A few days ago, there was an announcement that Justin Bieber abruptly canceled a large portion of his “Purpose” tour dates. Now we hear it might be because of his involvement with Pastor Carl Lentz of Hillsong Church in Montclair. Several articles have been posted that allege that the founder of Hillsong Church had molested at least one child, that the church holds faith healing services, and that many millions of dollars are being made in questionable ways. This controversy has led a lot of people to wonder, “Is Hillsong a cult?”
I thought I might weigh in as Bieber is incredibly popular and has legions of fans who might be upset and wondering about him turning his back on his work commitments. It could be that he is simply burned out by being on tour for long spans of time, but that was not expressed initially when the concerts were canceled. With stories of Lentz’s involvement gaining traction, could there be some undue influence exercised by the Pastor on Bieber?
What is a Cult?
There are a variety of points of view concerning what defines a cult. And, I will tell you my criteria shortly.
But first, I wish to say that there are many atheists and skeptics who think that all religions are cults. Then there are Orthodox Christians who believe in a strict interpretation of the New Testament who might label other approaches theologically as cults. For example, they believe in the Trinity, virgin birth, and physical resurrection of Jesus as ‘true Christianity.” Some of these friends and colleagues of mine who do not like being called fundamentalist but prefer being called Orthodox tell me that speaking in tongues as a sign of the “spirit of God” and faith healing services, especially where large amounts of money are raised are suspect. Needless to say, I do not use either ideology in my approach.
Influence Runs on a Continuum
I have been studying destructive cults for over forty years and have I first would like to say there is an Influence Continuum and that there are positive/benign cults on a spectrum that ends with destructive mind control cults. I myself believe in God as a spiritual force of love and goodness and have belonged to a Jewish Temple for about 19 years. I like to pray, chant, sing, meditate, dance, study Torah and Talmud, and think it is wonderful to be part of a spiritual community. So I support people of all traditions and faiths to practice their spirituality but urge people to look at the graphic below.
Behavior of the Group Must Be Studied
Since there are many variables, I use a number of behavioral criteria to determine if a group or a relationship is either on the productive/ benign end of the continuum or on the destructive end. I call it the BITE model and below is a shortened version of it but if you wish the longer version you can see it here.
The BITE model looks at whether a group/recruiter uses deception and specific mind control techniques to get someone involved. It also takes into account whether or not an unhealthy recruitment and conversion program is used where they cut off from family and friends who are raising questions, concerns, or doubts. I believe if a group or Church is legitimate, it will stand up to scrutiny when it involves Almighty God–however you understand him or her or it to be.
The divine could have mind controlled Adam and Eve (however you understand the story) to being obedient slaves, but that is not part of the Creation story. God wants us to think for ourselves and make independent decisions. Destructive cults want people to be obedient and will actually convince followers that their only salvation can come from being in their “church” and that all others are Satanic or unspiritual. They place an unhealthy emphasis on fear of evil over the love of truth and goodness.
How Can We Use BITE Criteria in This Case?
It would be very helpful to hear exactly about the process of Bieber coming to the decision to cancel the tour. Hypothetically, I could imagine someone like him being told by someone he held in authority that he needed to choose between the love of God or love of fame and money– that to prove his faith in God, he must cancel the tour. If this occurred, it would indeed be concerning. All or nothings like this are very powerful and it was precisely this that happened to me in 1974. I was asked to throw out my own original poetry to demonstrate my commitment to God when I was a Moonie. I unfortunately did and have lived to regret it–especially since I realized the Moon organization wasn’t of God but was a destructive cult.
If Justin Bieber or other celebrities who are identified with Hillsong are learning about love and truth and are free to speak with everyone, including critics of Hillsong, then this will demonstrate they are not involved in an unhealthy relationship with Pastor Lentz or the church. We would also need to look at what information Lentz allows followers to access. Perhaps there are no directives of what is ok and not ok to read or learn about? However many destructive cults, like Scientology, forbid their followers from accessing critical information. Can members of Pastor Lentz’s church speak to ordained and seminary Christian pastors who criticize Hillsong Church practices? When people or courageous and open to reading books like Combating Cult Mind Control or at the very least watching some of my free videos, it can serve as a good litmus test. Like I say, if something is legitimate, it will stand up to scrutiny. Use your critical thinking and decide for yourself!
That being said, it does concern me when I read about different practices and policies of Lentz’s church. Many articles have stated that the church has an overly-vigorous tithing policy. It’s not uncommon for cults to demand high percentages or total donations of a follower’s funds to prove their allegiance. Like Scientology, Pastor Lentz caters to celebrities and uses them to increase his net worth. So, this is something that may need to be considered and evaluated. Taking care of the hungry, the sick, the poor is what Jesus and what Judaism and Islam teaches.
I also find it troubling that the church has been reported as being anti-gay. Since modern science has shown that homosexuality is not a choice, I have to wonder how Bieber thinks his fans will perceive him being a good person who wishes to spread love and tolerance? It’s sad to see that celebrities would risk alienating gay fans by contributing to any kind of non-tolerant Church. However, undue influence may be to blame. Cults often use phobias to exercise control and being afraid of sexuality that strays from strict fundamentalism might be fear and anxiety producing.
How Can We Avoid Cult Mind Control?
The bottom line is we all must be aware of where we place our allegiances. It is important to ask questions and watch specific behaviors. Follow your conscience. Be open to other points of view–especially from trusted family, friends and business partners. It’s horrible to think that someone can be made to throw away their talents and career opportunities because they are being manipulated, but it does happen. It happened to me! That is why, as always, I encourage everyone who encounters a “church” or belief system to really do their homework and look at it objectively before committing.
More on the Justin Bieber/Hillsong controversy: