World Religion News interviews popular Hillsong Church Pastor Carl Lentz.
If you follow celebrities, sports, or have a social media account you are probably familiar with Pastor Carl Lentz. The man seems to be everywhere. While reporters seem to be enamored to focus on his personal style or contacts with famous people, he has created a campus of Hillsong Church, in New York City with thousands in the congregation, has spoken out on social issues and his communication with a wider audience. Hillsong is a Pentecostal church started in 1983 by husband and wife Brian and Bobbie Houston, which has locations all over the world.
His new book Own the Moment, which is part autobiography, part spiritual advice, and part self-improvement, was just released. World Religion News was able to chat with Pastor Carl and discussed religion, politics, racism, sports, and video games. Whatever you may have heard about him, read about his views that do not get enough focus in the media.
World Religion News: In your book, Own the Moment, you talk about connecting with individuals and trying to provide a personal connection with others. Your congregation gets thousands attending each weekend and I am sure you receive a ton of emails. How do you maintain that availability?
Pastor Carl Lentz: I think that my life has changed in location but not in value. Being in New York, the scope has been bigger but I still have the same phone number. I still try to do what I can do.
That stuff keeps me mindful of who we are and I think I have never lost that. If I lost that desire something would be wrong. Sometimes that is the thing that brings me the most peace, is just texting or calling friends that don’t really care what we do and chat about normal stuff.
To me, that is my favorite part. The big stuff we don’t have control of it, God sometimes graces us, that is our sovereign God’s will. But for me, I can just do what is in front of me. Sometimes it is the most unspectacular stuff that I get the most joy out of.
“Sometimes it is the most unspectacular stuff that I get the most joy out of.”
WRN: In your book you talk about the “fantastic fuel of fear.” What is the fantastic fuel of fear that you are working on now? Especially since you mention in your book how you are living your dream.
PCL: Yes, living better than my dream. The fear is just not taking advantage of this amazing calling and missing out on the stuff you can’t get back. Fear can be the best motivator if it directed and regulated by the fear of God. I often try to help people understand what the fear of God means for people of our generation. For me it’s not “I’m scared of God” it is “I revere him” and I don’t want to minimize how good He is. That is my fear.
I don’t want to not fully grasp how much grace and opportunity God has given us. That is the fear that I wake up with. I got to make sure I shepherd people right. I got to make we use our platform for what God has given us. That kind of fear gets me out of bed.
WRN: Reaching out to younger generations. You mention how people sometimes mention your connection to celebrities and how sometimes people miss out what you’re saying. Do you feel that society influence of celebrity and sometimes celebrity worship takes away from people’s spiritual health?
PCL: Yes. But I don’t think its necessarily just our generation or fear of culture. I think its humanity. With humanity replacing the God’s priority, Jesus first with whatever it is and right now it appears to be shallow, quick-lived fame and being enamored with that. Yeah, I definitely think that something that can rob people of their relationship with Jesus, for sure. Add it to your life, not let it be your whole life.
WRN: And so how do you traverse that tightrope of being able to be asked about it all the time but still say “no this is what I really want to talk to you about?”
PCL: It is going to be a tool or will I be its tool? Because I know famous people, what do I do with that? I don’t care how I got at this table, but once I do I’m running the dinner. So, if I know someone that works in a nightclub and if someone is at the bar are they there to talk about Jesus? No, they are there to buy a drink. But you’re the bartender. Use it do not reject it. It is the same way I look at an increasing platform.
“It is going to be a tool or will I be its tool? Because I know famous people, what do I do with that?”
I could care less about why you are interested in our church. As long as you give me a second to talk you are going to know exactly who we are. So, I never resented “why you ask me about Bieber.” Of course, you are going to ask me about Bieber. People are intrigued by it. But we are not going to stay there.
WRN: Some groups that seem to be a little bit more outspoken about views on Christianity and sometimes are more aggressive about different groups and exclusion. And so how do you feel about groups in that nature and do you think you need to talk about them or just provide a counter-narrative?
PCL: I feel both. I feel need to use a picture. Are you a football as well as a basketball fan?
WRN: Yes. Patriots fan.
PCL: You will really get this. Rather than be mad about the Patriots and their deflategate or with the comments about how they are not winning correctly. Just win a Super Bowl. I don’t have time to point out all the faults in ridiculous Christendom. We are just going to win as many Super Bowl rings as we can and we are going to score as many touchdowns as we can, instead of complaining about other people’s operations.
In that vein, there is so much room over here to win people. That will give us the day where God will give us the courage and freedom to pointing and start calling these things for what they are, but right now it’s such a life and death fight. That’s why now we don’t respond to a lot of criticism.
To them we say “cool, while you’re busy talking we are going to be over here helping people and trying to get them to the grace of God.” That goes for all the people that get excluded. We are not going to get involved in that.
