Justin Bieber Attends HILLSONG Conference in Sydney; Should Christian Mega Pastors Embrace Celebrity Associations?

Justin Beiber, Carl Lentz
Source: Judah Smith Instagram |

As the HILLSONG Australia Annual Conference kicked off this past weekend in Sydney, Australia, there was an extremely familiar face in the crowd of worshippers: Canadian pop superstar Justin Bieber.

A longtime attendee of Hillsong events on both coasts, Bieber has been known to drop by for a visit at Hillsong LA and Hillsong NYC locations. He also counts Hillsong pastor Carl Lentz as his personal spiritual mentor. Pastor Rich Wilkerson, Jr. of Trinity Church in Miami, has a similar relationship with Kim Kardashian West and Kanye West, especially serving the role of spiritual counsel for Kanye. And just a few weeks ago, Saddleback Church pastor and best-selling author Rick Warren stirred up controversy by getting friendly with openly gay music icon Elton John. While it is surely true that celebrities need someone to stand up and witness to them too, how close is too close when it comes to Christian leaders aligning their brand with stars that are known for their outrageous behavior?

In 2014, the New York Post ran an interview with Carl Lentz, examining his relationship with Justin Bieber in particular. A personal friend of Bieber's since 2008, Lentz stated that Beiber was "like a member of our team." The two are often photographed together taking in Knicks games, a well-known pasttime of Lentz, who also has close relationships with some of the Knicks players (Kevin Durant is one). Bieber has embraced the role that Lentz plays in his life, relying on him especially when he experienced trouble with the law and backlash from fans after a period of personal rebellion. In the Post piece, Lentz perhaps made a pre-emptive strike toward those that would have negative judgements about his relationship with Bieber. "He's on a journey," Lentz observed. "If he's not doing good, should we abandon him?"

Just last week, the cover art for pastor Rich Wilkerson, Jr.'s book, Sandcastle Kings, was released -- and revealed to have been designed by his close friend, Kanye West. Known in his hometown of Miami for the laid-back approach to presenting the gospel, Wilkerson has in the past been quoted as saying, "I think a lot of people would be cool with Jesus; they've just met too many Christians. That's ruined it for them."

In regard to asking Kanye to do the cover art for his book, Wilkerson said, "I know Kanye as my friend; we talk about Jesus. And that's the whole point: God doesn't care about scandals; he cares about people. So it makes sense for Kanye to design the book cover. It makes a statement." Wilkerson, Jr., was the pastor that officiated Kanye's wedding in Venice, Italy to Kim Kardashian. Interestingly, Wilkerson, Jr. is also rumored to be launching his own reality TV show on the Oxygen network next year. Clearly he is not a pastor that's afraid of the spotlight. 

While the Christian community tends to laud celebrities for even the tiniest hint of religious affiliation (see: last week's Christian coming-out party for Jurassic World actor Chris Pratt), the reaction to the pastors that associate with the celebrities is a lot less predictable. Just a few weeks ago, Pastor Rick Warren was slammed when he united with Elton John in a call to Congress to support AIDS relief funding. Warren might have gotten off with just an eyeroll from the Christian community if it hadn't been for his joke about kissing Sir Elton John. Being a conservative pastor that had at one time preached that homosexuality was immoral, Warren's level of comfort while associating with one of the posterchildren for the gay lifestyle felt like a slap in the face to many. However, some might argue that Elton John and Rick Warren were working together to do something that Christians should approve of: bring comfort and hope to those suffering from AIDS.  

However, this double-edged sword for pastors that wish to bear witness in the upper echeleons of celebrity is not a new phenomenon. At the height of Billy Graham's successful evangelism ministry, a host of celebrities and politicians considered him a personal friend and mentor. The book Billy Graham and Me, released in 2013, contains accounts from everyone from Bill Clinton to Kathie Lee Gifford (with a spectrum of Larry King, Winona Judd, and Tim Keller wedged in between) acknowledging the role that Pastor Graham played in their personal relationship with Jesus Christ. 

Another element to consider is the way that Jesus himself was treated when he was associating with a bevy of tax collectors, working class fishermen, and "wayward women" during his ministry. While there were many who were able to embrace Jesus's philosophies and message of love and forgiveness because of his accessibility, there were many others that saw the less-than-righteous reputations in his entourage as proof that he could not be anyone's Messiah.

When examining the question of what is right and wrong in terms of the actions of pastors -- and any Christian -- in the public eye, the question "What Would Jesus Do?" is still appropriate. Just how much interaction and support should pastors be giving to celebrities (and other churchgoers) that are happy to engage in the Christian lifestyle by attending church and even singing on Sundays, but do not heed the call to forsake their hedonism? Is there a limit to how vocally supportive Christians should be of celebrities like Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez -- and the Bieber himself? Weigh in, in the comments below!