Justin Bieber Hillsong USA’s former church is in decline. Hyperpriests will endure.

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Is the era of the “hypepriest” over? The ousting of pastor-turned-celebrity Carl Lentz from Hillsong NYC, the controversy and legal issues swirling around Hillsong founder Brian Houston, and a recent documentary series chronicling alleged abuse at the notorious Hillsong church, would certainly lead some to believe that the American public is tired of expensively dressed pastors with famous friends and large social media followers.

America’s affinity for dramatic preaching, sex appeal, and stardom predates the American republic.

But while recent headlines have led to a precipitous decline of Hillsong USA churches, the famed pastor’s place in the United States is not in serious jeopardy. At least not yet.

America’s affinity for dramatic preaching, sex appeal, and stardom predates the American republic. George Whitefield was an actor in England before crossing the pond and used his gifts for self-promotion and ‘prettiest youth’ status to win young admirers and become the famous colonial preacher in the 1700s. Presbyterian Charles Finney’s places of worship in the 1800s were as much like theaters as sanctuaries, and he popularized “new measures” of engagement, such as emotional preaching and moving music, which entertained and revived the spiritual feelings of the faithful.

The 20th century brought enterprising American preachers new media to spread the good news. The attractiveness of preachers – their body, their voice and their demeanor – often went hand in hand with their success. Hellfire and Brimstone preacher Billy Sunday got it right and had suits tailored to display his athletic physique. Both women and men enjoyed his ultra-masculine preaching performances.

No group has harnessed the power of the mass media more effectively than the Pentecostal Christian movement, born at the dawn of media culture in the early 20th century. From the beginning, the early Pentecostals felt compelled to bring their miraculous good news to the “nations” before the prophesied second coming of Jesus. They quickly created newsletters and popular music that served as vehicles for their visions.

The Pentecostals also created stars. The advent of new technologies like radio, film and television seemed like a divine miracle to help Pentecostal preachers reach unprecedented global audiences. While many of the greatest famous preachers of the past were white men, Pentecostal celebrities included a diverse group of mass media moguls like Maria Woodworth Etter, Marcelino Manuel da Graça, aka “Sweet Daddy” Grace, and Ida Bell Robinson. .

Few have experienced the ups and downs of Pentecostal stardom like 1920s preaching sensation Aimee Semple McPherson. A transplant from Canada, McPherson moved to California and settled in Echo Park, a Los Angeles neighborhood known for its artistic residents. Nearly a century before Lentz used Hillsong hit music and his friendship with pop superstar Justin Bieber to reach the masses, McPherson inspired many musicians, illustrators, actors and set designers in Hollywood to help him. to convey its messages to the world.

People pray during a service at Hillsong Church on October 22, 2017 in New York City.
People pray during a service at Hillsong Church on October 22, 2017 in New York City.Andrés Kudacki / AP file

Long before Lentz attracted hipsters to Hillsong NYC, McPherson attracted flappers who were blown away by her glamorous personality and theatrical productions. While Lentz raised Joe Rogan’s eyebrows with his carefully sculpted and frequently exposed physique, McPherson wore form-fitting sequined dresses that enhanced his sex appeal. “She clings to the white,” observed one participant sarcastically, “and the fabric clings to her.”

If she were alive in the 2020s, there’s no doubt she’d be featured alongside Lentz on the “Preachers and Sneakers” Instagram account, which shows how a “celebrity-centric approach to Christian ministry” comes together. often conspicuous consumption.

Publicly, McPherson shrugged off her critics and showed what a famous woman preacher could accomplish in the United States. Her career has survived sex scandals, bizarre disappearance and reappearance, court trials and church splits. She built a mega-church (Angelus Temple), established a denomination (Foursquare Church), bought a radio station, and opened a Bible college.

Today, many Pentecostal and charismatic celebrities carry on this conservative political tradition.

McPherson also illustrated how famous preachers could shape the nation in concrete ways. She stoked American patriotism in her sermons, rallied against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair, and enthusiastically encouraged war bond rallies during World War II.

Today, many Pentecostal and charismatic celebrities carry on this conservative political tradition, especially in predominantly white organizations. Take former presidential candidate Pat Robertson, Charisma News editor and Trump prophecy promoter Steve Strang, or the many charismatic Pentecostal worship leaders who thronged the Oval Office for prayer and a session of photos with President Donald Trump in 2019. Popular televangelists like Paula White-Cain and preacher Tony Suarez have become indispensable assets to both Trump and conservative evangelical activism in the 21st century.

The rapid rise of Hillsong USA demonstrated how a new era of digital platforms could be used to attract high profile participants, drive rapid growth and shape public policy. Hillsong’s mega-hit “Shout to the Lord” became a mainstay of Christian radio and charismatic and evangelical church services in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and Carl Lentz was just one of many. young Americans who traveled to Australia to learn how to breed ardour. and the excitement they heard on Hillsong’s live worship albums. Lentz’s photogenic smile, talent for Southern Pentecostal preaching and ability to attract famous worshipers made him well-placed to translate Hillsong Australia into Hillsong USA.

Brian Houston, the Australian founder of Hillsong, had a grand vision for influencing the world and saw in Lentz the star power of the famous American preachers who had inspired him. Him too, prayed enthusiastically for the president at the White House in 2019, and celebrated Trump’s vision for a “strong America.” As heir to this model, Lentz used his considerable platform to promote conservative sexual ethics and condemn abortion. In a move that surprised some, Lentz also supported Black Lives Matter years before other Pentecostal and charismatic celebrities like televangelist Joel Osteen marched in memory of George Floyd.

Lentz’s star rose alongside other well-known preachers like Chad Veach in Los Angeles and Judah Smith in Seattle, and together they gave hope to many Pentecostals and Charismatics worried about the future. . Even though young people tend to drift away from Christian affiliation in the United States, savvy media ministries seemed able to reverse this trend. Congregations full of young and beautiful people singing pop songs to God in major culturally influential cities presented a visual rebuke to data indicating religious attendance was on the decline.

In fact, as celebrity-led mega-churches have grown, they have consolidated many Americans who still attend church (though much less frequently) into centers that create Christian content in the form of music, of dancing and preaching for consumers around the world. However, consolidation into star-ruled mega-churches comes with both risks and rewards. And Hillsong USA’s decline illustrates how living off jet-set fame and branding sometimes means dying from it too.

No matter how far Lentz and Hillsong USA have fallen, however, it would be a mistake to think that the American public will soon tire of celebrity-centric preachers. Always savvy innovators, many charismatic and Pentecostal preachers have found a market for their ministries that does not require a formal presence or affiliation. Upcoming “it” preachers with dramatic flair, catchy music and worldview draw millions of viewers – on TikTok or Instagram or YouTube or whatever.

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