Why Carl Lentz?

I just watched something that made me sick to my stomach.  It was a documentary about Carl Lentz.  Carl Lentz was the Pastor of Hillsong church in New York City.  You may not have heard his name before but probably know him, or have seen him on TV, as Justin Bieber’s pastor.  About two years ago he was removed from his position because of moral failings.  Specifically, an ongoing, adulterous affair.  The documentary showed a series of video messages he left the woman he was sleeping with.   It was disgusting to see this family man, this pastor who preached fidelity in marriage and continence in all other sexual matters repeatedly profess his love for her.  But that’s not what made me sick to my stomach.

Even though the documentary was produced by a secular media outlet with no interest in defending Carl Lentz or the Christian faith, it was very well done.  I found it to be extremely balanced.  It included interviews with people favorable to Lentz as well as those who have an ax to grind with him.  And what was clear in both sets of interviews is that he had always aspired to be a “celebrity pastor”.  He deliberately sought the spotlight.  He deliberately sought out celebrities like Justin Bieber to bring more attention to himself. 

What makes me sick to my stomach, what infuriates me most, was Carl Lentz’s ambition to be a celebrity pastor. 

Even if you give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he started out thinking that, by getting the spotlight, seeking fame, associating with celebrities, he could make a bigger impact for Jesus, be another Billy Graham and evangelize the masses, what the documentary made clear is that his ambition had become less about this, a holy ambition, and more about himself, a distinctly personal ambition.   

What makes me sick to my stomach, what infuriates me most is that he has turned many people off to Christianity.  What infuriates me most is that he is getting in the way of people’s relationship with God. 

A number of years ago, I was doing a pastoral visit with a woman who had recently lost her husband to cancer.  Her husband was a friend of mine from the fire department we served on together.  When he found out he had terminal cancer, he asked if I would do his funeral service.  Throughout his battle, I tried to provide him and his wife pastoral support.  Up to that point, I didn’t know her well.  But in the final weeks of his life, I watched her provide remarkable care for him even as she endured her own excruciating pain of knowing she was losing him.  When he died, she helped me put his service together according to his wishes.  Through that ordeal, I got to know her well.  I found out she didn’t have any connection to a church and didn’t have any kind of faith, at least not in the traditional sense. 

In the months after his death, I visited her several times to see how she was coping with her loss.  As she shared more of her story, I found out why.  She had grown up Catholic, but as a child a priest had said and done some vicious and hurtful things to her, things that scarred her for life.  She never got over it.  Because he was a priest, because she was taught as a child that he was God’s representative on earth, his very un-Christ like, very “scandalous” words and actions, soured her to the Church and to God and to Jesus. 

What that priest did to her faith broke my heart.  I knew that, in her grief, she could find great comfort and consolation through a robust faith in Christ.  So I tried to share with her why I am so drawn to Jesus, what the faith is really all about.  I explained, of course, that I needed to see the evidence it was true before I would ever believe it.  But once I did, the thing that got me, that attracted me, that made me want it to be true, that revealed the unparalleled beauty of it all, was the parable of the prodigal son.  I explained that, to me, this parable captures the essence, and sublimity, of Christianity—namely, that, like the father in the story, God loves us this unconditionally.  This is the truest thing about His transcendent nature. 

I went on to share how powerful the Cross was to me.  That Jesus—God in the flesh—would give His life for us, would show us that “no greater love”, was the ultimate proof of God’s love.  It made it so real for me.  God couldn’t prove His love for us in a more perfect or profound way.  Given the fire department connection we shared, this resonated with her.  As we talked, she seemed to light up and told me how much she liked the idea of thinking of God as a prodigally loving father.  Beaming, she literally said: “I really like that!”

