Ex- Hillsong preacher Carl Lentz is on the verge of hitting 600K followers on Instagram. He and other pastors such as Chad Veach (Zoe Church in Los Angeles), Judah Smith (Churchome in Seattle) or Rich Wilkerson Jr. (Vous Church in Miami) are used to sharing the gospel on social media. They also appear in paparazzi photos, surrounding themselves with the likes of Justin Bieber and Kanye West all the while living lavish lifestyles.
This trend of inspiring supporters through communication technology has been around since seventeenth-century England, and famous evangelists like Billy Graham has used secular media as a tool for their ministry. In 1989, he began a series of Crusades via satellite extending his preaching to live audiences in more than 185 countries and territories.
Although incorporating celebrity culture in religion is not new, the social media exposure of spiritual leaders is slowly closing the gap between celebrity pastor and regular celebrity.
What don’t you like about church ?
Evangelical Protestants are the largest religious group in the U.S. and are accounting for 25.4% of the population in 2023. Nonetheless, this proportion has been in decline for a long time since grapes of American adults are starting to describe themselves as atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular.
Megachurches (i.e., Protestant congregation having 2 000 or more people in average weekend attendance) have been trying to offer something different from traditional evangelicalism. Pioneering pastor Rober H. Schuller and his disciple Bill Hybels popularized the idea that churches should heavily focus on reaching seekers, the ones who distanced themselves from God but are still seeking for meaning in their lives. He believed that leaders could use marketing strategies to find out what they didn’t like about church and tailor its service according to their answers.
The Australian Hillsong congregation has churches in 30 countries and an average global attendance of 150 000 believers weekly. As a seeker sensitive church, Hillsong tries reaching out to the unsaved person by making the church experience more inviting, comfortable and entertaining. Hillsong managed to curate a brand image promoting a more progressive form of Christianity involving theatrics and musical skits, fashion.
Indeed, megachurches offices are using technology and celebrities guests appearance to offer a high end religious experience to the audience. The goal is to create an emotionally highly charged atmosphere designed to foster the worshipper’s connection to God. As soon as you walk into the venue, you are blinded by the lights and cannot help but notice the massive LED screens along with the multiple cameras.
According to Kelly Bollman who has been involved on the volunteer creative team of Hillsong New York, Hillsong “off-platform” identity is has important has the “on-platform” one. The off-platform identity is curated on social media and in the persona of media-trained pastors that transcend what it means to be Christian.
Relatables narratives of Christianity
Hillsong offers a message even seekers can digest by preaching what is relevant to daily life : dating, confidence, grief and so on. Since relatability appeals to younger worshipers, pastors passionately share the ups and downs of their spiritual journey. Vox explained how evangelical church was turning into “a gathering place for the cool kids, the kids who might have had too much to drink the night before but know they’re welcome no matter what on Sunday morning”. Pastors are using the language and rhetoric of the social media-savvy Millennials and Generation Z. Services available for streaming on Hillsong’s Website display titles such as “Relevance: Hole-y Jeans or Holy Life?”.
Megachurches are also adding a dose of prosperity gospel theology to their narrative, teaching the mass that God will reward believers with material benefit and success for their faithfulness. Evangelical celebrities feed this belief with their posts showcasing lavish luxury lifestyle and A-list friends. Moreover, megachurches often cultivate the image of culturally, diverse and young communities.
Megachurches are producing a new generation of Celebrities for Jesus, a term coined by Katelyn Beaty in her book Celebrities for Jesus: How Personas, Platforms, and Profits Are Hurting the Church. She explores the way celebrity culture has shaped the American Church. She distinguishes fame, the attention arising from an act of virtue from celebrity that relies on the tool of mass media to project an image of ourselves. Celebrity pastors are key opinion leaders and are using different tactics to make themselves appealing to their followers.
Pastors cautiously curate their Instagram feeds with selfies, inspirational messages of self-care , promotional posts urging their followers to buy their books or the latest footage of the Sunday service. About the latter, behind-the-scenes of the worships provide leaders with an aura of importance. Ferris and Harris explain that the asymmetry of knowledge between pastors and audience is a common indicator of religious celebrity. Pastor rarely interacts off-stage with the congregation but knows that his physical absence is more than compensated by his media presence. A media-trained spiritual leader carefully balances between privacy and publicity while shaping his persona as a celebrity.
