What’s a sermon worth? About $190, scalpers say

Everyone knows the hottest ticket in Chicago for the month of May is U2’s four-night stand at the United Center.

But you may be surprised to learn about the unlikely fellow who’s rolling into town a few days before the Irish rockers and has sent equally rabid fans scrambling for tickets to see his, um, show.

His name is Joel Osteen. And he, too, is a rock star — of sorts.

The same way the Dalai Lama, Billy Graham, Deepak Chopra, and the Pope are.

Osteen, 41, is a charming, leading-man-handsome pastor known to millions of television viewers around the globe for his weekly television program broadcast from his 25,000-member Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas.


On May 5 and 6, Osteen, who is sometimes called “the Smiling Preacher” and resembles a cross between a young Warren Beatty and infomercial king Tony Robbins, brings his national “Worship Tour” to the Allstate Arena in Rosemont.

‘Truly sinful’

I learned of Osteen’s eagerly anticipated arrival from a reader who, in a fit of righteous anger, sent me an e-mail decrying the scalping of tickets for what he thought were the sold-out worship events.

“Have these people no morals? No conscience?” Tony of West Chicago wrote. “They are selling $10 tickets for an event dedicated to God and prayer for a hundred bucks or more!! Truly sinful.”

I’ve long thought “thou shalt not scalp tickets” should have been a part of the Decalogue. That and “thou shalt not jump the queue.”

A little online investigation showed that tickets for Osteen’s “Worship Tour” at the Allstate Arena — with a face value of $10 ($13 if you count Ticketmaster’s sadistic “convenience charge”) — were listed on ticket clearinghouse sites all over the Internet for as much as $190 a pop.

Outrageous, indeed. The mark-up is almost as much, relatively speaking, as those listed for tickets to the U2 shows at the United Center where $49.50 floor seats are going for $400-plus, and plum $165 seats are being offered for $1,400.

But why was a preacher charging for tickets to his worship service in the first place?

It doesn’t quite seem like something Jesus would do.

‘It’s not a moneymaker’

Billy Graham never charges for entry into his crusades and rarely distributes tickets, according to a spokesman for his ministry. And even Benny Hinn, the embattled, too-slick-for-his-own-good televangelist/healer, handed out free tickets for his three-day crusade that packed the United Center last June.

I was beginning to wonder if Osteen, whose book Your Best Life Now: A Faith-based Approach to Living with Enthusiasm has been on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 17 weeks, was trying to make a buck off of spreading the Good News.

A pay-to-pray kind of a deal.

Not at all, according to Don Iloff, a spokesman for Lakewood Church.

“It’s not a moneymaker for us,” Iloff told me Thursday. “It costs $750,000 to put on the event. Do the math. Even at $10 apiece it doesn’t begin to cover it.”

Osteen didn’t want to have tickets at all, and certainly didn’t want to charge for them, but after several non-ticketed events at arenas in Atlanta and California last year where thousands of people were turned away at the door, local law enforcement got nervous with the disappointed crowds, and the pastor had little choice, Iloff explained.

The first ticketed stop on Osteen’s “Worship Tour,” basically a traditional two-hour worship and sermon service, was at New York City’s Madison Square Garden last fall. “They called us at Madison Square Garden and said, ‘You must ticket this event. It will be mayhem if you don’t,” Iloff said.

Well, why not free tickets?

“We really hated the idea of charging,” he said. “We only charged at the Garden because they asked us to.”

If tickets are free, somebody could come in and ask for 100 tickets for their church and then only show up with 30 people, Iloff said, and 70 people who really wanted to go would be shut out.

“Ten bucks is no big deal and people appreciate the fact that they know they have a seat,” and don’t have to worry about arriving hours ahead of time to get a decent seat, he said.

That some people are illegally scalping the tickets or that brokers have them listed for exponentially inflated prices upsets Osteen.

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“I shared it with Joel and he was very unhappy that anybody would pay that kind of money to get in. It’s just not right,” Iloff said, adding that Osteen’s ministry is holding back a number of $10 tickets that will be available for walk-ups at the arena each day.

Tickets selling well

Still, not a few Chicagoans are willing to fork over $100 or more to make sure they can hear the young pastor preach up close and personal — or at least as personal as you can get in an arena with 19,000 other worshippers.

“We’ve seen significant demand for his events,” said Jeff Fluhr, CEO of Stubhub.com, a leading online clearinghouse for concerts and other events. “It’s kind of the U2 of religious speakers.”

While he wouldn’t say how many tickets Stubhub, which has nearly 200 tickets listed for the Allstate dates ranging in price from $45 to $190, has sold for Osteen’s worship gigs, Fluhr said business is brisk.

According to Iloff someone once said, “Joel Osteen is to Christianity what Michael Jordan is to the NBA.”

That may be. I’m sure many people will flock to the arena in Rosemont simply to see the messenger, in this case a charismatic preacher who, among other messages, often tells his faithful that they need to abandon their “poverty mentality.”

I can’t help but look at it another way.

The sold-out arenas and ticket scalping — legal or otherwise — means thousands of people are willing to sacrifice their hard-earned money to listen to the gospel message.

And that, in supposedly secular 2005, is a scandal of a different kind.

You might even call it a revolution.

More articles by Cathleen Falsani

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Chicago Sun-Times, USA
Mar. 4, 2005

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This post was last updated: May. 9, 2014