The Crisis of Christian Celebrity

Former Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz. (Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images)

It’s happened again. A prominent Christian leader has fallen from grace, allegations of impropriety are pouring out into public, and a church is facing a crisis of faith and confidence. This time it’s Carl Lentz, friend of Justin Bieber and Kevin Durant, and former lead pastor of Hillsong East Coast.

Yes, I know this is old news. Brian Houston, Hillsong’s founder, fired Lentz on November 4th. Later that day, Lentz confessed to marital infidelity, and soon afterward his paramour came forward (including on Good Morning America) to describe their months-long affair.

Hillsong has since launched an independent investigation into the “inner workings” of the church, and yesterday the New York Times published a comprehensive report on the scandal. Written by Ruth Graham, one of the nation’s best religion reporters, the report includes new allegations that Lentz may have had more than one affair and new and disturbing claims about Lentz’s focus on celebrity ministry and the church’s emphasis on appearance. This passage has gained attention:

When [Lentz] did appear on Sundays, he rarely mixed with churchgoers. On Sundays, a team of congregants working as volunteers prevented anyone without the right badge from wandering backstage, and only a few had clearance to enter the green room stocked with a lavish catering spread and changes of clothes to fit Mr. Lentz’s increasingly particular tastes.

The church seemed to go out of its way to cultivate a hierarchy of coolness. A reserved seating section for V.I.P.s appeared at the front of the church, and then expanded to take up multiple rows. Ms. Lagata, a former volunteer, said that when high-profile entertainers or sports stars would try to slip into the main seating area, content to worship with ordinary churchgoers, ushers were often instructed to guide them to the special section in front, or to whisk them backstage to meet Mr. Lentz. “The staff built this culture, and made them a big deal,” Ms. Lagata said. “A lot of us felt torn because it doesn’t feel like something Jesus would do.”

Hillsong has long been controversial in Evangelical circles. It’s known for its extraordinarily popular worship music (I love Hillsong music and have shared their work many times in this newsletter) and for its uplifting, hipster, seeker-sensitive approach.

But it would be a profound mistake to quickly connect Lentz’s sin to his church’s less-orthodox style. In recent months and years, it seems as if every single major branch of Evangelical Christianity has watched a famous leader fall.

Are straight-laced fundamentalist homeschoolers immune from scandal? Not at all. Bill Gothard, a man who could once fill arenas with followers, faced dozens of allegations of sexual misconduct and was ultimately forced out of the ministry he founded. And Gothard is hardly the only fundamentalist leader to quit his ministry in shame.

What about rock-ribbed Southern Baptists? We’re mere months removed from Jerry Falwell Jr.’s departure from Liberty University is a cloud of sexual scandal.

Ok, but what about intellectual Christian apologists? Longtime readers of the Sunday French Press may remember that I paid tribute to Ravi Zacharias last May. He died after a brief battle with cancer.

Zacharias made the case for Christianity in elite academies across the world. He inspired a generation of Christian college students. And when he died I noted that he’d been involved in a confusing sexting scandal late in his life. But now three women have come forward with far more serious charges.

Zacharias apparently co-owned two “day spas,” and three of his former employees allege he engaged in extreme misconduct:

The women who worked at the spas said when Zacharias wasn’t traveling with RZIM, he came in for treatment two or three times a week. The businesses were a 15-minute drive from the ministry’s headquarters in Alpharetta.

More:

Zacharias was kind and took interest in their lives, according to the people who worked there. But over time, in the small private treatment rooms, Zacharias would make unwanted sexual advances, the three women each said independently. At first, they tried to ignore it, too embarrassed to call out a famous Christian minister. By their accounts, his inappropriate behavior only escalated.

“He would expose himself every time, and he would touch himself every time,” one of the women told CT. “It was where he went to get what he wanted sexually.”

Zacharias masturbated in front of one of the women more than 50 times, according to her recollection. He told her he was burdened by the demands of the ministry, and he needed this “therapy.” He also asked her to have sex with him twice, she said, and requested explicit photos of her.

Zacharias’s ministry and his denomination have opened up investigations of these claims.

I could go on and on and on with example after example of the crushing public collapse of Christian celebrities. Their metronomic regularity raises the question—what is going on?

It’s tempting to simply cite Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous maxim that the doctrine of original sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith,” note that every class of person is susceptible and vulnerable to sin, and move on. Celebrities are human, and we know that human beings are fallen, and thus there will always be spectacular falls from grace.

