At the beginning of this month, Hillsong NYC pastor Carl Lentz was fired. A day after the news went public, he posted a picture of his family on Instagram admitting he was unfaithful in his marriage. Both before and after the news, Lentz made headlines across Christian and secular media for his popularity and successful ministry—as well as the “hipster” pastor look he popularized.
When Lentz co-founded Hillsong NYC with Joel Houston in 2010, the church drew lines around the block and caught the eye of A-list celebrities, none more famous than Justin Bieber. Lentz, who became famous for his wire-rimmed glasses, plunging V-necks, and designer sneakers, himself became subject of a number of profiles. As Taffy Brodesser-Akner wrote in a GQ feature:
“The music! The lights! The crowds!” begins an incredulous woman narrating a CNN segment on Hillsong NYC . “It looks like a rock concert.” The chyron reads “Hipster preacher smashes stereotypes.” They call Pastor Carl a hipster. Carl says he doesn’t know what that means, and he wears a motorcycle jacket when he says this.
Pastor Joel is unwilling to acknowledge that there’s something going on here. Yes, he tells me, sure, he likes clothes. But that’s the end of it. I should ask Pastor Carl about the clothes, he tells me. What Pastor Carl does, he says—that’s intentional, and then he laughs.
This week on Quick to Listen, we wanted to discuss the attention around a new generation of fashion-forward pastors. What does it reveal about ministry? But what does our fascination with this aesthetic reveal more broadly about the American and Western church?
Anthropologist Katherine Ajibade, formerly a researcher with the British think tank Theos, joins CT’s Morgan Lee and Kate Shellnutt.
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Music by Sweeps
The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #240
Let's just talk about Carl Lentz for a second. How would you describe his aesthetic?
Katherine Ajibade: I mean, that's a great question because it's kind of what caught my attention. I initially thought, this guy dresses kind of weird for a religious leader, and actually just a normal guy. He loves a leather jacket. He loves a skinny jean. The oversized aviator, clear-lens glasses, the low V t-shirts, that’s the Carl Lentz brand.
Kate Shellnutt: I met him in person once. And it's a lot of look to see over video and on stage but sometimes people who speak on stages and especially in big auditoriums like Hillsong might dress differently, just like an actor would. But when you're kind of confronted with him in a conversation it's a lot too.
I remember being distracted and giving him an up and down because he was wearing high ankle boots, the tight jeans with rips, and he was next to Rich Wilkerson who was another celebrity pastor friend. And that was the first time I saw somebody bringing back a WWJD bracelet—this was probably five years ago. It was very accessorized and your eye kind of doesn't know where to go when you see it in person.
Katherine Ajibade: Yeah, I can definitely imagine that. And the over-accessorizing—the look and the materialism—is where I take issue with this. It's this excess, which I think comes into the overall branding.
What part of his fashion choices do you think make him interesting as a pastor?
Katherine Ajibade: So I remember, in 2010, seeing a news article about him and Joel Houston and this church that they had set up in New York. And what I thought was so fascinating at the time. I was quite young, I was getting into my faith, and I thought, “Oh my goodness, these are two young guys and they're doing something quite incredible in creating this space that feels relevant to me as a young person.”
I mean, I was a bit like, “Oh, this is a bit much,” but he's wearing clothes that I would see other young people in. So there was something recognizable about that for me. And it really seemed to play into the overall brand. Um, that they were trying to establish.
And within that news article that I read, it was talking about the numbers of young people coming to the church, and I got it. That was my gut reaction. There were elements of it that made me feel slightly uncomfortable—I didn't necessarily like his fashion sense—but the fact that they were talking about the high numbers of congregants that they were receiving and the brand that they were perpetuating, it felt like it made sense. It felt like they were onto something here.
Morgan Lee: Yeah, my sister had just started going to school in New York a little bit after the church opened, and I remember her going to church there. I remember all the lines when I was walking around New York City on Sunday afternoons because lines were extremely long to get in—which I thought was fascinating to see people line up to go to church. And so it did seem to almost build credibility amongst a different demographic than maybe folks may have traditionally seen as like the people that would be churched.
Kate Shellnutt: Yeah, it was a look that certain people were wearing at that time. You see the same glasses being worn by Justin Bieber, who is one of the like celebrities most associated with Carl Lentz. So there's a whole group of people who were dressing and looking like this and had this hipster vibe.
And so it's not something that they invented or pulled out of thin air. They were taking cues from certain influencers and even from designers who began making stuff based on their aesthetic. So there was a look there that had a cultural force and a sense of, “These people belong and are not outsiders to what we're doing.”
