Joel Osteen was likely an unfamiliar name for most non-Christians until late August.
That was when the Lakewood Church pastor—who owns a $10-million mansion and resembles a mixture of Petyr Baelish and Tim Allen in both looks and ethics—made headlines for failing to open his 600,000 square foot Houston church to people fleeing from Hurricane Harvey.
The "prosperity gospel" pastor eventually backtracked after claiming on live television that the city hadn't asked him to open its doors. By that point, dozens of mosques, churches and mattress stores had done so without formal request. Later, the church proceeded to ask traumatized storm survivors and worshippers to give money to the church.
It seems a gross comedy of errors.
But it's no surprise for anyone who's grown up in evangelical circles. For while Osteen is rightfully viewed as a grifter of legendary proportions by many Christians, he's really only a slightly perverted exaggeration from the norm.
Evangelical churches are built on the bedrock of financial and emotional exploitation.
In my experience—which includes a decade in charismatic churches, six months on missionary-oriented bible school, and literally thousands of dollars donated to various religious congregations—many such entities thrive as profit-seeking and manipulative enterprises, offering amazingly little tangible return to society as gratitude for their tax-exempt status (in 2013, over $71 billion in subsidies were granted to religious institutions in the United States).
Sure, most of this is done in good faith by people who sincerely believe in the inherent value of entering into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. But that doesn't excuse the subtly coercive tactics and discouragement of dissent, resulting in thousands of dollars spent without any real grasp of theology or religious history.
At one young adult-oriented evangelical service in Calgary called Tehillah—which means "praise" in Hebrew but people constantly confused with the far-preferable tequila—my 17-year old self felt compelled by the Holy Spirit to give $200 to the congregation. Luckily, they had a number of debit/credit machines behind the counter to help me easily tithe 20 hours worth of my minimum wage earnings to their emotive lightshow and overly earnest pastor.
(These days, many evangelical institutions allow you to text your donations, with the promise that you can "make a donation in under 10 seconds!" after initial registration.)
Then there was the time when I blew over $5,000 to attend a missionary program in New Zealand, after which I was almost convinced as an 18-year-old to return as a volunteer staff person the following year (which would have only cost half as much, with the expectation being that I "fundraise" a few thousand dollars from churches back home).
Look, I wasn't sucked into an intentionally malevolent conspiracy to strip young people of their earnings. But that didn't mean it's not exploitative as hell to construct an entire system around that very approach.
Many evangelical churches follow effectively the same script to lure young people in. Heavily stylized worship music is often the centrepiece. This point has been well-parodied, especially in the South Park episode, "Christian Rock Hard," in which the boys form a worship band called Faith + 1 and simply replace the focal points of conventional love songs with "Jesus" instead of "baby." It's also on full display in documentaries like 2016's Hillsong: Let Hope Rise, a film which closely chronicled the most famous evangelical band in the world and included members say stuff like "we're the biggest band you've never heard of" while also asserting their humble beginnings and how it's All For The Lord.
The tricky-to-describe element about evangelical culture is the ways in which its house style of worship music—with slow cinematic intros, gang vocals and repeated lyrics—can warp one's thinking. It still screws with me when I hear that kind of music, almost a decade after leaving the church: some songs create the same chills up the spine and spiritually vulnerable feeling of raising one's hands (a classic evangelical worship move) as they did years ago.
This hypnotic, emotion-yanking performance style is something that more conservative, hymn-oriented Christian factions frequently criticize. Incidentally, it can make one much more susceptible to giving money without having any tangible sense of what it'll be used for. It's a process exacerbated by that profound sense of community, ritual, trust and common purpose.
Of course, many church leaders simply want to build their congregation without any overt abuse involved. There's a very specific art to building an evangelical congregation, combining corporate marketing techniques with a whole bunch of moral righteousness.
Darren Grem, assistant prof of history and Southern studies at the University of Mississippi, told me in an interview that the corporate and "efficiency obsessed" models of outreach kicked off in the 1880s via a fella named D.L. Moody, joining forces with the rise of oil barons and other arch-capitalists. In turn, those created religious and culinary monstrosities ranging from Billy Graham to Chick-fil-A, all of combine highly detailed conversion numbers with conservative political involvement.
