(RNS) — For how much the Bible tells us what Jesus said and what he meant, it’s striking how little it tells us about his appearance. Based on his ethnicity and birthplace, he was almost certainly brown-skinned, with dark eyes and hair. He had a beard. But the only comment on the Messiah’s looks comes from the biblical prophet Isaiah, who Christians believe foretold Jesus’ arrival in Israel: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
Translation: Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t hot.
So it’s striking that the most successful church-growth trend in the United States, one ostensibly meant to point people to Jesus, is putting forward male leaders who are, by conventional standards, physically attractive. In the world of megachurches, charisma more than character has become a requirement for leadership — and it’s axiomatic that physical beauty is a key component of charisma, especially if you are trying to attract other beautiful people.
After all, the gospel is for hot people, too. If hot pastors are what God uses to take the Good News to hot people, well, God works in mysterious ways, some requiring very toned biceps.
We can debate whether Carl Lentz, the lead pastor of Hillsong NYC who was recently fired for “moral failures” was, by any objective calculation, hot. With his chiseled jawline, bright smile and toned muscles, all shown off in plunging V-necks and shirtless Instagram photos, Lentz, 37, certainly played the part, and he certainly made inroads with the beautiful. He famously baptized Justin Bieber in 2014. (His dismissal as lead pastor, apparently for an extramarital affair, has been covered by Vanity Fair and People magazine.)
And the formula worked: Since Lentz founded Hillsong NYC, the Manhattan outpost of the global church famous for its come-as-you-are rock music jams and concert lighting, its services have drawn some 8,000 weekly attendees, Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Selena Gomez and the basketball star Kevin Durant among them.
In the wake of Lentz’s “moral failures,” it’s worth asking what systems his church provided, or failed to provide, to hold him and other leaders accountable. Lentz made his own bad choices, but this week, a former member described a culture at Hillsong that “thrives on inequity” and rewards leaders with “privilege, power and self-importance” while asking “lesser” members to carry the behind-the-scenes load. It’s no wonder that he became untethered.
He also swam in waters that reward form over substance. Today’s sexualized, glossy version of the megachurch pastor is calculated to replace the stereotype of a frumpy pastor in pleated khakis and a combover. With skinny jeans, tattoos and tight abs, the hot pastor is commissioned to bring souls to Jesus by mimicking the temptations of social media thirst traps. But if you embody that culture, you risk becoming it. Hotness is as hotness does.
Lentz’s literal interpretation of muscular Christianity curiously conflicts with the evangelical subculture’s teaching to women, who are cautioned from a young age to manage men’s insatiable lust. In youth group talks I attended growing up, modesty was a uniquely female virtue, and we were trained to quell sexual temptation by how we dressed and carried ourselves.
I’ve heard from Christian women over the years who have been asked to wear baggier tops or a different bra (yes) while in worship rehearsal because their bodies could be distracting. More damaging, women’s modesty is considered a factor in determining whether victims of sexual assault and harassment “deserved” what happened to them.
The hot pastor ethic supports this ethic: When Christians talk about modesty, they talk primarily about women’s sexual allure. As if women aren’t visually attracted to men. And as if modesty is only about sex and not at root about practicing humility before God and others.
If modesty is about sex drives, however, churches need to be consistent. They should ask whether pastors who wear tight pants and deep-Vs while preaching or post shirtless selfies on Instagram are healthy for their young women. Don’t make me stumble with your chest ripples.
Granted, churches can’t control whether church members find a pastor attractive. Physical appearance aside, power, talent and money — all of which can come with a megachurch pastorate — are pretty intoxicating, too. What churches can control, or at least monitor and scan for in hiring decisions, is whether a pastor clearly wants to be found desirable. Professor and author Alan Noble said it well, that he can tell when “ministers desire to be desired. … The way the person carries themself, dresses, speaks, gestures, and posts images signal to me that the(y) desire other people to desire them.”
This desire is at the heart of the hot pastor formula. Megachurches recruit spiritual leaders who are designed to be found desirable by congregants. Their mission becomes bound up in their need to fill their ego, a need to be loved and desired.
Christian humility is about forgetting oneself. “True gospel humility means I stop connecting every experience, every conversation, with myself,” writes the Presbyterian minister Timothy Keller, who has planted several successful churches in New York himself. “In fact, I stop thinking about myself.”
It’s hard for anyone standing under the bright lights of a megachurch stage to forget about themselves. Maybe the problem isn’t the hot pastors like Lentz but a toxic megachurch culture that makes narcissism a prerequisite.
(Katelyn Beaty is a former managing editor of Christianity Today and the author of “A Woman’s Place.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)