of background, Lakewood is a megachurch located in Houston, Texas. It is the one of the largest congregations in the United States, averaging about 52,000 attendees per week. The church meets in the nearly 17,000 seat auditorium that used to be the home of the Houston Rockets. 

What happened after Hurricane Harvey made landfall casted a major shadow on the church and their senior pastor.  But, was this a problem with the mission or the message? 

Things went downhill after the church announced that it was inaccessible, due to “severe flooding”.  News agencies as far as the UK reported not only that the church was closed, but also the fallout of the announcement as hundreds criticized the church for not opening its doors to those who were displaced.   Social media was ablaze and Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church were the kindling.  Others criticized the televangelist for not opening up his $10 million home to those desperately seeking shelter.  One person tweeted “Shame on Joel Osteen, Jesus would open the doors and care for the needy.”  Then people started pointing out that the church itself wasn’t actually flooded as they claimed in their earlier statement.  One group posted pictures of cars parked outside the church.  As it turned out, the parking lot (under the church – remember it used to be a basketball arena) was flooded, but the main part of the building was fine.  This made things worse.

On Tuesday, the church did the right thing (both from a humanitarian and from a crisis management perspective) and began setting up a volunteer based distribution center of supplies for those in need.  News reporters began reporting from the church’s lobby, showing tables setup with various items available for those affected by Harvey. The outpouring of donations was called “absolutely incredible” by at least one reporter.  In an effort to change the narrative, Lakewood’s Facebook page became full of pictures of volunteers helping those in need.  Osteen announced the church was open and “receiving anyone who needs shelter.”   He then went on to say “we have never closed our doors” and the church will “continue to be a distribution center for those in need.” And yet, it simply still wasn’t enough.  People then started criticizing the church for springing into action because of guilt, shame or being bullied into doing so.  Basically, they were behind the eight ball from the start.  And it all stemmed from that very first Facebook post.  Let’s break down the message:

Dear Houstonians! Lakewood Church is inaccessible due to severe flooding! We want to help make sure you are safe. Please see the list below for safe shelters around our city, and please share this with those in need!

Misstep #1:  The message isn’t true.  I could say it softer by saying the message isn’t ‘accurate’.  But it’s the same problem no matter how you sugar coat it.  While there was severe flooding in the area, the specific message implies that the church itself was flooded.  This became very problematic when it was called out as false.

Misstep #2:  Whoever posted that statement probably didn’t think about how the message would be perceived.  The message that Houstonians (and many more around the world) read was “We’re closed, you’re on your own, good luck.”  I don’t believe that’s what they were intending to say.  I think they were trying to say that their normal, day-to-day operations were disrupted AND they wanted to provide their members with some resources on where to go for help.  The message was short sighted, poorly written and didn’t grasp the important of their own role in the community.  In short, they reacted on the spot because they weren’t prepared.

Misstep #3: The initial message missed the opportunity to establish a better narrative.  Think how the world would have reacted if their initial statement said:

Dear Houstonians.  Lakewood Church’s day-to-day operations have been interrupted due to Hurricane Harvey.  Our church doors are open to those in need.  Volunteers are asked to gather at the church as we look to serve our fellow Houstonians in this difficult time!   We are gathering a list of supplies and will be accepting donations for distribution to those affected by the storm.

Any criticism that comes from the revised statement would be nitpicking at best.  The narrative would have been different right out of the gate.

Those who would argue that this is a problem of ‘mission’ would say (as many have on social media over the past few days) that Joel Osteen and Lakewood Church had no intention of helping those in need.  As of this writing, the church has become a hub of hurricane relief and is providing much needed support to a hurting city.  I like to think that this was a problem with message, not mission. And, like many organizations, they simply weren’t prepared. 

Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the people of Houston.