WRN: But there have been times when you have been spoken out. You have spoken about white privilege.
PCL: Yes, there is a priority list as a pastor, when you are a leader. We can’t talk about every single issue. And we are not under any obligation to. I often think of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Blessed are the poor. According to modern Christian entities, Jesus would have been one of the most incomplete preachers of all time. They would have asked him why he didn’t bring up a different topic. If you look at the Sermon on the Mount it gives us the freedom to say, “cool let’s do a 5-week series on the poor, let’s do a 20-week study on the meek.” Then we get down to whatever issue we are going to get to.
So, my heart has been right now to call out the sin that is Racism. That has been a priority for me and I am ok with that. I think we are allowed to do that.
There are issues that I am equally passionate about. When I am passionate about one issue it is not at the expense of another, it is not to the disparagement of what you are passionate about, but we also expect the same coming back this way.
WRN: And when do you know it is time for you to speak out about a particular issue? You speak about the sin of racism. Why did you decide it was time to speak out that particularly?
PCL: Because of my church, my friends, and my heart all aligned with what I believe to be God’s word. And when that happens I feel that is my lead in that this is for us right now. This is real time. I am going right at this. We are in New York so when it comes to Black Lives Matter, when it comes to Eric Garner, who was killed on our streets not that far from where a lot of our people live. When it comes to police brutality stuff and the NYPD. By the way, I am not disparaging them. Often when you hear about these cases, New York is in the spotlight. I felt I have to speak to this right now.
WRN: A typical phrase used with you “not your average preacher.” And you talk in the book about “not a khaki-wearing, bad haircut pastor.” Why do you think that has become an image we associate with pastors?
PCL: I think it is a reverse stereotype. It’s funny to me, it’s a good question. First of all, I don’t use that phrase when referring to me. Sometimes I have to play the game, but I don’t like saying it. Saying “not your typical preacher” is almost justifying there is a typical preacher.
My thing is that Christians are supposed to be the most open and the most not impressed by an image and sometimes we become the very thing we are trying to rage against. Jesus was the most unorthodox messiah that ever lived. He was a carpenter on a donkey where everyone went to the king on a stallion. It’s always amazing to me that we look at me or another pastor wears, which is apparently not what everyone is supposed to wear. I say, “please show me what a pastor should wear.”
“Christians are supposed to be the most open and the most not impressed by an image and sometimes we become the very thing we are trying to rage against.”
I had someone send me a blog the other day that some guy wrote about my inappropriate dress attire for preaching. And I just thought “this guy wherever he really thinks he is right. He really thinks his white, evangelical scope is actually the Bible’s scope.” And that to me is a travesty. It doesn’t make me mad. It makes me sad for him. I just need to feel that people need to be who they are and we need to let the Bible be our guide and let the chips fall where they may, but this notion we have to look a certain a way to please who? Who are these people that regulate church image.?
WRN: Speaking of the Bible, you have tattoos, people mention it in all your interviews. But my question is in the Bible people look to specific passages to either support it or say it is not sanctioned. When there are conflicting or potentially conflicting Biblical passages how do you make the interpretation of which is the one to seem to be the one to agree with?
PCL: It’s a very good question and well asked. Biblical interpretation is huge right. So, with tattoos not being allowed you mean Leviticus. We play both sides of the coin I think that is healthy. Like this paradox of scripture, interpretation is actually is part of our faith, the tension of it. So, on one hand, we say that is the Old Testament scripture, there is no New Testament verification of that. That law that had to do with slaves, that identified you as part of a tribe we don’t believe that came through the cross. We don’t believe that when Jesus died and rose again that old Levitical scripture applied to our modern life. That is ridiculous. At the same time, there are some things we do believe follow through on the cross.
So, the way we break down we would literally put up the Old Testament and then put a cross in the middle and then we put up the New Testament and we say anything that comes through the cross is eternal. Anything that stops is Old Testament. For Example, blood sacrifices of animals stopped because of Jesus. Honoring your wife as God honors his church that comes through the cross. So that is our scope for all scripture interpretation.
If it died on the cross then it needs to die in our theology. Tattoos are a no-brainer. Are you kidding me? Jesus was pretty clear in every detail. Whether it is diet, whether its image, whether its qualification that stuff died on the cross. Now it becomes a matter of personal conviction. So now if I don’t believe these tattoos devalues the temple that is the Holy Spirit, my body, I am doing it. I do then I don’t, but I am not going to turn my conviction necessarily into theology or doctrine.
“If it died on the cross then it needs to die in our theology.”
WRN: Speaking of theology and doctrine you have spoken that the messages you have are not just for those who have faith but they are universal messages. Is there a particular Bible passage that you use when talking to secular individuals that you believe that special meaning for them specifically?
