Paul’s Gospel Remedy For The Sickness Of The Evangelical Megachurch Celebrity Culture

credit: Religion News Service

If you follow the various evangelical sub-cultures you probably know that Carl Lentz, the megachurch pastor cum superstar pastor of pop star Justin Bieber, fashion icon, one-time college basketball player, denizen of day-time TV talk shows and the tabloids, has been fired from his position as pastor of Hillsong’s East Coast branch congregation for “leadership issues and breaches of trust” as well as repeated “moral failures.” Lentz has confessed to infidelity to his wife. The New York Times reports repeated infidelities. The senior pastor of what is fairly described as a multi-national corporation of congregations, Brian Huston, indicts Lentz for “‘general narcissistic [sic] behavior, manipulating, mistreating people’ as well as ‘breaches of trust connected to lying, and constantly lying.'” As grievous as Lentz’s abuses are—these events damage Christians young and old and, of course, reverberate far beyond the walls of the megachurch—perhaps the most telling line in the entire article says: “Founded in Australia under a different name in the 1980s, its great innovation was to offer urban Christians a religious environment that did not clash with the rest of their lives.” Reporter Ruth Graham offers this assessment without a hint of what it signifies. Imagine this sentence: The great innovation of the Corinthian congregation was to offer to urban Christians a religious environment that did not clash with the rest of their lives.”

Lentz’ rise and fall is symbolic of the very nature of the late-modern megachurch enterprise. It is an ostensibly religious multi-national corporation. It is a business more than it is a church. Hillsong’s success is rooted in their ability to package therapeutic moralistic deism more successfully than the other megachurches, to sand down the distinction between Christ and culture so that the distinction was gossamer thin. Indeed, we might say that more than any of the other megachurch pastors of the age, Lentz was the first real “crossover artist.” This is the language used in the music and radio businesses to describe a singer who starts out in one genre, usually a niche such as contemporary Christian music or traditional country into the mainstream pop markets. Amy Grant was the first real contemporary Christian artist to become a crossover star. Taylor Swift is probably the biggest crossover star to date. The high-flying, basketball-dunking, talk-show-circuit appearing Carl Lentz is the Taylor Swift of pastoral ministry.

The infidelities and neglect of his congregation, of which he is accused, are just part of becoming a jet-setting rock star. In other words, Lentz was adhering to the nature of the megachurch enterprise. It is a crossover artist by design. Lentz is just the first guy to follow the path to its logical end: the rock and roll lifestyle. VH1 used to broadcast a series about the rise and fall of rock bands. It was the same story on a loop: band practices hard in a garage. Band gets a gig and learns its craft. Band gets discovered. Band records a hit and tours to support the hit. Band makes its first money and goes crazy on booze, drugs, and sex. Tensions develop. The follow up album fails because it is bad. Band struggles to recover but cannot over the internal tensions. Band breaks up and comes to regret their hastiness a decade later. Band tries to reunite and re-kindle the original magic. Lentz reached Justin Bieber and got swept up into the fast-paced rock and roll life. He became a star in his own system.

It not only Lentz who became a star. Graham explains,

By now, Hillsong is not just a church, but a brand. Hillsong is a look: neutrals, streetwear, body-conscious fashion. And it is a sound, too. The church’s bands 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. And the formula works. The global church now has congregations on six continents, and claims an average attendance of 150,000 people weekly.

Hillsong itself has become a star, a part of pop culture. A fashionable place to see and in which to be seen. Again, to appreciate how odd this should be for a Christian congregation, substitute Corinthian congregation for Hillsong. Of course, this is just the struggle one of the several struggles faced by the Corinthian congregation. How to live faithfully and graciously in the midst of pagans, without compromising fidelity to the Christian message.

Paul’s message to the Corinthians was neither hip nor culturally relevant. Indeed, it was counter-cultural and despised by Greco-Roman culture:

For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written,
“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe (1 For 1:18–21; ESV).

It is difficult to resist the temptation to cut and paste most of the epistle here since so much of it is so apropos. The Corinthian congregation was, apparently, not composed of powerful, sexy, influential people.

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God (1 Cor 1:26–29; ESV).

Paul seems more likely to be been dunked upon than to have dunked:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God (1 Cor 2:2–5; ESV).

As I read about the VIP seating for celebrities, it was difficult not to think about James 2:

My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2:1–5; ESV).