But, as we talked, she kept oscillating between wanting to believe in this kind of God and her visceral reaction to any kind of faith.  Because of this priest, she just couldn’t bring herself to believe it.  As she continued to go back and forth between what she was hearing and what her gut was telling her, I started to get frustrated.  I finally blurted something out.  I didn’t mean to yell at her.  I wasn’t frustrated with her.  I was frustrated, actually infuriated, at the priest and what he had done.  So, I couldn’t help shouting: “Don’t let anyone stand in the way of your relationship with God!  Don’t let anyone get in the way of your relationship with Jesus!”  But, before I could apologize for blurting this out and yelling at her, something had clearly clicked for her.  She gave me a genuinely pensive look and said she really needed to give this some serious thought.  She needed to rethink things.  It was like a crack had developed in what that priest had done in hardening her heart to God.

I am not judging Carl Lentz.  Only God can do that.  But Jesus reserved His harshest condemnation for religious leaders, like Lentz, who would cause scandal.  Who would get in the way of people’s relationship with Him.  One of the harshest and most vivid images Jesus used was that it would be better for someone who causes such scandal to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea.  Ouch. 

What infuriated Jesus most was when religious leaders got in the way of people’s relationship with Him.

In fact, according to Jesus, the whole idea of being a “celebrity pastor”, wanting the spotlight, wanting the fame, is twisted.  Why would Carl Lentz, or anyone else who goes into ministry for that matter, or any follower of Jesus for that matter, think that being a celebrity pastor or celebrity Christian of any kind is anything other than an oxymoron.  If Jesus, the eternal Son of God Himself become human, said that He came not to be served but to serve, to give His life as a ransom (Mark 10:45), who are we who go into ministry to think we need or deserve the spotlight?  Being a pastor, being a Christian and following Jesus, is all about serving, not being served.  Seeking to give your life for others, not seeking the spotlight. 

And the arrogance behind this kind of self-serving ambition ultimately leads to scandal. 

I have to question whether Lentz, or anyone who entertains such ambition, ever really knew Jesus at all.   If he knew the perfect, unconditional love of God, why would he ever feel the need for anything else, especially the spotlight?  What, the transcendent love of the Lord of the Universe isn’t enough?  You still have a void in your life that only the likes of Justin Bieber can fill?  You still feel the need for all the accolades that come with celebrity?  No, anyone who truly knows Jesus is fully satisfied in their relationship with God.  His grace is sufficient for us.  Knowing that He is always with us is all we need. 

What makes me sick to my stomach is that Lentz’s fall from grace has gotten in the way of countless numbers of people’s relationship with God.  Most people I talk to don’t reject Christianity because they’ve examined all the evidence and found it wanting; or because they’ve thought through the rationality of it and found it lacking; or because they saw who the real Jesus really is and didn’t find His love to be the best thing in the universe.  No, like my friend’s wife, most people I talk with have a story of some “Christian” getting in the way.  Most people I know who’ve rejected Christianity have rejected it because of people like Carl Lentz.  Whether it was some celebrity pastor or TV evangelist’s fall from grace, or something some pastor or Christian they knew personally said or did to them, they were turned off before they ever had a real chance to give it a real chance.

Before giving it a chance, before considering the evidence for it, before contemplating whether there might be anything good, beautiful, or true about it, many people watching Carl Lentz’s ambition and subsequent fall from grace have dismissed Christianity as a sham.

If you are one of those people, if someone has gotten in the way of you ever contemplating whether there could be anything good or beautiful or true about Christianity, I plead with you to give it one more chance. 

Our hearts were made for a perfect love—and the infinite joy that comes with it.  That’s why no earthly thing, no earthly love, can ever fully satisfy us.  Only God can.  Only Christ’s love can fill us with the transcendent love and bliss we were made for. 

It would be infuriating—not to mention tragic—if someone were to get in the way of your relationship with God.  So, don’t let anyone get in the way of your relationship with Jesus!

What do you think about Carl Lentz and his fall from grace?  Do you think a “celebrity pastor” is an oxymoron?  I’d love to hear your comments.  Go to the “Raising Jesus” website and leave them there.  I look forward to hearing from you!

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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