PCL: Yeah. On one hand, the way I try to break that down for people is I do believe that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the light. I believe that unquestioned. That is not my faith I am not a Christian. However, even if you don’t believe that Jesus is who he said and did what he said I don’t think there is better advice than this world can offer you.
So, for instance, if you don’t believe that Jesus is the Messiah, I say “ok cool.” But when Jesus said to love your enemies, even if you’re an Atheist and you love your enemies, you are going to feel the power of that value. It’s not going to save your soul and it’s not going to give you salvation and true soul transformation, but it should work. So that is my point and I try to talk to people who don’t believe what I believe and say “hey let’s break it down the way we do these things. You don’t want to talk about eternity. Great. Let’s talk about Earth. Let’s talk about how we treat people.” I try to build a common ground that way. Rather than attack the one thing they don’t believe I try to find where we can talk about.
“Rather than attack the one thing they don’t believe I try to find where we can talk about.
WRN: Would that change at all if we were talking to political leaders? You have mentioned a couple times that you dipped your feet in the water in more political involvement recently. Is there any sort of message that is different when talking to those leaders?
PCL: Man, I was frustrated at that interview that you were referring to. They know better. They know that was not the full conversation. And my point, which they took out completely, is that it is my duty to pray for our leaders. Whether I agree or disagree I am going to pray for them passionately. That is my job as a Christian and then it devolved into “has he done anything” and I told them lightly “I have been in some rooms” I may be referring to the Prayer Breakfast or whatever in D.C. the conversational tone was so different and it was heavily edited. But I was super annoyed. Even talking to Vice, I held out hope that they would be super honorable which is probably foolish.
If I got a chance to talk to political leaders I probably would not talk the same way to a regular person on the street. I would go for much unadulterated, black and white truth as I have to muster because of the urgency and the weight of that moment. You never know how many shots you’re going to get like that.
If they ask, “what do you think about immigrants” I am not going to say, “well what do you think” I’m going to say exactly what I think, right away. Like gun control, I am going right for the jugular.
WRN: Is there a particular issue beyond racism that you would want to reach out to political leaders about?
PCL: Gun control. I don’t understand and I will give you another sports metaphor because it’s a pleasure to talk to a guy on that level. You are far away from the NBA and you see GMs make bad decisions. and your like “I’m not a basketball guy. They must know more.” And then you get in a room with them and you realize “no they are just making dumb decisions.” It is exactly what I think it is.
That is what I found out about politics as well. So, if you look at gun control, common logic would say that fewer guns equal less violence. More challenge to get guns equals more safety. It is common sense stuff like this. The way our country looks we have to fight for common sense.
“The way our country looks we have to fight for common sense.
We have people, 20 minutes after a shooting, will begin to promote their views about how they are going to say this has nothing to do with what it exactly has to do with. People saying, “this has nothing to do with gun laws.” Are you sure? Because I don’t see any other country on Earth dealing with what we deal with. I think most Americans just want a politician that will just be logical. Forget about theological, forget about doctrine, just do the right thing once in a while. That is my passion, just to be completely honest. Let’s just be honest. Let’s disagree about something that is real.
WRN: There are leaders that are doing interfaith movements for gun control. Have you already reached out to those organizations or just waiting for your opportunity?
PCL: I am waiting for my opportunity. I am really slow getting involved in that because you can’t control the narrative. I don’t need any more suspicion of who I am meeting (laughter). I look forward to it. I am not anti-gun. I don’t think anyone is anti- you have the right as an American to, within reason, have your own personal possessions. I am not talking about that. I am talking about, we have a country that had more people die in Chicago yesterday than other countries had people die in the last decade. This is real. What are we talking about? That’s my passion, trying to get this common-sense movement going strong.
WRN: On the reverse do you think there is any issue we are talking about too much?
PCL: No, because I don’t want to be guilty of the same thing I hate. Which people do to me, which is disparage my passion.
WRN: Last question. You have said you are a big NBA 2k player. Which team do you play as?
PCL: I strictly play MyPark. Because, my relationship with NBA guys, as weird as it is, I’m a 39-year-old that loves video games. So, it’s another bridge, somebody that just got home after playing a game I can meet them at MyPark and we can get in a little party chat and it’s like we are hanging out. I play MyPark exclusively.
WRN: Best trash-talking line you use?
PCL: Good Question. That depends on the annoyance of the person we are playing. Maybe I will throw out I am 39. “Keep in mind I am 39” as my guy scores. Or “this is just my part-time job, I don’t even do this.” Encouraging stuff like that.
Actually, I had to change my handle because it had my name in it and what started happening is in party chat people would ask “hey is this Pastor Carl? Can I ask you a question about…?” And they would start asking real questions and I would be like no way. I am not going to violate my 2K lane with real pastoral issues, so I had to change my handle.
WRN: So, there is a time and place for certain things?
PCL: Absolutely. At MyPark I am focused on getting wins and getting my A+.