I do not blame the celebrities entirely. In our celebrity-obsessed culture it must be exhausting to be “on” and to be mobbed constantly. The church is meant to address this sort of thing not to perpetuate and market it as part of a “brand.” The only “brand” the church has is Christ and him crucified.

We need to appreciate again how repulsive the cross was to the first-century Greco-Roman. To the non-citizen, resident aliens it represented Roman oppression and cruelty. To the citizens and the powerful it was disgusting since only the offscouring of society ended up on the cross. To worship a nobody and especially a nobody who had been crucified was beyond offensive. To preach Christ and the cross was decidedly not seeker-sensitive. Therapeutic, moralistic, deism with its musical narcotics and its soothing sermons might have done well in Corinth, where orgiastic, therapeutic religion was not unknown.

The great crisis facing the Corinthian congregation, which plagued it for decades after Paul’s martyrdom, was its inability or refusal to distinguish between Christ and culture. The Corinthian congregation sought to conform Christianity to the prevailing culture. Where the culture had popular, successful public speakers, the Corinthians had their “Super Apostles.” Where Paul called them to distinguish the secular (e.g., common meals; 1 Cor 10:14–22) from the sacred (e.g., the Lord’s Supper), the Corinthians wanted to confuse them and turn the Lord’s Supper into a gluttonous, pagan feast. Paul says. “It is not the Lord’s Supper that you eat” (1 Cor 11:20). Where Paul called the Corinthians to sexual chastity (i.e., sex within the bounds of heterosexual Christian marriage), the Corinthians took a lax approach and refused to discipline a man who was committing gross sexual immorality with his step-mother (1 Cor 5:1), which Paul says, even the debauched Corinthians did not do. He was not calling the Corinthians to leave the pagan culture but to Christian fidelity in the midst of the pagans (1 Cor 5:9–13). He was calling them to live in light of Christ, our Paschal Lamb (1 Cor 5:7). In short, he called them to be distinct from the surrounding pagan culture, not to imitate it:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God  (1 Cor 6:9–11; ESV).

Paul could hardly have been more pointed. The language he used here to describe, e.g. “men who practice homosexuality” is graphic and it comes as part of a list of other gross sins, equally heinous violations of God’s moral and natural law.

This was such a problem for the Corinthians that he had to hit this theme again in a later epistle:

What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,
“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them,
and I will be their God,
and they shall be my people.
Therefore go out from their midst,
and be separate from them, says the Lord,
and touch no unclean thing;
then I will welcome you,
and I will be a father to you,
and you shall be sons and daughters to me,
says the Lord Almighty” (2 Cor 6:17; Lev 26:12; Ex 6:7; Isa 52:11; Ex 4:22; ESV)

He concludes this string of Old Testament quotations by saying: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1; ESV).

Paul called the Corinthians and he calls us to a “religious environment” that clashes with our daily lives, that is distinct from our secular existence. There is nothing evil about a secular vocation, i.e., an ordinary vocation in this world. We share those vocations with the pagans. There are pagan plumbers and Christian plumbers. What sets us apart from the pagans is not our vocation but our God, his grace, his Christ, and his gospel. What sets us apart is how we treat each other and our pagan neighbors. According to Paul, should a pagan walk into a Christian worship service, he should not say, “Cool! Nice light show.” Paul has a rather different vision for the church:

If, therefore, the whole church comes together and all speak in tongues, and outsiders or unbelievers enter, will they not say that you are out of your minds? But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you (1 Cor 14:23–25; ESV).

What our pagan neighbors need from us is not a brand but salvation from the wrath to come. They need to know the greatness of their sin and misery. They need to know that Jesus is the Savior and that everyone must turn to him in repentance and faith, embrace him in true faith, and join his congregation in the pilgrimage through this evil age (Gal 1:4) to the age to come (Eph 1:21).

© R. Scott Clark


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  1. Sadly, even many of the more “conservative” churches are driven by a marketing mentality as evidenced by their music. We want to give the people the band, the singers, the latest in revivalistic emotionalsim rather than the psalms. Emotionalism is an idol. Emotionalism is to worship as sugar is to a doughnut. Emotionalism is cotton candy. The psalms give us a healthy balance between emotions, actions, and motives. As Luther said, they are a little Bible. They bring together all of the Word to disciple our souls.

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