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Carl Lentz and the ‘Hot Pastor’ Problem

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Editor’s Note: This op-ed about the problem of the “hot pastor” in Christian culture originally appeared on ReligionNews.com.

(RNS) — For how much the Bible tells us what Jesus said and what he meant, it’s striking how little it tells us about his appearance. Based on his ethnicity and birthplace, he was almost certainly brown-skinned, with dark eyes and hair. He had a beard. But the only comment on the Messiah’s looks comes from the biblical prophet Isaiah, who Christians believe foretold Jesus’ arrival in Israel: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”

Translation: Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t hot.

So it’s striking that the most successful church-growth trend in the United States, one ostensibly meant to point people to Jesus, is putting forward male leaders who are, by conventional standards, physically attractive. In the world of megachurches, charisma more than character has become a requirement for leadership — and it’s axiomatic that physical beauty is a key component of charisma, especially if you are trying to attract other beautiful people.

After all, the gospel is for hot people, too. If hot pastors are what God uses to take the Good News to hot people, well, God works in mysterious ways, some requiring very toned biceps.

We can debate whether Carl Lentz, the lead pastor of Hillsong NYC who was recently fired for “moral failures” was, by any objective calculation, hot. With his chiseled jawline, bright smile and toned muscles, all shown off in plunging V-necks and shirtless Instagram photos, Lentz, 36, certainly played the part, and he certainly made inroads with the beautiful. He famously baptized Justin Bieber in 2014. (His dismissal as lead pastor, apparently for an extramarital affair, has been covered by Vanity Fair and People magazine.)

And the formula worked: Since Lentz founded Hillsong NYC, the Manhattan outpost of the global church famous for its come-as-you-are rock music jams and concert lighting, its services have drawn some 8,000 weekly attendees, Kylie and Kendall Jenner, Selena Gomez and the basketball star Kevin Durant among them.

In the wake of Lentz’s “moral failures,” it’s worth asking what systems his church provided, or failed to provide, to hold him and other leaders accountable. Lentz made his own bad choices, but this week, a former member described a culture at Hillsong that “thrives on inequity” and rewards leaders with “privilege, power and self-importance” while asking “lesser” members to carry the behind-the-scenes load. It’s no wonder that he became untethered.

He also swam in waters that reward form over substance. Today’s sexualized, glossy version of the megachurch pastor is calculated to replace the stereotype of a frumpy pastor in pleated khakis and a combover. With skinny jeans, tattoos and tight abs, the hot pastor is commissioned to bring souls to Jesus by mimicking the temptations of social media thirst traps. But if you embody that culture, you risk becoming it. Hotness is as hotness does.

Lentz’s literal interpretation of muscular Christianity curiously conflicts with the evangelical subculture’s teaching to women, who are cautioned from a young age to manage men’s insatiable lust. In youth group talks I attended growing up, modesty was a uniquely female virtue, and we were trained to quell sexual temptation by how we dressed and carried ourselves.