Celebrity pastor Carl Lentz on caring for stars like Bieber
And why our clickbaity headline doesn’t get to the heart of it
Hillsong NYC’s Carl Lentz is one of those “celebrity pastors” who regularly gets snapped in photos that end up on US celebrity gossip media like TMZ.
Whether the label “celebrity pastor” means he is a pastor to celebrities or is regarded as a celebrity himself is unclear. It’s also not a distinction Lentz is going to lose sleep over.
“I think when people say ‘celebrity pastor’ it’s normally coming from people that don’t have a giant worldview to pull from,” he says. “So, I allow it because I’m not gonna fight people on their titles, but I don’t subscribe to it, don’t believe it’s true. We know who we are and it’s the furthest thing from a celebrity. But we also understand that there’s a big platform that comes with some of this and try to handle it with grace … but it’s just not what we are.”
But Carl Lentz does hang out with a lot of celebrities, so not all the celebrity talk is mere wild conjecture.
“Yeah, we hang out with a lot of people,” he acknowledges. “New York is filled with celebrities, regular people, random people, famous people, homeless people. And if our church is really reaching ‘the world,’ I think we should have a really good reflection of that in church. And we have that.
“We don’t spend an extreme amount of time with celebrities, but we do know people who the world knows as well. And sometimes that comes with flak, comes with extra notoriety, and you just try to handle it the best you can [and] just go ‘We’re living a regular life in a really incredible city and sometimes there’s people you’re going to recognise in our house, in church, and it is what it is.’”
Lentz might be keen to emphasise how normal it all is, but what does it actually look like when the person in question is pop star Justin Bieber, NBA player Kevin Durant or model Hailey Baldwin? Aren’t all these people used to being treated in a certain way?
“I’m gonna figure out your world, your rhythm, try to figure out what has brought you to this place, and try to be the most normal me I can be.” – Carl Lentz
He says the famous people he knows “want to be regular people” and “are regular people”. But, he says, people can make a situation awkward with a famous person if they act like they’re not and “just overdo trying to treat them like a regular person”.
Lentz likens it to how he’d relate to someone with a special need. For example, if someone was deaf, he says “I’m gonna acknowledge that you’re deaf and I’m gonna learn sign language because that doesn’t mean you’re different, means you’re special. And I think when someone is famous, I use the same strategy. I’m gonna figure out your world, your rhythm, try to figure out what has brought you to this place, and try to be the most normal me I can be – which normally produces the normal them as well.
“It’s just life. It’s loving people for who they are,” he says with a shrug.
He also says that spending time with celebrities is less glamorous than most people would think.
“When you hang out with an athlete, they normally have a calendar season that you know. They’re either training, in a game, not in a game. But with Justin [Bieber], he’s doing music, or he’s on tour doing the music he just recorded. So, with him, it can look like sitting in the studio for hours, which I’ve done,” he says simply.
“Normally it involves me being around whatever he’s doing and that’s as unspectacular as it is.” – Carl Lentz
Lentz recalls a funny story spent in the studio with Justin who was recording a song in Spanish that would go on to be a massive hit, Despacito. That night, being a friend to Justin looked like sitting in a studio in Colombia, writing lyrics down phonetically so that Justin would get their pronunciation right. “Normally it involves me being around whatever he’s doing and that’s as unspectacular as it is.”
He says people imagine hanging out with a star like Bieber would be like being in a spaceship or riding around in fancy cars. “And it’s really not like that, because he’s a prisoner to the culture.”
Lentz becomes serious. “One time I was with him [Justin Bieber] recently and he said, ‘It’s weird to think that God gave me all these gifts but I can’t ever experience any of life.’” He tells Eternity he was struck by Bieber’s transparency and immediately understood what the megastar was getting at.
“Sometimes he can’t really go out. It’s not like we can go out to dinner, so dinner comes to us. We can’t really go to a movie, so we have to have a movie come to us.
“And that seems cool if you don’t know why … [but] how cool it would be to go just go get a freaking cup of coffee without people coming up to you and creating a narrative and you don’t want to talk to people or whatever?” he explains.
“It just it wears on the soul. So, it’s not as cool as people think.”