Was there also a sense that Carl Lentz understood the larger fashion and brand infrastructure too?
Katherine Ajibade: I think that's definitely true, although, in the beginning, he did a good job of presenting his own style because even if people were wearing those kinds of clothes, it felt like his own identity was injected into it.
I don't know if you guys saw this, but I will never forget the Daily Mail reporting on the topless images of him walking around with Justin Bieber. That changed everything for me because I remember the headline was something like, “Pastor, Topless, Walking around LA.” And it was this very handsome man and the way the pictures were taken, he looked very bare.
And the whole ascetic that he was perpetuating—even when he didn't have any clothes on from the waist up—it was a very culturally-normalized idea of masculinity. He had a chiseled chest, he had tattoos, he was tanned, and his clothing and what he's done with his brand really fits into this idea of him being this culturally-engaged, embedded individual, who's also a religious leader.
To what degree do we think this kind of branding and look is successful and good for the church and to what extent do we see the damage or negativity that it's done?
Morgan Lee: I would put wanting to be fashionable versus wanting to be hot in two different places. I'm not saying that they're not the same thing, but I do think that there is a way to cultivate your own brand and bring your personality to the clothes that you're wearing that doesn't necessarily mean you’re investing in your own sex appeal.
And I think maybe that’s part of what has made the Carl Lentz story more interesting. It’s the fact that he is “projecting hotness.” But I don't think that is necessarily what has to happen when you decide that you're going to get into different types of fashion at all.
In general, clothes can almost be an invitation to a conversation, to learn more about something or someone. And I know as far as my own spiritual formation, when I think about the clothes that people wear, to the extent that I might see it as aspirational, in some ways that does influence my interest or curiosity in learning more about their faith.
Katherine Ajibade: I completely agree. And within the context of social media, where everything is visual, clothes play a huge, huge role in engagement. I think that there's something in people seeing a recognizable aspect of themselves in somebody else and what that does to create a familiar and safe space.
And that's why it kind of feels that with this subject, it's like walking on a tight rope. Because on the one hand, I really get it and I really feel like there need to be more spaces that feel and look culturally engaged—that's through fashion, through music art—but on the other hand, there are aspects of it that make me feel deeply uncomfortable. And I've been tackling this for a while now and that discomfort has not gone away. And that signals to me that there's something not quite right here.
Kate Shellnutt: I live in Georgia now, but let's say I moved to New York and I decided to stop wearing my Atlanta Braves gear and wear the New York Yankees gear as a way to fit in and relate to people. So with that, I’m just recognizing the context around me.
But there's also a degree with fashion that it is status. And it's kind of seeking out attention. If we think about the PreachersNSneakers account, which has people wearing shoes that cost multi-thousands of dollars or watches that are Gucci branded. So what does it mean when fitting into a context isn't just, “let me adjust my tastes to appeal to the taste of the people I want to reach,” but when that involves elevating yourself and drawing attention to yourself in a way that highlights the way that you look and your wealth as part of it?
And I think that's where the line is for a lot of people. Sure you want to fit in, you want to be relevant, but when it comes at what seems like an extravagant level, I think people start to question pastors’ humility, I think they start to question their bank accounts and where they're literally investing money. Like where's this money coming from? Is this our tithes that are going to your XYZ?
So with fashion, it seems like there's both a cultural dimension and a status dimension to it.
Katherine Ajibade: Definitely. And as you were talking, the word that kept on coming to me is leadership. I think that status and power are important to a degree when you're thinking about leadership and how leaders lead and present themselves, but there needs to be some humility here. I mean, these are Christian leaders, they are not CEOs, and that's where the discomfort comes for me.
And I love fashion. I've always loved fashion. And as an anthropologist, I love the way that fashion really reflects a person's identity and what they're about before they've even spoken. I think it's such a powerful transmission of who a person is.
But the wonderful thing about where we are at now in Western societies is that we have so many great options for ethical fashion. You can dress really well, but you can dress in a way that isn't all about brands, you can dress in a way that supports local businesses or certain social causes, you can dress in a way that you can make sure it's eco-friendly.
And none of this [pastors like Carl Lentz’s fashion choices] seems to correspond with that at all.
To what extent do you think a church's theology impact how pastors approach their clothes?
Katherine Ajibade: I think the word theology is key because a lot of the people that they are attracting are new to faith. They're learning about Christianity.
