Hillsong and Hyperpriests
Dr. Leah Payne of Portland Seminary has a good article on The rise and fall of Hillsong's 'hypepriests' which is a sobering read.
Is the era of the “hypepriest” over? The ouster of pastor-turned-celebrity Carl Lentz of Hillsong NYC, the controversy and legal troubles swirling around Hillsong founder Brian Houston and a recent documentary series chronicling alleged abuse in the famously famous Hillsong Church, might certainly lead some to believe that the American public has tired of expensively dressed pastors with famous friends and large social media followings.
The answer of course is “No,” because, as Payne points out:
While recent headlines have led to a precipitous decline in Hillsong USA churches, the celebrity pastor’s place in the United States is not under serious threat. At least not yet.
Payne goes on to talk about pioneer celebrity pastors like Aimee Semple McPherson in LA in the 1920s-40s, the relationship between Charismatic Christianity and American politics, and the rise of Hillsong in the USA thanks to digital media. Yet the Hillsong scandals, esp. those surrounding Carl Lentz, mean that for every rise there has to be a fall. This leads Payne to conclude that celebrity creation, as a means of church growth, cuts both ways: “The decline of Hillsong USA illustrates how living by jet-setting celebrity and branding also sometimes means dying by it.”
Nonetheless, Payne points out that American religious culture - and I would add other places too - are still fit for celebrity Christian leaders to thrive because the platforms exist to create them.
No matter how far Lentz and Hillsong USA has fallen, it would be a mistake, however, to think that the American public will soon tire of celebrity-centric preachers. Ever the savvy innovators, many charismatic and Pentecostal preachers have found a market for their ministries that does not require attendance or official affiliation. The next “it” preachers with dramatic flair, catchy music and a vision for the world are attracting audiences by the million — on TikTok or Instagram or YouTube or whatever comes next.
So what is the antidote to Christian celebritism?
Well, I think, there is a simple solution, to see ministry as the service of God rather than about the cult of self.
A Christian pastor should shepherd the flock, not fleece the sheep.
A Christian minister serves God by serving others, their congregation and their community.
In other words, preach Jesus, live like Jesus, then be forgotten!
Dr. Anthony Bradley, Kings College, has his own good response to Payne’s article
On Thursday I’ll do a follow-up post, I’m a Christian Celebrity, Get Me Outta Here!