That continues to this day. But now, the franchise-model of setting up chain restaurants has been refined further via the tactic of "church planting," a strategy embodied by white and wealthy tattooed pastors with soft voices who work to make their churches more marketable to young people.
Take a look at churches affiliated with ARC Canada, a so-called "church-planting" organization that charges new congregations at least $2,400 per year for the branding boost. All the names of the churches sound the same: Calgary Life Church, City Life Church, Elevate Church, Experience Church, Impact Church, Life Centre, LifeSpring Church, Vivid Church.
Almost every one includes the same leadership combo: a married husband and wife (non-hetero couples are informally condemned to mostly United or Unitarian churches) with between two and three children. Most of the couples are between the ages of like 28 and 44, although there are exceptions to that rule. They will be called something like "Dan and Amber," or "Scott and Naomi," or "Andrew and Vanessa" or "Todd and Stephanie."
And they will all apply the same intensely corporate-inspired model to their activities.
That includes carefully curated annual reports with declared values such as "innovation" and specific percentages of "Sunday growth" (meaning the net increase in people who they lured into attending their service).
Many also feature dubious internships for young people, sometimes charging them thousands of dollars for the very privilege of service. That kind of labour exploitation is fairly fundamental to many Christian organizations, with the expectation that you give up the expectation of wages for the will of God.
For instance, City Life Church in Leduc, Alberta, offers up a $375/year and five hours of mandatory volunteering a week "internship." I was on the brink of committing to fundraise $2,500 to return to the aforementioned missionary program. Attempting to broach the subject of labour rights usually gets rebuffed with the need to "trust in the Lord."
In 2013, an anonymous Anglican church intern wrote a damning critique of the practice in Church Times: "This is not voluntary service. It is work; and refusing payment for it pushes the boundaries of legality. It is also is an insult to God's laws for it robs young people of basic dignities."
That can be a difficult thing to realize in the moment. After all, to question the practice is to question God. And that's not recommended.
It took a long time for me to break from the orbit.
Such bodies obviously aren't as coercive as, say, Scientology. There's no use in making that kind of comparison. But there's also not quite enough public consideration of the ways in which evangelical pastors and worship leaders can intoxicate young people into committing huge amounts of time and money to sustain their bizarre fantasies of Christian stardom.
At the worst, high-ranking evangelical leaders turn out to be abusive or enablers of abuse: think of how Hillsong Church pastor Brian Houston failed to report his father for the rampant sexual assault of children, or Mark Driscoll—the guy who once called Avatar the "most demonic, Satanic movie I've ever seen" and was later slammed with allegations of abuse and intimidation.
Billy Graham's grandson, Basyle Tchividjian, was recently interviewed by VICE about his work to expose sexual abuse in evangelical settings.
My experience was much more innocuous: I was never abused or traumatized, or anything close to that. But by the time I finally walked away, I'd probably dropped over $10,000, as well as hundreds of hours in time in the form of leading young groups, Christian camp counselor and volunteering for various church events. I'd also developed a tendency to distrust ideologies and leadership.
Some of my friends from back then are still heavily involved. Others have drifted away. We've all paid some serious dues.
Yet North American governments continue to grant the congregations tax breaks, which deprive funding for other things, such as affordable housing and public transit and low-income food access.
Religious organizations in the US receive over $70 billion a year in tax subsidies, according to a University of Tampa study. To put that in perspective, the entire Department of Housing and Urban Development will be receiving $40.7 billion in 2018, with the Department of Transportation receiving $16.2 billion.
Governments have enabled an entire legion of woke Joel Osteens: church leadership that might be smart enough to donate a tiny portion of its revenue to a local homeless shelter. Tax the churches or require congregations to actually serve the poor in some measurable way: open up buildings for shelter, dish out food, provide language and job training for migrants.
This is all clearly utopic. Such ideas aren't on anyone's political radar, with the proposal to phase-out subsidies for evangelical congregations unless they radically overhaul their social outreach game would likely cost every politician within 100 kilometres of the idea their careers.