The other day, an acquaintance I met at a Bible study shared on Facebook about her amazing experience visiting the Beverly Hills campus of her local church.
This church is wildly popular. It’s a megachurch with multiple campuses in different cities, a flurry of celebrities in various locations, and its pastor is well known on social media. It’s a huge, glitzy, relevant, fun, popular megachurch headed by a celebrity pastor/New York Times bestselling author.
Her comment read something like:
Isn’t it amazing that our pastor flies from his hometown to Los Angeles almost every week so he can preach here?
Um … actually … I don’t think that is amazing. To me, the purchase of 52 (ish) round trip flights each year sounds like a pretty hefty chunk of change.
For the record, this pastor has an incredible brand, and is doing powerful and meaningful work. From everything I’ve seen about his message and mission, he is focused on spreading Jesus’ love, grace, and heart of service to others. I am not deeply familiar with his theology, but I am attracted to his surface message and branding. I see nothing about his message that strikes me as dangerous, misleading or flawed.
But his uber-sleek branding makes me uncomfortable.
Here’s the thing: As Christians, we are asked to live in harmony with each other. We’re admonished to not stir up conflicts that lead to division or fight about petty things. And that makes sense: if we’re all searching for ways to live more like Jesus, and to tell more people about him, then calling each other out for things we disagree with is not a wise, mature choice.
I believe this. But I also believe that the Christian voices with the most power will dictate the narrative about Christ that most people hear. The voices of those in power — the biggest brand, the largest social media presence, the most New York Times bestselling books — are the ones who have the biggest microphone to explain to people who Jesus is.
As Christians, we know it’s our responsibility to test every teaching about Christ to see if it is in line with the Gospel, or if it has gotten off track. This is in the Bible, too, just as much as the call to not stir up conflict.
Powerful and popular Christian teachers merit scrutiny, to see if they are living Biblically-based lives and teaching a message that is in line with Christ. For this pastor, in addition to his weekly plane tickets, he has been covered in the media for his trendy and hip choice of clothing — which includes high fashion brands like Saint Laurent. (They sell $6,000 jackets, $700 jeans, $800 shirts, and $600 shoes.)
These trendy clothes fit very well into his persona as a hip, cool, non-judgmental regular guy who’s not going to shame you for not being religious enough. He’s all about Jesus — and encouraging people to take on the challenging of acting like Jesus, and loving people like Jesus did.
I love that message. It’s exactly what I aspire to. (Though I’m concerned that if it’s taken too far, people fall into the harmful fallacy of cheap grace.) But the glitz, trendiness, and supreme cool factor — not to mention the extreme exorbitance of his personal life — make me very nervous. Because Jesus was pretty clear on his view of wealth and personal belongings. He did a pretty good job of being relatable, charismatic, and trendy without wearing hip outfits that cost a couple grand per ensemble.
When it comes to megachurch pastors, I think we need to proceed with caution. It’s so easy to get caught up in the glitz and glam. But are they teaching God’s truth? And is the example that they set — in their lives, and in what they make a priority — accurately reflecting who Jesus is, and who Jesus calls Christians to be?
When I tithe, I want to know that this set-aside portion of my monthly income is going towards things that will further Jesus’ mission in our world. I don’t think that funding someone’s weekly plane ticket to Beverly Hills, or paying for half a pair of a great spiritual leader’s designer jeans, is what God had in mind.
But I have many issues with megachurches: their feel-good messages (spiritual fluff that shies away from the real meat of the God’s teaching), rock concert-vibe, and their consumeristic approach to faith.
This particular church — to accommodate its 7000+ weekly attendees — serves their Communion grape juice in what looks like Coffeemate liquid creamer packets. Just tear off the top, drink your tablespoon of juice, eat your mini Saltine, and voila! Eucharist-to-Go. Communion with our Lord and Savior, 7-11 style.
As someone who grew up with that thumbnail-sized saltine and a tiny cup of grape juice, I cherish the alternative to the Lord’s Supper I now get to take part in. I am grateful for every Communion Sunday at my Presbyterian church.
I love looking my Communion server in the eye
tearing off a piece of bread from the loaf
hearing the words “this is Christ’s body, broken for you”
dipping my bread into the goblet
hearing the words “this is Christ’s blood, shed for you”
and having the opportunity to pray with someone before I walk back to my seat.
I don’t want a church service that feels like a concert. I don’t want to hear from a pastor who dresses from one of Kim Kardashian’s favorite designer labels. I don’t want to glaze over Communion with a pre-packaged snack pack, too large for the intimate, personal, intentional time of worship and grace that is partaking in the Lord’s Supper with friends and Christian community.
I don’t connect with God through the flashy, glitzy, glamorous, light shows and worship rock concerts. I connect with God through a community of average, everyday, unglamorous people.
People who don’t have it all together.
Who aren’t polished and shiny.
People who are real, vulnerable, and ready to hear how God is leading their lives.
Can we keep the heart of Jesus’ love, but cut out all the extra packaging? Can we ditch the branding, the social media fame, and the designer sneakers?
These distractions have such a great power to sneak in and shift focus from what really matters. They make it easy to lose sight of the truth of Scripture, in an effort to stay noticed, popular, and relevant. In the push to share Jesus with as many people as possible, they end up having to compromise. And you can only make so many compromises before your message becomes inherently flawed.
Is that really a risk we want to take?