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Influencer Pastor Carl Lentz Has Been Fired From The Hip Megachurch That Made Him Famous. Could His Career...Be Resurrected?

In this week's newsletter: I ponder what the hypepriest will do after Hillsong, and belatedly, why the "I voted" selfie has felt both more and less impactful than ever this year.

Posted on November 13, 2020, at 8:00 a.m. ET

This is an excerpt from Please Like Me, BuzzFeed News’ newsletter about how influencers are battling for your attention. You can sign up here.

When a celebrity pastor no longer has his church to collab with

The best time for celebrities to have a public scandal is during a historic and chaotic election.

Last week, famous hypepriest influencer pastor Carl Lentz was in luck. As most of us were tirelessly watching our democracy both work and falter, news broke that Carl (haha I love calling him just “Carl” — feels appropriately disempowering) had been fired from Hillsong Church, the cool megachurch that’s attracted celebrities like Justin Bieber and Vanessa Hudgens.

Brian Houston, the church’s founder and global pastor, released a statement on Election Day last week that they had “terminated the employment of Pastor Carl Lentz” due to “ongoing discussions in relation to leadership issues and breaches of trust, plus a recent revelation of moral failures.”

With one eye on Electoral College calls, I had another set of eye emojis on this drama. The church gave a very vague statement for a BIG action it had taken against a figurehead who’s become synonymous with its global brand. It’d be like if McDonald’s fired Ronald McDonald and couldn’t provide any clear reasons why.

But I have questions. What are the supposed “ongoing” problems with his leadership at the church? What kind of moral or legal trust did he allegedly “breach”? And what was the “recent revelation” that seemed like the calamitous impetus for his firing??

Carl answered one of these major questions last week. Following the announcement, he posted a photo on Instagram of him and his family with a lengthy caption confirming that he had in fact been ousted. He also stated that he was “unfaithful in [his] marriage” to his wife and he is beginning “a journey of rebuilding trust” with her. Carl also asked his Instagram followers (almost 700,000 of them) for their forgiveness. He ended the long caption by saying, “We, the Lentz family, don’t know what this next chapter will look like, but we will walk into it together very hopeful and grateful for the grace of God.”

There have been all kinds of fallouts since his admission. Some self-identifying Christians on TikTok and Facebook seemed quick to forgive their beloved pastor, while Justin and Hailey Bieber both reportedly unfollowed the “disgraced” pastor on Instagram this week. Over the weekend, Brian then posted another cryptic message about the ordeal, tweeting, “Don’t judge anything to [sic] quickly. Time is a great revealer.” This implies there is still more relevant information to Carl’s termination that is being withheld for whatever reason. Here’s a personal message to Brian: No, you be the “great revealer” — tell us what happened!

Don’t judge anything to quickly. Time is a great revealer.

Of course, I tried to probe. Interestingly, though, emails I sent to Hillsong and Carl keep bouncing back. Then, on Thursday, Brian announced on Twitter that the megachurch is “launching an independent investigation into the inner workings of Hillsong NYC/East Coast.” HMMM.

Following publishing this week's newsletter, the church sent me a statement that they've hired a third-party legal firm based in New York to investigate the church that Carl founded.

"It is important that we establish the truth and then do everything we can to ensure our church is both a safe place and one that seeks to glorify God in all that we say and do," said a spokesperson for Hillsong Church.

"For this reason we have decided to appoint a New York based legal firm that is not associated or affiliated with Hillsong to conduct an in-depth review and investigation into all concerns and any wider cultural issues."

What intrigues me even more about this whole thing is what it now means for Carl’s career in the real world and in the evangelical universe. Carl’s success was built on taking advantage of technology and modern culture, while continuing to preach age-old religious dogmas. His high-profile pastorship at Hillsong gave him tons of credibility in the Christian community, but he has also built a personal brand on social media sharing his flashy life running in celebrity circles and flexing his streetwear fits. He appeals to saccharine followers of the Christian faith/church, fans of celebrities, and those in between. So what happens when we remove one major infrastructure of his success? What will Carl do as an influencer now that he no longer has the church’s cosign?

In short: I think he’ll be fine. If anything, he might even thrive post-Hillsong.

In 2020, because of COVID, parishioners aren’t attending the New York City Hillsong flagship church anymore in person. Its service livestreams get a decent amount of viewership. But I’m not so certain anymore if Carl needs Hillsong like Hillsong needs Carl — economically speaking, that is.

Carl most likely will take this personal time to be with his family, “heal,” and pray, etc., etc. His public image needs it, whether he’s actually doing it or not. He could then focus primarily on preaching on his personal platforms and grow them exponentially. He could start his own YouTube channel where he might have even more flexibility to marry celebrity and hype culture with evangelicalism. The content could be some mix of sit-down interviews with A-listers about their relationship with God, “What I Eat in a Day” videos...thinking about God, and sneaker unboxing hauls...that our father, who art in heaven, would endorse. Like other celebrities and influencers, Carl could finally join TikTok and rub elbows with its unique celebrities. He could baptize Charli D’Amelio in her family’s ritzy outdoor pool. He could read scripture to the Sway Boys as they lazily dance to Pop Smoke in their gym.

You get my point. The opportunities could be endless and fruitful if he were serious about taking his influencer pastor career solo.

Influencing in many ways is proselytizing, and pastors are influencers of religion. What are influencers doing daily if not preaching to a selective audience about how they should be thinking, living, eating, and using their purchasing powers? In some ways, Carl was built to sustain this career blow: He’s a celebrity of his own making, and he most likely will take his preachings off a podium and into a front-facing camera.

The “I voted” selfie has become both more and less meaningful than ever

Instagram / @loren / @kimkardashian

Belatedly, I want to talk about how pervasive the “I voted” selfie was last week. These photos were all over my personal feed and my celebrity/influencer finsta feed. They’ve become the symbol of political engagement, however authentically or performatively.

There were a few millennials I know personally who wrote captions like, “I normally don’t post selfies” or “I normally wouldn’t have thought to take a selfie after voting, but this election was important to me.” The normalization of the “I voted” selfie in 2020 makes perfect sense to me; the more we model social media closer to our IRL lives, the more selfies and photos we’ll see in general. And as young people who’ve grown up with technology become increasingly politically engaged, they’ll naturally be more inclined to share.

But I think this deluge of the “I voted selfie” can make the statement more impactful and less impactful simultaneously. More people posting them can mean that they’re more aware and participatory than ever, and, most importantly, unafraid to have public discourse about politics. (And the more we can move on from “I don’t like talking about politics” rhetoric that has shielded brands and personalities from responsibility in the past. I love that!)

However, I also wonder how many “I voted” selfies were taken out of social pressure to, well, further shield themselves from the responsibility of actually being informed and engaged. Voting is a great first step in an active democracy, but it can beg the question: Did this person or influencer vote from their own informed value system, or in response to the anxiety of not being called out?

The Biden versus Trump election forced many people out of the comfort of neutrality, which is great. And the “I voted” selfie is a launching pad to having any dialogue about social and political issues. But the intent behind these kinds of photos is as enigmatic and complicated as ever. What’s clear is that, this year, the “I voted” selfie is the single most popular symbol for political awareness.

Until next time,

Tanya

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