Texas Mega Pastor Mega Punk'd

Joel Osteen, indefatigable televangelist and pastor of a Houston megachurch, was the butt of an online hoax that claimed he had lost his faith, and would leave the church. The Internet had a strong reaction.
Tue April 9, 2013 8:15 pm
Joel Olsteen at Houston's Lakewood Church.
Associated Press

Not all April Fool's jokes are created equal. An elaborate hoax targeting the pastor of a Texas mega-church took many by surprise this week, and almost gained traction as real news.

Joel Osteen author, televangelist, and pastor at Lakewood Church in Houston is known for his media mogul presence and his million-watt smile as well as his ministry, which reaches millions of people. Internet pranksters tried to pull a fast one on Osteen last week when they circulated a false statement, attributed to the pastor, stating he had lost his faith and would be leaving his 45,000-member church, according to ABC News.

The anonymous jokester created a mock-website meant to resemble Osteen's own, with only one "e" missing from his name in its URL address. On the site was an "announcement" from the pastor, which stated among other things that the pastor had lost his faith, that he would be leaving the church, and that he was thankful to his supports, including Oprah:

[D]eep down in my heart, for a number of years now, I have been questioning the faith, Christianity, and whether Jesus Christ is my, or anyone's, 'savior.'.... Today, I informed my closest colleagues of my decision to leave the church. Our ministry will continue in a bare-bones fashion as we liquidate our assets and fulfill various financial obligations.  I want to thank my wife, our parishioners and our faithful followers, the City of Houston, Lakewood, the State of Texas and my close friends, Oprah Winfrey and Larry King, for all of our support over the years.

The hoax doubled down on its subterfuge by creating mock news articles covering Osteen's defection on fake websites replicating CNN, Yahoo News, and the Christian News Network, according to the Houston Chronicle . They also created a fake twitter feed announcing the pastor's departure, and a Youtube video covering his sudden change of faith, which has over 80,000 views.

About the hoax, the real Osteen seems to have a good sense of humor—or perhaps a Christian propensity toward forgiveness.  "We saw it as being comical because it's so ludicrous but sometimes things like that can catch on,” Osteen told MyFoxHouston.com. In his trademark uber-positive fashion, Osteen told ABC that the debacle wouldn't faze him or his ministry.  "You know, I'm really not angry. I don't feel like a victim," said Osteen . "I feel too blessed, that life is too short to let things like this get you down."

Osteen has made no comment on taking legal action against the source of the prank, but the anonymous hoaxster seems prepared for that eventuality. "I could end up being in a lot of trouble," he wrote in an email exchange with NPR. "But I am prepared and I have excellent legal counsel ready for battle." NPR contacted the fake website's creator through an email address attached to its domain. The domain was registered to BMG Enterprises in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on April 1, though its owner remains anonymous.

Despite the public unraveling of the hoax, the jokester hasn't given up on the joke apparently. A second statement on the fake website released April 8—also attributed to Osteen—says, " Many people want more answers and are asking why I did this. I have one, simple response: I have come to realize my followers have begun to deify me and listen to me, and not God. This among other reasons, led me down a path of awakening."

The fake Osteen website also links to yet another fake source, this one a Christian news blog, which claims to have an exclusive interview with Osteen. In the "interview," the fake-Osteen says that the reveal of the hoax is itself a hoax by the mainstream media to cover the truth of the original hoax. Feeling dizzy yet?

Luckily, the real Osteen twitter feed confirmed the falsity of the hoax after his followers had a bit of an online freakout. Hundreds of responses flooded the fake Osteen page, the real Osteen website, and both the fake and genuine twitter feeds. If stirring up a veritable bee's nest of reactionism was the hoax's goal, then mission: accomplished.

What was the motivation behind the whole scheme? In his correspondence with NPR, the anonymous hoaxster said he hasn't made any money from the Osteen project, but that his "intent was to stage, for a moment, a plausible scenario of [Osteen's] hypothetical resignation" and to "test viral media markets,"  wrote Bill Chappell. It seems like an extreme method for testing marketing strategies, but don't be surprised if the whole ordeal earns a spot on future lists of greatest April Fool's pranks.

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