Carl Lentz, CNN and Hipster Christianity
Earlier this week a segment aired on CNN about “hipster pastor” Carl Lentz, the heavily tattooed, dynamic personality who has helped make Hillsong Church in NYC the sort of place that piques mainstream journalists’ interest and occasionally draws paparazzi (celebrities sometimes attend). Back in March, CNN sent its correspondent, Poppy Harlow, to L.A. to interview me for the story. They filmed about 45 minutes of her interview with me, in which I spoke mostly about the general topic of “hipster Christianity” since I wrote the book on the subject. Only a few lines from my interview made it into the final segment. Watch it below (my part comes in about 5 minutes into the segment) and then I’ll share a few further reflections on the matter:
A few brief reflections:
- I have nothing personal against Carl Lentz or Hillsong NYC. I’ve never met him and never attended his church. When CNN interviewed me for the story I made it clear to them that I was speaking about the broad trend of hipster Christianity and hipster pastors, but that I knew little if anything about Lentz specifically. Naturally the way the piece is edited it seems like I’m being pit against Lentz as a skeptic or critic, but really I’m just skeptical of the broad trends of churches trying so hard to be cool and pastors aspiring to be hip.
- In general I am a fan of the Hillsong movement. Hillsong has planted thriving churches all over the globe and that is something I absolutely applaud. I’ve visited two Hillsong churches (London and Paris) and in Hipster Christianity I wrote very nice things about my experience at Hillsong Paris.
- It’s interesting to me that the media is so fascinated by Lentz and Hillsong NYC, as if Lentz is the first hipster celebrity pastor and Hillsong NYC is the first megachurch to succeed in NYC. During my interview with Poppy Harlow I tried to emphasize that this was not a new trend, that hipster pastors are a dime a dozen and that “cool” has been the holy grail of American evangelicalism for quite some time now; Lentz is just the latest example. I suspect proximity has something to do with why Lentz is such a darling of the media (here’s a Details profile of him that also features quotes from me). The media is in NYC. So is Carl Lentz. But so are many other well-known pastors, many of whom are arguably more widely respected and influential (I’m looking at you Tim Keller). For the media, though, a bearded Bieber friend is a more compelling story than a balding Bible scholar.
- In response to my comments in the CNN piece, some people tweeted things like “Don’t you see that it’s just a different medium? The message is what matters.” I would agree that the message is crucial, but I would also say the message cannot be divorced from the way it is communicated. Marshall McLuhan was on to something when he said the medium IS the message. The form matters. We can’t pretend that the gospel presented via tweet is the exact same thing as the gospel preached from a pulpit, or face to face around a dinner table. Likewise, we are foolish to think that a church that looks and feels like a nightclub, with a pastor who struts around like a runway model, in no way changes the “message” of what is being communicated about the gospel. Likewise, an Anglican church with pews and robes and hymns, with no screens or smoke machines, colors the message in a totally different (not necessarily better) way. The gospel is not just an ethereal set of words and ideas; it’s something incarnate, living, embodied. The look, feel, touch and sound of it is inextricably linked to (if not the substance of) its meaning. The message inheres in the medium. That is one of the biggest points I wanted to make in Hipster Christianity.