In a year rife with moral failures by Christian leaders, I read with grim curiosity last week’s New York Times article describing the firing of Carl Lentz, the celebrity pastor of Hillsong’s East Coast church, who recently acknowledged that he’d had an affair. However, the affair was the least of what surprised me. That Lentz admitted to cheating on his wife seemed trivial compared to the rise of a church culture that appears to have courted megastars until the pastor became one.
“Hillsong is not just a church, but a brand,” Ruth Graham wrote, describing one of the world’s most influential congregations, which began forty years ago in Australia. “Hillsong is a look: neutrals, streetwear, body-conscious fashion. And it is a sound, too. The church’s brands have won a Grammy. Their most popular song, the soaring ballad ‘Oceans (Where Feet May Fail),’ has been streamed more than 235 million times on Spotify.”
As proof that “the formula works,” Graham pointed to the church’s 150,000 weekly worshipers gathered on six continents. According to the article, the campus of the New York church seemed to “go out of its way to cultivate a hierarchy of coolness,” including sectioning off VIP seating for prominent guests who were invited backstage after services to meet Lentz. The wealthier or more famous the person, the more attention they received, one former church volunteer said.
In the article, Brian Houston, the global church’s founder, decried the suggestion that Hillsong panders to celebrities but hired a private firm to investigate Lentz’s leadership in New York and at three nearby church campuses, which Lentz oversaw. As a Christian, I’m relieved that the church seems to have taken immediate steps to remove Lentz and scrutinize his actions.
When I read the gospels, I find no mention of special treatment for the rich and powerful, other than Jesus telling the rich young ruler to sell all of his possessions and give them to the poor (Matthew 19:21). I also find no mention of cool clothes, unless you count John the Baptist’s words that if you have two coats, you should give one away (Luke 3:11). And I find no mention of social hierarchy, except where Jesus says that the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Matthew 20:16).
I write this with trepidation, knowing that by virtue of owning a home and two cars, my family is among the world’s wealthiest. I also own three coats, two wool capes and a rain jacket. And as a white, educated American, I hold a VIP pass to the top of the social hierarchy. Someday, I too will be called to give an account for what I did with my position – not to a private firm but to Christ himself.
My concern is not so much with Lentz, although his activities raise alarm. It is with the rest of us. It is with the idea that Christianity can be branded, marketed and priced to attract the highest number of buyers. Would the babe born in a manger even recognize the church that is now being peddled under his name?
“Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart,” Jesus said in Matthew 11:29 (NIV).
To discover what God’s idea of a leader looks like, we might do well to turn away from the megastars and turn back to the manger.
Meadow Rue Merrill, author of the award-winning memoir, Redeeming Ruth, writes for children and adults from a little house in the big woods of mid-coast Maine. She is also the author of the children’s picture book The Christmas Cradle and four other books celebrating the holidays in a way that builds children’s faith.