And I think that there's the potential for an element of confusion because on the one hand that you're drawn in because you see something that feels familiar and you want to investigate more of it, and you want to be part of that religious community. But on the other hand, you're then seeing these really strong articulations of wealth and concern with dressing not just well, but in a way that portrays status. And for people who are new to these spaces that must be quite a confusing experience.
Kate Shellnutt: I think about just the evangelical, evangelism-mindedness of conservative churches. If we think back to televangelism days where pastors were going to be willing to put on makeup and dye their hair and buy nice suits because they know that they're the face of a church and they want to present the best face, thinking that that's going to be what allows people to connect with them. That's going to be what draws people in.
And so we see the contemporary version of that on social media and with some of the younger pastors who are doing the same kinds of things, but with different signals, with different types of fashion.
So I see just a greater impulse to take care of the face of the organization and even a better sense of charisma behind preachers. And they have the same kind of willingness to put in the effort to accessorize from head to toe because they think that there's going to be a payoff to it, that it's going to be an effective means of drawing people to their brand of church.
Let's talk about Justin Bieber, who is the most famous of people that hung out with Carl Lentz. What did you make of their relationship over the years? What did Lentz’s relationship with Justin specifically signal and who do you think he was trying to communicate that to?
Kate Shellnutt: I spoke with Rich Wilkerson, who is the pastor who married Kim and Kanye, and I've heard Carl Lindt say the same thing, and they see their relationship with celebrities as a mentorship, and they don't see anything special or aren't willing to admit that there's anything special about ministering to or pastoring celebrities.
But at the same time, the looks are so similar that somebody is playing off of somebody here. There are some outfits that I think you could swap between Justin and three or four of the pastors that he hangs out with. And so I feel like there might be an effort to fit in, to want to be able to like roll with a person like Justin Bieber, to continue to speak into their lives. That would be the most sincere way of reading it. And I'm inclined to believe that that's a large part of it.
They want to be able to continue to have the ears of those people who they're trying to reach and ultimately help. And fashion is a big part of how they got that access and the cred to be able to be there.
Katherine Ajibade: I agree with that.
I think that what Carl Lentz did for Justin Bieber was pretty magnificent in terms of spiritual accompaniment and the round-the-clock assistance, that surety, that he provided at that crucial time. And I do think that that level of commitment should be celebrated. And I think that it does speak to this beautiful message of our faith, that God is always with us and sometimes you need somebody to help you to facilitate that journey.
And I think that that is what some of these celebrity pastors do for individuals that have it quite hard. I mean, being a celebrity isn't always easy and living your life in the public realm brings its own difficulties. And I think lately with everything that happened with Kanye and his marriage was on the rocks with Kim, it was Rich Wilkerson who she flew out on a private jet to talk to him. And that's an extremely trusted position to have.
I do get the sense that when they're stepping into these environments, they are stepping in as a man of God. They are there to mentor and spiritually advise. The other side of that, which I think is equally difficult to manage, is the celebrity-ness that comes with their position. We started this conversation by talking about the media coverage of Carl Lentz’s infidelity. Yeah. So, you know, we started this conversation talking about Collins, his infidelity and so from everything that he's done, he's gained this celebrity status, which also comes with its own consequences.
Does seeing these celebrity pastors change the way that we see our pastors? Does it make us think about the way that we and our leaders present themselves when it comes to any given Sunday?
Katherine Ajibade: I think that's a wonderful question because one of the things I guess I struggled with is feeling like there isn't a comfortable space for me in the Catholic church, and there isn't a space that I feel is culturally relevant and is talking in the way that my friends are talking and is interested in the things that I'm interested in. And it's something that I've definitely been wrestling with. And through my studies and research, I'm trying to push that agenda a bit further. And I really believe in the importance of all faiths of Christianity being culturally engaged.
Morgan Lee: I liked hearing what you had to say, Katherine, because it is interesting how these clothes also symbolize what conversations might be possible. And I expect the church leadership that I have to be culturally conversant in this area of something versus seeing them as experts in church, but not have something to say about something that I'm thinking about Monday through Friday.
Do you feel like Lentz broadened how American pastors can look and can interact healthily with regards to masculinity or if you feel like he ended up being susceptible to all the same ways that we've seen toxic masculinity play out in other spaces in the Christian world?
Kate Shellnutt: Just to state the obvious, it kind of doesn't matter what you wear. We've got examples across the spectrum of male leaders who have abused their power, misused their power in office, or stepped down in sexual sin. And so he definitely wasn't too cool or too hot for that.
