New Frontiers In Hipster Christianity
Pastor Carl Lentz of the New York City outpost of Hillsong, the international megachurch movement, went on The View yesterday. Introducing him as a “buff hipster,” one of the hosts asked him straightaway what his church teaches on abortion and homosexuality. You can see the entire clip here. He dodged the homosexuality question entirely, and on abortion … well, watch above.
Here’s the thing: Pastor Carl and his church are officially against same-sex relationships and abortion. From a largely sympathetic GQ profile of him:
Pastor Carl doesn’t like that he’s considered a bigot simply because he doesn’t share the views you tend to find in blue-state big cities—that you can be gay, you can abort your fetus, you can do whatever you’d like with your body, really. He’s happy to discuss about it, but he doesn’t like being challenged on this by people who don’t believe in the God of the Bible, because how could they possibly understand why he’s reached these conclusions if you’re not starting from the same place? He says that if he could just show a person how to walk with Jesus, really walk with him every day, it would be easy to resist the temptation of loving someone of your own gender. But, Carl begs me, don’t miss the point: It’s important to him that we know that everyone is welcome at his church—that homosexuality isn’t a different kind of sin to him than, say, tithing at 9 percent instead of 10 percent, or gossiping or telling a lie. Everyone should feel welcome at Hillsong.
And everyone is, but with footnotes. Earlier in the year it came out that a male leader of the New York choir was in a committed Christian relationship with a male singer in the choir. Whether or not this was an open secret within the church is not completely clear, but when it came out publicly, Joel’s father, Pastor Brian, was forced to clarify out loud that, yes, the church is against two men in a relationship.
“These two men in particular are amazing human beings,” Carl continued, and he starts to cry at this, at how painful this was for everyone involved. …
So make no mistake: He believes being gay, or getting an abortion, is a sin, and he believes Jesus wouldn’t disagree. But more than any of that, he only believes those are the headlines of your life. They are not your story. Your sin is not the biggest part of you, no matter how much it might feel that way.
Here, from that GQ profile, are a couple of descriptions of Pastor Carl’s church:
I was witnessing the logical conclusion of an evolutionary convergence between coolness and Christianity that began at the dawn of the millennium, when progressive-minded Christians, terrified of a faithless future, desperately rended their garments and replaced them with skinny jeans and flannel shirts and piercings in the cartilage of their ears, in a very ostentatious effort to be more modern and more relatable. Which is why, today, you can find ironically bespectacled evangelicals in Seattle and graphic designers soliciting tithes with hand-drawn Helvetica flyers in San Diego. You can walk into mega-churches all over the country where the pastor will slap on a pair of leather pants and drop the F-bomb BOOM how do you like me now??
But doesn’t it always feel like they’re trying too hard? Those guys make me think of Starman, when Jeff Bridges is trying to say “Yo, what’s up?” to Karen Allen but he says “I send greetings” instead.
The book on Hillsong, however—the other book, lowercase b—is that they’re the real article: the world’s first genuinely cool church. “The music! The lights! The crowds!” begins an incredulous woman narrating a CNN segment on Hillsong NYC in smarmy CNNese. “It looks like a rock concert. And the lines around the block are enough to make any nightclub envious.” The chyron reads “Hipster preacher smashes stereotypes.” They call Pastor Carl a hipster—ABC actually said “hipster heartthrob”—and Carl says he doesn’t know what that means, and he wears a motorcycle jacket when he says this.
Before the service had begun that day, a woman in her early twenties who was saving the entire row for latecomer friends told me she had been coming to Hillsong for two years, that every week she brings more and more friends because where else in New York can you find such a spiritual place? She used to go to a Greek Orthodox church—every single person I met at Hillsong was a churchgoer somewhere else before he or she began going to church at Hillsong—but it was long and boring there and she was doing it out of family obligation. I told her I could relate. She told me she liked that the pastors here sounded like her. “And they encourage me to be better.” I asked her what that meant, and she told me that I had to understand that it wasn’t easy out there. That her job was stressful and that holding these seats for her friends, who are always late, was stressful. When her gang showed up, three songs in, five of them were wearing the hat.
“The Hat” is a particular kind of millinery favored by Pastor Joel, who leads the church with Pastor Carl. The story says a whole lot of people at this cool church follow Pastor Joel’s fashion lead. Anyway, she left Orthodoxy to worship at a church which was entertaining and the pastor looked like her and offered her a therapeutic experience, because life in the big city requires things like saving seats for one’s friends, and that’s just so stressful.
Huh. Here’s stressful, sister. If hipster church isn’t preparing you to be a hero like that man, you are wasting your time.
Denny Burk observes that on The View, when Pastor Carl was asked about racism, he spoke at length to condemn it in no uncertain terms. Burk nails him:
The pastor is willing to speak with moral clarity about racism. He condemns it outright and is congratulated by the hosts for doing so. But when asked for the same kind of moral clarity about abortion and homosexuality, he backs down. Why? Clearly the hosts approve his condemnation of racism but would not have approved a condemnation of abortion or homosexuality. A pastor must never stick his finger to the wind to determine when and where to offer moral clarity. No, he must be morally serious at all times and has no right to pick and choose when he’ll speak the truth and when he won’t. If he is God’s man, then he must always be completely truthful.
But that won’t get you invited on The View to sell your book. Or at least won’t get you invited back. And it might cause your celebrity posse (Justin Bieber et alia) to leave you behind. This Nigerian Christian pro-life activist is unsparing:
— Obianuju Ekeocha (@obianuju) November 7, 2017