Yes, but must they be so frequent? Must they be so constant? Is there something about celebrity itself that makes the fall more likely? After all, in many of these folks, it’s quite apparent that something changed. Very few people embrace a life of public ministry as part of a plan for sexual conquest. They begin with a sincere desire to preach and teach and transform lives.

But they also don’t know who they truly are. They’re untested. They’re untried.

The longer I live, the more I understand a verse from the book of Jeremiah: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick, who can understand it?” I also ponder the truth of C.S. Lewis’s definition of courage (you’ve heard me quote it before): “Courage is not simply one of the virtues but the form of every virtue at the testing point, which means at the point of highest reality.” (Emphasis added.)

I’ve known pastors who were absolutely convinced that they were faithful men—right until the moment when they made a “connection” with the attractive woman in the front pew. I’ve known Christian leaders who believed they were honest—right until the moment when honesty might harm their ministry. And I’ve known celebrities who believed they were humble—but who also somehow convinced themselves that God needs their ministry to accomplish His work on earth.

Moreover, the celebrity’s apparent talent and relevant success teach him to do the things he must not do: to trust himself, to believe that he is a person of virtue, to believe that he is important. This is particularly dangerous when talent and success almost always create both opportunity and motive for serious sin.

Celebrity carries with it a false blessing and a dangerous curse, and both work in their own ways to destroy men. The false blessing is that celebrity itself has its own charisma. You see this when people are in the presence of a famous man or woman. They act differently from the way they act around virtually anyone else. They laugh too loudly at jokes. They fix their eyes on the famous person. They listen, rapt, to every word. The air seems charged with a faint hint of electricity.

This reality is both exhilarating—it feeds the ego—and exhausting. There is no “normal” life even for those folks who are only “subculture famous.” They’re constantly, always reminded of their importance, and this importance not only makes illicit relationships feel possible (“look how he or she’s attracted to me”), the pressure of that importance creates its own sense of entitlement (“My happiness and pleasure are paramount.”)

And then, when the fall happens, the sense of importance virtually mandates the cover-up. (“Look at all the vital work we do. We cannot fail.”)

I’ve known a number of Christian public figures who haven’t fallen—men and women who’ve lived decades in the public eye and have lived with integrity. And while they’ve come from different backgrounds and different strands of Christian theology, they’ve typically shared two common convictions.

First, they don’t trust their virtue.

Second, they don’t believe they earned their fame.

The Christian leaders of integrity are also typically keenly aware of the unique dangers of spiritual connection and spiritual authority. Spiritual connection with a person can be especially intimate. Spiritual authority is particularly easy to abuse.

A person who doesn’t trust his own virtue takes affirmative steps to protect himself  from a foolish fall. You don’t have to map out a full-blown “Pence rule” or “Modesto Manifesto” to take prudent steps to guard against your own fallen nature. This shouldn’t even be a matter of religious controversy. I’m reminded of these powerful and self-aware words from one of America’s most influential and thoughtful progressive atheists, Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one.

The way I’ve put it in speeches to young Christians is simply this, “Make the easy choice so you don’t have to make the hard choice.” Saying no to the extra drink is much easier than halting a drunken flirtation.

And if a person gains fame, he cannot—he must not—believe the easy laughs, the shining eyes, or the copious flattery of starstruck fans. There are reciprocal responsibilities here. It would be far better if Americans didn’t treat celebrities (including religious celebrities) like Greek gods. It would be far better if celebrities didn’t start to believe that they belong on Mount Olympus.

Christian celebrities will continue to fall. But they don’t have to fall so often. They don’t have to inflict so much pain. Change will only come when Christian leaders remember a few painful truths. Their hearts are deceitful. They do not deserve their fame. God does not need them. Instead, they need Him. And they need to remember those truths every day of every week of every year until their race is complete.

One last thing …

My favorite Christmas song is “O Holy Night,” and I’ll share my favorite version before December 25, but my second-favorite is “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” and it’s based on an 1863 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It was written in a time of war and despair, after his son was grievously wounded in combat. 

The song was of great comfort to me on Christmas 2007, when I was deployed to Iraq during The Surge. It’s very raw, yet it concludes with a declaration of eternal truth, “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”

I like this contemporary version, by the band Echosmith. It’s a hard song to do well, but this is good. Listen and be encouraged:

And this is a beautiful choral version, set in the historical context of the song:

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