Lakewood Church — the giant Houston headquarters of celebrity pastor Joel Osteen's evangelical empire — alerted its congregants that as much as $600,000 in cash and checks were taken from the building over the weekend. Even more concerning: The stolen goods include envelopes on which congregants wrote down their credit card information.
According to an email from Lakewood, the theft "is limited only to those funds contributed in the church services on Saturday, March 8 and Sunday, March 9, 2014," and does not include donations made electronically. A church employee discovered the theft on Monday morning.
Pastors Joel and Victoria Osteen are well-known proponents of a modern version of the prosperity gospel — a theology that believes God blesses people with material success. Among evangelicals, it's a theologically controversial, yet obviously appealing approach to Christianity. In the past, Osteen has defended his embrace of prosperity teachings by saying:
I believe that God's dream is that we be successful in our careers, and that we be able to send our kids to college. I don't mean that everyone is going to be rich, and I preach a lot on blooming where you're planted. But I don't have the mindset that money is a bad thing.
Their church attracts about 38,000 people every weekend for its services, and quite a bit more people watching Osteen's sermons on television. His TV presence, along with his series of popular Christian self help books, are what helped to make Lakewood arguably the most famous megachurch in the country.
Police are investigating the alleged theft, and haven't yet arrested anyone. Church members who passed on their credit card information to Lakewood over the weekend were advised to "pay close attention to your accounts over the next several days and weeks and report any suspicious activity to your financial institution or credit card company immediately." Although the police declined to give an exact amount for the stolen cash, the church has said that they believe the haul breaks down to $200,000 in cash and $400,000 in checks.