However, scandals can still occur, as seen in the case of Carl Lentz, the former lead pastor at Hillsong Church in New York City, who was dismissed in 2020 a moral failure. He was caught having an extramarital affair and held accountable for not upholding the values he so convincingly preached.
Rich in faith and dollars
The line between pastors and their fellow celebrities starts to be blurred when the spiritual leaders engage in a transactional relationship with their followers.
Megachurches often expose their communities to paid services, and lead pastors can make significant profits from book sales and merchandising. Both online followers and Sunday attendees serve as potential customers.
Pastor Rich Wilkerson Jr. achieved a new level of stardom when he starred in his own TV show Rich in Faith along with his wife DawnCheré Wilkerson, also a lead pastor. The Christian couple have their own Youtube Channel called Official Rich & DC. Thanks to their content creation activity, their net work oscillates between 1$ to 4$ million dollars as of 2023.
Beliebers turned Believers : when celebrity become religious brand ambassadors
Selena Gomez, Kendall Jenner or Chris Pratt have been vocal about their faith online. However, Justin Bieber and Hillsong have taken their spiritual partnership to a new level. Back in 2014, the singer was a PR disaster, regularly making headlines wherever he was illegally importing a pet monkey or spending a night in jail for underage drag racing.
At his lowest, he got baptized in an NBA player’s bathtub by none other than Pastor Lentz. Since then, his relationship with Hillsong is an essential part of his social media brand. On Instagram, Bieber is a vocal Christian and more importantly a vocal Hillsong supporter, appearing at Hillsong events alongside Lentz and speaking in tongues on his posts.
In 2017, he even posted an Instagram Live of him praising God to a heartfelt piano melody. Bieber was performing a song written by the Christian rock band Hillsong United followed by 2.5 million souls on Instagram. Hillsong is known for its focus on Christian pop songs that are not solemn hymns, still in a move to attract seekers. This led them to produce millions of dollars’ worth of albums and singles, all available on regular music streaming services.
Bieber is a perfect representative for Hillsong as he provides media attention for the megachurch, while benefiting from their redemption narrative.
Also, Bieber is Christian, but not too Christian. His Christianity is seen through the lyrics of some of his songs but is tamed so that non-believers are under the impression they are listening to a conventional love song. His fans love it and so does the church, benefiting from the pop stars’ following, the Beliebers.
A fairly conservative theology
Various articles criticize how Hillsong’s curated forward-thinking and youthful brand clashes with its underlying conservative evangelical theology. One issue is that the church leaders do not endorse homosexual lifestyles, as noted in a 2015 blog post by Hillsong’s founder, Brian Houston.
Moreover, only 3% of evangelical churches in America have a female lead pastor, according to the latest National Congregations Study from Duke University. Even when women are co-pastors, their male partners are still seen as the primary preachers.
As a result, they successfully invest in social media for self-expression purposes. Like their male counterparts, they are white, charismatic and good-looking individual. Holly Furtick married to Steven Furtick, lead pastor of Elevation Church has half a million followers on Instagram, runs an online book club and hosts a Youtube Channel with 78 000 subscribers. She also has a website showcasing her favorite recipe and a shop where customers can buy worship merchandise. While evangelical digital culture offers female leaders a space of influence, this authority is not transgressive enough to challenge the patriarchal structure within churches. Female microcelebrities serve as visual examples of a good Christian woman devoted to marriage and motherhood, but they don’t fundamentally challenge traditional gender roles.
It is evident that megachurches are conflicted between modernity and traditionalism. Their seeker sensitive model is consumer oriented, catering to fill the desire with the bored unchurched. Megachurches design an entertaining and immersive religious experience in which pastors and celebs play a pivotal role. Religious content creators are appealing to the believers and non-believers because they are inspiring and trendy. But for Christian celebrities, social media are not the place of Biblical transgression but rather a showcase of the ideal concept of the Christian Life. And they sometimes struggle to live up to that.
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