But I also think that you could see him as an example of a redefinition of masculinity, that it doesn't take wearing a suit and tie to communicate masculinity in a church setting anymore. Carl maybe isn't an example of this, but I see more and more church pastors leaders going to the big bearded look. That’s a new kind of symbol of masculinity within segments of the church. I think tattoos are another one. So I think that it's more of a shifting of the image when you think of pastors.
That sketch has kind of changed in part because of pastors like Carl Lentz who have gotten celebrity and success. And the more pastors who see him and listen to him preach, will in some ways emulate what they see from someone successful, who has the name Hillsong, who has the followers that he has. So that influence is going to trickle down, even on a granular level.
Katherine Ajibade: Yeah, I completely agree. And I think it's unfortunate to see the situation he's in now, but I want to say that he tried, and he is trying, in terms of presenting a positive masculine influence.
There were points where I'm not sure that I always felt like I nodded and said, “yes, this is the kind of masculinity that I think needed across the board,” but when we’re talking about these celebrity pastors, there's something really important that they do in providing a positive—an alternative—masculine example that people are taking to and find a lot of help in, which I think is always something that should be looked at positively. But I still think there's room for interrogation there as well.
What does the attention that we paid to Carl Lentz over the years reveal about Western Christians more broadly? And is there some reflection that we need to do in this situation and perhaps challenging our own convictions?
Kate Shellnutt: Thinking about the PreachersNSneakers popularity, there’s kind of an endless gawker-ism either from outside the church or from those of us inside the church to think, “well, my pastor isn't like that” or “I wouldn't go to a church like that,” to be able to look and point at the thing that we see maybe crosses the line in our tradition or that we think is extreme or extravagant. So I think that there is a bit of a “holier than thou,” but almost in reverse—a “humbler than thou”—attitude when we point fingers or roll our eyes at pastors who are famous for what they wear. So that would be one of the first things.
The other thing is thinking about fashion as an extension of a very evangelical, maybe a very American, inclination to want to be individualistic. We should be a church of equals, we're all proclaiming the same gospel and serving the same God and preaching the same message on Sundays, at least the same essential core to it. And there's this need to be like, I'm the one who's doing it this way. There's this need to distinguish ourselves and brand ourselves, which I think is an interesting phenomenon and one that even if you don't care about fashion so much, I think that you can see lots of ways that churches are trying to make a name for themselves. We are making much of ourselves when we should be making much of God.
Katherine Ajibade: I think that's interesting in terms of distinguishing and branding yourself. And I think status really comes into that so much. I'm just thinking, why is being so recognizable as an individual important when your primary duty as a religious leader is to communicate the word of God and support the spiritual development of your congregants? Why is that now becoming so prominent?
And I was thinking about how this might differ from the context of the UK. And one of the things I find so striking about this hip pastor movement in the US isn’t the branding of it, but the brands used to bring in this level of status. I find deeply concerning. It feels that they're resting on pillars that are so opposed to the single pillar that should be rested on. And that is the Bible. That is the word of God.
I would personally love to go to one of these churches and to meet one of these celebrity pastors to have this conversation with them because as an anthropologist, there's definitely more to this.
Deep down, I really hope that this doesn't just signal the Western preoccupation with the self and with representations of the self because we are becoming more concerned with how we look. And I think there's a hyper-awareness that how we look influences how people interact with us. And it's concerning.
One thing that I found quite frustrating about Carl Lentz’s branding and clothing was that it was allowed to take dominance of the conversation when it should be about what they're preaching and what kind of theology are they presenting. And that's something that still feels like it's happening. It doesn't feel like there's enough interrogation into this.
And I wonder even with Carl Lentz’s infidelity and how that's being reported whether now that we'll start. I'm not sure it will or whether people are going to start thinking about the whole movement at large and similar figures and rethink what's been happening. But it doesn’t feel like it.
Katherine, you’ve studied pop culture for a long time. Are there any specific challenges that you would like to give the church with regards to how you've seen it interact with pop culture over the past couple of years?
Katherine Ajibade: I think that we need to be wary of these big celebrity-inducing platforms. I think that the church sees growth and being able to grow their church base by being culturally informed looks good from the outset, but I think that steady growth is better than fast growth. And I think that it needs to go deeper.
There is so much going on underneath pop culture, that feeds into pop culture, and there's so much depth that needs to be engaged with this. It's not enough to engage with it on the surface or to be loose with it or just to play around with it through fashion.
I think that it needs to slow down and there needs to be more depth to it.
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