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Prominent pastor Carl Lentz on fame, criticism and #MeToo

Carl Lentz is one of the most famous ministers on the planet. Leader of Hillsong New York, Lentz is known globally as “Justin Bieber’s pastor”, as well as the guy who goes viral for discussing salvation with Oprah Winfrey or abortion with US talk show The View. But for someone so prominent in our world of constant communication, Lentz has startling advice for anyone who wants to share the good news he bubbles over with.

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“After you are done listening, listen again.” – Carl Lentz

“When you talk to people who don’t believe what you believe, I always say ‘do less talking – and listen,’” Lentz exclusively tells Eternity, minutes after he’s come off the main stage at Hillsong Conference 2018 in Sydney.

“Most Christians just want to talk right away.”

Among the trucks and golf buggies decorating the loading dock outside Qudos Arena, where the conference is held, down-to-earth Lentz is more gently spoken than the impassioned cheer he radiates from the main stage. A gifted speaker who seems to have found the secret to effortless engagement, Lentz continues to make the point that’s it not about you. Or him. It’s about them.

“After you are done listening, listen again. After that’s over, listen again. If you get around to talking, so be it, because what happens is you build trust, honour, respect – and you also learn how to talk.”

“For me, it’s a slow process – and that’s why it doesn’t happen for a lot of people. Because it takes time to love people.”

While Lentz admits to struggling with always being in love with the love of Jesus, he also goes a long way to living that out. The prominence with which he lives his Christian life and blares out the love of Jesus Christ has brought with it what anyone reasonably (and sadly) expects – congratulations and criticism. Lentz’s Instagram account has 610,000 followers and he’s a sought-after speaker across the globe. He gets covered by huge media outlets, from The Washington Post to People, often from the angle of surprise and intrigue about how a Christian minister can have such influence on New York City’s A list.

Justin Bieber is his most famous congregant but it’s not only Lentz’s flock that draws him attention. He also gets backslaps – and smackdowns – for his cool look and wardrobe. Fairly or not, the collision of style and substance can occur at the skinny jeans of Carl Lentz.

While his appearance is easily couched in the context of where and to whom he preaches, what Lentz preaches also can come under fire. Especially when its outside church walls. Two years ago, when interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, he was asked about whether only Christians can be in a relationship with God. He said, “No”. He went on to flesh out his answer, but that negative initial response stirred up plenty of retorts. Similarly, Lentz blew up the internet last year when he was asked on The View about if, in his church, abortion was regarded as a sin.

“My favourite thing is to remind people about the simple stuff that only Jesus can help with – and that’s love.” – Carl Lentz

Lentz offered an answer framed by “That’s such a broad question to me. I want to go higher … I’m trying to teach people who Jesus is first [and] find out their story.” As with the Oprah appearance, Lentz swiftly had to respond to widespread attacks, stating later that “I do believe abortion is sinful.”

On each occasion, when you go back over the tapes, Lentz attempted to discuss Christian belief and teachings from the starting point of Jesus. Put that another way: the answer to any big question for Lentz is the same – JESUS! – and he tries to shift focus in that direction.

“My favourite thing is to remind people about the simple stuff that only Jesus can help with – and that’s love,” shares Lentz, as he puzzles over finding himself in the highly prominent position he is in.

“We’ll go on the next week and pastor somebody who has no fame at all. There won’t be a camera there.” – Carl Lentz

From being an international student at Hillsong Bible College in Sydney about 18 years ago, Lentz thinks he’s pretty much the same guy – apart from changes brought by age, experience and the getting of more wisdom. Otherwise, he’s still the guy who talked with people about Jesus at the suburban gym in Castle Hill, near where he studied. Just that he’s amplified to the international stage of celebrity and Christian comment. “Hopefully God prepares you for it and you can look at people who criticise you with grace. It’s not easy but, if you don’t believe any press about you – for better or worse – you’re fine.”

But did Lentz seek out being a Christian in the spotlight of the rest of the world? He’s evidently suited to it, a blatant truth he must have recognised himself. Without hesitation, Lentz offers one of his famous “No” answers – before explaining further. “When people say ‘hey, you’re in the spotlight,’ I say that we are still on the same path we have always been on,” says Lentz, who talks more like a local church minister than a global mega-preacher.

“Hopefully, if the light shines on you, you [still] do the same things … We’ll go on the next week and pastor somebody who has no fame at all. There won’t be a camera there.

“I feel like that aspect of it you have to try to explain but not everyone’s going to get it – and you just do what you want to do anyway.”

Under Lentz’s leadership, some of what Hillsong NYC has wanted to do during the past year or two has been to speak out and step out about trending movements such as #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. However, any suggestion of Lentz and his team jumping on a bandwagon is capably handled by the articulate and humble Christian leader. “I’d rather be on a bandwagon than stuck on the side of the road,” Lentz sums up, while stressing that he personally views none of the causes which Hillsong NYC gets involved with as “bandwagons”.

“That’s why critics have so much to say – because they have time to watch.”

“Anything we talk about or preach about we should absolutely embody.” – Carl Lentz

Instead of watching on, Lentz got vocal about issues of race and female empowerment. To try to tackle problems of white privilege, Lentz offered his Hillsong stage to African-American and female speakers. He’s glad that #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter caused so many people to register festering social problems – himself included – and maintains he’ll look to provide a similar platform to other significant issues.

“For me, we need to talk about issues that impact people that are non-white. We try to give that as much time as we can, like we would about any issue that is passionately affecting so many.”

“Our world needs to see [Christians] demonstrate. So if I’m going to say ‘God loves people, race shouldn’t be an issue, women should preach’ but we don’t have any of that happening, it’s hollow.

“Anything we talk about or preach about we should absolutely embody. We say this church is diverse, it’s not; [so] let’s make it diverse. We say this church champions women, no women preach; this isn’t gonna fly. So anything we say, we’re gonna do.

“If we can’t do it, we’re not gonna say it.”

“The world needs books but mine isn’t a Christian book. It’s a book written by a Christian.” – Carl Lentz

Running out of time with Lentz before he needs to drive out of this stadium’s back lot, the subject of his new book Own the Moment lobs. Even though Lentz is (a) famous and (b) skilled at communication, did the world really need another Christian book? “The world needs books but mine isn’t a Christian book. It’s a book written by a Christian.”

Noted. Own the Moment is Lentz’s crack at distilling something he believes can be true for all. “If we can get people to honour the stuff that nobody sees, I think you will end up in places that everybody sees,” explains Lentz about the thrust of Own the Moment. But while that sounds like a savvy approach to optimising your life, how does that neat perspective actually flow from Lentz’s Christian faith?

“That’s what happened to Jesus; so it’s a really easy flow. Jesus was in the most nondescript part of our earth and he slowly does what he does – yet we are still preaching about it today.

“So I think that if you are a Christian, you are not guaranteed prominence, money, fame, influence – you’re just guaranteed significance. There’s a big difference.”

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