In fact, Bieber values the time spent with the Lentz family just doing a lot of normal stuff.
“Justin is one of those guys who is a lot of fun but a lot of that part of his life – his adolescence – was stolen from him because he was famous. So, for him, I think he loves just to do normal stuff. Like he plays with my kids more than he plays with me. So, if he comes over to our house, he’s on a bike, riding, or playing hockey in the front yard. Just stuff that you would want to do if you had a regular life.”
Eternity’s conversation with Lentz is taking place at Sydney’s Hillsong Conference one day after Prime Minister Scott Morrison was invited on to the stage by Hillsong’s Global Senior Pastor Brian Houston to pray.
It’s also just one month after US Pastor David Platt of the non-denominational McLean Bible Church in Virginia made headlines after praying for US President Donald Trump who turned up at the church’s Sunday service unannounced. Platt, of course, is only one of many Christian leaders who have come under fire for fraternising with the controversial President.
So does Lentz think his keep-it-simple approach with celebrities applies when the “celebrity” in question is a politician, rather than an artist or sportsperson?
“I thought that we were supposed to reach the lost? Does that not include people who are politically famous?” – Carl Lentz
Lentz takes a moment to respond and then says that he respects the pastors who do it for the right reasons. He has a pastor friend who he thinks handles his friendship with President Trump well.
“He doesn’t agree with everything the President does, but he’s under an obligation as a Christian to love people,” he explains. “And it’s easy to do that when we’re talking about like the dude with heroin, you know, [with] a needle in his arm – it’s, like, all ‘We love everybody’. But yet if we see a pastor with a politician, we hate it. We’re like, ‘This guy’s selling out!’
“I thought that we were supposed to reach the lost? Does that not include people who are politically famous? That don’t have it all right?” Lentz asks.
“So, I think in our country there’s a little bit of a mix of both people – [Those pastors] who are in it for the wrong reasons, and then there’s some pastors who are just doing their freaking job. Like, that’s what God called him to do and they didn’t pick it, but they’re doing it with honour and I respect that.”
Most church communities won’t end up with someone like Bieber sitting in the pews, but many do have to negotiate the dynamic of a church member who has a higher profile, be they a local politician, sportsperson or artist. So Eternity asked Lentz what advice he’d offer in such situations.
“I think it’s always cool to honour people,” he replies. “I’m always the guy who, if I met somebody that I didn’t know and they were the Mayor, for example, I would say ‘It’s awesome that you’re the Mayor. I think what you do is incredible, and we’re praying for you, and I can’t imagine what it’s like.’”
The point, he explains, is to react genuinely and be secure in who you are.
“When you try to act like you don’t care who they are, that’s not genuine. You definitely do! So, I think you have to really fight to be you and be secure.”
Sometimes insecurity can cause someone to try to bridge the conversation. They might, for example, tell a local Mayor “Oh, I did politics in high school”. That’s unnecessary, Lentz says. “You can just love people for where they are.”
The most important thing he’s learnt is to never be a taker because “often that’s the currency of fame”.
“It’s like, ‘What can you do for me?’… ‘You’re famous, you can make me more famous, you can make me richer, you can make my profile grow’.
“My thing is to make sure I never do what everybody else has done. And I think when people sense that, especially if it’s somebody coming into a church setting, it’s different,” he explains.
“Guard the sacred space of having an opportunity to influence someone like that.” – Carl Lentz
Lentz says there can be a temptation to ask someone with a high profile, “Can I get a photo with you real quick and put that on my church Instagram feed so then everybody could know.”
But the temptation absolutely must be resisted – even if the person agrees to doing it and smiles in the moment because, “in their heart they’re like, ‘Here we go again. Someone’s using my surface and missing out on the depth of who I am.'”
The key is to “guard the sacred space of having an opportunity to influence someone like that,” but Lentz is the first to admit he hasn’t always got this right, saying, “I think sometimes I’ve misread situations.”
“Sometimes, I’ve just taken somebody at their word rather than take some time to really say ‘Maybe they think they have to do this,'” he admits. “So, there are a couple situations I would go back and do differently, but I’ve learned from them and move on.
“Other than that I’m a perfect pastor!” he jokes.