Calling Out Celebrity Christianity & Counterfeit Justice
MIAMI — Halfway through megapastor Joel Osteen’s sermon at Marlins Park stadium, seven frazzled people sitting in a press box overlooking the field realize they have a problem: The prayers aren’t going through.
“I can forward ‘prayer’ to ‘prayer request,’” volunteers a member of Osteen’s technical staff as a possible fix. He fiddles with the trackball of his BlackBerry as he tries his best to reassure Osteen’s marketing director, Jason Madding, that they can redirect people’s emailed prayers to the proper place and prevent them from disappearing into the digital ether.
Hunched over a MacBook, Madding flips back and forth between a Skype chat and a page tracking traffic to Osteen’s sites. He coordinates with a remote team of developers as he monitors the popularity of Osteen’s page to gauge whether the surge of visitors will overwhelm the servers and bring down the site.
On the field below, a musician blows two long blasts from a ram’s horn while drums thump in the background. “Every day has your name on it,” Osteen shouts to the crowd.
Osteen, a 50-year-old Texas native with an impeccable complexion, thick head of dark hair and a gleaming white smile, is the pastor of the largest church in America. On this April night in Miami, nearly 36,000 cheering people have gathered in the stands of the stadium to hear him speak. But for Madding, the crucial action is playing out on an iPad propped on a desk in front of him: He is watching the live stream of the pastor’s sermon as it appears to audiences who are tuning in from home — a group numbering more than 138,000. They are absorbing Osteen’s “Night of Hope,” a gathering of evangelical Christians aimed at strengthening people’s commitment to Christ, swaying non-believers and spreading Osteen’s message of self-improvement through Christianity.
Madding’s iPad displays a ceaseless stream of comments from those taking part from their homes around the world — people grappling with illness, joblessness, loneliness, despair and suicidal thoughts; people seeking comfort, prayer and fellowship here. These participants are not inside the stadium, but in an expanded gathering that connects the experience of those here in the flesh with those online.
Over the course of this night, Osteen’s team of social media consultants confronts the formidable task of making that synergy happen. They struggle to keep up with the relentless flood of digital interaction. In life, prayers may or may not be realized. But in the social media realm of the Night of Hope, all prayers must be answered.
Osteen’s staff has instructed online congregants to post prayers to his Web site or phone prayers to a 1-800 number. They’ve also provided an email address — email@example.com — assuring digital participants that the church has dedicated prayer partners on hand who will field their missives and pray for them.
But at this moment, those emailed entreaties have no prayer of reaching anyone. The email address Osteen’s helpers have supplied is the wrong one. It’s an address that doesn’t exist — the staff was meant to offer up “firstname.lastname@example.org.” Thanks to the error, an automatically generated email reply is informing the faithful that delivery of their prayers has “failed permanently.”
“It bounced back,” types one of the people in the chat room, who has tried to email from her home in Canada. “I need your prayers.”
She tersely summarizes her feelings about the situation: “=(.”
A man prays at the Night Of Hope in Miami.
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