(RNS) — When Hillsong New York popular preacher Carl Lentz was fired last November for “moral failures,” he joined an exclusive crew of other high-profile pastors who have turned out to be fallible humans after all.
Like these other ministers, Lentz had attracted an expansive following through his charismatic sermons, inspirational books and geometric jawline. But the leather-clad minister was unique in that he was widely known for being a spiritual adviser to A-list celebrities like Justin Bieber and Selena Gomez, who reportedly received VIP treatment whenever they worshipped at Hillsong Church. One report even claimed the church “operated like a nightclub” that included reserved seating for celebrities that ordinary attendees waited hours to secure.
Lentz’s coveted connections, according to The New York Times, catapulted the preacher into “a new stratosphere of fame, in which he became not just a friend to celebrities but a celebrity himself.” It’s the fame-by-proximity approach.
A number of other super-fresh preachers — such as Rich Wilkerson Jr., Chad Veach, John Gray and Steven Furtick — have replicated Lentz’s celebrity-centric approach to Christian ministry. These religious leaders often show up in tabloids such as TMZ. Their social media accounts regularly (before COVID-19, that is) depict them partying on private yachts with elites, attending Kanye’s Sunday Service or mingling at Kourtney Kardashian’s 40th birthday party.
The way these pop-culture prophets have catered to celebrities seems to have had a trickle-down effect. A religious caste system can be observed in many churches across America, where it’s relatively common for pastors to enjoy private entrances, reserved parking spaces and security details. In these churches, if you’re even remotely famous — say, the town’s mayor or a wealthy businessman — you’ll likely be offered a range of church perks, including direct access to the pastors who are often shielded from interacting with many of their congregants.
Whether intentional or not, a chasm stretches between the well-known “talent” and the normal folks who are being asked to sacrificially fund the talent’s lifestyle. This chasm can limit a leader’s ability to offer encouragement and hope to all who enter the church’s doors, and worse, it can give congregants the distinct impression that some people matter more than others in God’s kingdom. As if the Trinity operates like Instagram, handing out verified blue checks and a bag of exclusive perks to users boasting the greatest notoriety.
A pastor friend of mine once said, “God can use kings but often uses peasants.” The idea checks out with the Bible, a book replete with stories about obscure and ordinary people being used by God to make a subtle but eternal impact on the world. The poor and powerless are called “blessed” by Jesus, and in the New Testament, the rich and privileged are often chastised.
If one of these pastors is questioned about whether a celebrity approach to ministry is problematic, they dismiss the critique by noting the rich and famous need Jesus, too. That’s true, but it’s not really an answer to the question of whether these tactics embody Christianity’s core teachings.
Others defend their posture by pointing out that when celebrities with expansive platforms become Christian, it brings more attention to the Christian gospel. But reimagining fame as an asset for Christian ministry is a far cry from the movement’s origins highlighting the poor, weak, lonely, marginalized and overlooked instead of the wealthy, powerful, attractive and popular.
A Christian can believe it is their job to “make Jesus famous” without making the massive leap to the problematic idea that fame is itself good and an effective tool for ministry. Additionally, this defense objectifies celebrities, who are still actual human beings, as tools to be used for a greater good.
Christians throughout the centuries have often taken a countercultural posture, but a prominent portion of the American church is now taking cues from the celebrity-culture craze that grips Western society at large. Many churches now function similarly to the rest of the world — even, yes, like a nightclub. Though pietistic evangelicals have long attacked Hollywood, their churches, institutions and leaders now celebrate and reward the “blessing” of fame, popularity and influence. Talk about irony.
I entered this conversation by accident when I started the @PreachersNSneakers Instagram account as a kind of social experiment. All I did was post photos of well-known pastors wearing shockingly expensive shoes next to the price of those shoes on the online market. It struck a nerve with thousands of Christians, the account went viral, and I was flooded with more content than I could possibly post by myself. A couple of years later, I’m realizing I was only scratching the surface of a much larger problem. The way some modern pastors are fusing faith and fame goes well beyond $1,000 sneakers.
In the past, the job of a pastor was geographically constricted. They were hyper-focused on the community that immediately surrounded their parish. But thanks to television, social media and the internet, a pastor’s reach is no longer limited. As a result, a pastor is now required to be a charismatic performer and function as a spokesperson for their church’s “brand.” And as any advertising major can tell you, any brand will benefit from a celebrity endorsement or two.
Christians are now forced to wrestle with the most basic question of what the role of a pastor is, exactly. Sure, the book of Hebrews charges pastors with caring for the souls of their entire “flock.” But can’t that job be delegated to a church’s middle managers? And if so, does that free up the pastor to focus on being a charismatic communicator and figurehead whose main job is to attract more people with a culturally relevant worship “experience?” I don’t have all the answers, but I know these are important questions that can no longer be avoided.
Perhaps fusing fame and faith is exactly what American Christianity needs to thrive in the 21st century. Or maybe it’s just one more roadblock for spiritual seekers who want something distinctly different from what the world is offering. If the latter is true, then Lentz and others may have committed a bigger “moral failure” than they realize.
(Tyler Jones is a pseudonym for the founder of PreachersNSneakers. His forthcoming book “PreachersNSneakers: Authenticity in an Age of For-Profit Faith and (Wannabe) Celebrities” releases from Harper Collins in the spring of 2021. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)